How ‘Bout Them Apple Trees!

Hen fruit is not the only food we harvest here at the Hipster Hen Ranch!  We’ve also got apples!  A couple years after we moved from the city out here to the ranch, we decided that any good homestead needed apple trees and that for this homestead, the time had come.  So I picked up my Gurney’s catalogue and ordered four trees which Gurney’s then sent through the mail.  They could come through the mail because they were bare root trees.  “What are bare root trees?” you ask.  Well, when you go to a nursery and buy a tree, it will have a ball of soil around its roots.  Bare root trees have absolutely no soil around the roots—which is exactly why they name them “bare root trees”.  My name for bare root trees?  “Sticks.”   When they arrived and I tore open the box I immediately had deep misgivings.  I couldn’t imagine that these dead looking sticks would actually grow when I put them in the ground.  But that’s exactly what bare root trees do.  Nurseries grow baby trees for one to three years, then in the fall they’re dug up and all the soil is removed from the roots.  They’re stored over the winter with the roots kept moist in a cold environment, then they’re shipped to customers in the spring.  Obviously, bare root trees weigh a fraction of trees with a root ball, so they can be shipped and handled for a fraction of the cost.  Because they can be shipped at a reasonable cost, it allows you to shop for trees from a much broader geographic area and allows you access to tree varieties that you might not be able to find locally.  If you plant and maintain your trees properly, they’ll grow and prosper just as happily as a tree with a root ball.

I planted my four little sticks and enlisted my two-year-old son to water them.  His job was to aim the hose at the base of each tree so the baby trees “would have plenty of water to drink so they would grow big and strong.”  My son diligently performed his duty and the little trees thrived.  I’m sure he didn’t know that I could have easily just laid the hose on the ground for the water to trickle onto the tree.  But shooting water at the apple trees kept him occupied and happy for a while and it allowed me to get some gardening done that summer!  Yeah, it was a underhanded parental trick, but I don’t think he ever figured it out.  At least he’s never brought it up in the years since, and he’s 34-years-old now.  If it were to come up, I’m sure he would understand that sometimes you need to do what you have to do to keep your little guys occupied so you can get a few things done.  After all, he’s got kids of his own, now!

Blooming Apple Trees - 2014
All four of those trees were grafted onto semi-dwarf rootstock.  All apple trees are propagated by grafting.  Basically, you cut a branch off a tree and graft it onto an apple tree rootstock and voila!  Instant baby apple tree!  Since apple trees of different varieties cross pollinate with each other, the only way to propagate the exact genetics of the parent tree is to graft.  A standard apple tree will normally reach a height of around thirty feet.  A semi-dwarf rootstock stunts the growth of a tree so it maxes out at about fifteen feet.  Semi-dwarf trees are a sensible choice for home orchardists—you can get by with a ten-foot ladder when you’re pruning and spraying and picking apples.  The downside of semi-dwarf rootstock is that it also limits the longevity of a tree.  A standard apple tree may last for a long, long time.  Your grandchildren could conceivably be picking apples from a tree you planted.  Semi-dwarfs, unfortunately, show their age by the time they’re twenty.  You’ll recall that I mentioned my son, who watered my trees as a toddler is now 34.  If you do the math you’ll see that my trees are really, really old.  As a matter of fact, some of them have passed on to the big orchard in the sky.  The Granny Smith failed to leaf out one spring about five years in.  The Minnesota climate is a little harsh for Granny Smiths, and it never really got going.  Two years ago, the Fireside started to die back and I cut it down last year.  This year the Lodi is looking pretty unhappy—little by little I’m losing my orchard.

So this year I bought a batch of new babies!  Once again, I purchased bare root trees through the mail—from Jung Seed.  Six trees total—all on dwarf root stock.  These little guys will max out at ten feet.  In spite of their small size, dwarf trees can be very productive.  My main concern is that their small size makes them very browsable and the word will quickly spread in deer community about the cool new buffet, so I’ve had to put a ring of fencing around each tree.  With dwarf trees, I shouldn’t need ladders at all—a good thing since the thirty-some years that passed for my old trees also passed for me.  Ladders just aren’t as easy as they used to be.  

