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We’re in Business

When we first got our dairy goats in 2013, I spent months falling in love with having our own milk supply and testing out every cheese recipe I could find.  Some worked better than others and I discovered the strengths and weaknesses of goat’s milk compared with cow’s milk.  Feeling like I’d conquered all there was to know about milk and cheese (ahem…), the next logical step was to learn how to make goat milk soap.  That’s a thing that people with goat milk do, so I did it.

I didn’t really know why I should want to make soap and what the big fuss was over putting goat milk in a cleaning product (I mean, you do know that you can just drink that, right?).  But I felt obligated to at least try to create one of the most popular goat milk products out there when I had so much of the raw material.  When I did a little research on the process and looked through recipes, I found that many people who have dairy goats also have pigs, and therefore, lard.  Lard is made from rendering the fat from a pig after it is butchered and is often times thrown away due to lack of demand for it.  We just so happened to have a couple of pigs that were getting close to their end date, looking mighty wide in the fat department.  Lard (or tallow) is one of the most traditional oils to use in soapmaking since it is typically readily available and can be raised and/or harvested just about anywhere, all over the world.  It also creates a very mild, white and long lasting bar of soap.  When the fat is rendered correctly, there is no scent to it and the saponification process changes the properties of the oils involved so that the end product is actually not lard at all.  Plus it was free.  This was sounding promising.

My first batch of soap was not beautiful.  But it was soap.  And it worked.  It was a little like magic watching the hard oils melt on the stove top, the frozen goat milk liquefy once more upon contact with the lye, and finally the oil base and water base combine into a creamy thickening solution that solidified overnight.  Magic I tell you.

My first batch of soap, November 2013.
My first batch of soap, November 2013.

I wanted more.  I did more research.  I made more soap.  I created contacts and found mentors.  Slowly my technique improved and I found my niche.  I wanted to use as much of what we could produce ourselves as possible and it didn’t make sense to me to add a bunch of unnatural ingredients (like synthetic fragrance and artificial color) to such a wholesome product.  I discovered essential oils, studied their proper use and experimented with scent blends.  I also discovered that people had been adding natural ingredients to soap for a very long time (long before there even was such a thing as artificial color) for their beauty and skin benefits.  Things like honey and maple syrup are humectants, which draw moisture to themselves and therefore the skin when they are used in soap.  Exfoliants like strawberry seeds or cornmeal help scrub away dead skin cells and dirt.  Herbal teas carry medicinal properties and add a hint of scent.  And then there’s goat milk.  I finally discovered what all the fuss was all about.

Milk is naturally high in fat, vitamins and lactic acid.  All things that your skin needs to remain healthy.  The thing that sets goat milk apart from cow’s milk when used in soap is that the fat molecules in goat milk are much smaller (which is also why goat milk is naturally homogenized) than those found on cow’s milk.  This makes it much easier for the goodness to be absorbed into your skin.  Pure, creamy, restorative goodness.  More magic.  Does it ever end?

Fresh goat milk
Fresh goat milk

Another thing that got me hooked on soap is that it truly fulfills my need for a creative outlet.  You can do so many fun things with soap and you never really know how they’re going to turn out until you cut it the following day.  Colors, scents, seasonal ingredients, base oil blends, the list goes on.  There is so much to learn and try that I doubt I’ll ever tire of it.

Each bar is always different.
Each bar is always different.

Lastly, this was something that I could sell.  Legally.  There are so many rules around what you can sell and what you can’t when it comes to homegrown items.  Unless you are certified and licensed, selling dairy is an absolute no no.  If you do not have your meat processed and packaged in a USDA approved facility, you cannot sell it.  You cannot make anything for human consumption (including jam, baked goods, candy, etc.) unless you have a certified kitchen and a Serve Safe certificate.  You can’t even sell dried herbs unless they were processed in a commercial kitchen by a certified maker.  What’s a girl to do to help cover some of the costs of our backyard farm?  Enter soap and skin care.  Finally, something that I didn’t need to jump through a million legal obstacles to sell.  That doesn’t mean that I could just whip out anything and shove it out the door.  There are still legal things to consider, like proper labeling and ingredient usage.  And of course there was the whole setting up a business name, bank account and record keeping thing.  Not exactly the most fun part of having a business, but an essential part of having it be successful.

