Red Bucket Farm is an urban farm on a quarter acre property in an average residential neighborhood. We are located in Wisconsin, USDA Zone 5. We focus on chickens, bees, orchard fruit, and raised garden beds for fruits and veggies. We hope to reduce our footprint on the planet by growing some of our food, reducing our use of fossil fuels, and gardening with sustainable practices. Thanks for visiting!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Heritage Turkey

It's the time of year when many of us roast a turkey or two for holiday dinners. This year we did some research and became more informed consumers before purchasing.

Did you know that turkeys sold in common grocery stores are not able to breed normally? The Broad Breasted White turkey has been cross bred to such an extreme it can no longer copulate. This breed will grow breast meat so large and heavy that the bird can't breed and sometimes can't stand on its own legs. All the eggs are artificially inseminated, and all the turkeys are raised in large commercial factories in confinement production.

The good news is that there are options available if you're willing to look. Thanks to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, there are a few farmers willing to keep the endangered breeds alive. Interest from the Slow Foods USA movement is raising awareness among the public.

We ordered our Thanksgiving turkey (a Bourbon Red) from a local farmer who raises meat animals in open pasture. We'll admit it was pricey----at $6/pound, it makes even a small turkey a rather large investment. We roasted our nine pound turkey outside on the grill over smoking hickory chips and stuffed with apples and rosemary. The meat was moist and delicious, and there was far more dark meat than a commercial bird. We enjoyed every bite of it, and then boiled the carcass for soup broth.

We've considered raising our own turkeys, but it's not a good idea to raise chickens and turkeys on the same property because of disease control. Besides, it's not entirely legal in my municipality. So for now, we'll pay the extra money to support our local farmers who are working hard to preserve heritage breeds.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Winterizing the Bees

Winter is nearly upon us. In fact, we've already had a few inches of snow, although it lasted only a day or so. Our overnight temperatures are forecasted to be below freezing, so it's time to make sure the bee hives are tucked in properly for the winter. 

We've taken a number of precautions in an attempt to help the bees survive. First, we spaced out a few top bars to allow for more air circulation. The mold that I reported about two weeks ago has decreased, and we learned that the bees will clean it up themselves if there is sufficient air circulation. In warm weather we wouldn't want the bees to slip between the top bars, but there is no risk that they will break cluster in the winter so we're not worried about them moving into the vaulted roof.

We fed the weaker hive with cups of honey on the floor of the hive. It was astonishing how quickly they moved the honey from the cups into their comb where they'll need it later. In retrospect, I wish that I had fed that hive earlier in the fall. I may have missed my window of opportunity to feed, but it is our intention to manipulate them as little as possible. Besides, feeding bees does not guarantee success.

We surrounded the entire bee yard on three sides with a plastic covered fence designed to serve as a wind break. Sometimes the winds can be fierce, so we also anchored the hives to the ground with nylon straps and storm anchor hooks.

Finally, we wrapped each hive in an insulated "blanket" made of R-13 fiberglass insulation sealed in construction-grade garbage bags. We covered the blankets in tar paper secured with more nylon straps. Notice in the photograph that four of the six entrance openings have been covered with corks. Soon, we'll cover the fifth opening leaving only one small entrance, which will be sufficient for winter.

It's frustrating to not be able to peek in the observation windows, but hopefully these precautions will make survival a possibility. Now I need to be patient, wait and watch.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Naked Chicken

Wisteria is molting. She looks horrible! Her beautiful black necklace fell out and many of her flight and tail feathers dropped. Her chest and shoulders are bare right down to her naked chicken skin. For several days, the hen house looked like there had been pillow fights in there when I went to clean in the morning. Now Wisteria is sprouting new quills which are poking through her skin. It must be uncomfortable.

Molting arrives at a nasty time of year. I'll never understand why it's normal for chickens to molt in the fall of the year. We've had snow for the last two days and poor Wisteria never leaves the coop in her efforts to keep warm. Because growing new feathers requires so much energy, she won't be laying eggs for several weeks.