The six trees are six different varieties, all Minnesota hardy—The Enterprise is a late-ripening red apple that has good resistance to apple scab, cedar apple rust, powdery mildew and fire blight.  It was developed by the “PRI Program”, a collaboration of Purdue, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, and the University of Illinois to produce disease resistant apple cultivars.  The Freedom was developed in New York in the 1980’s and is a cross between an Antonovka, an ancient Russian variety and the Macoun, another New York apple.  The Liberty is a dark red apple that was developed in the 1950’s, also in New York and also from Macoun stock.  The Honeycrisp is a very popular sweet, firm, and tart apple developed by the University of Minnesota in the 1970’s.  In 2006, it was declared the Minnesota State Fruit!  The sweet and flavorful Sweet Sixteen is another popular apple developed by the University of Minnesota in the 1970’s.  It was developed by crossing a Northern Spy with other varieties.  The Prairie Magic is large, sweet and pink and green in color.  It is a cross between the hardy Goodland and the ever-popular McIntosh.

Planting a bare root tree is pretty straight-forward.  Shortly after they arrived in the mail, I pulled them out of their shipping box and plunked them into a bucket of water.  This is an important step—it allows the trees to rehydrate and helps to break dormancy.  I allowed them to soak overnight, but a few hours would have been fine.  You should never soak the roots for more than 24 hours.  I dug six holes about twelve feet apart, which is plenty of room for dwarf trees.

Mere sticks!  And they grow!  It's magic!

I dug six holes like this for six trees (compared to the ten thousand
holes in Blackburn, Lancashire - What a project that must have been!)
I filled each hole with water, put in the tree, and then backfilled with the soil I removed from the hole mixed about 50-50 with good ol’ composted chicken manure.  While backfilling I was careful to make sure the trees were vertical so they would grow straight.  

Add Water

There's no water where I planted the trees, so I found this 100 gallon  poly stock  tank for a very reasonable price, fitted a water spigot to it, and added a hose & loaded it onto my all-purpose trailer.  One tankful takes care of all the trees!

Composted chicken manure!  The other product the chickens provide!
I was also careful to keep the graft union of the scion (the top part of the tree) and the rootstock around three inches above the surface of the ground.  The main problem with burying the graft is that the scion can then grow roots and override the dwarfing properties of the dwarf rootstock.  Then you wind up with a full-sized apple tree.  I’ll be staking the trees later.  Since their tiny root system can’t support the weight once the tree sets fruit, tree stakes are critical for dwarf trees.  I’ll be watering these guys once a week through the growing season for the next couple of years, until the root system is well established.  Any week when there’s a good soaking rain, I can probably skip the watering, but otherwise it’s an important chore that needs to happen.  And these little guys will reward my efforts.  I should probably start to see apples in a couple years, and once they’re up and running each tree should produce 3-6 bushels of apples a year.  I’m predicting a lot of strudel, pie, sauce, & plain old eating apples in my future!

One tree - planted.

A ring of wire fencing will keep the deer at bay. 

The little trees have been in the ground only a matter of a few
 weeks and they're already blooming!  They must be really happy
 in their new home.  Maybe it's the composed chicken manure.

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A Carton of Eggs: Part 3 - Wild Harvest Cage Free Large Brown Eggs

This is the part three of a series about the information printed on egg cartons.  I’ve found you can learn from all that carton information once you figure out what it's actually saying.  And sometimes you can learn a whole lot by what it doesn’t say.  Today I’m going to take a look at a carton of Wild Harvest Cage Free Large Brown Eggs.  Wild Harvest is a brand created by SuperValu in 2008 to address “consumers' growing preference for organic and natural products.”  SuperValu can trace its roots back to an 1870’s Minneapolis dry goods wholesaler with the unlikely name of B.S. Bull and Company.  From those humble beginnings, it has grown to be the fifth largest food retailer in the US. 

The art on this Wild Harvest carton shows two pretty brown eggs on a somewhat stylized background of green grass.  While egg cartons often show countryside scenes, as I mentioned in part two of this series, the hens that lay the eggs in those cartons often have never seen the countryside but have spent their entire lives in battery cages.  So again, we have a pastoral image – literally eggs on grass.  This carton proclaims that the eggs are “cage free” so surely the hens that laid these eggs spent some quality time pecking and scratching in the grass, right?  Probably not, sadly, probably not.  What does cage free mean then, for goodness sake?  Read on.