So far our business has been slowly, but steadily growing.  I’ve been able to buy some of my base ingredients in bulk, which helps to reduce the overall cost and turn just a little bit of profit.  I’ve started to figure out what is worth my time to make and what is not.  I’ve learned when I can squeeze in soapy projects between family time, farm time and “real work” time.  And I’m beginning to see that all of this working really depends on the people who support me.  Wow, so much support.

I am so very thankful for the support that I’ve received from family, friends, coworkers, fellow artisans, neighboring farmers, local businesses, and even strangers.  There are a lot of options out there for handmade soap.  (Didn’t I make it sound awesome in the above?  That’s because it is, and there are other people who have figured it out too.)  Every time someone chooses to buy from me instead of from another vendor or from the supermarket, I am humbled.  I know for a fact that people did not buy my soap because it was the best available when I first started out.  Like anything you do, you get better with practice.  I am still practicing.  But I’m also getting better.

Experimenting with changes in design and ingredients.
Experimenting with changes in design and ingredients.

With the slow and steady growth that we’ve seen (because of you!), we were able to make our first non-soap related purchase this year with “soap money”.  Up until this point every dollar that I’ve made from sales has gone back into buying supplies, paying vendor fees or expanding marketing materials.  Slow and steady.  But there was just enough extra this spring to cover the cost of our bees.  And really, the bees will be providing us with honey and beeswax, which are key ingredients in many of the things I make, so I suppose they’re sort of, technically, “soap expenses”.  It was a milestone for me.  To see that this whole side venture thing might actually pan out.

mini bee keeper

With the idea that our business is growing, we decided that it was time for a new logo.  One that was uniquely us and could grow along with us.  I stashed some “soap money” and hired a graphic designer (Jaclyn Smith is amazing by the way!) to work with me on the creation of our new look.  It had to feel grounded but modern.  I wanted it to feel kind but not cutesy.  And of course it had to include bare feet and goats.  I’m excited to share it with you here first.

The new look of Barefoot All Natural Farm.
The new look of Barefoot All Natural Farm.

It’s perfect.  I look forward to smothering all of our products with this image and updating all of our materials for the year.  (I may have stashed some soap money for that too…)  I’ve started using our new soap stamp from Laser-CutZ and some of you may have even gotten a sneak peak at the new soaps heading out with this design embedded on the front.  I hope you like it as much as I do.  Thank you all so much for believing in us and following along as we become the business we hope to be.  You are making our dreams come true.

Some of our new soaps.
Some of our new soaps.
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The Sweet Life

For many New Englanders maple sugar season brings back memories of grandparents boiling sap on an open fire, running through the sweet, dense steam and eating sugar on snow.  My family didn’t have direct experience with collecting sap or making maple syrup, but the bright red sugar maple leaves lining our New Hampshire road will always remind me of home.  Every mom and pop restaurant in the area served local maple syrup and we gave maple candies as gifts to out of town guests.  The Sugar Shack was a well known attraction in the area and maple walnut ice cream was a top seller at almost every creamery.

But the kicker is that I DID NOT LIKE real maple syrup.  It’s true.  I made my mom buy Aunt Jemima Lite because I liked the glass woman-shaped bottle and sucked down gallons of high fructose corn syrup  before adulthood along with other artificial ingredients that tasted sweet and poured thicker than actual maple syrup.  It wasn’t for a lack of trying on my parents part- my mom was a die hard maple fan and my dad refused to even try the fake syrup.  But the more they tried, the less I wanted anything to do with maple anything.  I even resorted to eating pure Karo syrup on my pancakes at one point to avoid any potential for maple flavor to creep into my diet.

Now that I am an adult I see the error of my ways.  Real maple syrup isn’t just about the taste (but oohhh…is it good…).  It’s about the process.  It’s an experience, a culture, and a memory.  In the few short years that I have been a first row spectator at our maple sugar process, I have come to anticipate the arrival of the season with unbridled excitement.  For me it means time spent with one another walking quietly in the woods collecting sap, inhaling the intoxicating sugary steam and crackling wood fire smoke with loved ones by your side.  The process takes days at a time and lasts about a month in entirety.  It is not a unique experience on our homestead in eliciting more than one emotion and allowing opportunities for learning and growth, but it may be the one season that encourages closeness, energizes discussion and evokes passion.  There is something about snuggling in close to the one you love next to a burning fire while the dark and cold of the winter night encroaches around you.  It makes you feel as though you could live solely on sugar and sensuality for the rest of the year.  But I digress.

