Not deferential enough: The homesteading life

Posted Wednesday, January 30, 2013 in Opinion

Not deferential enough: The homesteading life

Courtesy Better Hens and Gardens ... mine don't like the snow at all.

by Gina Hamilton

Down at Turning Tide Cottage, it's been pretty cold for the last few days. Now this is not something that should come as a surprise to anyone; after all, it is Maine, and it is winter, and every few years, we do get some below-zero weather, even on the coast. Lucky us.

St. Kitts is looking better as a winter home all the time. But I digress.

Because of our quaint and curious lifestyle, in which we attempt to live both as Mainers might have done when Maine became a state in 1820, and as we expect that Mainers will live in a hundred years, really cold days and nights mean we get down to basic survival, for ourselves and our livestock.

But we're pretty new at this game, so knowing how our livestock will handle things is a learning process. 

For instance, I fretted about the chickens this week. They have a cozy little coop out back, and Chris and I, some time ago, cobbled together a heating system for them, which is basically their heat lamp from their brooder, hung above their wee heads, not too far from where their water is. We invested in Plymouth Barred Rock hens, which are a heritage breed designed to be cold-hardy; they're the kind of chickens the Pilgrims had or something. They're black and white and look like they're wearing herringbone coats.  Very stylish. They're also relatively friendly as chickens go, and tend not to get too broody, so it's easy enough to get their eggs from under them. 

So we HAD planned appropriately for cold weather with our flock. But it was SO cold. Should I bring them in? Should I cover their coop with comforters? Bringing them in would have been a truly major pain in the keister; I'd have had to bring in the small coop that we used for brooding the chicks, disentangle their heat-lamp assembly, carry six unhappy hens, one or two at a time, over treacherous ice, about 100 yards or so from the back of the house through the front door, bring in their food, water, bring in bedding, and try to keep the dogs away from them while they were guests of the manor. 

Don't be ridiculous, my chicken-raising friends said. They're livestock. They're supposed to live in the coop, which you have made cozy for them. Definitely do not cover the coop with blankets; they need air circulation.

My chicken friends said to deepen their bedding a little and bring them some warm oatmeal in the morning, and get some sleep, for heaven's sake.

They were right, and I was feeling pretty sheepish in the morning, when all the chickens were hale and hearty after a below-zero night in the coop, and had produced the typical number of eggs anyway. And they really liked the oatmeal.

I imagine the same would be true of goats, miniature dairy cows, pigs, or whatever barnyard life the farm may one day support. But it's hard not to think of livestock as ordinary pets, as much as one is encouraged to do so. They aren't, of course; they're food, or they produce food, and while their needs must be considered ... after all, they are one's livelihood, in a sense ... they're not parakeets or puppies or goldfish. They're closer to being apple trees or grape vines or tomato plants. 

I doubt I'll ever be able to think of my animals that way, but I would feel bad if one of our apple trees perished in the cold, too, especially if it was bearing and we had no bacon to smoke with the wood at the time.

Trying to keep the house warm is just as challenging. We heat with wood down at Turning Tide Cottage, except for a small kerosene heater that we use when the weather really turns bitter. Over the course of the really cold temps, our pipes, which we had taken great care to keep warm, froze anyway. The hot-water pipe to the downstairs bathroom had a connector that broke, and we are trying to find a plumber who can come and fix it now. I went down into the root cellar to make sure said kerosene heater wasn't setting the whole house on fire, and found steam shooting out of one part of the pipe while the other part remained sullenly frozen. After finding and turning off the hot water to that part of the house (and thanking lucky stars I found the disaster at all), I discovered that I had lost a lens from my eyeglasses, and spent another cold and wet 20 minutes searching for it. 

The dishwasher drain pipe has frozen, too, which means that I am washing dishes by hand for the duration. 

And then the kerosene heater we were depending on needed a new wick. Despite my best brave attempts to change it myself, I finally hauled it over to Lowe's and got them to do it for me, while watching carefully so I should be able to do it myself next time. It's just not as simple as it seems.

Things could definitely have been worse in the cold snap, but they could have been easier, too. There are, as always, lessons learned. It's all part of homesteading in Maine, and it's going to get more intense as the Turning Tide Cottage sustainability project progresses. 

Still, the chickens would probably love St. Kitts. Who am I to deprive them of a needed winter getaway?

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