The FDA Isn’t Trying To Ban Artisanal Soap.

I’ve seen this and similar articles floating around facebook for a day or two and really need to say something. They make wild claims about corrupt senators, “Big Soap”, and something about forcing us to use “toxin” laden bath products. First off, the FDA is not trying to shut down artisinal soap makers. The FDA is probably in the pockets of anyone with a big enough checkbook(just like we’ve seen in every other department of government), but the senators who co-authored this bill aren’t and have no affiliation with the FDA. They are trying to regulate small bath product producers, but they are also trying to regulate the entire industry in a more consistent and contemporary way.

I read the actual bill and it looks to be a good thing for those of us producing bath and beauty product for sale. Sen. Diane Feinstein D-CA was a cowriter and the text of the bill can be found HERE. Feinstein is a strong proponent of cottage industry and spoke strongly in favor of California’s Cottage Foods Act a few years ago. What she is trying to do is legitimize an industry that already exists in our homes and to give us regulations that will discourage others from barring us from doing what we do. Some of those regulations are simple things like registering your facility every three years so that they can be inspected should a complaint arise. The new law will also allow us to use the FDA’s national product recall registry should we need to, as well as ensuring that we pay the proper taxes to fund said program.

Fat and the Moon is just one small producer who won’t be adversely affected by this law despite selling her products internationally. Click photo for more about Fat and the Moon.

And honestly, I say “we”, but it probably doesn’t even apply to most of us since the gross revenue over 3 years must exceed $500k for a registration to be mandated. That means an individual soap-maker could be making a six figure income off only their home business and would still fall outside these regulations. I can’t think of a relevant one-person business that turns that kind of cash, can you? This bill will mainly affect small business owners who have 2-3 full time employees. These are folks who supply national chains like Whole Foods and Nob Hill Foods with their artisinal bath products, rather than those with a farmer’s market booth or an Etsy page.
The same bill also calls for stricter regulations for big corporations and better labeling practices. This bill seeks to update regulations that are 75 years out of date. For example it sets forth animal testing alternatives, specifically allows for the review of certain previously exempted chemicals, and requires health and safety warnings for adverse affects in not just the general user, but also for specific populations such as children, pregnant women, etc.

I make salves and pomades myself. Check them out!

Personally, I want to see this bill to pass. I hope, now that you’ve got a better understanding of what the bill really says, that you want it to pass too.

Rats!

Rats (excl.) Slang. (an exclamation of disappointment, disgust, or disbelief.)

Rats, rodents, vermin, plague-mongers, bane of my existence. Those of us who keep livestock(and some who just want to grow veggies) loathe these fur-covered, feed-thieving, disease vectors, and they(and their cousin, the mouse) have been known to harrie even the most seasoned exterminators and determined farmers. They eat crops, decimate seedlings, kill chicks, and carry a number of parasites and diseases. And they are infamously difficult to get rid of once they’ve found you vulnerable in any way.

I’ve struggled plenty with what seems like an ever increasing number of rats and I am praying for a wet and cold winter to bring them back down to a manageable population. In the mean time I have tried just about everything to get rid of them. I’ll give you the pros and cons of my experience with various methods I tried and there are a few at the bottom of the article which are still on the roster.

 

Methods I have tried:

 

1. Classic snap-traps

PROS: Cheap, natural materials(wood and steel), non-toxic, minimal environmental impact.

CONS: They didn’t catch a single rat and all the bait was cleaned off each night, however I have heard from others who had great success

CONCLUSION: conditional recommendation

 

2. Glue Traps

PROS: cheap, non-toxic, pre-baited, easy to set in small spaces

CONS: They didn’t catch any rats, but they did catch my dog. Otto tried to eat the peanuts off of it and it got stuck to his face, which he then tried to scratch off, so it stuck to his paw. He was covered in sticky goop and panicked.

