Wednesday, October 21, 2009

All the World's Creatures Wanna Be Free

I mentioned a few posts ago that I was taking a series of trainings in Backyard Food Production for master gardeners. One of our last sessions was on beekeeping, a practice I want to take up at some point in the future. The beekeeper presenting the session concluded by advising, “Enjoy your bees. Observe them; learn from them.”

I thought to myself, that’s been my approach with my chickens. Observing them, seeing what they need, and trying to make it available to them. In my August post, “
Home on the UnFree Range,” I wrote about the early part of that journey – the way the baby chicks sought sunlight, even in their artificially lit brooder, how they went crazy over a piece of turf we put in their brooder, and how I eventually decided to take not yet three-week-old babies outside, despite contrary advice in the literature and from conventional farmers.

I never solved the central problem, however, of the chickens wanting and needing space and freedom. “When I decided to raise chickens,” I wrote, “I never really thought through what that would entail; that I would essentially be keeping caged birds.” I had managed to give the baby chicks more space and freedom, but that was fairly easy, given how small they were at the time. We also enlarged the coop and run, beyond what the designer and other sources claim is adequate. However, I am still confronted with the problem of allowing our chickens “a measure of the freedom all creatures need for their health and well-being.”

Clearly, they are communicating their desire and need for more space and freedom. Every time I so much as step out the back door they go crazy running up and down the front of their pen, banging their beaks on the wire fencing, wanting to get out. Our house is built into a slope, with the front entrance at ground level, and the back entrance at the top of the hill. There is a small deck outside the back door, with steps leading down to the yard and a lower deck. My herb garden is just off the upper deck and the chicken coop at the far end of the bottom of the yard. I so hate to disappoint my girls I’ve taken to sneaking around whenever I want to clip a few herbs for something I’m cooking. I carefully open the back door to avoid making any noise, creep to the herb garden, and crouch low to harvest some leaves.

It never works. As soon as I step a foot out the door, they go wild.

I’ve made it a point to let them out in their tractor every day, which they enjoy. But, as I wrote in the earlier post, when they were little, “their tractor was spacious to them and they could run and fly the length of it. Now they just walk around.”

What I’d like to have is some sort of temporary fencing system that I could put up in different parts of the yard to allow them more space, but keep them from destroying the garden and pooping all over the two decks and the steps. We had a roll of four foot high galvanized fencing in the garage, so I decided to try to use that to set up a temporary fenced area. But it was heavy to lug out there and I needed Rick’s help to set it up.

Next, I bought some plastic netting. Folded in half, we were able to set up a 4 ½ foot high fenced area, with some of the netting hanging over the top. The first day we set it up just outside their coop. They loved it. As I suspected, the only reason they just stood around in their tractor now they were bigger, was lack of space. Inside the larger enclosure, they ran and hopped and flapped their wings.

But the extra space didn’t stop them from looking for ways out of the largest enclosure they’d ever enjoyed. Amelia, a Barred Rock who is our first and best flier, attempted to fly out – and would have made it if not for the bit of netting hanging over the top. The netting is hard to see and she momentarily got her wings caught in it. It all happened in a few seconds, as we stood staring, unable to move. As she freed herself, shook out her feathers, and walked away, we breathed a sigh of relief. I threw a chunk of hay in to distract them, and they were pacified for several days.

The following week, I set up the netting in a different place, and let the hens out. Only this time, I was too lazy to put rocks around the bottom edge of the netting. I didn’t notice a place where the netting was pulled tight, leaving a gap at the bottom. But Batgirl, our other Barred Rock, lost no time in finding it. I turned my back for just a few seconds, and the next thing I knew, she was in the nearby strawberry patch, chowing down on some pretty leaves. While I tried to catch her, Tracy, one of the Rhode Island Reds, slipped out.

Belatedly, I blocked the gap, before anybody else could break free, then turned to catch the jailbreakers. By now, Batgirl had moved on to the raspberries, even jumping up now and then to get a bite of an especially attractive leaf. Lots of good things to eat out here!