Molting is a normal process for pure breed and heritage birds like Wisteria, who is of the Wyandotte breed. My hybrid chickens (Rosie the Redstar and Hyacinth the Easter Egger) haven't been as affected by the molt. Rosie lost a patch of chest feathers over the summer, but she never stopped laying eggs. So far, Hyacinth has shown no signs of molting. Of course, the pullets won't molt until next year.

We'll try to keep Wisteria warm and dry for the next few weeks while her feathers fill in. Soon she'll be the glamour girl of the chicken yard once again.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Making Hard Cider

I've been vaguely interested in home brewing for years, but only as the willing sampler of another person's handiwork. Somehow, the jumbo-sized cooking pots, fermenting pails and extra equipment seemed overwhelming to me. But a small article in a recent issue of Mother Earth News magazine brought hard cider to my attention, and I began researching this ancient beverage. Did you know that hard cider was the most popular American beverage prior to Prohibition? Also, did you know that in Europe, all cider is hard (alcoholic) cider unless specified as sweet cider?

My first reference for making cider was www.makinghardcider.com. The author of this website describes the whole process in great detail, so I won't need to repeat it. I also purchased a book called Strong Waters by Scott Mansfield, who advocates making one-gallon batches of homemade beer, wine and cider. Creating small batches has allowed me to make three different blends of cider in a few weeks. The equipment set-up has been minimal, the learning curve is quick, and mistakes are less expensive. Besides, now I can choose from different spirited beverages for my late evening popcorn and beer routine.

The process for making hard cider is simple. Purchase a gallon of pasteurized cider in a glass jug. You'll use the jug as your fermenter. Choose cider with no preservatives, which will kill the yeast. Add 3/4 cup of sugar and a little champagne yeast. A teaspoon of yeast nutrient will help. Shake it all up in the jug and then cover it with a bung (rubber stopper with a hole in it) and an airlock. These supplies are cheap and readily available at your local brew shop. The yeast eats the sugars in the cider and causes fermentation. It's fun to watch the bubbles rising to the top, but I cover my jug most of the time with dark fabric because light can damage the final product. Fermentation is finished in a week, and then I bottle the cider into beer bottles with a teaspoon dextrose for carbonation. The cider will get a little better with time, so wait a week or two before enjoying.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Fall Bee Inspection

Yesterday it was 60 degrees and sunny, so we took an opportunity to open the bee hives and peek inside. There was good news and bad news.

The good news is that the bees gathered plenty of pollen this fall. The photo above was taken on Sept. 24. You can see the huge orange pollen sacs on the bee's hind legs. It was amazing to watch the bees working diligently for most of September. We could actually smell honey as we walked past the bee yard.

During yesterday's mini-inspection, we observed that the blue hive (at right in the photo) appeared healthy and  contained perhaps a dozen combs of honey. We moved only a few top bars to consolidate their honey stores, shifting the smaller empty combs away from the main cluster of bees and honey. In the winter, the bees will stay together in one dense ball, moving very slowly as a unit to feed on their honey stores.

The green hive (at left in the photo) is struggling with mold. I had noticed moisture on the observation window several weeks ago. Since we have vents in the hive, I was hoping the bees were managing the moisture on their own. Unfortunately, there is mold on the walls of the box. We removed about three top bars with moldy comb and honey. The mold is growing in the part of the hive furthest away from the entrances. We think the combs closer to the entrances are okay. We also removed one top bar entirely and wiggled the others apart to create some space for air to circulate. At the same time, we hope that it's not too much space and that the bees won't be tempted to squeeze into the vaulted roof space and build comb.

Winter will be a difficult time for the bees and there is little we can do to help. We'll finish insulating and winterizing soon, and after that we just wait until spring. If one hive survives, we can split the bees during their peak and build the second hive again.

Meanwhile, we're looking forward to an upcoming new book by Christy Hemenway of Gold Star Honeybees. There is relatively little information about the management of top bar hives, and Christy is both knowledgeable and inspirational. It's interesting to be a bee guardian and participate in the non-chemical practice of beekeeping.