As you can see from this informative chart put together by the Humane Society of the United States, cage free does not mean that the hens are allowed to go outdoors.  Any question regarding the living situation of the hens that laid these eggs is answered by the text on the inside of the carton:  [These hens are] “raised in barns.”  What cage free does mean is that the hens aren’t confined to cruel battery cages where they can’t spread their wings, turn around, or engage in any sort normal social behavior.  While the living conditions for cage free hens are about a million times better than the conditions battery cages provide, they aren’t perfect, and the hens are stuck indoors.

This strange code on the back of the carton provides some additional insight into the welfare of the hens that made these eggs.  In 2008 California voters passed Proposition 2, which mandated better treatment for the hens that laid any eggs sold in California.  I wrote a series of posts about the torturous journey Prop 2 went through before it finally was in enacted as law in 2015.  As a result of Prop 2 and other legislation enacted in California, any eggs sold in California must comply with a number of standards regardless of if they were produced in California or somewhere else.  The CA SEFS (California Shell Egg Food Safety) label on a carton indicates that the eggs in that carton meet that standard. 

What requirements do egg producers have to meet to earn the right to that CA SEFS label?  First of all, there are a number of stringent requirements about Salmonella, which are all laid out in California Code of Regulation Title 3 Section1350 (3 CCR 1350).  As I discussed in the first article in this series, bacterial contamination of shell eggs is a real problem and Salmonella is the top disease-causing bacteria found in raw shell eggs.  Salmonella can actually be inside the egg since it’s possible for it to live in a hen’s oviduct and become incorporated into the egg as the egg is being formed.  In Britain, where they neither wash nor refrigerate eggs prior to sale to consumers, there’s a legal requirement that egg producers vaccinate their hens against Salmonella, which greatly diminishes the risk.  There’s no such law on the books in the US, so while we do wash and refrigerate eggs here, there’s still a higher risk of Salmonella than if the eggs had come from vaccinated hens.  But, CA SEFS compliant eggs have gone through additional monitoring steps to reduce the risk of Salmonella and in addition the hens have been vaccinated. If you eat eggs with the CA SEFS label, you can be guaranteed that your risk of getting sick from Salmonella is reduced.  Why don’t they just say that on the carton?  Well, I completely understand that it’s a hard thing to promote.  It would be like saying, “Well, guys, eating undercooked eggs might make you sick.  But the chance is smaller if you eat these eggs!”  That’s hardly a glowing product endorsement.

The other requirement that needs to be met to display the CA SEFS label has to do with hen welfare.  The language in Prop 2 was vague—it simply required that hens have enough room to fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.  But it was a direct challenge to the egg industry since hens in battery cages can barely move.  After Prop 2 passed, there was a lot of arguing back and forth regarding what the actual space requirement should be.  Eventually, what the new regulations gave chickens was 116 square inches per bird.  Battery caged hens spend their lives with 67 square inches of floor space - a space about equivalent to two egg cartons.  CA SEFS hens get not quite four egg cartons worth of space.  Nothing in the CA SEFS standards addresses other cruel egg industry practices like beak cutting or forced molting.  And there’s nothing in the standards about allowing hens access to the outdoors.

Now that you know about the real meaning of “cage free” and CA SEFS, you must realize that both terms have some shortcomings in guaranteeing hen welfare. What if you, as a consumer, want to know for sure that the eggs you buy were laid by hens that were given access to the outdoors and that were treated in the most humane way?  As I’ve mentioned many times before in this blog, there are no federal standards.  There are a number of independent animal welfare certifying agencies, though, and many egg producers and distributers voluntarily take the necessary steps to be certified by those agencies.  Look for that certification on the carton when you buy eggs!  Here’s a list of certifying agencies ordered from most to least stringent:

Animal Welfare Approved:  Each hen must have 259 square inches of space and be able to nest, perch, and dust-bathe.  Hens must have continuous access to at least four square feet of outdoor space per bird and that space must be covered in growing vegetation.  The flock can’t have more than 500 hens, and forced molting and beak cutting are not allowed.  Hens who lay eggs in cartons with the “Animal Welfare Approved” label are living the good life.

