The persistence of amaranth….

….or

The Perfect Homestead ________.

The reddish-purple centered plants are rogue amaranth seedlings.

Anyone who is interested in growing their own food (GYO, kinda like DIY only for food) has read the enticing claims in ‘the literature’ – Mother Earth News, Hobby Farms, Countryside magazine, etc. – about wondrous crops & livestock that will transform the drudgery and uncertainty of old-fashioned farming into fail-proof permaculture magic.

Sound too good to be true? Yeah, you guessed it. One thing we learned about ‘dual-purpose’ critters is that dual-purpose means only middling good at either. And some new-to-us crops may have interesting possibilities, but also many irritating realities.

The humans at Seven Trees Farms used to have the luxury of trying out a lot of trendy plants & critters, before the economy got so creepy, and before we decided to turn diversified subsistence farming into a paying venture we tried a few….

Amaranth.

Oh it grows real nice-like. We grew one crop of it, thinking it would be a good supplement for our hens. Only they didn’t like it. We didn’t care for the ‘spinach-like’ young leaves either. And the tiny seeds are too much of a pain to process for human consumption. So we decided not to grow it again. But the amaranth, going on 5 years now, won’t let us go. It still makes up a huge percentage of the ‘weeds’ we clear each spring. It’s got staying power, I’ll give it that. But amazing super-food, not so much.

Chickens. Chickens are an integral part of any homestead, urban or rural. So we searched long & hard for just the right breed. Something that would lay well but also be worth putting in the freezer for meat. The Speckled Sussex seemed to fit the bill.

Meh. They didn’t really lay better than any other breed, and when we had a batch of them butchered (before we started sending them to freezer camp ourselves) they ended up on the scrawny side, and not terribly tender. They also didn’t have the greatest temperament. A bit flighty, a bit fighty. And the roosters we saved out for breeding purposes were brutal.

Goats. Oh goats. Backbone of impoverished nations and micro-farms world-wide. Milk, meat & fiber. Not to mention weed control and pack animals. So we did the obligatory research and came up with the Pygora breed.  A recent cross of pygmy with angora goats, known for their cashmere-like fiber, but touted as a triple-purpose homestead breed. We bought Lassie and had her bred before bringing her home so we’d eventually be able to milk her. Lassie had baby Berry, and still wasn’t a milk goat. Even more troubling is that we discovered that we don’t really like goats’ personalities. They are pushy, greedy, and never stop trying to escape. When they do escape they will eat just the very plants you prize most. The fleece was nice, but we didn’t have time for fiber arts any more, so Lassie & Berry went to new homes.

Then we moved up a notch on the backyard farm ladder. A milk cow. Oh yes, there are now precious perfect ‘miniature’ breeds that live on air in the space of a postage stamp, while providing meat, milk & manure. Well, maybe not exactly, but reading magazine articles about them sure gave us a head full of clouds. After looking into the nitty gritty of keeping a cow in milk (it involves sex, pregnancy & birth) we decided it would be easiest to have a Dexter cow, since there are people with rent-a-bulls in our area. So after a bit of a search, we found Stella, who had a date with Bob, and produced Doug. Of all our experiments with ‘perfect’ homestead critters, I miss having a cow the most. If life were fair, I’d have enough acreage to support a cow/calf, and all day to milk and make wonderful dairy products. Most full-sized dairy breeds give about 10 gallons of milk a day, and hand-milking takes time. Stella gave a bit over a gallon at her peak, and that was with Doug getting half. Not too bad for a small household. But Dexters are an old breed, naturally small, not a modern ‘freak’ like these. Dairy lineage means docility, even in a 1000# horned heifer. Dual-purpose lineage, as with Dexters, means tough, scrappy, and not too thrilled with letting a monkey steal milk from her baby. Eventually Stella figured out she could hold back her milk flow longer than I had time to finagle her. When she didn’t get pregnant that spring, we figured that was that, and let Doug have all he wanted. Stella went to a new home, and Doug went in the freezer. Since we didn’t grain-finish him, and let him roughouse with the steer we added to the menagerie as company, the meat ended up a little ‘robust’ but very flavorful.

We’re still experimenting non-stop, but now more with methods more than breeds or crops. We’ve brought more land under tillage, so we can properly rotate everything to prevent weed and disease build-up. Instead of letting land go fallow, we’re using principles of crop rotation and are planting lots of root veggies that will be hen & pig feed this fall. We’ve also started experimenting with our eating style and have had great results eating ‘primal’. No more grains, refined carbs or sugars, so what we used to grow for our own pantry will be used to supplement the feed of the critters that provide us with protein and fat.

From left to right – tilled unweeded row, ready-to-plant row, just-planted row, and covered cabbage & carrot rows.

After experimenting with various root crops, and reading any pre-industrial farming info available, we’re growing mangels, rutabagas, beets, parsnips, corn, potatoes, beans & squash. They all grow well here, and store well. It doesn’t take much to cook them into a tasty and nutritious mash for the critters. After 7 summers here, it’s nice to have some fall-back no-brainer crops and critters in our aresnal. Hopefully our experiences can help other folks making the right choices for their situations.

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