Eventually, I caught them both, and secured the perimeter of the fence. Now, however, all the chickens realized that escape routes did exist, and they kept poking and prodding the area along the netting where the escapees had broken free, bawking loudly the whole time.

Yesterday, I again set up the netting, this time carefully securing the bottom of the fence. Before long, I heard wings beating loudly and turned to see Batgirl clear the 4 ½ foot fence! The rest of the chickens and I stood frozen in disbelief for a few seconds. If Amelia is our best flier, Batgirl is our best escape artist. This marked the third time she’d broken free. Tracy is the only other chicken to have succeeded in escaping, and she’d only made it once.

I threw some cracked corn into the fenced area, hoping to distract the other birds, who were already looking at the top of the fence, and I’m sure, contemplating an attempt of their own. Usually they go nuts for the cracked corn, but this time they just turned, watched it fall to the ground, then turned their attention back to gauging the height of the fence. Fearing they’d all start flying over while I was occupied with chasing Batgirl, I decided to herd them back into their pen first. They struggled and protested the whole way, and who could blame them?

After I caught Batgirl, I was worn out dealing with them for the day, so I took down the fencing. While I was taking it down, they stood at the door of their pen, pleading with me. It’s hard for me to describe their different sounds. They have a quiet, contented clucking sound when they’re scratching, a loud bawking when we come outside and they want to be let out, a continuous guttural sound when it seems like they’re trying to talk to us. This was sort of a whiney, less noisy, bawking sound. I felt like a meanie.

So, what’s the solution? I need to come up with one fast, because yesterday, before all the drama, I noticed dark, reddish, black spots on Amelia’s previously perfect comb. My first thought was that they were from scraps with another chicken. But they usually don’t fight. So my imagination took off and I started worrying about disease.

After consulting with a few people at Backyard Chickens, however, it seems my first hunch was right. (Since they never fought before, I wonder if the problem, at least in part, is linked to their starting to lay, and perhaps not having enough nest box space for that.) The posters at BYC also seemed to think that space is tight in our coop and pen, and, as we know, close quarters contributes to pecking problems.

I don’t disagree; if I had it to do over again, I’d build a coop and pen twice as large as the original plans we purchased. We’ve already enlarged both, but it’s clearly not enough. We could give away one chicken, but I don’t think I’m ready to do that. I’m instead going to face up to a solution I’ve been avoiding: clipping their wings.

I hate to do that, even though it doesn’t physically hurt them. I feel badly about truncating a defining feature of a bird. I think I also resist it because forces the recognition that we are keeping birds in captivity. And I’m still working through my feelings about that.

If their wings are clipped, they can regularly and safely enjoy being out in a larger fenced area, and still have a good life. Can’t they? It’s not really possible to “free” domesticated animals entirely.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Snow Birds

The weather is turning and we’re heading into a new stage with the chickens – keeping them safe and sufficiently warm in winter. I know they don’t have to be “toasty” warm, and that, in fact, it’s not good for them. They generate a lot of moisture, and keeping them too warm in an enclosed place promotes disease. But it can get pretty cold here in Wisconsin, and we don’t want to freeze the poor birds. So, what do we do?

I thought I had this all worked out when we started the chicken project. We chose Dennis Harrison-Noonan’s playhouse coop design, in part, because we heard that small numbers of chickens can best keep warm in a small coop. My neighbor, Jill, who got her chickens a year before I got mine, said the breeder told her essentially the same thing: that it’s best to keep small numbers of birds in a small coop because they will generate enough body heat to keep a small space sufficiently warm.

With this design, we hoped it wouldn’t be necessary to heat the coop. Heat is problematic because, in addition to disease, chickens are more vulnerable to frostbite in humid air (warm air holds more moisture) than with cold dry air. I talked to an experienced chicken keeper from Mad City Chickens who advised against ever heating a coop in winter. Both she, and our poultry extension specialist, stressed that the birds are a lot hardier than people think.

I also deliberately selected breeds that I thought would be able to handle cold weather. Barred Rocks and Rhode Island Reds are large breeds that were developed in the mid-19th century in New England. If they could tolerate a New England winter in the days before electricity, surely they could tolerate a Wisconsin winter, I reasoned.

