hawaii

The Hawaiian Maggonator

Sunset view from my favorite Hawaiian beach

Just about a year ago, I found myself with an open four months between my final college class and graduation in May. Instead of getting a job or planning my wedding like any reasonable person would do, I flew out to a tiny town on the Big Island of Hawaii to do work trade at a ten acre organic garden sanctuary through a program called Wwoof Hawaii. Most of my friends and family thought I was crazy, but I believe it was one of the best things I have ever done for myself because it gave me a much needed break between college and my future life as somebody’s wife. Plus, any chance to miss  out. on a nasty Michigan winter should always be pursued.

I learned so much through that experience, both about farming and myself, and in a lot of ways it prepped me to live in West Virginia. Now that Ian and I have our own chickensI decided to reblog one of my previous posts about a fabulously simple composting system that can be built and utilized on just about any homestead. Read on, build one if you dare, and when your chickens thank you for all their new yummy treats, just remember to tell them I was the one that inspired you.

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This tent was my home for four months on the Big Island

March, 2015

A wild pig got onto the farm last week. The entire property is fenced in, so this is a rare occurrence. In fact, he is the first one  to get on the property in ten years. A young boar, this unwelcome guest was the size of a Labrador retriever and very sneaky. Extensive searching through the ten acre property  didn’t reveal his whereabouts, but in the morning the scattered shred of leeks and kale in the garden revealed ample evidence of his nighttime feasting. Pigs are a huge nuisance in Hawaii; they devastate local ecosystems by eating native plants and are responsible for spreading songbird malaria by uprooting trees and creating good habitats for mosquitoes to breed. Locals see them as an unavoidable nuisance, but killing them is encouraged and any trip into town reveals posters everywhere advertising pig hunting classes. Here at Lokahi Garden Sanctuary, that was going to be the best solution. So, after the pig had been on the property for 24 hours, farm owner Richard’s son in law Yumbel went out with a gun and an overly enthusiastic border collie to track him down. It didn’t take long before a single shot rang through the air and Yumbel, victorious, ran to tell us the good news.

So now we had a dead pig on the farm. More useful than a live one, but still a problem to deal with. He had been shot in the brush and was surprisingly difficult to track down again. (Thank goodness for dogs and their keen sense of smell!) When the poor boar was found it was time to turn him into something a little more useful than a vegetable thief. The carcass was dragged to our butchering tree, hoisted up, and split open. This is the fourth large animal butchering I’ve watched since coming here, and I get more excited about them every time. Richard and Yumbel made a great team and hardly any time had passed before the pig was clean and prepped for cooking. 

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Using a butt plug to remove the anus, a very messy process.
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I only wish I’d gotten to help

The carcass was deposited into our fridge, the guts were collected and life sort of moved on. If I were normal and a little more hipster this would be the time where I would write about the tasty Argentinian-style pig roast we had a few nights later. I’d say a few things about how amazing it was that friends, family, and complete strangers could gather and enjoy a feast together. I’d go on for a while about how unifying food could be across cultural divides and the incredible gift that being able to eat both locally and sustainably is, and on ad nauseam.

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Talking about food is boring. I’d rather play with chickens

I could, but we’ve all heard it before, and frankly I’m sick to death of talks like this. Yes, food is great and I’ll eat just about anything, but what really gets me passionate about alternative food systems are things more like the use that the inedibles of our pig were put to. I’m talking about the maggonator, in my opinion the best small scale farm invention ever.

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The view of the maggonator from inside the coop

It’s really neat. The maggonator is Richard’s take on a black soldier fly composting system. Essentially, he took all the nasties from the pig like the skin, skull and bones, and stuck them all into a wood bin. Not the organs, those were eaten by us! This bin had small holes on the side that were large enough for flies to get in and lay eggs in the composting muck. Within a few hours, these eggs had hatched into small grubs that were literally writhing through the carcass. These grubs inched their way upwards to the supposed top of the box, but instead were tricked into sliding down pvc tubing and into the chicken coop. These maggots are extremely nutritious for the chickens and they gobble them up like the protein and probiotic-filled candy they are. While the maggonator was in full production, the chickens could barely be convinced to leave the sides of the tubing, as tasty morsels were falling into their coop at a steady rate.

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An old sheep skull from a previous butchering becomes dinner if you’re a grub

 

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All those little white specks? MAGGOTS.

Within the span of three days the waste product of a damaging farm pest had been completely broken down and was used to feed chickens, who in turn produced tasty, highly nutritious eggs. What an incredible conversion of resources! it’s even more impressive to understand that the chickens weren’t at all interested in the regular carcass. Richard had initially thrown it into the coop and the chickens barely pecked at it. But once it had been converted to maggots the chickens couldn’t get  enough!

