May is Transition Challenge Month

Transition Challenge Month, yup. Brought to you by the Transition United States, yup. Clearer now? Until I was asked to teach a Backyard Chicken class for a Reskilling Festival co-hosted by Transition Ann Arbor, I did not know either. Nor had I heard the phrases "peak oil" or "energy descent". But in my humble opinion, the Transition movement is awesome.

Awesome in the sense I am in awe. Committed people walking the walk - building communities through reducing local energy use, reusing materials for building, reducing reliance on new items, educating a new generation in such practices, creating local currency, and (of course) focussing on the role of food (they LOVE local food).

And why? Peak Oil and Energy Descent!

Peak Oil is the term used to describe the point at which "the maximal rate of petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production is expected to enter terminal decline." The exact tip of the bell curve is debated, but most experts seem to agree that the oil that is remaining to us will cost more and more energy to extract (ie it has peaked, but no one is committing to that position). (Offshore drilling or shale oil extraction compared to the bygone days of black gold striking Clampetts for those of you who like visual comparisons.)

A member of the Transition Ann Arbor group 2 years ago shared with me what distinguishes the Transition Towns Movement from the other groups involved in local and self-sufficient food, transportation, and reducing energy paradigms. It is the assumption of energy descent. It is a notion that, to move forward we actually need to ramp down our energy use substantially. Nothing that we have out there, in terms of the green technologies out there is actually going to replace the oil infrastructure that we have right now ... What we want to do is creatively descend in our energy use, not ramp up to try to replace the technologies that oil has given us."

As I type at my computer, surrounded by my digital camera, cell phone, camera, television, and looking out at the streetlights glowing in the rain, I think I know of what she speaks.

This is the month to get involved. There is a national transition challenge happening throughout May focussing on five great areas:

Take food, for example. You can start a garden, get backyard chickens, plant a fruit tree to trade with your neighbor who gets chickens, plant a row for a local food bank (and check out AmpleHarvest to find your local bank!), start a worm bin, make your own bread, preserve (kombucha is delicious!), save seeds, etc etc...

The Transition Challenge in 2011 logged over 1500 actions and the national goal this year is 2012. Register your Action, check out their Action Map to see what is happening around you. Last but not least, did you know that National Potluck Week is May 20-26? Sounds like a  delicious way to celebrate your new dehydrator!

Though I may not be the best at riding my bicycle in the rain, or always taking the extra 10 minutes to hang my clothing on the clothes line - it is nice to know there is a community of people committed to safeguard our beautiful earth and its resources by thinking outside of the paradigm of abundant oil - and dare I say, their calf muscles are all the stronger for it.

For those of you who are still curious to learn more, here is a TED talk given by the co-founder of the Transition Network, Rob Hopkins.

Here is the piece on Real Time Farms!

Reflections on the One Year Anniversary of the Egg Recall

Borden - poached egg on toast A year ago this month, there was a national egg recall. You would think more communities would be welcoming the chicken to backyards as a result. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case - many cities are still mired in debatessimilar to what happened in Grand Rapids, MI last August.

The egg recall of 2010 started slowly. On Aug. 13 2010, Wright County Egg Farm of Galt, Iowa, issued a voluntary recall of eggs due to reports of sickness from salmonella poisoning. According to the egg reporting of Juliana Keeping, the national egg recall was expanded to Michigan on Aug. 25, 2010.

On Aug. 10 2010, Grand Rapids City Commission voted down an ordinance for residents to be able to keep backyard chickens. Several Grand Rapids commissioners argued they needed more information before they could approve the measure. In 2008, when Ann Arbor passed the city chicken ordinance, there were similar points argued around noise, waste pollution and avian flu. As my lawyer friends point out, those three points could be used against my dog and cat (just ask a pregnant woman about cleaning out a litter box). However, my dog and cat don't provide food for the family every day - unlike my chickens.

Though just 3 years since the Ann Arbor debate the backyard chicken conversation already feels antediluvian. In the last year, I had hoped the egg recall would have shortened, nay, rendered meaningless, the backyard chicken debate for our neighboring cities.

Unfortunately, I continue to hear of communities fighting for backyard chickens, losing the right to grow their own food in the face of outdated zoning rules.

Borden - Chickens eating weeds

The urban explosion of the 1920s fueled zoning rules (NYC adopted the first zoning rules in 1916). People left the country and did not want to live next to a slaughterhouse pouring offal into the streets or the noise of a machine shop. Residential zoning rules were adopted to protect home-owners from commerce and animal husbandry. 90 years later, you would think a modicum of compromise and common sense might prevail in our zoning rules - especially in the light of food recalls.