CONCLUSION: Would not recommend

 

3. Tomcat II Refillable Bait Station

PROS: pet, chicken, and child-safe, low risk of secondary toxicity (bromethalin)http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/rodenticides.pdf

CONS: risk of poisoning to other animals, possible secondary toxicity to raptors and chickens, rats were not very interested in the bait station blocks caused inconsistent results

CONCLUSION: Results Mixed, conditional recommendations

 

4. Tomcat II modified bait in homemade bait station (mixed bromethalin pellets with chicken food in a bowl under a crate with weight on top)

PROS: rats very interested, effectively killed 1-6 rats per day

CONS: risk of poisoning to pets and livestock, possible risk of secondary toxicity to raptors and chickens, must be refilled daily and removed before letting out pets and chickens

CONCLUSION: Good results, conditional recommendation

 

5. Coyote Pee – 33-day dispensers

PROS: non-toxic, low environmental impact, supports zoos and rescues, natural deterrent, so far this seems effective in my chicken run

CONS: expensive, may attract coyotes, smelly, may aggravate pet dogs

CONCLUSION: Deterred rats for only a few days, would not recommend

 

6. Plaster ‘Grapes’ (made from plaster, oil, and peanut butter)

PROS: non-toxic, low environmental impact, easy to make, cheap

CONS: slow death for rats

CONCLUSION: unquantifiable results, no harm if ineffective, recommended

 

Other methods I have not tried:

Hire the Mongrel Hoard, a team of human and canine ratting experts who work with you in your property for several hours to eradicate rats. Rate is $75 and a 6-pack of beer, but he doesn’t recommend his service in urban areas since rats usually travel between smaller properties.

Some people also claim that barn-cats can be very effective with rats, however this is a heavily debated topic as others believe that cats will only go after mice and have no interest in rats. Unfortunately, with three people who are severely allergic to cats in our house, it isn’t a method I can test.

I have also been told that Havahart humane animal traps are very effective at catching rats. The downside of course is that you then have to dispatch those rats yourself.

 

Obviously prevention is the best way to go about controlling rats, and any deterrent measures should go hand in hand with removing the attractants like accessible feed, produce, and places to hide. And don’t make my mistake. If you find a nest of adorable baby rats, don’t leave them for the elements. Momma-rat will come collect them and raise them up to terrorize you for your mercy. If you must, find them a home, but whatever you do, don’t just let them go because you’re too much of a bleeding-heart to kill fuzzy babies. You’ll regret it. I certainly do.

 

Is there a method that I have not listed which works for you?

Please share it in the comments!

Chicken Math and the Story of How I Ended Up With 18 Chickens

A little over a year ago I was given a pair of bantams by a friend who couldn’t keep the cockerel. They were a beautiful pair of Mille Fleur D’Uccle bantams. We used to have chickens when I was a kid, but the coop was pretty run down. These bantams were never going to lay much and we had gotten hooked on the idea that maybe we could raise chickens for eggs. With me working at a feed store, that seemed the natural next step. So I signed up to get three chicks in the next order. Three layers seemed perfect for a four person household that didnt go through a lot of eggs.

My little cousin Lotte collects Eggs for the first time.

My little cousin Lotte collects Eggs for the first time.

On chick day I went in and discovered that there were two more chicks that hadn’t been claimed so I went home with 5 instead of three. No big deal. Especially since one of the turned out to be a rooster a few months later. Before we even knew he was a roo, he had been dubbed with the prophetic name, Dinner. That’s just what became of him since we already had a rooster we loved.

Shortly thereafter, a friend had to give up his elderly hens because he was moving. Thus 6 became 10 because free chickens don’t count, right?

Lilo

Of those four new ones, two were bullies to my bantams so they went right back out! but it turned out soon after that I had been mistaken and it was actually two other ones that were bullying my little ones. Meanwhile my mother had discovered the existence of black orpingtons and was totally in love so as I reduced my flock yet again, I started a search and found someone who had one, along with some other special breeds I was in love with. We intended to get three birds from her, but there was a discount if we get four! So four it was. Back to 10 birds again.

Black Orpingtons have the most beautiful soft iridescent feathers.

Black Orpingtons have the most beautiful soft iridescent feathers.

Life was grand and the flock was noisey. We got complaints about the rooster crowing so we were finally and tragically forced to get rid of the little man who started off our grand chicken adventure. We were heartbroken and to salve our wounded hearts, we put fertile eggs into an incubator in hopes that his progeny would live on in our flock. We decided to make room for them and culled our flock down to 4 again, but 21 days is a long time to wait and in that time I arranged for 4 pullets from a friend who is a show bantam breeder. Two cochins and two silkies to keep my one bullied bantam company.

My new fawn Old English Game Bantam looks almost like a little dove.

My new fawn Old English Game Bantam looks almost like a little dove.