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This hen has about as much patience as I do when it’s time for dessert.

 

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This is all the chickens did for a few says. They just wouldn’t leave.

Yes it’s nasty. It’s really gross. The smell of ammonia was powerful and flies wouldn’t leave that area alone. But honestly, a lot of the thrill of farming for me is having an excuse to get good and dirty. And when the process creates happy chickens and incredible eggs? I’m a convert. You too? Here are some instructions to build your own. 

I know I know… I was scorning it earlier, but our crucifix-style pig roast was really cool and incredibly delicious.

 

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And finally, some proof that I’m always awkward, even when in incredibly beautiful places.

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Now that Ian and I have our own chickens, we are very excited to start our own soldier fly composting system soon. Maybe we can fill it with some of the roadkill we see along the road everyday? So keep on reading, because someday soon I will be posting details about our very own West Virginia maggonator.

 
 

guinea

Guinea Fowl Frenzy

The end of our holiday vacation is an absolute mess. The husband is sprawled across the unmade bed, completely wiped from driving seven hours back home after the holiday weekend. A developing stomach flu that persisted throughout the trip threatens to make him vomit at any moment. The dog is restless and gassy from the ride and can’t stop wandering the bedroom in neurotic circles, reassuring himself that the room is as he left it. Every lap he stops by me, nipping at my hand in a constant vie for attention. We came home to a note that Pepper the cat had been locked in the spare bedroom for two full days during the holidays. Investigating the room for evidence of his past imprisonment is beyond this night’s abilities. And the reason for out late return, the four newly acquired teenage guinea fowl, are spending the night in our bedroom because Ian was too exhausted to lug them to the outdoor coop. It was all I could do to heft them out of the car and into our room.

So far their screeching dismay for their caged life is all the proof I need that the claims of their incredible volume are true. I’ve also learned that trying to make their first night a little more comfortable with bowls of food and water was a terrible idea. Both substances were spilled in a matter of seconds by the panicked birds, dirtying the bedroom floor with a soupy mix of bird poop and soggy food. And on the bed I sit, trying to find the motivation to make up lesson plans about earth worms for the next school day. It would be a long night, but internally I think I gave up on this project the second I walked into the room. going to be a long night. think I gave up on this night a long time ago. After almost a week away and a drive from Pittsburgh longer than we thought possible, I stumbled back into a freezing cold, stale smelling animal-filled home, left my sick husband to find his way into bed and the luggage to settle deeper into the car trunk. The last thing I want to do is make a PowerPoint about worms. And to think we wanted to introduce four new fowl into this crazy mix.

But everything I’ve described is also what I love about this place. Here, we have the ability to just go and DO the crazy things we think about. If we want to go ham on farm animals (no pun intended) we can simply peruse Craigslist until we see some that fit our land and budget. In my “former life” of being a college student and city dweller, I used to spend a lot of time dreaming about a future like this. Ian and I used to spend hours planning out our lives together, often down to minute details of farm projects. But here, I don’t do that much. In fact, our “big picture” conversations have all but ended. Our present is so chock full of projects and potential it’s all we can do to keep with the flow of ideas. If that means that sometimes I will have to go through a some crazy hectic nights of less than stellar decision making to take a risk with a new animal species, then so be it. Because this time in our life is woefully short and soon these opportunities will pass us by. I don’t know what the future holds, but we probably won’t live on this incredible land for more than a few years. And when we do move on to some horrid suburban home, I want to leave fully satisfied that we have pursued every homesteading opportunity that came our way. 

So cheers for Guinea Fowl! And farm animals in general. But what with the dog, the cats, and our twelve birds, I think we are set for a while. At least until Spring….or the next good Craigslist deal.

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The fowl’s previous owner was a prow at catching them for us.
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Poor little caged babies.

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These girls sure aren’t going to win any beauty pageants.
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Leaving the shelter is the best thing that ever happened to Wendell. He hasn’t had a dull moment since
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We let the fowl into the coop this morning, Anyone that doesn’t get along with be promptly eaten. Except for my precious silkies.
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Early morning coop shot filled with happy poultry.

Have any questions about guinea fowl? Leave them in the comments and I will address them in my next post!

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Using Fall Leaves Effectively

 

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The hour before sunset is my favorite time to be out on the property.