Certified Humane:  There are three levels – “Cage Free” hens must have 216 square inches of space and must be able to nest, perch, and dust-bathe.  Hens don’t ever have to be let outdoors.  “Free Range” hens must be allowed to live in the conditions provided Cage Free hens and must also have access to 2 square feet of outdoor space.  This space need not have any living vegetation. “Pasture Raised” hens must be allowed to live in the conditions provided Cage Free hens and also have access for at least six hours every day to at least 108 square feet of outdoor space.  This space must be “covered mainly with living vegetation.”  All levels prohibit forced molting through starvation but do allow beak cutting.

American Humane Certified:  Has four levels — “Enriched Colony Cages” are cages, and only slightly better than battery cages.  Each hen must have 116 square inches of space.  There are minimal requirements that allow for perching and nesting.  “Cage Free” hens must have 180 square inches of space and must be able to nest and perch.  Hens don’t ever have to be let outdoors.  “Free Range” hens must be allowed to live in the conditions provided Cage Free hens and must also have access to 21.8 square feet of outdoor space.  “Pasture” hens must be allowed to live in the conditions provided Cage Free hens and also have access to at least 108 square feet of outdoor space.  This space must have “a substantial cover of living vegetation.”  They don’t specify a minimum period of time for outdoor access.  All levels prohibit forced molting through starvation but do allow beak cutting.

Food Alliance Certified:  Each hen must have 117 square inches of cage-free floor space.  Hens must have access for eight hours each day to the outdoors or “natural daylight” (like windows).  Outdoor space must have living vegetation.  Hens must be able to nest, perch, and dust-bathe.  Forced molting through starvation is prohibited but beak cutting is allowed.

UEP Certified:  The United Egg Producers is an egg industry group.  There are two levels.  “Caged” hens live in cruel battery cages and get 67 square inches of space per hen – not enough to turn around or flap their wings.  “Cage Free” hens have 144 square inches per hen with some requirements for perching and nesting.  Hens don’t ever have to be let outdoors.  Forced molting through starvation is prohibited at both levels but beak cutting is allowed. 

When Wild Harvest proclaims on its carton that the eggs contained within are cage free, which certifying agency standards are they using?  And which agency is standing behind their claim?  That’s a very good question.  No certification label at all appears on the carton. 

I contacted Supervalu and asked them to identify their egg supplier, to indicate if they participated in any certification program, and a number of questions about the welfare of the hens.  In their initial response, the folks at Supervalu said they would forward my questions to their supplier, but in a follow-up, they told me that they couldn’t provide detailed answers to my questions and instead provided a link to their website that discusses their animal welfare practices.  The information there includes a statement that “SuperValu will support animal treatment programs that are adopted as industry standards” which I read to mean that they support the standards of the UEP, the egg industry group that allows cruel battery cages.  They also proclaim that they’ll transition to 100% cage-free eggs by 2025.  That is certainly a step in the right direction, but bear in mind that the eggs I just bought from Wild Harvest were already cage free (as are “nearly 12 percent of SuperValu’s total grocery retail egg sales”).  And bear in mind the “Cage Free” designation, regardless of which agency is certifying it, still allows for beak cutting, minimal floor space per hen, and does not guarantee that any hen will ever set foot outdoors.  Considering that the Wild Harvest brand exists to cater to consumers who prefer “organic and natural products” this hardly seems good enough. 

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Meet the Flock Roundup - March & April, 2017

Meet Sam! Sammy joined the flock with a bunch of other chicks of a variety of breeds in 2013. Sam was a mystery chick at first - she didn't fit the pattern for any of the breeds and I was totally kerflummoxed as far as what she might be. I should have followed the rule of thumb, that if you don't know what a hen is, she's probably an Easter Egger - since they're not a true breed (they're a cross of any number of breeds with Auracanas/Americanas). Sure enough, when Sam started growing her distinctive (and highly attractive, I might add) ear tufts, I knew for a fact that she was an Easter Egger girl. Later, when she started laying those green eggs, that confirmed it!