Maybe next year.

Here is the piece on Real Time Farms blog.

(and this is very similar to the piece I wrote last year about the recall)

Ann Arbor Adieu on Annarbor.com

On Sunday, I watched two of my "girls" deflowered by a rooster.

I had been feeling wary of this upcoming event and my role as a chicken pimp, but we had no choice. Either we were going to kill the girls and bring them with us to our temporary rental home in the freezer, or we were going to give them to friends who have many chickens in their flock.

It seemed highly ridiculous that killing a living creature was deemed better than letting nature take its course – so our girls were introduced to their new flock. Five minutes later, two of our girls were ruffling their feathers, seemingly unperturbed by the 10-second coitus.

Saying goodbye to our chickens was the last in a long list of adieus as we leave this wonderful town.

We have lived here six years, and I feel I only know 40 percent of what makes Ann Arbor wonderful, especially in the realm of food.

As food is the only carnal thing humans can do in public, I salute all those who pursue this world. I am grateful to you all. This world of feeding our bodies, our health, our souls.

Here is the article on Annarbor.om

What I didn't write in this article was the sense of vertigo that accompanied the list upon list upon list as we sold our house and left. Leaving a town where one has lived for 6 years, leaving a town where one went through residency, through oncology office visits, and through falling in love (with the food world, with one's husband, with the reality of the miraculous).

Onward to the next adventure!

Cooped up backyard chickens revel in the melting snow

Borden - chicken in coop

I returned Wednesday to Ann Arbor from a week away. I left town with snowdrifts and nary a sight of grass or earth anywhere. I return to puddles, calcifying stalagmites of gray snow forms and soil once again visible in our back garden. The soft breeze and the smell of warming earth enveloped me on Thursday as I went out to open the coop for the chickens.

I am reading Joel Salatin’s "The Sheer Ecstasy of being a Lunatic Farmer," and he describes the joy he experiences moving chickens onto fresh earth. “The unbridled delight these animals express through their demeanor and antics when offered a fresh salad bar is both obvious and palpable. You can feel the happiness in the flock.”

Happiness I felt, and happiness I want to share.

Given the state of the weather and my girls’ unwillingness to venture onto deep snow, there had been very little happiness these past few weeks in the flock. One gets a whole new appreciation for the term cooped up when you open the door to a coop that has been lived in 24 hours a day for weeks at a time. Usually our girls are outside during the day, but not when there is snow on the ground – they don’t like walking on deep snow because their legs are so short.

Our girls knew something was different today. Instead of clustering on the spilled sawdust around their coop door, they all paused – heads high, beaks in the air. One ventured onto my path of trodden snow towards the dirt closer to the house, and, suddenly, a fluttering barrage of feathers and flapping wings launched themselves towards the soft wet earth.

It was a struggle to tear myself away from watching their evident contentment and thrill at being able once again to scratch and dig into earth not covered in snow.

One girl took such obvious pleasure in burrowing into the soft warming soil, I could almost feel the nooks and crannies of my feathers being dusted by the earth.

I know, being human, we have weeks of snow and cold ahead of us. Yet this week my backyard chickens were able to dig in the soil, the pendulum is swinging towards spring.

Their clucking pleasure was a huge gift. I don’t imagine chickens have any sense of time. So for my backyard chickens, the moments of digging and bathing in the soil in our temporary respite from winter this week lasted for eternity.

I can only hope.

Here is the article on annarbor.com.

Why (and how) we killed one of our chickens

(Note: This article contains very vivid descriptions of chicken slaughter.)

According to Human Rights Watch, the average speed of dead poultry moving past the inspectors in a slaughtering plant is 70 per minute. That means in the time it took you to read this last sentence you would have been expected to examine six birds for the nearly 20 listed items the Food Safety and Inspection Service list in their 2009 directive. Whether it be "pulling the cut skin and muscle back [to look for a] "yellow scabbed areas between the skin and subcutaneous tissue...enlarged or reddened kidneys that indicate infection of early sepsis, [or] ...an overscalded carcass." One second per bird is optimistic at best.

This fact, along with many others about the state of our slaughtering facilities in this country, is why I wanted to kill my own chicken.

John Harnois, of Harnois Farms, was kind enough to teach us one fine October day he set up his metal funnel to hang the bird, a tub of water to scald the feathers and a de-plucking machine for after the deed was complete.

Many people I have spoken to about killing birds dispense with the first part of the process, but Harnois explained he felt it more humane to render the brain dead before draining the body of blood.