There is a sweet spot between winter and spring where maple trees turn stored starch into sugar in preparation for growing buds and leaves.  And we can steal it.  Well, some of it.  Here’s a good link with more information.  Maple trees make much more sugar sap than they need for survival, so it typically doesn’t hurt their production to take a bit of their product.  When outdoor temperatures fluctuate between freezing and about 45 degrees Fahrenheit, the tree is “tapped” with a spout that allows the running sap to drip into a bucket or a tube.

Maple tree tapped with a plastic tap and bucket.

The sap is then collected in a big bin until it is time to boil it.  Kalina, our youngest, who is home from school during the day helps to collect the sap each morning.

Harley actually had rigged up a system to pump the sap from a lower bucket to this elevated bucket with a spout.
Harley actually had rigged up a system to pump the sap from a lower bucket to this elevated bucket with a spout.

When there is enough sap collected to fill a deep pan or pot, it is ready to be boiled to allow the excess water to evaporate.

Sap boiling over a fire, evaporating.

Harley wrapped a copper tube around the stove pipe to act as a preheater for the sap before it flowed into the open pan, to accelerate evaporation.

Copper tube preheat-er.
Copper tube preheat-er.

Evaporation takes a while.  We boiled about 80 gallons of sap to make 7 quarts of syrup and it took all weekend.  The sap to syrup ratio will depend on the sugar content of your sap, with “sugar maple” trees having the highest sugar content.

Sap deepening in color as water evaporates.
Sap deepening in color as water evaporates.

Harley is the syrup guru in our family.  He had wood that was leftover from his saw milling stockpiled by the barn just for this purpose.

He worked from early morning to late at night- tending the fire and watching the sap.
He worked from early morning to late at night- tending the fire and watching the sap boil.

One reason that I’ve come to really love sugaring season is that it forces  you to take time.  You can’t go far from a molten pot of boiling sugar water if you want to end up with a usable product.

Using a refractometer to measure sugar content.
Using a refractometer to measure sugar content.

You must wait for the water to evaporate from the sap until it reaches a sugar content of about 66-67%.

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Using a hydrometer to check sugar content.

When it gets close to the end, the perfect temperature can be reached quickly, so it’s important to watch it carefully and test often.

Removing the finished sap from the heat.
Removing the finished sap from the heat.

Once the sap has completed boiling it can be removed from heat and strained.

Straining finished syrup.
Straining finished syrup.

After straining, it can be bottled right away or brought back up to 180 degrees Fahrenheit later and bottled for long term storage.  We keep most of our syrup as a sugar substitute for use throughout the year.  It can be used in just about any recipe where cane sugar is used at 3/4 cup maple syrup to 1 cup sugar  ratio.  We especially love making maple candy, maple ice cream and maple cream.

The finished product
The finished product

We may even have enough this year to sell a few jars.  And stay tuned for a super special soapy project starring our own homegrown maple syrup!

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Sexing Juvenile Chickens

 When you’re breeding and raising chickens for dual purposes (for meat and for egg laying), there comes a time when you need to decide which purpose each bird will be geared towards.  Since males don’t produce eggs, it’s pretty clear who the layers will be and who the eaters will be.  It’s a bummer to be born male in the farming world.  Unless of course you are of exceptional breeding quality- then you’re rockin’ with the ladies.

We usually separate the two groups around 8 weeks old.  By then you can usually pick out the roosters from the hens and can see any extreme personality characteristics that you would want to weed out of your laying flock.  (We have a couple of young hens that might be put back out with the roosters if they don’t calm down a bit.  Hey, we’re a laid back family around here.  Gotta keep the energy level peaceful or you’re out of luck.)

The benefit to sexing the birds at this age is that they tend to blend in better with an established flock than older (or younger) birds do.  Juvenile birds are young enough to know better than to challenge the adult birds’ status and the adults tend to give them more wiggle room when they accidentally step into their space or try to eat first.  The term “pecking order” is popular for a reason- chickens are quite particular about their hierarchy and don’t like to have it challenged.

