Side Projects

Rendering Fat in Slow Cooker/Crockpot: Super Simple!

Cut up fat.

Heat until fat liquefies out of tissue.

Strain out solids.

The End


It really is that easy. Animal fats like lard, tallow, etc. are my favorite to cook with. After rendering, they are stable in storage, stable up to relatively high cooking or frying temperatures, and an incredibly healthy aspect of a complete diet. Keep in mind that my consumption comes from pasture based animals and that most fat/cholesterol phobias stem from flawed studies that are now being re-evaluated.

I’m getting too off topic now especially since this batch isn’t going to be used for food at all. I am rendering this deer (venison) fat from one I killed on Thanksgiving in order to make soap!

Here is a bag of deer fat next to 2 packages of grass fed beef suet:



Required Raw Materials:

Animal Fat

Required Tools:

Knife and cutting board to trim fat

Crockpot/Slow cooker (or pot for stove top)

Something to stir the cooking fat


Step by Step Guide:

  1. Obtain animal fat. Source from local butchers, farmers, hunters, etc.
  2. Trim any meaty pieces from your fat.
  3. Cut fat into small pieces or put in a food processor or a meat grinder (Ask butchers to do this for you if they are willing!)
  4. Cook over low heat stirring occationally until all liquid has rendered out of animal tissue leaving only cracklings behind (1-2 hours usually)
    NOTE: make sure your slow cooker’s “LOW” setting is actually low! If you are unsure, add some water which will cook off/separate out at the end and baby sit the rendering fat while it is cooking
  5. Strain solids out of rendered liquids. Can strain through a cheesecloth as well for an even cleaner product.
  6. Let fat cool on counter or in a fridge and separate top solid layer of rendered product while discarding lower layer of moisture.

Optional, continue cooking strained cracklings until crispy for a snack!

I wanted to keep the guide as uninterrupted text for mobile or printer users. Here are some pictures that match with each step:

Step 1: Obtain animal fats and equipment



Step 2: Trim off any protein containing tissue from fat:


Step 3: Cut fat as small as possible for more efficient heating


Step 4: Cook over low heat

IMG_20150218_105317 IMG_20150218_112813 IMG_20150218_143625

Step 5: Strain solids out


Step 6: Let cool then separate out solid rendered fat

IMG_20150218_185506 IMG_20150218_184213 IMG_20150218_184227

Even without cheesecloth straining, the final product is pure white and very hard, very much like a candle in consistency and feeling. And for a bonus, here it is densely packed into chinese takeout containers.



I will document how to make this into soap very soon! Eventually, I’ll even show you how to make your lye from waste (ashes) on your homestead!

Side Projects

Revisiting Bamboo as Fodder: Non-Invasive Genus Fargesia

After reading my post expressing my desire to experiment with growing bamboo for fodder, a friend of mine suggested I look into the Fargesia genus of bamboo. He sent me this article titled Non-Invasive, Cold-Hardy Clumping Bamboos/ The genus : Fargesia.

As explained in the linked article the Fargesia genus of bamboo is cold hardy but more importantly the root characteristics are non-invasive. The difference lies in the fact that the roots are clumping instead of running much like the perennial bunching onions mentioned previously. Pachymorph describes this nature of the roots opposed to leptomorph which describes the running rhizomes of invasive bamboo species. The latter is an organism much like turf grasses which both homeowners and gardeners know can be a pain to contain!

Phenomenons occur with bamboo that are still not well understood by man. Bamboo will flower, create new hybrid seeds from the flower pollination then typically die. This makes preserving the parent specimen difficult unless it is clonally propagated before its death. However the result is many new varieties of bamboo from the hybrid seeds. This monocarpic reproduction resulted in the death of the entire population of cultivated Fargesia in the 1990’s but resulted in offspring that vary wildly in characteristics.

Species Selection:

Also pulled from the linked article is a breakdown of the different species and their characteristics that I have condensed. All included species should do well in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia’s USDA hardiness zone of 6-b.

Fargesia denudata:

Arching habit [Green house or garden hoop row construction candidate]

Tolerates not only the frozen winters but heat and humidity

It can reach a height of 15 feet, but normally 10 ft

USDA cold hardiness zone 5-9.

Fargesia robusta ‘Pingwu’ Green Screen™

Very upright

Holds up well in the heat and humidity of the Southeastern U. S., unlike other Fargesia types

Maximum height is 18 ft.

USDA cold hardiness zone 6-9

Fargesia rufa ‘Oprins Selection’ Green Panda™

Extremely cold hardy and heat tolerant

It grows into a large clump (6-8 ft wide)

Arching stems

Maximum height is 10 ft. maximum and culm diameter is 0.5 inches.

