Thursday April 18, 2013 | 10:22 AM

For a nation that has become dangerously disconnected from its agrarian roots, there sure seem to be plenty of high-end consumer retail companies eager to capitalize off those who want to put it back together. These companies want to “bring sexy back” to your rooftop or backyard in the form of honey bees and chickens, without making consumers think about the consequences of their actions.

The popularity of “back-to-the-land” pursuits is evident in the development of Chicken Coop Tours , increased demand of organic seeds, popular homesteading blogs, the legalization of beekeeping in Manhattan, and the plethora of workshops from butchery to cheese making one can enroll in.

While efforts to shorten the food chain should be applauded, romantic misconceptions should not be promoted and taken advantage of. I’ll be the first to admit I’m relatively new at all this, and learning as I go by luck, pluck and a lot of expert advice. When taking on raising a small flock of chickens, backyard beekeeping and putting in an organic vegetable garden I felt almost smothered with options and recommendations on each and every subject. In the end, what worked best for me was taking advantage of the University of Maine Cooperative Extension’s programs, reading several books on each subject, and then figuring out the most cost-effective and sustainable methods to meet my needs. There is little more satisfying than harvesting your own vegetables, eggs, and honey. If you have the means, and more importantly the time I encourage you to try! The fact is we would all be better off if more of us grew our own food and understood where it comes from, but shouldn’t we have to work for it? Does everything have to be available via the Internet and shipped to your door? Where’s the adventure in that, and more importantly the opportunity to learn?

Stop by your local Paris Farmers Union or Blue Seal store in Maine, and chances are you will find someone on staff who either has livestock experience or knows someone who does that can offer you solid advice and maybe even suggest DIY projects that save you money. Both Paris Farmers Union and Blue Seal also hold educational workshops from time to time on everything from the basics of keeping chickens to canning and preserving

Paris Farmers Union in Bridgton places homesteading books near the entrance.

Inexpensive backyard chicken items front and center at Blue Seal's shop in Windham.

Where I have concerns, is with companies such as Williams-Sonoma that seem to be almost carelessly setting people up to fail with their “sexy” Agrarian line.  Let’s take their beekeeping products for starters. They sell hives and equipment, but provide minimal information beyond the ever so sexy image of you harvesting honey with their stylish new Honey Extracting Kit for $979.95 (FYI, the one from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm is only $425). Their Reclaimed Rustic Chicken Coop & matching run made by hand of reclaimed redwood “combines modern green construction with the rustic appeal of an old barn”…but no where does it talk about daily care, the expense of feed (especially if you want organic feed), etc. etc. I’d have less of an issue if they just stuck to gardening items, because at least that way no animals would be harmed by a potentially ill-trained hobbyist.

While researching this post, I heard stories like this one about a family who found their chickens too “messy” and gave them away at the end of one summer. I heard about hives that had died due to poor management (not just beginner’s bad luck, but complete ignorance/neglect). There was the one about the man who wanted to install a chicken coop on his roof (after all, people were putting hives and gardens on rooftops).

The thing is, there isn’t just lack of information online, there is also bad information being slung at you from book publishers who want to sell you a small flock of chickens and colony of bees. According to Little House in the Suburbs authors Deanna Caswell and Daisy Siskin, “If you get a puppy and change your mind, it’s the pound or a rescue and tons of guilt. If you try baby chicks and goats and change your mind, put them up on Craigslist for twenty bucks and they’ll be gone before lunch. The same is true for rabbits, bees, or any other typical farm-type baby animal.” Well, I suppose it could be that easy. Of course, this is the same set of writers who found a day-long new-beekeeper training event too complicated and thus turned to the Internet for simpler options. Yes, really.

Canning and Preserving
It occurred to me, that lack of information and hearty belief in a beautiful photograph might be dangerous to more than just livestock. After all, canning and preserving have been making a (welcome) come back in recent years (note Williams Sonoma’s Canning Supplies). So, I sat down with Maine Master Food Preserver Allison Carroll Duffy, and had a chat about canning safely.

Duffy's preserving book for Pomona's Pectin is due out this summer.

Beyond being disappointed by a failed batch, what can go wrong when someone doesn't have proper instruction on canning and preserving?

If canning tools are unclean, and/or jars are not sterilized, or if jars are not properly processed, or if jars did not seal properly, there's a chance your canned goods will spoil. Proper sterilization and proper processing will kill microorganisms of concern. If you do not sterilize or process properly, microorganisms may remain in the canned food, which may ultimately cause it to spoil. Additionally, if your jar does not seal (which occasionally happens even when you do process your jars properly), then the food in the jar will eventually spoil if stored at room temperature.