Here's another picture of Sam. This is a picture from 2013, right after her first adult molt. Chickens can sometimes show subtle variations in feather patterns from one molt to the next and after this molt Sam had a delicate "necklace" of light gray feather. She lost this attractive feature after her next molt and it's never shown up again!

Here's a picture from Sam's childhood, back when we weren't sure what this little chick was going to turn into. Sam has had a good career as a green-egg-layer and is now in semi-retirement. Last week she started laying eggs again after taking the winter off. She's going into her fifth year this spring and many of her contemporaries have stopped laying for good - I guess Sam just likes to be productive!

Here's a recent picture of my little Silkie roo, Snowball, who is as handsome as he is fluffy. Some Silkie trivia: Silkie feathers are fluffy because the feather strands lack barbicels - microscopic hooks that keep the strands all hooked together in a "feather" shape. Since Silkie feather strands can float freely, it gives the appearance of long fur and allows Snowball to be the stylin' fluffy dude that he is.

Here's a picture of Snowball at about one month of age back in the summer of 2013. Maybe I'm biased but he just may be the world's cutest baby chicken.

Here's one more Snowball picture - from his early youth. He was a couple months old in this picture. Such a cute little guy!

April holds so much promise. The snow is gone. The trees and the ground are bare, but every hen in the flock knows that they will soon be green. Here, Rosa the Red and Jen the Hen snuggle down in a sunny spot in the hen pen while Emile stands guard.

Spring has reached Minnesota in a major way! Everything is turning green and/or blooming. I'm sure the senior members of my flock, who've been through the cycle of the seasons a few times have been eagerly anticipating this. Two of the most senior members are Buffy and Willow the Buff Orpingtons. They're shown here experiencing spring for the first time, a few years ago, on one of the first days they were allowed to go outside. Chick utopia!

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Garlic Mustard: Invading Alien, Delicious Treat, or Both?

In the 1978 sci-fi doomsday flick, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" plant-like aliens take over San Francisco by sending out tendrils that attach to people and digest them while they sleep.  Later a large fruiting pod opens up and an exact replica of the digested human creepily steps out and sets about helping other "pod people" in their nefarious plot to take over the world.  The invading plant aliens basically take over by eating us.  It occurs  to me that the movie plot may have had a completely different outcome if we had eaten the aliens!  Don't be shocked by this.  The pod people looked like us, but they were plants! So eating them wouldn't be cannibalism - even vegetarians could participate! And for all we know those pods would be highly delicious.  Think snap peas, or okra, or peppers - all pods!

Defeating invading aliens by consuming them has been on my mind lately as I continue my ongoing battle with garlic mustard, an abominable invasive plant that happens to be as delicious as its name suggests.   Europeans have been eating this plant for a long time.  Archaeologists have found garlic mustard seeds in food residue in 6000 year old sites in Denmark and Germany.  Sometime in the 1860's somebody decided it would be a good idea to plant this culinary herb in their little garden plot in New York.  That person was no doubt horrified as the plant, freed of it's European insect and fungal control agents, grew rampantly out of control.  Garlic mustard is now considered a tenacious alien invasive species in North America and grows almost everywhere in the US and Canada (map).

Garlic mustard is in the family Brassicaceae, thus is a cousin to common garden plants like radishes, cabbages, and broccoli - and mustard!  It is a biennial, that is, it takes two years for it to become mature and produce seeds. Seeds germinate early in the spring of the first year and grow into a low plant with round leaves by the middle of the summer that vaguely looks like creeping charlie. 

In the second year, the plant shoots up  a stalk, flowers develop on the stalk, and when the flowers fall, they leave behind thin, spiky seedpods called siliques.  Each plant can have 20-50 siliques and each silique contains a row of 30-40 little black seeds.  If you do the multiplication, you will see that each plant can produce anywhere from a thousand to a jiggity-bazillion seeds. Each of those seeds can sprout where they land, or be tracked by wild animals to a whole new location.  With no natural controls, garlic mustard can completely carpet a woodland a few years after it is introduced.  Deer and other browsers think garlic mustard tastes bad and will not eat it.  Instead they browse on the few remaining native plants trying to hold on against the garlic mustard onslaught depleting them even further.  This plant is incredibly destructive to local ecosystems because it crowds out native plant species and destroys habitat and food sources for wildlife.