7 little ones hatched! Hurrah! A couple weeks later my pullets are ready for pickup and I head out to his coop-yard. I fall in love left and right and 4 becomes 7.

 

So heres the math:

2 free birds + 3 chicks= 7

7 – 1 rooster=10

10 -2 bullies= 6

6 + 1 orpington= 10

10 – 1 rooster= 11

11 + 4 bantams= 18 chickens in my flock!

 

I think that makes me officially chicken crazy.

Kip loves to sit on her brood-momma's, Georgie's,  back.

Kip loves to sit on her brood-momma’s, Georgie’s, back, and Georgie loves my lap!

Shrooms in Bloom

Almost a year ago, I took a class from the Mushroom Maestros, Patty and Ray, in which we learned all about cultivating edible mushrooms at home. The class focused on simple to grow everyday edibles including oyster mushrooms and king stropharia. It was actually the third time I had taken a workshop from them because they proved to include new info each time and I always got to go home with a kit to grow something. This workshop focused on not just the growing of the mushrooms themselves, but also on the propagation of mycelia and production of inoculation spawn.20140813-135410-50050075.jpg

The first two times, my kits proved prolific, often producing three or four full flushes of fruit before petering out. The third class took a different focus, so instead of coming home with a straw-based kit for fruiting out on (like the one pictured above), I headed home with several jars of fresh mycelial spawn and rye pucks for propagating mycelium on my own time.

20140813-135618-50178126.jpg

I few weeks later, when my spawn had fully grown out, it happened to rain, soaking the strawbale we were supposed to use as chicken bedding. Without much thought, I used a pick-axe to gouge a couple holes in the bale and stuffed it with oyster mushroom spawn. It being the late fall, I had assumed it would rain again, giving the mycelium the moisture it needed to run, but to my chagrin, we saw instead the driest winter California has had in over 150 years. Nothing ever came of that inoculated bale and being well into the summer I just assumed it had dried out too much for the mycelium and that other more drought tolerant molds had outcompeted it.

So, of course it was to my delighted surprise that I was greeted by a big flush of fresh oysters growing out around my corn and kale when I went to water the bed the other day! I had used the bale to create a small hugelkultur bed by digging a bale shaped hole, dropping it in, and covering it with the native clay soil and a few bags of freecycled chicken manure compost.

20140813-135520-50120144.jpg

I’m an enthusiast, but certainly no mycology expert so I’m only guessing here, but I think the boost of nutrients from the manure must have given the mycelium what it needed to finally fruit out. I know that many mushrooms, including oyster mushrooms like to grow off manure, but generally oysters prefer wood. One of the flushes came out around a stake that had been supporting bird netting, and I made sure to leave the moldering wood in the ground when I cut out the mushrooms. One of the others encapsulated a robust little kale plant while the some appeared to fruit simply from exposed straw.

Suffice to say I’m thrilled to have such a bounty come from what I thought was a dead end project repurposed for veggies. I’m hoping to add some wood chips or logs to this bed in the fall in order to encourage the continuation of mycelial growth in my garden.

20140813-135548-50148437.jpg

 

An Important Comparison

I’ve mentioned before that mushrooming can be tricky business. Knowing what you’re picking and the key differences between look-alikes can spare you a lot of grief and sometimes even save your life. A little while ago I went mushrooming and found both Chanterelles and Jack O’ Lanterns, a frequently mistaken look-alike.

Note the color difference between Chanterelles(left) and Jack O' Lanterns(Right)

One differentiator between Chanterelle and Jack O’ Lantern is the color. Jacks have an olive-y tinge to the cap and more so on the gills. It isn’t always as obvious as it is here, especially when you’re only holding one of the other, not both. However, when cut, Chanterelle flesh is always white, while Jack O’ Lantern flesh is never white and usually a brown or grey tone though very fresh specimens sometimes lean towards golden brown flesh.

The gills on Chanterelles(left) and Jack O' Lanterns(right) are very different

Though at first glance the gills on both kinds of mushrooms don’t appear to be a great distinguishing characteristic, second inspection shows that Chanterelles (left) have dull, shallow gills which sometimes crisscross or end short. On the other hand, Jack O’ Lanterns have blade-like gills which run deep and while they do branch, they don’t cross.

Another difference between these two mushrooms is that Chanterelles grow in duff while Jacks grow on dead wood. This is not to be relied upon as a key difference however, since dead wood can often be buried and may not be visible despite still being the host for the Jack O’ Lantern’s mycelium.