After placing the chicken upside-down in the funnel, we grabbed its bottom jaw. Quickly before losing my nerve, I drove the point of a sharp paring knife through the upper soft palate into the chicken's brain. After watching the eyes slowly close, my husband took a pair of double-handed pruning shears and lopped off the head.

While we waited for the body to drain of blood, there was a great deal of movement and activity. The bloody neck emerged once or twice from the headless feathers and the legs scissored back and forth. Watching an animal progress through its death throes is not for the tender hearted.

Once the chicken had stopped moving we took it by the legs and dunked it completely in a large vat of simmering water (hot enough to loosen the feathers, but not so hot as to cook the bird). Deemed ready by Harnois when a few feathers came out to his tug, we held the bird over the rapidly spinning rubber fingers of the de-plucking machine for the majority.

Once the feathers were off, the chicken no longer felt to me like the same animal that pecked and preened and stretched in our back garden. The chicken, without feathers, became a biology experiment.

Cutting around the vent and removing the innards was 100 percent benign in comparison to the emotional bracing it took for me to stab a living chicken through its brain.

Yet without the stab, there is no dinner, which is why I stabbed.

Time to Molt!

(In the video you can see the difference between a molting Buff Orpington and one with full plumage.) The chickens have been part of our lives for 17 months now. The patina of the unknown had faded into a routine.

Thank goodness for Mother Nature. Just when I thought all was staid, she sends the message to our chickens: Time to molt. And wow, a molting chicken is a silly looking chicken. The first inkling that something was amiss began at the beginning of November. Though I was unsure as to why, we had been told to keep track of daily egg production by people we trusted. A few weeks ago, our numbers dropped off precipitously and stayed dropped. Three to four eggs a day became one. I am grateful we had been keeping track of production, because it put us on notice to be more attentive to their subsequent behavior.

After a week of decreased production, more feathers were on the bottom of the coop than I had ever seen before. Our chickens also became highly skittish. Whereas before when we brought out treats, they would say hello – some of them even jumping up on shoulders and knees – now most stayed away.

Diminished egg production and loss of feathers could indicate several fowl situations (pun intended). Mites, lice, poor nutrition, general stress or molting were all possibilities. Just when I had decided to read about mites, I was able to catch one of the skittish birds.

According to the Western Australian Department of Agriculture Farmnote from January 1979, “the three main factors that bring about moulting are: physical exhaustion and fatigue; completion of the laying cycle (as birds lay eggs for a certain period of time); and reduction of the day length, resulting in reduced feeding time and consequent loss of body weight.”

Pullets are expected to produce eggs continuously for 11 months before taking a break to build up their bodies' reserves of nutrients. Our girls started laying in late December, so we were right at 11 months. Day length is certainly shorter.

When I was able to catch a bird, I saw pin feathers coming out of her neck – a molt it is! Pin feathers look like short clear straws with tightly compressed feathers tufting through the very top.

“The first plumage is lost from the head and neck, then from the saddle, breast and abdomen (body), then from the wings and finally from the tail,” according to the Australian Farmnote. As we watch for our birds to pass through the stages of molting, we are reminded of our initial adoration for our backyard chickens. It's probably good for us to take a break from eating eggs anyway.

Here is the article on annarbor.com.

Backyard chickens eliminate need for lawn bags

Borden - Chicken eating tomato plants

'Tis the season of lawn bags.

Bags made of paper, emblazoned with the name of the hardware store of choice (or smaller ones from the grocery store) line the curbs of my neighborhood. They are filled to the brim with orange leaves, cucumber vines, yellowed potato leaves or tomato plants. As Ed Vielmetti reminded us, our first frost is imminent and garden preparations are necessary.
According to the A2 City Chickens website, there are 34 chicken permits in the city of Ann Arbor. I believe that as the number of backyard chicken permits increase the number of lawn bags will decrease – because backyard chickens are your lawn bags.

I am a big fan of the Ann Arbor recycling and compost program. It is well organized, comprehensive and a boon to the community, as the EPA tells us: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Hearing that advice my brain immediately qualifies them into first, second, and third levels of importance. Hence, reduce is the top priority. So let us do a list of pros and cons of lawn bags vs. backyard chickens when it comes to garden waste. Lawn bags

  • Paper bags need to be made from trees (or post consumer waste), transported, and purchased.
  • Garden waste is collected.
  • You need two people to effectively cram garden waste into bags.
  • A diesel truck idles around the neighborhood picking up the bags.
  • Garden waste is composted at Recycle Ann Arbor.

Backyard chickens

  • Chickens need to be fed, housed, and watered.
  • Garden waste is hurled over the fence into their run.