However, the more I read and talked to people, the more doubt began to creep in. My neighbor from Oaxaca, Mexico, whose family kept chickens when she was growing up, inquired about my plans for the chickens in winter; would I bring them into the house? She stared at me in horror when I told her they should be fine in their coop. My sister Sandy, who has lived in southern California for nearly three decades, had a similar reaction. I told Sandy that another chicken keeper in Madison told me the most her chickens required was a 60 watt bulb on the very coldest nights. “Those poor chickens!” she exclaimed. “Huddled around just a light bulb for heat!” Clearly this bordered on animal cruelty, in her mind.

My dad’s partner, Wilda, whose mother raised chickens when Wilda was growing up in Arkansas, was also skeptical that chickens could survive a Wisconsin winter outside with little or no heat. I pointed out that 19th century farmers didn’t have electricity to heat their coops and somehow seemed to manage. Wilda claimed that was because the chickens were kept in barns in winter, with other large animals that generated heat. Wilda also observed that a smaller box, like our coop, would freeze faster than a larger building.

I had to admit that Wilda made some good points. Then our friends John and Barb stopped by. They are Wilda’s age, and they, too, grew up in families that raised chickens. However, they grew up in Wisconsin. “Aaah, they’ll be fine!” John said reassuringly, when I fretted about protecting my chickens in winter. The chickens on their parents’ farms managed to survive in unheated coops (not barns with other animals). They don’t recall it ever being a problem.

I started to detect a pattern here. Many people from warmer climates find it hard to imagine themselves tolerating a Wisconsin winter, let alone chickens in outside coops, with little or no heat. The pattern is even more obvious on the Backyard Chickens message board. Some posters from southern climes think they need to heat their coops when temperatures barely get down to freezing, while posters from Canada and Alaska insist that chickens can healthfully tolerate far colder temperatures than one might believe.

These northern posters calmed my fears considerably. My only remaining concern is the size of our coop. A poster from Ontario, “PatAndChickens,”
argues persuasively that in colder climates, larger, not smaller coops are preferable. The reason is that chickens will spend more time indoors during winter, and you want to provide them enough space to move around and not get into fights. She advises sectioning off a smaller area within the large coop, where the chickens can warm up.

So, what did we finally decide to do?

* Coop Size. We can’t rebuild the coop now, so instead we’ll treat the fenced area as “coop.” After some research, posting with Pat, and talking to our extension agent, we decided to put plastic over the north and west sides of the pen. This will provide a windbreak and keep most of the snow out of the pen. In addition to protected space in their pen to move around, Rick expanded the roost box one foot into the pen.

* Heat. Rick insulated the coop (with "stupervision" from the chickens - see photo above). The original design didn’t call for insulation but both Pat on BYC and our poultry extension agent advised it. (After we’ve been through a year with the chickens, I’m writing a post on “lessons learned” in coop design!) We’ve also oriented the coop so that the largest window faces south. Hopefully, the coop will gain some heat from the sun in winter. The most electric heat we plan to use is a 60 watt bulb, but we’ll monitor the girls and hope we don’t have to resort to that.

* Ventilation. I’ve learned that ventilation is crucial to protecting poultry in winter. Luckily, our coop design provided for ventilation holes at the top of the roost box. The poultry extension specialist advised leaving the pop door partway open in winter for additional ventilation. (We left it wide open, day and night, during summer, but had recently been closing it.)

It’s been our practice to daily remove droppings beneath the roost bar. In summer, they were right on top of the bedding because the chickens went out into their pen in the morning, and never returned until dark. That made it easy to remove this source of moisture in the air. They’re in and out more often now, kicking the droppings under the bedding, so we’re going to install a droppings board beneath the roost bar.

Tracy inspects the remodeling.

* Roost bar. Some sources advise a 2x4, rounded at the edges, rather than a round bar, for chickens in winter climates. The wide bar allows the chickens to sit on their feet and helps to prevent frostbitten toes.