Second-year garlic mustard in bloom

Garlic mustard gone to seed - note long thin siliques (seed pods)
When I first became aware of this invasive pest, I found that it was already well established in my woods.  It carpeted nearly an acre.  I've been battling it ever since.  While pulling the plant is effective as long as you get the whole long root, I find spot spraying with Roundup to be a better approach because of the sheer volume of plants I have to destroy each year.  Any plant that I allow to bloom and go to seed will send out thousands of seeds to start next year's crop.  By late April, the baby plants are already poking through the leaf litter and the two-year plants are already forming buds. There's not a lot of time to dilly-dally.  

But before I start spraying, I always harvest a bunch of plants to eat, because, this nasty invader really is quite delicious.  If you decide you want to try some garlic mustard, go for it.  It shouldn't be too hard for you to forage.  Just make sure you've got the right plant - there are plants that resemble garlic mustard that are toxic.  Also, be sure to harvest BEFORE you spray, or if you're harvesting from someone else's property, make sure that they haven't been spraying!

Garlic mustard adds interesting flavor to soups and salads, and was traditionally used to season fish and meat.  This year I made my harvested plants into a pesto.

First I harvested a bunch of garlic mustard.  It wasn't hard to find -  a veritable garden of second-year budding plants  was growing on the lee side of a rotting log on the edge of my woods.

In less than a minute I'd harvested a good-sized bundle of plants, which I carried to the house.

I tossed the plants in the kitchen sink, gave them a good rinse, got rid of all the twigs and dead oak leaves jumbled in with the plants, then cut off and discarded all of the woody stems.  I was left with about three cups of leaves, which I spun in a salad spinner to remove the rinse water.

Next I toasted some walnuts.  Traditional pesto uses pine nuts.  They would work just fine with my garlic mustard pesto, but I think the slight bitterness of walnuts works well with the unique flavor of garlic mustard.

I tossed the toasted walnuts into a food processor along with a clove of garlic and pulsed the processor until everything was minced.

Then I added the garlic mustard and pulsed until it was coarsely chopped.

I added the garlic mustard in two batches so as to not overload the food processor.  After it was chopped, it looked like this.

I added a teaspoon of lemon juice.  This small bit of lemon juice came from my freezer. When I juice a lemon, I freeze the leftover juice for later use - I can't tell the difference between the frozen juice and fresh.  I never use the bottled stuff, though; it has a definite "processed" taste.  Along with the lemon juice, I added a teaspoon of salt and a few grinds of pepper.  Then I did a quick pulse to mix everything.

Next, with the processor on "constant", I slowly added 3/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil.  I'm a fan of California olive oil; domestic oil is often fresher than European oil, and California's olive oil evaluation standards exceed those of the European Union.  

Then with the processor off, I added 3/4 cup of parmesan cheese.  I get my parm from Star Dairy in the little town of Weyauwega, Wisconsin.  Star Dairy makes some fine cheese.  I suggest you check out your locality for a cheese source.  There are some great little dairies all over the country.  I pulsed the processor a few times to mix in the parm and the pesto was done!  The final product looked like this:

This pesto can be eaten on crackers or good crusty bread.  Or try it on toasted bread with some olives, capers, and fresh tomatoes for a quasi-bruschetta.  I tossed this batch with some linguine and white beans, sprinkled a little more parm on the top and garnished it with a few toasted walnuts.  First bite:  A little surprising - the basil flavor one usually expects with pesto is missing.  But this has such a nice garlic flavor.  Actually not quite garlic - more like mustard.  Well, actually, more like garlic mustard.  Anyway, it's pretty darn delicious.  

Here's the recipe:

Garlic Mustard Pesto

3 cups garlic mustard leaves
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup walnuts
3/4 cup parmesan cheese
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
a few grinds pepper

Toss the nuts and garlic into a food processor and pulse until they're minced.  Add the garlic mustard and pulse until coarsely chopped.  Add lemon juice, salt, and pepper and pulse to mix.  With the processor on "constant", add the oil.  Add parmesan and pulse to mix.

[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop # 235]

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