Reducing the need to collect and transport garden waste is another boon of having chickens. As an extra bonus you can categorize their favorite treats; so far watermelon and squash rinds are winning over tomato vines in my yard. Here is the article on annarbor.com.

Grandmother's Chocolate Mousse recipe

Borden - chocolate mousse

As always on the lookout for a recipe that will use a lot of eggs, I dug out my grandmother's chocolate mousse recipe. Ten eggs later, it is as decadent as I remember - an easy and delectable treat for you and your guests.

Unlike the plethora of chocolate mousse recipes: from Julia Child to my backyard egg mainstay book, "Eggs" by Michel Roux, this recipe does not call for any sort of dairy or butter. In fact, aside from the eggs, one could consider this vegan.

The recipe is easy and fast. The end result is scrumptious. Imagine eating a luxury dark chocolate bar with a spoon, like it is ice cream.

I procured my baking chocolate from Mindo Chocolates, our bean to bar business in Dexter. The 10 eggs were from our backyard chickens. Water, sugar and vanilla round out the ingredients.

Here is the recipe

1 pound best quality baking chocolate

½ cup granulated sugar

½ cup water

10 egg yolks

3 teaspoons vanilla

10 egg whites

Melt together (in a double boiler) the chocolate, sugar and water. Stir. When smooth, cool, stirring occasionally. Add well-beaten yolks and vanilla.

Beat egg whites until able to hold peaks. Fold egg whites into chocolate mixture. Put in a deep crock or individual serving dishes. Refrigerate at least 12 hours.

(Serves 6-8)

This is what I learned from doing the recipe.

Instead of using a double boiler to melt the chocolate, water and sugar - I used a metal bowl on top of a pot. That worked just as well and was much more economical than purchasing a double boiler. The chocolate is the consistency of icing when you add the egg yolks; there is no need to add extra water to make it creamy. I also learned that egg whites treble in volume when beaten, ending up on the floor. Next time I will use a larger bowl from the outset.Borden - bowl of eggs

As for serving 6 to 8, I cannot imagine wanting to have more than ½ cup of this rich chocolate immersion after a full meal. I divided mine into 10 teacups and six espresso cups (making 16 servings) and refrigerated for 36 hours. I removed the cups from the refrigerator two hours before serving to bring out the flavors.

For those at your table who want something lighter and less intense, I would recommend offering at bowl of whipped cream and perhaps some berry jams. Everyone likes making his or her own dessert, and the chocolate mousse is sturdy enough to be the bass note of whatever dessert compilation is orchestrated.

Here is the article on annarbor.com

Grand Rapids residents could be eating more eggs soft boiled right now

On Aug. 10, Grand Rapids City Commission voted down an ordinance for residents to be able to keep backyard chickens. On Aug. 13, Wright County Egg Farm of Galt, Iowa, issued a voluntary recall of eggs due to reports of sickness from salmonella poisoning. According to the egg reporting of Juliana Keeping, the national egg recall was expanded to Michigan on Aug. 25.Borden - poached egg on toast I am going to take a moment here and state the obvious. What a difference three days can make.

Several Grand Rapids commissioners argued they needed more information before they could approve the measure. In 2008, when Ann Arbor passed the city chicken ordinance, there were similar points argued around noise, waste pollution and avian flu. As my lawyer friends point out, those three points could be used against my dog and cat (just ask a pregnant woman about cleaning out a litter box). However, my dog and cat don't provide food for the family every day - unlike my chickens.

There have been 34 permits for backyard chickens issued in the city of Ann Arbor as of the end of July. Though it has just been 2 years since the Ann Arbor debate the backyard chicken debate already feels antediluvian. Hopefully the silver lining from the egg recall is to shorten, nay, render meaningless, the backyard chicken debate for our neighboring cities.

Here is the article on annarbor.com.

Borden - Chickens eating weeds

Backyard Chickens: Thoughts on our one-year anniversary of keeping hens

Borden - chick on man's hand

I taught a Backyard Chicken 101 class recently at the Reskilling Festival and one question was repeated again and again, “Are they a lot of work in the city?”

The answer is no - they are easier to care for than our cat. Aside from the initial expense of a place to live and the feeding and watering containers, food costs anywhere from $12-20/month (ranging from the feedlot gourmet to organic no soy layer mash), they are not expensive either. We are getting 20-27 eggs a week out of the four girls, which is more than enough eggs for the two of us.

In my experience, chickens take care of themselves. The great benefit to having chickens inside the city limits is that fewer raccoons wander around the urban jungle wanting to eat them.