I am not a mushroom expert and I don’t pretend to be, but these two indicators of a look-alike can go a long way to save you several days of serious misery when it comes to hunting for and consuming wild Chanterelles. Both sets of mushrooms pictured here were collected on the same day on Mount Tamalpais. They grow in very similar areas, and both smell sweet and mushroomy, but they are distinguishable with practice and careful attention.

*Please note that I am not an expert at mushroom foraging. Please refer to the links in the text along with the book Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora  for more comprehensive information on mushroom identification and collection. Thank you.

More beer! My favorite!

The ancient Sumerians were probably the first people to record their beliefs in written word. They settled the Sumer region around 4000BCE and like every other polytheistic religion, they had patron gods for all the major parts of life: sky, sun, moon, stars and of course BEER. Scholars theorize that beer was in fact being made as long ago as 10,000 years ago and has only grown in popularity since.

Now Colin and I are taking part in this long lived tradition and it’s slowly taking over our life. Making beer is a bit like having another pet in the house. It needs to be fed, kept at the right temperature (not too warm or cool), and cleaned up after. And these beasties do make a mess!

Sanitation is critical for healthy fermentation

Cleaning is how every batch of beer starts and ends. All equipment needs to be sanitized meticulously to be sure that foreign bacteria and yeasts don’t infect your brew. Colin and I have been using IO Star to clean our equipment but after a trip to the brewing store with our friend Paul Wheeler (The same lovely fellow with whom I went morel hunting.) we’re considering switching to Star San.

Paul informed us that Star San can be reused for months on end so long as it is still foamy when agitated. While we usually use the iodized water from sanitizing our carboy to them clean our other equipment in a bucket, using Star San, we could then siphon the water from the bucket into another carboy to sanitize weeks later.

The only downside to Star San is that when it is stored in plastic, the container will eventually get a slimy texture and Paul is not sure whether the plastic is dissolving or not so its better to store in glass or metal. For now, we’re still using IO Star because it’s what we have around.

 

Brewing boys prepare the wort

The project we started on August 4th was the second kit that Colin and I purchased last month at MoreBeer! in Los Altos. I am in love with dark malty beers, beer so thick and rich you have to chew them as I like to say. So, while the Honeyweizen that we started with a few weeks ago is a great beer, I am much more excited about the second project: Chocolate Oatmeal Stout! Stout beers are characterized by their dark color and usually by a slightly higher alcohol content. Most stouts carry a coffee, chocolate or molasses flavor from the steeping grains and should have a creamy mouth feel. I added some unsweetened cocoa powder to my mash which will hopefully intensify that chocolate flavor.

Colin diligently takes note of every step.

This kit was a partial mash. What that means is that unlike our last project, part of our flavor and sugar came from whole grains rinsed in sparge water instead of from extracts and though the kit already contained some cocoa, I opted to add an extra ounce because I’m a total chocoholic.

Sparging is rinsing the mash(grains for sugar) slowly to extract the maximum sugar and flavor.

I sparge grains while while Paul heats more water.

There are many sparging methods requiring different types of equipment. The way we did it is the most affordable way of doing it because it uses things found in almost every kitchen. After starting our wort with a 2 gallon mash, we put the bag of mashed grains into a colander over the brew pot. In a separate pot, we heated another 2 gallon of water and used a large cup measure to slowly pour the 170°F water over the grains. The efficiency of extraction with this method is not very good, but we didn’t have the set up for anything more complex.
The product of our brewing was a dark and syrupy wort that smelled mouth-wateringly malty and chocolatey. (After cooling our original gravity came to 1.058 — a little low for the recipe but within the called-for range.)

The Brewing boys supervise the wort chiller.

So, remember last time when we took for freakin’ ever to cool our wort? And we had to do it in a bathtub with 20lbs of ice? Yeah, we fixed that by getting a wort chiller. A wort chiller is a long hose with a copper coil that you set in your hot wort. One end of the hose is screwed onto the tap to run cold water directly through the liquid without diluting it. The other end lets the heated water run back into the sink. It had the happy side effect of roping the brewing boys off into a little corner of the kitchen where I could watch them from the table. Ah, to brew with a view. :]

Colin siphons cooled wort into a clean carboy.

