It’s been too long

So, two seasons later…

Looks like I’ve been neglecting this blog for a little bit too long. Yes, winter’s actually been pretty busy for all of us here, but that alone probably isn’t a great excuse for me not to post. I could have taken a couple hours one day. So my apologies. Here’s a summary of what’s been happening lately, and upcoming projects here at Snow Lake Keep.

Houses going up, waaaay up

An and Rodney are each building their own houses this summer, and that is very exciting. They will both have concrete foundations, with built-in rainwater-fed cisterns, and employ timber-frame construction (same as the barn and the other houses here). The timber logs have already been felled and are awaiting milling in the mill-yard, which begins next week.

An, who just became a full member of Snow Lake Keep this past equinox (woo-hoo!), picked a house site on the right side of the lane after you pass the mill-yard and workshop:

An's house lot cleared of saplings and brush

Excavator preparing An's home site

An's freshly dug home site

To clear their site and acquire their building materials (and winter’s fuelwood), An’s sure been getting some practice with the ol’ chainsaw:

Lumberjack An on their timber log

An's firewood is really piling up

Wesley hauls timber logs out of the forest

The spot that Rodney picked out for his house is perched up on the bank, on your left as you approach the mill-yard, directly above what’s currently one of our goat pastures. You can’t tell from these pictures, but he scored one of the best ocean views on the property.

The road to Rodney's house site

Rodney's house site getting excavated

While we had the excavator here, we figured it wouldn’t hurt to dig another pond, below the current one. We’ll show you pictures of the end result once it’s all filled up and looking fine.

Back-hoe digging a hole for our second pond

An makes a friend and gets busy with fur and potatoes

In January we welcomed An’s new partner, Jeremy, to Snow Lake Keep. Jeremy’s helping out on the farm in all kinds of ways, and has been a big help to An, too. Together they’ve been coming up with house designs, tanning hides, and now, selling latkes (potato pancakes) at the Saturday market in Annapolis. Expect to see them at our booth at the summer market, too!

An and their new partner in crime, Jeremy

An and Jeremy keeping busy with hides

An's beard seamlessly blends into ginger cowhide

Chef An set up with latkes at the winter market

Rodney spends time with draft horses

Over the winter Rodney has been spending a lot of time with draft horses owned by our neighbours, Sally and Howard. Rodney, with our friend Rick’s help, has been getting to know the horses and getting some practice training them to wear harnesses and pull small loads. Eventually, Rodney would like to see us start using draft horses to haul logs out of the forest so that we don’t need to rely solely on a tractor to do that work. Horses do much less damage to the land, are not directly dependent on polluting fossil fuels to operate, and have much more interesting personalities.

Rick leading Captain in harness

Rodney convincing Captain to pull him in the dark

Deryk’s keeping busy

Deryk has a lot on the go this year, from planting his new blueberry field to helping build the two houses on the farm as well as construction and carpentry projects off-farm. For the blueberries, he cleared a spot in the forest just down from the chicken run, where he’s already begun to lay down brush to start his hugelkultur beds:

Hugel-beds started in Deryk's new blueberry field

Upholstery, coding, and cabin building

Laire got a part-time job doing upholstery with our neighbour, L.G., at her shop down the road, Cottage Upholstery. I’ve gotten pretty busy doing website development for various clients over the winter. At home, Laire and I finally finished building our bathroom and have managed to tackle a few other interior carpentry projects as well. We’ve got plans to build a little A-frame bunky in our backyard this spring, called Triangulaire. Our good friend Adam is supposed to come back to the farm in May, and will hopefully spend the summer here. We’re hoping he’ll help us build Triangulaire, as it’ll give us another spot to accommodate guests, like Adam!

Maple syrup, baby goats, and cheese!

We tapped all our trees for sap some time ago, and have gotten some good sap days, but the yield hasn’t been anywhere near as good as last year’s. It’s just been too cold, for the most part. Still, we’re doing our best.

Maple syrup getting bottled

Probably the most exciting development, recently, is the addition of four new baby goats – Prue, True, Lunch, and Rug. I think they’re best described through pictures and a video.

Cocoa's baby Prue

True, Prue's brother

Prue up close

Cocoa's babies True and Prue

Lunch looks like a puppy

Sissiboo's baby boy, Rug

Mocha with her boy, Lunch

Rug up close

Now, kidding season isn’t all rainbows and unicorns, sadly. The birthing process alone can be stressful, especially for those of us with little to no experience. Baby goats sometimes don’t figure out how to latch onto their mother’s teat soon enough on their own, and that was the case with Delia’s kid, Latchie. A few of us took on the task to help her learn how to drink her mother’s milk. After a couple days, we felt that she’d finally figured it out, and Latchie was doing it on her own.

But then one day, when nobody was around the barn for a few hours, Latchie managed to squeeze through a surprisingly tiny opening in the gate of Delia’s pen. She couldn’t figure out how to get back in. Cam, who was visiting, and I found her huddled up in the corner trying to stay warm. We did whatever we thought we could to try and save her. Cam spent a while feeding her Delia’s milk with a syringe, first in the barn then up at the house. But, she was probably too far gone already, and she didn’t make it.