* Diet. Finally, our poultry extension specialist advises giving the chickens scratch before bedtime in winter. Apparently, it helps to warm them because it gets them moving and scratching to look for it, and provides something substantial for them to digest overnight.

Hopefully, all these strategies will help to keep our birdies healthy in the cold days ahead.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Odds & Ends: Seed-saving, Compost, & Eggs

Seed saving. There’s a terrific post and comment thread over at the Oil Drum on seed saving. It’s a goldmine of tidbits on hybridization versus open pollination, sources of information on how to save seeds, which seeds you should save (e.g. vegetables or staple crops?), the benefits of slips over seed potatoes for that crop, and experiences and techniques of people who are actually doing it. I was especially intrigued by this method of saving seeds (in a comment sent via email to the original poster):

You can take fruits (like squash, melons, tomatoes, etc.) and bury them in your garden to sprout in the spring. This approach not only saves you the effort of saving seeds (collect, clean, label and store) but also of planting. When the time is right, they will sprout and you will get plants.
What a great labor-saver! Especially given that saving seeds from tomatoes is a bit of an involved process. Ruth Stout would have loved it. The comment from which that quote was taken included a website with more information and videos:

Speaking of Ruth Stout, several comments in the Oil Drum thread mentioned Masanobu Fukuoka’s book One Straw Revolution. I’ve requested it from the library, but haven’t received it yet, so I don’t know first-hand what exactly is his method. But apparently he developed a method similar to Ruth Stout’s (that I wrote about
here) – a no-till, no weeding, year-round mulch system that produces high yields. (Stout called her method the “no-work garden;” Fukuoka called his the “do nothing” technique.) One poster included links to YouTube videos of a garden inspired by Fukuoka’s methods that so impressed me I want to include them here:

I’ve already taken lots of notes from the Oil Drum thread, but there’s more to glean, so I’m planning to go back through it sometime this week-end. It’s really that useful; I highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in gardening.

Update on compost tumblers. I’m currently taking some specialized training for master gardeners in backyard food production. It’s a mixed bag – some useful information and some frustrating limitations. Last week’s training on compost is a case in point. The instructor discouraged the use of tumbling composters (that I
advocated in an earlier post). He instead advocated building compost piles directly on the ground, so that the multitudes of beneficial micro-organisms and nematodes (including worms) could access it.

Someone in the class pointed out that the reason people liked the tumblers was the ease of turning the compost. Were there no beneficial organisms in the finished product? he asked. There were some, the instructor conceded, but not as much as one would find in compost from a pile built directly on the ground. You need the full diversity of organisms to make great compost, he insisted.

Couldn’t you just include a shovelful of soil in the compost tumbler, to achieve that goal? another master gardener asked.

Well, maybe, the instructor allowed. But you don’t know how good the soil is that you’re putting in there. It would have to be high-quality soil.

Which led me to wonder, how well would we know the quality of the soil upon which we’re to build the compost pile? He’d already told us that he had an advantage, since he could look at samples under the microscope and see whether all the desired micro-organisms were there in sufficient quantity.

The only compost he felt he could ethically recommend, he said, was, coincidentally, I’m sure, made by a company he was affiliated with. He even discouraged us from using free compost from the county because it was improperly made. He correctly pointed out that their piles were built in such a way that they over-heated, and that compost was taken from those piles for use before it was finished.

One woman asked whether she could take free compost from the county and tweak it somehow to improve it? She was in the process of building a large system of raised beds and could not possibly afford to buy the amount of compost she needed from the company he recommended.

No, he said, that could not be done.

He was so rigid in his quest for the scientifically perfect compost that his recommendations were impractical for most people. He then instructed us on the proper construction of a compost pile, although, he said, we could never produce in our yards all that we would need for our gardens. We were to start with a bottom layer of twigs. The next layer would be greens – garden trimmings. Next layer – browns, dried oak leaves were his preference. Next…

At this point I was wishing Ruth Stout was alive and sitting in the class so I could get her reaction. I imagined she’d nearly fall down laughing. Then, she’d dry the tears of laughter from her eyes, and patiently explain in her Quaker way, how to avoid all that senseless work, and still get high yields from your garden.