Fall days are death- if you are a leaf. For the rest of us, they are a glorious final celebration before the doomy gloom of winter smothers every memory of happier times. If you doubt my hatred of winter, just know I’ve spent the past two out of three winters fleeing to the tropics under the flimsy excuse of ” gaining farm experience.” Farming was a great idea, but mostly I just thought winter in Hawaii sounded better than in Michigan. I don’t do well with cold, and I do even less well without natural light. But seeing as West Virginia doesn’t have the climate of a Pacific Island, winter is going to happen here regardless of my personal preferences. Until that happens, I’ll continue to skip around barefoot and lay down in the grass to read books. And Ian and I will continue to use as much of the fleeting daylight that we can to continue with our property projects. This week, we tried to figure out what to do with the thick blanketing of dead leaves around our home’s perimeter.

The first project was pulling out the o’ chipper we found stashed in a shed to shred up as many leaves as we could collect. This was a two person job, so while I scurried around with a big rake and bigger tarp, Ian fed the piles into the roaring machine. I guess it worked, because our massive pile of leaves shrank to one tenth its original volume, easily fitting in our makeshift leaf composter. The idea is that greater surface area will allow the leaves to decompose faster, allowing for quicker compost. I’ll report back in a few weeks on the results.

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Claiming that he’s not as fat as he looks in this picture*, Ian dumps leaves into the chipper to be shredded and consequently composted faster.
    *he wants everyone to know that he’s lost fifteen pounds**                                                                         **yes, he really did tell me to say that 

 

The second project was another composting method, but instead of a chipper we wanted to try out a different farm tool- the chickens. Lazy things haven’t laid any eggs yet, so we needed to find a different way to get some use out of them. Chickens enjoy nothing better than to scuffle around their yard, scratching and turning over everything in their path in an endless pursuit of bugs. It look a matter of hours for six little hens to turn their pen into a barren clay wasteland. So we thought we’d give them our leaves to play with instead.  Their shredding instincts would be put to good use and we wouldn’t have to run the chipper as much. The bonus addition of their poop into the mix could make for a nitrogen-rich fertilizer for the garden come spring.

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Starting to throw some leaves into the massive pen.

 

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Wendell is a great admirer of the chickens. We find his fervor a little frightening for their well-being.

 

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Pepper looks in longingly at the birds just out of reach

 

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This chicken gave shade right back to the mammals.

 

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Not one to draw attention to herself, Peek likes to watch the happenings from a safe distance

So we filled the coop with close to a foot of leaf litter and allowed the chickens to play around in it. They seemed a little startled by the dramatic change to their outdoor arrangements, but being chickens, it took them all of two seconds to adapt. Do they like playing in the leaves?  Watch the video below ad see for yourself!

Let’s all just agree that chickens are the best. Cool. Glad we agree.

coop 2

Reclaiming an Old Chicken Coop Part 2

Oooooh chickens. To my count, this is my third blog post focused purely on extolling their virtues. The first was in Thailand when I was responsible for slaughtering one for a village meal and somehow managed to let it literally slip through my fingers and dash into the woods. Did I spend the rest of that afternoon chasing it through the forest with a slingshot and a ten foot bamboo pole? Yes. Did I even get remotely close to recapturing it? I’ll let you think that one through. (Hint: lets just say I was teased about my “ba gai” or forest chicken for the rest of the semester.) My second post about chickens is from my time living and working on a farm on the Big Island of Hawaii. There, one of my jobs was to tend to the feathery flock of 30 layers. There wasn’t always a lot to do on that farm so I spent a lot of time plunked down on the ground, watching the ladies. It’s actually one of my better pieces, so I’ll probably repost it someday.

And what’s not to like? Little lumbering dinosaurs that clumsily scratch around their mud pens in an ever preoccupied hunt for tidbits of food. If only all our lives could be that simple. In their ten thousand years of domestication, it’s apparent intelligence was never a sought after trait. Frankly, I think it’s been just about bred out of the little suckers. But their simple dumbness is a large part of their charm for me. My chickens ask for little besides a mud yard to scratch around in, some food scraps, and a couple of roosting perches. In return I plan to get hours of entertainment and in all likelihood over a dozen eggs a week. I get as much enjoyment out of chasing them around the yard as Wendell does, and they give me a great captive audience to practice my crazy voices on. Unlike Wendell, they can’t run away and hide when I get too high pitched. I tell myself they secretly enjoy it.

But back to the basics. After our chicken yard was completed, Ian and I packed the dog crate into the back of the nuns’ pickup and drove the half mile past Big Laurel to our neighbor’s, who had agreed to sell us six chickens at five bucks apiece. Craigslist wasn’t offering me any better deals, so we accepted. A true mountain man, our neighbor has quite the set up. His ridgeline property boasts several gardens and at least three chicken runs jammed full of birds. He also has multiple dogs and is raising two sows with his grandson. My ears perked up when I heard he was going to get them bred; if all goes well our neighborly livestock purchases could soon extend to a piglet!