Tragedies like this one can happen on the farm. But, move on we must.

With four of our does now lactating like crazy, we’ve suddenly got lots of milk to deal with. So we’re getting busy again making cheese, yogurt, and soon, butter. Here’s a new cheese I’ve been experimenting with, called Valançay. It’s a soft chèvre curd, normally formed into pyramid shapes (except I don’t have cheese forms of that shape, so these will have to do), then coated in ash and aged in a cheese cave (root cellar, in our case) for a few weeks. It starts off looking like this:

Valençay from above

Valençay, in progress

Over time, it starts to look like this (at least on our farm it does, where the common blue-cheese mold, penicillium roqueforti, must be particularly abundant):

It got pretty good reviews by those who ate it, even though it doesn’t have that nice pure white rind that it’s “supposed” to.

See you at market!

As usual, we’ll be at the Annapolis Royal Farmers’ Market when it opens on Saturday, May 20th. Until then, catch An and Jeremy at the Winter Farmers’ Market and savour some of their hot, delicious, locally sourced potato latkes!

Homesteader’s wildcrafted sugar

This spring we’ve seen what may be one of the best maple syrup seasons in years. The forecast for this season was that it would be a short one, considering how early it started and how little snow was on the ground. However, the weather has been rather perfect for the last couple months, and we’ve been getting sap runs virtually every week since we tapped back in February. We saw our peak run only last week. This is in stark contrast to last year, when the farm probably had the worst season ever.

Path to sugarbushPath to sugarbush

Shown above is the trail we walk to get to the mature sugarbush we have on site. It’s actually been a mostly snow-free season here (the opposite of last year, when we had four or more feet of snow in most places); I took the above shots after one of the few snowfalls we had.

We collect sap in reused 4-litre water jugs as a means of both saving money and keeping the plastic out of landfills and the downcycling industry for a little while longer. They work very well for sap. They obviously don’t have the same longevity as galvanized sap buckets – over time little holes form as a result of handling and UV degradation – but so long as we can get them for free (which, mostly, we do), it makes a lot of sense.

Recycled jugs for collecting sapTwo-tap tree

Many of our taps are the traditional metal taps, which we’ve acquired over the years from various sources. However, when we run short, we have simple homemade taps that Deryk carves out of branches of the right diameter – just sticks with a hole in the middle for the sap to run through. They seem to work just as well as the metal taps. On collection days, we take a walk through the sugarbush, emptying the sap from the jugs into 4- and 5-gallon buckets.

Homemade sap tapEmptying jugs into buckets

Now, until we build an evaporator (maybe based on a rocket stove), the only means we have for boiling down sap is on our wood-fired cookstoves. There are three active households on the property with wood stoves that are running anyway, for heat and daily cooking. So each time we collect sap we try to cram it all into pots on our respective stoves.

Fresh sap heating on stove

The sap boiling does make for an extra-warm, extra-humid environment indoors. Thankfully, we have windows we can open and layers we can strip off, as needed.

Boiling sap ready for testing

After 2-4 days of simmering and boiling (depending on the amount of sap collected), we end up with something that’s dark and very sweet – increasingly akin to syrup. The volume of syrup often seems shockingly less than you expect… but such is the nature of maple syrup! A sap-to-syrup ratio of 40:1 is typical. The best way to test the syrup’s readiness is with a candy thermometer – when the liquid reaches 104ºC, it’s syrup.

Unfortunately, all the candy thermometers on the property have bit the dust, so there’s another cool way to test: the apron test. To test, dip a spoon or spatula into the boiling sap, then pull it out and watch how the liquid drips. If it drips as individual drops, the sap isn’t boiled down enough yet:

Drip test showing single drops - not readyDrip test still showing single drops

When the syrup aprons off the spoon – that is, drips off in a sheet – that’s when it’s ready to be bottled:

Syrup runs off spatula in a sheet - ready!Drip test confirmed - syrup is ready!

If you boil past the syrup stage, the syrup gets too thick and may crystallize in the jar. But if you don’t boil it enough, it will not preserve properly (it could ferment).

Before bottling, and while the syrup is still very hot, we pass the syrup through a sieve made out of layered scraps of wool sweaters to clarify it and reduce the amount of sediment that collects. Felted wool would be even better. Commercial filters are made either out of wool or synthetic materials, but for the home syrupmaker, that’s not necessary; old wool sweaters work like a charm.

Filtering syrup through old wool sweater

Then I bottle the syrup in bottles that have been sitting in hot or boiling water. It’s not really necessary to sterilize your bottles. If you don’t, a thin layer of harmless mould may form on the top surface of the syrup over the course of its storage, but you can just skim that off. It’s good to have your bottles hot, however, to prevent breakage due to the temperature difference when they are filled with hot syrup.

Old liquor bottles work great for maple syrup. Deryk’s favourite choice is Kraken Rum bottles since they have cute little handles. I just used an old scotch bottle. Ta-da!

Finished syrup