Although there are some obvious standouts in the crowd, it can be difficult to determine exactly which birds are male and which are female at 8 weeks old.   The roosters aren’t crowing yet and the hens are still about the same size as they boys.  But there are some identifying traits that you can pick out if you look closely.

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The first thing I look at is the comb.  Males tend to have a much more prominent comb that tends to stand out like a red flag.  Likewise, the wattles (the red fleshy bits of skin under the chin) tend to be larger and brighter on roosters.  They serve to keep the chicken cool in hot temperatures and also to attract potential mates.  However, since we’re dealing with mixed breed chickens, and some have single combs and others have rose combs or pea combs (chicken genetics article coming soon!), we can’t always go by this trait alone.

Another very helpful part of the body to look at is the leg.  Roosters will have thicker, sturdier legs and in some breeds (such as the Barred Rock, below) they are even a different color from sex to sex.  If you’re still not sure, you can check for the start of a spur on the ankle.  Males will have a small nub that is the start of a spur (the long talons that are used in cock fights).

In some breeds (again, see the pair of Barred Rocks below) the males will have a brighter coloring than the females.  In the wild we see many species of birds that have brightly colored males and drab colored females.  It is thought that the bright color of males helps to attract mates while the dark color of the females camouflages them while sitting on a nest.  This is less true in domestic/farmed animals, but is sometimes selected for (as in sex-linked breeds) to make sexing at an early age easier.

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Lastly, you can look at the plumage itself.  Males tend to have longer tail feathers that stick straight up when they strut.  (But again, this varies by breed.)  One of my favorite things to look for is one of the hardest things to see at such a young age.  The HACKLE!  As a fly tier, the hackle is the most valuable part of the rooster.  The saddle hackle is located on the side of the bird, just behind the wing.  The neck hackle is, of course, located on the neck.  Hens have shorter neck hackle that can be used in smaller fly patterns, but the roosters have the long, beautiful saddle hackle that is sought after for streamers and wet flies.  (Or for hair accessories, if that’s more your speed.)

There are a couple of other giveaways too if you’re paying close attention- like the muscle tone or heft of the body when you pick the bird up.  And although these guys aren’t quite crowing yet, they are getting close.  When I picked this champagne-colored guy up he made a deep throaty croak.  Bummer.  Rooster.  I’ve had my eye on this one (below) since the day he hatched, hoping it was a hen because he seems to be a mix of Buff Orpington and White Cochin.  Both are breeds known for their broodiness and good mothering ability.  I was sure this was our next great nanny.  Apparently not.

buff rooster 2014

So I did my best.  From what I can tell there are 14 hens and 15 roosters.  Amazing how that 50/50 thing works, huh?  I may have made a couple of mistakes.  Time will tell.  (That’s how we ended up with 2 roosters this past year- one boy didn’t start crowing until the week following D Day for the other roosters.  Brat.)  The hens moved into the barn with the established girls and met their parents for the first time.  Surprisingly we’ve had very little issues with them getting along.  Maybe it’s because they know they’re family (mmm…no, probably not).  Or maybe it’s because we have enough space for them to keep their distance if they like.  But I imagine it’s mostly due to the age that we introduced them and the breeds/personalities that we keep.  Good karma, I guess.

The hens getting used to their new living quarters.
The hens getting used to their new living quarters.
rooster pen 2014
The roosters enjoying the extra space in their pen now that the girls have moved out.

The boys are doing just fine all alone.  We wouldn’t be able to keep them all together forever, even if we wanted to, because they will eventually start picking fights and trying to prove their masculinity as they enter adolescence.  Boys.  When it starts to interfere with their quality of life they’ll move to the freezer.  Until then, they’ll enjoy a new patch of grass, weeds and bugs each day to keep them busy.

Except…maybe…this one.  Ain’t he purdy?

New rooster 2014

 

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Chickens Need Hobbies Too

One of my big “things” in keeping animals is providing an environment where they can remain mentally stimulated and practice natural behaviors daily. Just as exercise and physical activity are good for our physical health, problem solving and using all of our senses is good for our mental health.