I think her spirit was in the classroom. Someone asked, if the bottom layer is twigs, how do the beneficial fauna get up into the compost pile?
Well, he explained, they were already on the twigs and branches. Then wouldn’t they already be on twigs and branches thrown into a tumbling composter, I wondered?

Why bother to make all those layers, another master gardener asked, when they’ll all be mixed up the first time you turn it?

Our instructor admitted this was true, but had no good answer to the question.

My take-away from all this? If you’re using a tumbling composter, make sure to add a shovelful of good soil, including worms, to ensure the best product. That’s it.

Eggs! We’re getting eggs regularly now, although I’m pretty sure only two of the four are laying. I do know that the Rhode Island Red our granddaughter Alexis named Tracy, and that we thought would be one of the first layers, is in fact laying eggs. I saw Tracy go into the nest box to do the deed the other day.

We’ve eaten some of the eggs already. We cracked the first one open into a glass dish so I could look it over before we cooked it. The shell was stronger and slightly thicker than those we buy at Whole Foods. The yolk and white were perfectly formed, so Rick scrambled it and we shared it. It was delicious – richer and creamier than eggs from the store.

But here’s the thing: I’m having a little trouble eating those eggs. I have to swallow them down fast and try not to think about it too much. Not because of the flavor or texture – those are just fine; excellent, in fact. I guess it’s just knowing where those eggs came from. I don’t know how to explain it, and I know it’s illogical.

It’s especially surprising, considering I’ve eaten eggs from backyard hens before. Years ago, when we lived in England, a friend of mine kept chickens and gave me eggs from time to time, and I had no problem eating those. But I never took any interest in those chickens or even really came into contact with them. So I guess I could disassociate those eggs from their origin. I think I’ll get past this soon; I sure feel silly about it. But there it is.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

We Got Our First Egg!!!

We got our first egg on Sunday!!! Rick was out at the coop in the afternoon, at about 1:30, preparing to insulate it for the winter when he found the perfect little pullet egg you see in the photo above. (The egg in my left hand – right side of the photo – is a large egg from the supermarket.)

He ran into the kitchen (where I was canning pizza sauce) to show me. “It’s still warm!” he said excitedly. I was so thrilled, I went crazy for a few moments and started running around like, you know, a chicken with its head cut off.

“Let me feel it! It IS warm! Do you know who laid it? Where was it? In the nest box? You gotta take a picture! Go quick! Put it back for the picture. No, wait, come back – I’ll get the camera out of the office! Oh, it’s sooo perfect!”

Later I went out to praise the girls. I’d been telling them every day lately that we need to start seeing some eggs. I never thought I’d be the kind of person who talks to chickens, but apparently I’ve taken a turn. I think they try to talk back, too. Whenever they see us, they start up the noise. Not the quiet clucking they do when they’re scratching in the dirt. It’s a kind of continuous guttural sound. When we talk to them, they try to get up to eye level by jumping up on the roost of their tractor, or on the ladder to the coop if they’re in the pen, and they keep the noise going.

I'm wondering which one did the deed. A few weeks ago, Amelia, one of the Barred Rocks, appeared to have the most developed comb and wattles. Tracy, one of the Rhode Island Reds, was not far behind. But just lately, Tracy suddenly seemed to pass Amelia. I could probably figure it out by checking their vents, but I think I’ll let the girls keep their mystery for now.

Food Preservation: Do or Die

As part of my Backyard Nest Egg project, I’m back to canning. It’s interesting to me how I’ve come full circle. In the early years of our marriage, three decades ago, I started my first garden and learned water bath canning, in part, to save money. Now, although we’re financially much better off, I’m back to gardening and canning, partly in response to current economic conditions.

I got started canning back in the early 1980s with the help of my friend Pam. Recently divorced from an Army sergeant, Pam was my age, and like me, had a preschool-aged son. Pam refused to get a job before her son was old enough to go to school full-time, so she went on welfare and found other ways to make ends meet. (It probably wouldn’t have made economic sense for her to go out to work anyway. At that time, neither of us had any education beyond high school. Her low wages would have been eaten up by daycare expenses.)