I have several friends outside of town who “lose” chickens on a regular basis courtesy of hungry raccoons - which is upsetting from a cleaning standpoint and a financial one. Horror stories are shared of being awoken in the middle of the night by a ruckus from the coop. One investigates to realize a raccoon snuck into the coop and is eating a chicken for dinner.

When faced with such a scene - most of the people I talk to say they go back to bed and let the raccoon do what he does. Given the alternative - cornering a potentially rabid animal at 2 a.m. in the dark - I would probably do the same thing.

Though there are more predators in the country, there is also more space for the chickens to wander. One can have roosters and the fertile eggs that result. With more space for chickens one could have varying ages as well - chickens lay regularly for the first two/three years and then their fertility starts to diminish. The eggs are bigger, but laying happens less frequently.

Outside of the city limits one could cull the older chickens, turn them into soup, and allow a brooding hen to hatch the fertile eggs to have new stock join the flock. If the fertile eggs turned out to be roosters, one could cull those as well. Few farmers will accept hens past their laying prime or extra roosters, and it feels wasteful to kill a bird and bury it when I have happily munched on fried chicken in the past.Borden - full grown aracona

The decision we need to make next year is whether it will be time to introduce new baby chicks to our backyard and cull the girls we have lived with for the last two years. If we lived in the country we could let them live, but with the number of restrictions for backyard chickens in the city, that is not possible. Culling our girls involves taking them outside of town to a willing farmer friend and doing the final deed.

As I think about that prospect, my belly twitches. Next time I teach a class on backyard chickens I am going to make sure to include this piece of advice. Don’t name your backyard chickens if you plan on eating them.

Here is the article on annarbor.com.

Preserving Eggs: pickle or pack

Our chickens are laying an average of an egg a day. When the light starts to decline, that rate will diminish. Fannie Farmer’s cookbook was published in 1896 - a good resource to consult for traditional egg preserving methods. According to Fannie Farmer’s section on eggs, there are three ways to “keep eggs. I. Pack in sawdust, small end down. II. Keep in lime water. III. Eggs are often kept in cold storage six months, and then sold as cooking eggs.”Borden - pickled eggs I like her idea of “pack in sawdust, small end down.” I found more references to that method, many of them recommend rubbing the outside of the egg with salted butter to prevent the air entering the egg and packing in anything from salt to sawdust. I am going to collect fresh eggs, rub them in butter, pack them in flour, and see what happens in 6 months as an experiment.

Fannie Farmer’s second recommendation, “lime water,” was made from pouring boiling water over “unslacked lime” - now known as pickling lime.

Pickling lime is calcium hydroxide and it helps keep pickles crunchy. Modern cooking methods recommend that you soak pickles in the lime and then wash it off thoroughly before you put the vegetables into the brine - the alkalinity of the lime can undermine the acidity of the brine and botulism can result. Therefore Farmer’s argument to keep the eggs in “lime water” could be an experiment best left untried. However, pickling eggs, which one could argue is an extension of lime water, is a tradition alive and well.

A month ago, Mike Smith of Solar Refuge Farm was selling quail eggs at the Westside Farmers Market and recommended to me that I pickle them.

I took the quail eggs home, hard-boiled them (with two of my green eggs from the girls) and put them in reused cucumber pickle brine. Today I ate my first pickled quail egg, and I am going to make more. Pickled quail eggs are bite-sized, pleasantly chewy, and have a nice bite from the pickling vinegar. I found the pickled chicken eggs too soft and mushy in contrast to the quail egg’s dense flavor.

The Upper Peninsula of Michigan has a long tradition of spicy pickled eggs as an accompaniment for beer. The tradition is so ingrained that the Michigan Tech Alumni page has a list of various recipes for spicy pickled eggs. According to Mother’s Kitchen the most famous place to get pickled eggs is B&B in Houghton. This recipe is posted on the MTU website and on Mother’s Kitchen.

Ingredients: 2 dozen hard-boiled eggs (peeled)

4 cups vinegar

1 jar sliced jalapenos, including the juice

1 onion, chopped finely

1 cup water

1 tablespoon Tabasco sauce

1 tablespoon salt

Directions: Put peeled eggs in a large glass jar with a lid. Put remaining ingredients in a large saucepan and boil for 10 minutes. Pour over eggs and let steep in the refrigerator for a minimum of 3 days. Serve eggs in a paper cupcake liner with Frank's Red Hot Sauce, black pepper and plenty of the jalapenos.

Pickled quail eggs worked for me because there is only so much brine that I want to ingest. Spicy pickled eggs are a good next step as I work to preserve our summer egg bounty from the girls.

Here is the article on annarbor.com.