The Good Life
A regular column by Ami Hillege
Otway Fields is our little piece of paradise!
Two years ago, we were a pair of city slickers who found a beautiful spot in the Otways where we could carve out a more meaningful life of being as self sufficient as possible. We said goodbye to lattes, traffic and smog. Instead, we grow much of the food we eat organically and raise our own beef, keep chooks and a few ducks.
The transition to living on a small farm has been exciting and at the same time we’ve experienced a steep learning curve. Town for us is around 25 kms away, so popping in for a single item is not an option. Instead we make lists of supplies we need and add any other ‘town chores’ and make the trip once a week. Instead of visiting large shopping centres with gleaming tiled floors and loud hollow sounding music, our favourite store in town has become the local co-op. What an interesting shop! Horses bridles, sheep drench, fencing kits, lime for the chook shed, gum boots, bread flour… yes… bread flour!
I buy large bags of organic flour and have been making our daily bread ever since we came to the country. I make our own bread because it’s always fresh on the day, it’s a lot cheaper than buying bread, there are no plastic bags to get rid of and most importantly, there are no preservatives in it. Oh, and it is delicious! There’s nothing like a loaf of soft, warm bread, served with a handful of garden herbs and a hunk of goats’ feta. And if we’re lucky, there will be a little pot of honey from our hives to accompany this treat!
We had so many items on our list of things to do when we first arrived. There were vegetable garden beds to construct, bird netting to be built over the kitchen garden, a greenhouse to organise and animals to be purchased. As we slowly worked our way through our list, we armed ourselves with as much knowledge as we could. We attended courses on composting, organic farming and took part in educational farm visits organised by the Landcare Group. We met locals who were happy to share their tips on raising animals, fixing farm equipment and even helping us to buy our first cows.
I had a dream list of all the vegetables and flowers I wanted to grow. The list was long, and probably a tad unrealistic. So I set about planting seeds and seedlings that would give us food first. Flowers took a back seat. The vegetable garden beds took priority. Frans did have one request. He wanted sunflowers. We created a long garden bed along the north facing wall of the old barn. We used the easy ‘cheat’ or ‘no dig’ method. We first laid down a row of flattened cardboard boxes and gave them a good soaking. On top of that we shovelled a good layer of three way mix, gave the soil another water and planted the seeds. Then we sat back and waited. I planted the sunflower seeds in early December when the ground was warm. A few weeks later, we had a dancing row of beautiful sunflowers lining the old barn wall. Sunflowers have now made it onto the list of ‘must haves’. They look pretty, the bees love them and the chooks get to feast on the seeds when they have come to their end. I make sure I save a few handfuls of seed for the next sowing.
We decided early on that we would keep chooks for eggs and meat. However, the meat part was probably more of an idealistic dream. The egg part was easy. We started with a small flock of pullets and waited for them to start producing eggs. We inherited a few more old hens and have never been without our own eggs. We have some weeks where the production is a little low. To be honest, about half the hens in our current flock are living out a luxurious life of free range retirement! A friend who runs a kinder in Melbourne hatched 9 baby chicks. Once the chicks were hatched, they needed a home for them. So we were the lucky ones to bring them home. It took a few weeks for us to identify the hens from the roosters. We knew we were approaching our goal of eating our own chicken meat. The roosters had to go.
Our first foray into slaughtering our own fowls was a couple of drakes. We’d been given three ducklings and they all turned out to be boys. We swapped one Pekin drake with our neighbour for two of his female Moscovy ducks. We put the new girls with the two remaining drakes and left them to it. A few days after the newcomers joined the males we noticed that the ducks spent most of their time on top of their cage where the drakes couldn’t reach them. (the ducks could fly and the drakes couldn’t as we’d clipped their wings). Every time they needed to get down for water or food the drakes would attack them with gusto. It was horrible. The poor ducks were getting battered from all sides.
We separated the ducks from the drakes and put them with the chickens in the chicken pen. There, a new pecking order had to be established too, but the ducks could at least fend for themselves a little better. This left us with a dilemma. What do we do with the drakes? We decided that we would have to do away with one. Frans had the unpleasant task of despatching the remaining drake. A big pot of water was put on to boil while the bird was sent to duck heaven. It was then dunked in hot water and plucked. The feathers flew everywhere. Finally the bird was cleaned and gutted. The liver was the only offal we saved. I created a divine duck liver and mushroom pate’ with brandy and sage. The drake was too old to roast and I had no idea how tought it would be, so I chose a Chinese recipe where the bird was poached for a few hours in a delicious broth, then served with a chilli and coriander salsa and rice. The result was sensational. Note: Stray duck feathers are sharp and can cut your finger! There is something decidedly special about caring for your food and then eating it. . Would I do it again? Well yes. And so the next time we had to repeat this task, we were a little more experienced and a little less horrified.