Pam’s dad kept a huge vegetable garden, and in exchange for a share of the produce for herself and her son, Pam did all the canning and preserving. A resourceful woman who grew up in Tacoma, Washington, where we lived at the time, she knew - and taught me - where to pick wild blackberries, apples, and pears from abandoned orchards. We made pies and canned jam and applesauce for our little boys.

From that beginning, I expanded my repertoire to include strawberry jam and tomatoes from my garden. After a few years, however, life got busier; between work and college, I had less time for food production, and besides, we had a little more money. Why go to all the trouble to grow or forage food and preserve it? We had moved up, we thought.

Fast forward to last summer and the start of my Backyard Nest Egg project. I bought a pressure canner and canned pizza sauce made from tomatoes and basil I grew myself. We savored pizza made with that sauce all winter. The aroma when I opened a jar was amazing – nothing like any of the commercially prepared sauces I’d bought over the years. So it was a worthwhile project, even though it was a lot of work.

Moreover, it required saving up enough tomatoes for a batch. This can be a challenge with a backyard plot. Many traditional canning recipes call for large quantities of produce that a home gardener will not have all at one time. I got around that last year by blanching, peeling, and freezing my paste tomatoes whole, as they ripened, until I had enough for a batch of sauce.

So this year I was thrilled to find a book (now added to my “essential reading” list) perfect for the Backyard Nest Egg project – The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard. This book is full of creative and original recipes, including jams and other fruit preserves, salsas, tomato sauces, pickles and relishes – all requiring small quantities of fresh produce and only a water bath canner for processing.

The recipes are less exotic (and more numerous) than those in Eugenia Bone’s book Well-Preserved: Recipes and Techniques for Putting Up Small Batches of Seasonal Foods, but more sophisticated than the traditional Ball Blue Book recipes. For example, their salsa recipes include Papaya Mango salsa, Fresh Tomato and Black Olive salsa, and Roasted Corn and Sweet Pepper salsa. In addition to a recipe for apple butter, they also have recipes for nontraditional fruit butters, like Apricot Honey Butter and Cranberry Maple Butter. (I made the latter last week – it was marvelous; slightly tart, and the hint of maple intensifies the flavor of the cranberries).

The small batch recipes are great not just because I have limited fresh produce at one time, but also because they allow for greater variety. Back when I was making the Ball Blue book jam recipes, I’d end up with 10 half pints of strawberry jam. Unless you’re preserving for a large family, who needs that much of one type of jam? I expect to get raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries from my garden next year. A few small jars of jam from each of these would be perfect for us.

Of course, despite having found such a terrific resource, I had to make things harder for myself. The problem with me and canning is that safe food preservation requires fairly strict adherence to a tested recipe. I love to cook, but I tend to use recipes mostly as "suggestions," or jumping off points for my own creativity. If you get creative in food preservation, you have to keep within certain guidelines.

Some authorities forbid creativity in food preservation altogether, as does the food science professor at our university extension. Last April, I attended a talk she gave via teleconference for master gardeners on food preservation. She stressed that we should use only tested recipes on the university website, or Ball Blue Book recipes, and her mantra (repeated numerous times) throughout the talk was “We don’t want you getting creative!”

More than a few of us were a bit irritated by this. Why go to all the trouble of growing and preserving your own food if you can’t prepare family favorites? Or have the fun of experimenting with your own recipes? The woman sitting next to me frowned, arms crossed, and shifted in her seat. She confided to me that she wanted to try making different fruit preserves with maple syrup, rather than refined sugar.

I commiserated; I was dismayed by the salsa recipes. They hardly contained enough chilies to accurately be labeled “salsa,” in my opinion. For example, one recipe called for 8 quarts of chopped tomatoes and just four jalapeños and four “long green chilies” (huh? Is she referring to Anaheims here, or what?) I use that many chilies with two or three cups of chopped tomatoes in a fresh salsa.