USDA hardiness zone 5-9

Grows well in shade as well as full sun

Fargesia scabrida ‘Oprins Selection’ Asian Wonder™

Very narrow leaves and a graceful appearance

Stems show great color, with orange culm sheaths and steely-blue new culms (stems). Culms mature to olive green.

Maximum height is approximately 16 ft

USDA zone 5-8

Prefers sun to partial shade

Again, all credit for the information in this post is retrieved from here and due to:

Susanne Lucas, Horticulturist

Pioneer Plants, LLC.

9 Bloody Pond Road, Plymouth, MA 02360 USA

[Note, I think her address is badass!]

I don’t really have a preference for species. For fodder any of the plants will provide the goats and other animals with the fun of browsing vegetation 10 feet tall. For building materials it would seem that the tallest species at maturity are the best choice. I am going to find what is available locally or by mail order, then make my decision.

Garden, Side Projects

Subterranean Aquaponics? (Brainstorm Session)

Season extension is typically the first step market gardeners take to increase productivity. On my farm, the garden production will be kept simple for the first year but that doesn’t stop brainstorming future innovations.

Aquaponics has always fascinated me. Being a very low input system, the fish feed the plants and can in turn feed me or be processed into fish meal which is the most expensive part of the chicken ration. Chickens can also be directly integrated by using their litter to feed composting worms, which in turn can feed the fish. So if economics ever shifted that placed higher commercial value on tilapia than the chicken, the model can easily be scaled to place fish into the lead role the aquaponics model.

Unfortunately winters here in the Shenandoah Valley, and the rest of Virginia west of the tidewater region, can be harsh. Any economic gain from aquaponics is quickly negated by energy expenditure to provide heat to keep the fish healthy.

Recently, my friend Brauck shared some innovative gardening practices. Plans for a $300 Underground Greenhouse that produces year-round sent the wheels in my head into motion.

The gist of the plans are to dig wide trench 6-8 feet deep in a southern-exposed location, pile the removed earth on the north side of the trench, and seal the trench with transparent greenhouse plastic. A visual representation is pulled from the link above:

Using geothermal energy (thermal mass of the earth) to regulate temperatures while adding trapped solar energy give such potential to this design. Even in winter a tiny solar arrangement could supply power to pumps. If this arrangement provides a stable enough environment while reducing or eliminating energy needed for heat, aquaponics may move from fantasy to viable to profitable.

Garden, Side Projects

Forbidden Fruit 2: State by State Legality of Gooseberry and Currant Berry (Laws regarding plants in the Ribes genus)

Since I have been unable to locate a full and recent list of state legality regarding plants of the Ribes genus, I compiled my own comprehensive list. Like the laws themselves, this list is dynamic so please contact me if any of the information here is out of date. Please check with your local extension office for confirmation before getting involved with the Ribes genus in any regard.

Summarized: Ribes plants really are forbidden fruit to some people. Residents of New Hampshire, North Carolina and West Virginia are completely out of luck as those states enforce a statewide ban on all Ribes species. Delaware, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island enforce a permit system. Most other states ban Ribes cultivars that are not resistant to the White Pine Blister Rust (WPBR) pathogen but below is the complete breakdown.

All the sources provided are from state legislature, extension offices or state universities.



  • No Restrictions Found


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  • “European Black Currant, Ribes nigrum prohibited state-wide
    The sale, transportation, further planting or possession of plants of the genus Ribes (commonly) known as currant and gooseberry plants, including cultivated, wild, or ornamental sorts is prohibited in the following Counties in the State of Maine, to wit: York, Cumberland, Androscoggin, Kennebec, Sagadahoc, Lincoln, Knox, Waldo, Hancock, and parts of Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Penobscot, Aroostook, and Washington”





  • No Restrictions Found


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New Hampshire

New Jersey

  • 2. The possession or movement of plant cultivars and hybrids of European Black Currant (Ribes nigrum L.) into or within New Jersey is only allowed under special permit issued by the Department.
  • 3. The possession or movement of red currant and gooseberry plants (Ribes sp. and Grossularia sp.) is allowed into or within New Jersey except the following municipalities, constituting a protective area: Montague, Sandyston, Walpack and Vernon Townships in Sussex County; West Milford, Ringwood Borough and Wanaque Township in Passaic County, and Jefferson Township in Morris County.
  • 4. Currant plants and gooseberry plants other than the European Black Currant (Ribes nigrum L.) may be moved into and within all other points in New Jersey by complying with the general requirements of the New Jersey Department of Agriculture for the movement of nursery stock (N.J.S.A. 4:7-16 et seq.).