Think about how nutty you would go if you were stuck in a tiny room day in and day out, without enough room to stretch your legs or turn around. Then add, on top of that, nothing to read, no new sights to see, and your only social interaction was being stepped on or over by the other people squished into that tiny room with you. What kind of psychosis would that lead to?

Unfortunately that’s just the kind of life that laying chickens in a typical battery or large-scale factory farm experience. They never have the opportunity to enjoy life, and even worse than that, their caged lives are dragged on for over a year for laying hens. At least in meat birds (who live a similarly awful life, but also have to deal with severe physical ailments), their torment is over after just 6 short weeks of life.

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Typical housing of egg laying chickens in a battery

But there is another way to raise chickens- the right way, in my humble opinion. And that way includes caring for their mental health as well as their physical health.

During the spring and summer months it’s pretty easy to provide a stimulating environment for your animals. Just give them access to the outdoors and they find plenty to do, all on their own. There is green grass to peck at, bugs to chase and dust to roll in. What more could a chicken want? But when it comes to the winter months, especially when the temperature is subzero and the snow piles up above their shoulders, we’re sometimes forced into keeping them confined to a smaller (more boring, but more comfortable) space than they’d like. When the air temperature is above the single digits, we typically leave the top half of the barn door open so that they can fly up and out if they like, but they rarely do. Chickens are pretty wimpy when it comes to snow or rain.

Winter barn
The yard goes unused when the snow reaches halfway up the barn door.

So what do you do to manage their sanity? It’s actually pretty easy. The answer comes from asking the right question- “what would the animal typically be doing, if given the choice?” For chickens it’s probably scratching around, looking for food. A close second might be dust bathing or, if the opportunity presented itself, mating. That’s about it. No rocket scientists in the chicken world. But hey, who am I to judge? Whatever floats your boat.

If foraging for food is what you like to do in your spare time, then that’s what we’ll let you do. Any time our chickens are indoors for any length of time (whether it is their choice or ours) we set up a mini treasure hunt for them in their pen. At least twice a day we toss some kitchen scraps into the straw so that the hens have to “hunt” for their treat. Today we just so happened to have some black beans in the refrigerator that needed to be used up, so that’s what they got. (It’s just a nice side benefit that they look like little black beetles hiding amongst the roughage. Maybe that will train them to be Japanese-Beetle-hunting-assassins come summertime- I can’t stand those things!) But since chickens are omnivores, they’ll eat just about anything that people do. When we’re lacking kitchen scraps, they get a scattering of cracked corn to keep them busy.

Chickens scavenging
Our chickens scavenging for kitchen scraps dispersed in straw.

Another nice winter treat is a bowl of whey left over from cheese or yogurt making. Over the summer, the pigs drink most of the whey that turns up as a byproduct of making cheese from our raw goat’s milk. But during the winter, the chickens have fewer competitors on the farm and they could use the extra protein boost, so they’re the lucky winners of the white gold.

Chickens eating whey
Fresh whey left over from making cheese from our raw goat’s milk is a big treat for the flock.

We also keep one corner of the pen loose with sand/dirt so that they can bathe when they feel the urge. And of course our resident rooster keeps the ladies busy. I’ll spare you from an image of that.

This same philosophy can be applied to any animal that needs added mental stimulation. Zoo keepers and aquarium staff have long been enriching the environments of captive wild animals in order to provide more humane care for them. Octopuses, for example, are often fed out of Kong toys in aquariums to simulate their natural hunting and feeding behaviors. (Check out this article on Pandora, The National Zoo’s octopus, who just recently passed away holding onto her favorite Kong toy.) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/octopus-chronicles/2014/02/13/national-zoos-octopus-dies-in-the-company-of-her-favorite-toy-a-kong/

But why stop at wild animals for environmental enrichment? Are domesticated animals any less worthy of the opportunity to behave naturally? They may have weaker drives than their wild counterparts, but that should only serve to make it easier for us to entertain them.

To me, having a healthy animal requires more than just adequate nutrition and loads of medication. It’s a whole package deal. And that package is at least 50% psychological. Let’s start giving that other half some attention too.

 This post was shared on The Homesteaders Blog Hop

http://faulkfarmstead.com/2014/03/homesteaders-blog-hop-4/