January on the Homestead

Harvesting Brussels sprouts.
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I haven't given monthly updates on our homestead happenings for quite a number of years, but this year, I'm picking it up again for one particular reason: I'll be tracking how much produce comes from my garden all year long. I'm doing this for a number of reasons. One is that I like to periodically track expenses and outputs on our homestead - a sort of financial "check up." This way, I can either say with certainty that homesteading makes financial sense or I can take steps to make it more efficient. (I can't think of a time when I've done this sort of tracking and determined a project wasn't financially worth it; but there have been plenty of times that I learned homesteading was saving us money. For example, when I tracked our expenses for egg laying chickens.)

When I announced this tracking project on this blog's Facebook page, some people's immediate reaction was to say that gardening isn't about money. While I agree there are lots of important reasons to grow your own food (better quality, truly organic produce with more nutrients and better flavor, being more self-reliant, getting outside more, etc.), the money aspect is an important to many people, including me. And I can't tell you how many times someone has given me the excuse that growing food costs "too much." It's true that getting your garden started can cost some money (although it's a mistake to think you have to spend a lot; no till methods, in particular, can be very inexpensive), I know from past experience that it still saves money at the grocery store.

In fact, in 2013, I tracked what I grew in my small suburban yard and learned that I conservatively saved $1,492 that year on produce and eggs. Today, I have a considerably larger garden, plus an orchard, plus grocery prices just keep going up...so I expect to save much more.

Here's how it's going to work: Every time I harvest produce from our homestead, I'll weigh it and log that figure. At the end of the month, I'll look at prices at my local Walmart (it's what we have here!) and figure out how much I'd have spent to buy that food. In 2013, I only looked at conventional produce prices, because even though the food I grew was organic, we certainly couldn't afford to buy organic. Even though that's still true, this year, just for curiosity's sake, I'll use both conventional and organic (if available) food prices.

I've also been asked to track how much time I spend gardening, which I will do. (Although I'll say upfront that I've always considered every dollar I save by gardening at least a dollar less I have to earn through money-paying work.) I don't expect to have much in the way of store-bought expenses going into the garden, but I'll also track what few I have. 

At the end of the year, I'll add it all up and see how much money we saved. All in all, it ought to be interesting! See the bottom of this post for this month's totals.

In other news, January has mostly been a time of working on our house (an endless project, since we bought it unfinished), and organization. However, I also butchered chickens for the first time in many years.

Harvesting collards and kale from the winter garden.
When we replace an aging flock of chickens, normally we purchase sexed chicks locally or through the mail. But this fall, we decided to take a neighbor up on his offer of free fertilized eggs. His flock is very mixed, so the resulting chickens are "barnyard mix" (i.e. mutts). Well, of 15 chicks that hatched and survived, 11 were roosters. Ha! So we decided to butcher all but one of the roos. (Why? Because that may roosters will beat up each other - and over-mate the hens. Plus, we have chickens for eggs; we have no reason to feed chickens that don't lay.)

There was some confusion about how butchering day was going to work. I thought my hubby was going to butcher and I would assist, since that's how we did it over a decade ago. He thought I was going to do all the butchering (as I do with rabbits and quail) and that he'd assist. Ahem. In the end, he caught and dispatched the roosters and I did the rest. I wasn't terribly well prepared for that. Umpteen years ago, all I did was help remove the guts...and my hubby didn't have a strong recollection about how to butcher chickens. Thankfully, I'd watched a few butchering videos the morning of dispatch, but I would have done more research if I'd known I was relying on myself for all the butchering knowledge. Anyway, long story short, I got through 5 roosters before we ran out of time.

Previously, we'd decided to try skinning these birds. One reason for this was that we didn't have propane for our turkey cooker, which is where we scald birds. Another was that we HATE scalding birds; it's so nasty-smelling! We also aren't fans of plucking by hand or with the plucking attachment we have for an electric drill. (I understand an expensive plucking machine might make things easier, but remember, we rarely butcher chickens, so we've never purchased one.) Also, we aren't huge fans of eating chicken skin. Plus, we thought it might be easier and faster to skin rather than pluck.

The bird on the right is my first try: Pathetic! On the left is the 5th bird: Much better!

The first bird was a real struggle, I don't mind telling you, I thought whoever said skinning chickens was easier was a cruel prankster! But by bird #5, I had figured some things out and I do think I like skinning better than plucking. Was it faster? Eh...probably about the same - although once I have the skill down better, it might go more quickly.

A lot of folks on Facebook wondered why the meat was so reddish. This is not because I didn't drain the blood from them. There are actually several factors at play here:

One is the breed of chicken. Commercially-raised meat chickens, and even most meat chickens grown by homesteaders, have naturally pale meat. However, the chickens I butchered were not a meat breed.
Another factor is feed. Birds given only commercial chicken feed tend to have pale meat compared to birds that forage for food like bugs.
Finally, exercise is a factor. Commercially-raised chickens are abnormally heavy, plus they are confined, so they get little exercise. My chickens are not free-range (because they'd be eaten by predators instantaneously), but they have a large yard to run around in. 
For my tips on skinning chickens, see this Facebook post.
5 birds, resting before eating or preserving.

January Produce Totals:

At this time, we're mostly eating produce that I preserved last year. Even so, I do have a winter garden and we do eat fresh food from it during the cold months, as listed below.

Collards and Kale: 5 lbs. 

------------> $29.60  organic or conventional (I was shocked they were the same price at our local Walmart!)

Brussels sprouts: 6 lb. .06 oz.

------------> $24.24 organic, $18.06 conventional

Snow peas: 10oz. 

------------>$4.71 organic, $3.21 conventional

Saved in January:

$55.55 if purchased organic or $50.87 if purchased conventional. Not bad, considering I've spent ZERO time gardening since fall!

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