New Mexico

  • No Restrictions Found

New York

North Carolina

North Dakota

  • No Restrictions Found


  • The current Ohio law (Regulation AG-71-85.01) to
    suppress and control White Pine Blister Rust Disease is
    as follows:
  • (A) The European black currant, Ribes nigrum L. or any
    variety of this species is hereby declared to be a public
    nuisance, and it shall be unlawful for any person to
    possess, transport, plant, propagate, sell, or offer for
    sale, plants, roots, scions, seeds, or cuttings of these
    plants in this state.
  • (B) Recognized varieties, e.g., “Consort” produced by the
    hybridization of Ribes nigrum L. or a variety thereof
    with a resistant or immune species, known to be immune
    or highly resistant to the White Pine Blister Rust
    fungus, (Cronartium ribicola, Fischer) are exempt from
    the restrictions imposed by paragraph (A) above.
    Note: Ohio law does not prohibit the planting of red
    currants or gooseberries within the state.


  • No Restrictions Found


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Rhode Island

South Carolina

  • No Restrictions Found

South Dakota

  • No Restrictions Found


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  • No Restrictions Found

West Virginia


  • No Restrictions Found


  • No Restrictions Found
Garden, Side Projects, Uncategorized

Forbidden Fruit, the interesting story of the currant and pine trees (Ribes genus)

At 22 years old, I first heard of this family of fruits. Geography of Wine actually fulfilled one of my core elective requirements for my degree. Ever the most eccentric of professors, John Boyer recommended we throw a wine tasting party as an assignment fulfillment but the catch was to include everything you may encounter in wine, from various fruits to dirty gym socks to barnyard hay. Preparation to identify even the worst and erroneously produced flavors of wine was weighted equally to the pleasurable and inviting flavors. My quest to track down all of the fruit flavors was an adventure in itself. Unripe persimmons from my now-farm-site were used to demonstrate astringency and tannins but it was the Currants that proved most difficult to find. I was able to order red, white and rose currants online but black currants despite being an oft cited flavor in wine profiles were nearly impossible to find. Natural curiosity begged the question: why? Illegality was the first curious attribute of these fruits that was encountered. Were they psychoactive or invasive or any of the things that would lead to a federal ban?

Pinus strobus, the eastern white pine was once found extensively from northern Georgia to northeastern Canada. Europeans recognized the lightweight, tall, straight growth as forming ideal ship masts (source: Dendrology lecture with Dr. Seiler at Virginia Tech). Continued recognition as an ideal timber species led to Europeans shipping pine specimens to be grown in european nurseries (source) while continued harvest of native stands caused massive deforestation by the late 1800’s (source). Consequently, specimens were shipped backed to re-establish stands in the depleted native habitat.

Specifically, Lord Weymouth was a prolific gardener and arranged for the importation of white pines into Europe in 1705. By affixing “Lord” to “Weymouth Pine”, he subsequently stole the common name from the first european to discover the pine in current-day Maine, George Weymouth. A shipment from France to British Columbia in 1910 brought a fungal pathogen to North America that went undetected for 11 years allowing it to spread extensively (source). White pine blister rust, the fungus (Cronartium ribicola) had first appeared in Germany (Source). Further investigation revealed that the Ribes genus of gooseberries (thorned) and currants (not thorned) provided a host for the fungus to complete its lifecycle. The resulting native Ribes removal cost an estimated $150 million shown below:

Three-man crew eradicating Ribes in northern Idaho. (Courtesy U.S. Forest Service, copyright-free) Retrieved from

Thus the North American shortage of currants is adequately explained.

While the federal ban was lifted in 1966, many state bans are still in effect to various degrees of enforcement. Here in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, the state enforces the ban by preventing nursery sales of natural strains of black currants. Hybrid black currants and all other colors are perfectly legal. Check on your state regulations regarding the issue. No complete state guide exists currently so I will compile one as time allows as a reference.

As the case with any prohibition laws, the government has created a market that is both ripe and untapped. Europe has a billion dollar industry in yogurt, jams/jellies/preserves, liquor, teas, smoothies and any other use for berries that can be filled by the unique flavor of currants. While the American market is ramping up and in its infancy, currants seem to fit the bill for obscure, nutritionally packed and strangely flavored to become the next rage in the health food industry. As such I hope to have a few plants established if currants do become the next rage as they take 3 years to produce substantially. Boundaries in the garden will be the starting point as they are a fantastic plant to grow along fence rows and can thrive in afternoon shade!



Cattle, Chicks, Side Projects

Experiment: Growing Bamboo for fodder

Turns out just about every livestock animal enjoys bamboo at different stages of its growth. Chickens will eat new shoots, cows/horses will graze the foliage and goats will browse any part of it that isn’t overly mature/woody.


About Bamboo:

I’ll always remember a poem from one of my rather-hippie forest ecology professors:

“Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have joints unless there are cops around.”