A related canning safety issue that is extremely important is knowing which method of canning is suitable for which type of food. High acid foods (such as jams and jellies) may be canned in a boiling water bath canner, while low-acid foods (such as vegetables that do not include sufficient added acid) MUST be canned using a pressure canner in order to be safe. This is because low acid foods may contain certain microorganisms (Clostridium Botulinum--the bacteria that causes Botulism--in particular) that can only be killed by being subjected to the very high temperatures that a pressure canner can achieve.

So, before trying your hand at canning, it's important to educate yourself in correct, up-to-date canning methods and techniques, and always follow a tested recipe to be sure that you are correctly and safely canning your food.

What are ways an inexperienced canner can simplify the jam-making process?

If you want to make jams and jellies but aren't sure about canning, then freezing is a quick, convenient, and safe option. After you make your jam or jelly, allow it to cool thoroughly, scoop it into any freezer-safe container (leaving at least a half-inch of space at the top to allow for expansion during freezing), and freeze the jam or jelly for up to 6 months. When you want to eat it, simply thaw it in the refrigerator, and continue to store the thawed jam in the refrigerator. It should last in the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks.

Gardening
Here’s where you should experiment – in your backyard, on your roof, windowsill, balcony, or field. Do it on the cheap or invest in beautiful tools. Want to be “sexy” how about connecting with some fruit trees or fruiting shrubs at Fedco’s Annual Tree Sale on Friday and Saturday, May 3-4 in Clinton, Maine. Want to kick things up a notch or two; check out the line of hand-forged garden tools from New England based Ashfield Tools (the birch handles are made in Maine). Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a much talked about line of tools designed in Europe and redeveloped by Eliot Coleman that might also suit your fancy.

On Pinterest, otherwise known as the “online land where time stops” (where I’ve got boards dedicated to homesteading, growing, and this blog among other things), and a great place to get ideas, I discovered the Brooklyn-based online shop Kaufmann-Mercantile and their gorgeous Handmade Japanese Garden Pruners. Curious about their marriage of beauty and functionality, I began digging through their website and reading articles about them. It became clear pretty quickly there was something ethical about this company…they actually demand quality and encourage conversation. Durability is a big issue for them. Their tagline is essentially think heirloom not landfill. According to the store’s representative, they find their products a myriad of ways, and then assess origin, maker, labor, materials, build, aesthetics, the list goes on…Having recently helped prune an apple orchard as part of my Master Gardener class, I wanted to know more about their Handmade Japanese Garden Pruners.

Sebastian Kaufmann of Kaufmann-Mercantile emailed me the following response:
“There are several aspects as to why this pruner was chosen for the KM selection. Japanese manufacturers are very strong in products with moving parts that need to be fine tuned like scissors where a good match between the two blades is important, which is also why the Japanese were so strong with walkmans and SLR cameras because they were able to products these products very well.
Japan has an old tradition of steel production and hardening. This is why Japanese knives are thought after all over the world. In the end, scissors are very close to a knife and rely on the same knowledge.
I also like the product because it's handmade. Most garden tools come from mass producers, and to see someone that puts so much effort into making a tool like this shows the passion behind making such a product.
The product has a beautiful design because of its combination of roughness and imperfection (which is a reflection of it being handmade) and perfection on parts where it matters (there is no roughness on the blades)."

 

Information
In Maine, we are fortunate to have access to workshops, lectures, open houses, and tours put on by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Maine State Beekeepers Association, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association as well as individual farmers. We also have (yes, I’m boasting for them) hands down the best country fair ever in MOFGA’s Common Ground Country Fair. The annual event is scheduled for September 20, 21, and 22 in Unity, Maine this year. My recommendation is go there and talk to people, attend lectures, check out what local craftsmen are making. There’s no pressure to buy, it’s really fun, and you can directly access the craftsmen making the products you might use for one of your backyard pursuits.

Want to do some preliminary research online? Check out the Cooperative Extension pages for Cornell University and Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences (I just referenced their Center for Pollinator Research page for a Master Gardener pollinator garden design project I’m working on.) 

Storey Publishing and Chelsea Green Publishing consistently put out excellent books on gardening, sustainable living, managing livestock…

Ask questions of yourself and the folks who are trying to sell you something. Think about what you are taking on (time, money) and spend some time around people who are doing it. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much fun it is to learn. Good luck and enjoy!

About this Blog

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at kitchens.sharon@gmail.com or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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