The chicken catching process was simple. After we were told which birds were off limits (all the pretty ones) I was let into the coop to “gather” the ones I wanted. Thankfully I’ve had some experience catching chickens since that fateful day in Thailand and I quickly snagged five. But, not wanting to have all the fun, I made Ian catch the last one. Though his massive hands and feet didn’t do him any favors, Ian managed to catch just about the ugliest chicken in the coop. But ugliness is no indicator of egg laying ability, so we kept her anyways. After we stuffed all six into the dog crate and drove back up the bumpy mountain road to our place, we released them into their new home.

I’m not sure what I was expecting. More of an adjustment period, I guess. Heck, we’ve had Wendell for two weeks and he still flinches at every noise in the house. But it took those birds all of two minutes to feel right at home in their new chicken palace. And a palace it is. I guess we had forgotten just how small chickens actually are when we were constructing it, because the coop that holds six looks like it can comfortably hold 35. Talk about exciting goals for the future! Within two hours every scrap of greenery in the yard had been pecked away, and I’m sure most of the worms and bugs as well.

So far the birds have been pretty quiet. We aren’t going to let them out of their pen for a few weeks to allow them to get a sense of home. In their pen they keep to themselves and move around in two flocks of equivalent ages. They go crazy when we threw them some moldy bread, but it’s a reserved kind of crazy. Three of them are still fairly young and won’t lay eggs for a few months. The way Wendell has been getting excited around their coop, he will probably try to kill a couple. But that’s an acceptable risk for us. It’s strange to be entering this new relationship of animal ownership, moving from having pets to livestock. I’m going to love having these chickens of course, but I fully intend to eat every one of them if I can. They will be pets only so long as they are useful- after that point they will be dinner. Funny that I think of our new dog as a farm animal as well, but a similar fate for him would be unthinkable. The boundaries we impose on what is acceptable and what is abhorrent can be strange indeed.

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The completed coop in all its glory
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None of the chickens have done anything distinguishing enough to deserve actual names yet, but I’ve so lovingly nicknamed this one Demon Chicken.
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A more flattering angle of the gal
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The chickens seem to love scratching through all their cedar chips
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The one on the right? That’s Ian’s chicken. I’m calling him Fugly for pretty obvious reasons.
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The expansive coop is a chicken palace for sure.
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Just a reminder that West Virginia is a pretty beautiful place.

I bet your dog walks can’t compare!! 😉

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Reclaiming an Old Chicken Coop Part 1

Finally, FINALLY we are real homesteaders. Before we were just playing around, thinking that canning a couple pears and owning some useless cats and a farm dog qualified us. But no longer do we have to pretend. Because… we have livestock. More specifically, CHICKENS. I have been desperate to own poultry for years now, and one of the requirements that I made when we decided to move our here was that I would get my own birds. Half the work was already done for us, because our Knob property had a massive chicken coop in good condition. To make it functional, we needed to build an enclosed yard that would keep the chickens in and chicken killers out. It’s been a long project, but I’m very happy to say that the final results should keep out even the most persistent predator.

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Before: the chicken coop was choked with a weed forest and the door couldn’t even be opened. It took my dad and Ian a full morning to weed wack the yard enough to access the area around the coop.
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Using the circular saw to cut out a new chicken door and ramp for the coop.
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Perfectly functional little chicken door.
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We just had to assume the birds wouldn’t be too chicken to go up and down their relatively steep and high ramp. The disadvantage of building on a slope!

 

Poll: who makes a better chicken, Ian or Lydia? Cast your vote in the comments!

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The answer’s obvious, right?

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Lucky for us, we had plenty of work groups come over several weeks that were able to help us with different stages of construction. Without them, the two of us would be slogging through the snow trying to get that yard done.

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Wheeling Jesuit gentleman helped Ian dig and plant posts for the coop, possibly saving our marriage in the process by ensuring the two of us didn’t have to do it by ourselves.
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We conveniently got to put the Noyes family to work by having them bury slab boards around the coop’s perimeter to prevent predators from digging their way in to the coop.
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Terry helped to set cement over a nasty root that proved impossible to dig through.
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Pepper was our constant building companion…at least until we adopted the dog.
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One post was a litttttle too short, so we had to screw on a small block to top it off
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Our Americorps coworkers came over for a weekend retreat and helped us with various tasks with the coop, including painting the exterior.
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The completed frame
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Wendell and Ian, the two men in my life! <3
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I spent a lot of my time twisting multiple layers of the poultry wire together to seal the gaps.
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I’ll probably have callouses on my fingers for weeks now.

And suddenly…the coop was complete and move-in ready. Check back in a few days to read about our adventures buying chickens from our neighbor, releasing them into the coop, and seeing if we can get their moist little bodies to produce eggs for us after all.