I emailed this professor later to ask for advice on adapting recipes. I wrote that her salsa recipes were “awfully low” on chilies; how might I safely add more? I also asked:

Is there a way of determining the pH of a food product to find out whether the acid content is high enough for safe water bath canning? For example, can pH paper be used? Alternatively, can you give a ratio of acid (vinegar, lemon juice) to low acid vegetables (e.g, ___ cups) that will produce a safe product
for water bath canning?

She replied that she could not give such a “formula” and that:

There isn't a way to test pH that will work. That said, you can always substitute hot chili peppers for green peppers, celery, onion or other low-acid ingredient in salsa (not tomatoes, however).
She added her usual warning:

If you are a creative cook, this would indeed not be welcome news, however, to do things incorrectly puts the health of you and your family at risk.

This irritated me again, perhaps unreasonably. Obviously, we attended the food preservation talk, and I asked her advice via email, because we wanted to safely preserve food. Repeated warnings about risks to our families had the feel of trying to put the fear of God into children to induce unquestioning obedience.

Moreover, although she stressed science for safety, the measures in her recipes do not seem scientifically reliable to me. How much is a cup of chopped onion, for example? Doesn’t that depend on how finely or coarsely you chop it? (Yesterday, I actually found online a University of Georgia paper with guidelines for safe ratios
of tomatoes to low acid vegetables for salsa by weight, which makes more sense to me.) She presents a conversion chart on her website for chilies that equates one medium jalapeño to “about” one quarter cup chopped chili. I don’t know where she gets her jalapeños, or what “medium” means to her, but I’ve never managed to come up with more than about 2 tablespoons of chopped produce from one jalapeño.

I finally selected a recipe from Small Batch Preserving, but even those recipes use fewer chilies than I would prefer. And, they also use variable measurements; for example “2-4 jalapeños,” no size (medium? large?) given. So I set about carefully making substitutions. By our food science professor’s calculation, 4 jalapeños, the max allowed in the Small Batch Preserving recipe, would amount to a cup of chopped chilies. So I measured out a cup of chopped chilies. This required eight chilies; four jalapeños, and four Anaheims. I didn’t chop them finely, either. I made no other changes to the recipe.

I prepared the recipe and canned it. There was some left over, not enough to fill a jar, so we ate it that day. It was terrific, with the right amount of heat and a wonderful sweet aftertaste from the orange juice. I thought the vegetables would be mushy from the pre-cooking and processing, but they were perfect.

However, our food science professor had done her job well. I’m now afraid to serve the canned product, lest I murder my family. I emailed our professor once again to ask:

Can you recommend a company in Wisconsin where I can send home-canned product to test for safety of the recipe? Thanks.

She replied:

It would be helpful if I knew a bit more.... Are you canning food for sale and need a recipe approved?

Or are you canning food for your home use?

I emailed back that it was for home use. Her blunt response:

The approved recipes for homes are either in
the Ball Blue book or from the National Center for Home Food Preservation:

We don't recommend anything else for home canning.

That’s it. Nothing more. I can’t tell you how angry this made me. It also clarified for me that this was, at least in part, about control, not just food safety. I can understand not being able to give formulas, and the problems with pH testing, although I had to research that myself to find out why. (Turns out the pH of the finished product is affected not just by the acidity of the ingredients, but also the density, which we cannot measure at home. No explanations were forthcoming from the good professor; just rules that we are expected to blindly follow, else someone might die.) But I can’t understand the refusal to recommend a food testing lab to someone who is trying to ensure safe food preservation.

Surfing the net, I learned I was not the only one with this problem. I found a great thread discussing safe salsa recipes for canning and the difficulty of getting someone to test recipes. One guy reported that a lab he contacted directed him to the local public health department, which, in turn, refused to test anything unless someone had already sickened or died! Others had been able to get their local university extensions to test their recipes. (Lucky them – they’re not dependent on U of WI.)

I’ve found a lab locally, but they haven’t replied to my email. I'll pester them by telephone this week, and, inspired by the experiences of others I’ve read online, not stop until I find someone to test my recipe. Meanwhile, I plan to goose-step on into the kitchen and rigidly follow a recipe from Small Batch Preserving when I can pizza sauce this afternoon.