When it came to pitching the yeast, we got pretty caught up in the funky texture of the it. The kit had come with one tube of White Labs English Ale Yeast (WLP002). It seemed to have the texture of curdled milk and wouldn’t dissolve into its liquids no matter how much I shook that little vial. Even Paul, a veteran compared to us newbie brewers, had never seen a yeast look like this. We were worried that perhaps it had spoiled so we did some quick research.
As it turns out, this is characteristic of the strain of English Ale Yeast that White Labs sells. It has a freakishly high flocculation which can make the primary fermentation a little slow, but will mean a very clear beer after racking. So in it went!

Siphoning requires diligent cleanliness to avoid contamination.

Once it was in the carboy and the yeast was pitched, we moved the carboy into the craft room next to the Honeyweizen. Paul showed me a neat trick to get an idea of how your beer is doing; Knocking on the settled beer (Honeyweizen) makes a clear bell ring but the new proto-beer makes a dull clunk because of suspended matter in the liquid. It’s not a perfect measure of how far along your beer is, but I thought it was pretty cool.
Beer was active by second day in fermentation but had no froth unlike the hefe. Yay, Beer!
*NB: It’s one week later and we’re having some trouble very slow fermentation. As it turns out we should have made a yeast starter or pitched two tubes for the gravity in this batch. Brewing Classic Styles has an equation to determine pitching rates on page 289 that we didn’t know about until today, so I’ll be making a run to Oak Barrel to get more yeast and some nutrient to give it a bit of a boost.
One last thing before I sign off. I got some comments from people about how distracting the shirtless man in my last entry was you folks, this last photo is for you!

Gratuitous shirtless hotties!

The Brewing Begins

I’ve been wanting for a long time to brew my own beers. The house I lived in a few years ago was full of students and post grads, several of whom loved brewing beers and ciders (with mixed results). A friend of mine from the renfaire is also a homebrewer, though he’s much more serious about his craft than most of the hobby-brewers I know. Seeing his apartment full of everything brewing, stilling and steeping really got my juices flowing and last week Colin and I finally started our own project.

It took us a while to collect all the supplies: carboy, airlock, racking cane, siphon hose, blow-off tube, grain bag, giant pot, and giant whisk. Brewing takes a bit of an investment. Fortunately Colin is as enthused by the project as I am and he was happy to procure the necessary equipment for us. By the way, Smart and Final sells huge pots for a lot cheaper than any brewing store I’ve seen so far.

Our friend tipped us off to a big sale and brewing event at the MoreBeer! store in Los Altos and we headed down to see what we might learn there. It was very crowded, but the staff was helpful and the firt thing I grabbed was Brewing Classic Styles by Zainasheff and Palmer. The book came highly recommended and was helpful in choosing our first project. Originally we’d been told to choose something easy like an IPA, but becasue neither Colin nor I like IPAs, we started looking for something else. Among the book’s recommendations was to begin with an extract recipe or a partial mash recipe. The shop had a wide variety of interesting kits which included all the necessary ingredients for many different beers and were all rated by difficulty.

Honeyweizen

Colin falling asleep next to our brewing set up.

The batch we have underway now is a Honeyweizen made with grain extracts. The hardest part was honestly cooling thewort without a chiller. We started the project a lot later in the day than we intended and it took us til past midnight to cool our wort to an acceptable temperature for pitching the yeast. Next time we start before 8pm, okay?

Its a week later now and we took a gravity reading- a measure of the dissolved sugars/alcohol. (The wort had an OG: 1.053 and the sample we took at 7 days was at 1.016 for those who care) Fermentation is progressing well and its already pretty tastey. It has a little more of a banana flavor than I’d really like, which might be becasue the temperature is holding closer to 70°F than 68°F like we actually want it to. Reading into wheat beers we’ve found that lower temperatures are supposed to help prevent that, but since we have no cooling for either carboy alone of the room it is in, there’s nothing to be done about it.

Pitching the Yeast: We're almost done for the night!

Since its our first batch we’re not sure if it’ll need to go as long as the recipe calls for if we want a Finishing Gravity of 1.010, but we have a friend coming over on Thursday to take a look at it and help us with our second kit: a partial mash oatmeal stout.

Other projects in the near future are a peach beer, a blackberry melomel, Nocino(also known as walnut wine) and a Mandaricello already on the liquor. Look for an update on this project and others in my next entry. Cheers!