Therefore, bamboo is technically a grass!

Found on bamboofarmingusa,com, 2 laboratory analysis reports were shared that break down the nutrient content of bamboo.

From Dairy One Forage Testing Laboratory (PDF Link):



From the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Customer Services:


The crude protein figures above are high enough to be considered a “Premium” grass hay by USDA guidelines (retrieved from Oregon State University). Bamboo requires significant amounts of nitrogen so some sort of legume ground cover (likely peas or clover) would be a natural companion for the bamboo stands.

Letting animals graze bamboo also has the subjective benefit of breaking the monotonous boredom of extended hay feeding. As bamboo is an evergreen perennial, the stands could be opened to grazing in winter. I am not sure how nutrient composition changes with winter dormancy though.

Containing the potentially invasive bamboo:

Growing up in a metropolitan area that has spent countless resources battling the encroachment of bamboo, I want to take steps to ensure it remains contained. Originally meant for containing hops plants from taking over the garden, physical root barriers were actually invented with bamboo in mind.

Here are my two favorites on Amazon:

18″ x 100 ft

24″ x 100 ft


Time will tell how this experiment goes!

A friend brought up an interesting point in a comment on yesterday’s blog post. There is a species of bamboo native to Virginia and the Southeast US called Giant Cane. He provided a descriptive PDF from the USDA that explains the historical value and use of the plant. My favorite passage states:

According to environmental
historian Mart Stewart (2007), “Modern studies
have established that cane foliage was the highest
yielding native pasture in the South. It has up to
eighteen percent crude protein and is rich in
minerals essential for livestock health.” Livestock
eagerly eat the young plants, leaves, and seeds and
stands decline with overgrazing and rooting by hogs
(Hitchcock and Chase 1951).

Which demonstrates the plant is on par with bamboo as a nutrition source for livestock. Not to mention the renewable building material provided by mature stems. I could build chicken coops, green/hoop houses, storage sheds, etc. Interesting stuff to say the least!

Cattle, Garden, Side Projects

Rainwater Collection Series 3: Purifying Rain Water for Human Use

The last main hurdle of settling on the property is purifying the rain water that has run off the metal barn roof that has been treated with who-knows-what then stored in petroleum based tanks that my leach additional undesirables. Here is the catch, I don’t want to have to use power whatsoever to purify the water (excepting my DC solar pump).

First of all, I plan to purify water for drinking, bathing, washing dishes, cooking and any other miscellaneous needs. Between all of those uses I will conservatively require about 10 gallons a day of purified water. How can I do this without additional energy use?

The first step is a basic filter to remove debris and extend the life of later components. A simple layer of gravel then sand should do the trick.

Here is the gem: Ceramic. During manufacturing, sawdust and silver is mixed into the ceramic clay. When fired in the kiln, the sawdust combusts leaving behind microscopic channels that allows water to travel through the ceramic while bacteria are too large to fit. Silver impregnation provides a hostile surface for microbial activity. A simple scrub with an abrasive sponge removes the top layer of ceramic and refreshes the filter. I haven’t decided on a specific filter yet, but this one is along the lines of what I am considering.

Lastly, a replaceable and homemade activated charcoal filter will remove any chemicals that have leeched into the water on its journey to my farm. With the filter medium available in various quantities, it will be simple to incorporate the homemade and changeable filter into my design.

The last piece of the puzzle is a storage tank. I would prefer a non-petroleum based tank to store the fresh water. Preferable stainless steel and something that could tolerate a bit of pressure when pumping the water out. Does this ring any bells with anyone? If I can legally find a 15.5 gallon half barrel beer keg to use, I will remove the spear and add my own fittings. FYI, most beer kegs including the ones for sale on craigslist are property of the beer distributor who issued the keg when it was full of beer. Any you come across second-hand are technically stolen unless the seller can prove otherwise. Even though I personally view the legal requirement to use a distributor is right up there with cartels and acts a barrier to entry for smaller guys, I’ll still find a keg through legal avenues. Do whatever aligns with your ethics!

Regular water testing will ensure my system is safe and continues to be s0 as it ages.

Cattle, Side Projects

Brassica Cover Cropping as Biological Soil Tiler

The sustainable farming and land management industries are constantly coming up with innovations to find biological solutions to problems that have been solved through petroleum use since the 1940s. Brassica cover cropping is one example of this.

Brassicas typically have a large taproot and for ease of visualization, the most promising plant in this system seems to be the Radish. Sown in the late summer, the radishes drive their taproot into the soil as they take up nutrients. They are not harvested but left to last through a few freezes resulting in their death. As they decay, the nutrients are released back into soil and the taproot leaves a cavity in the previously compacted shallow layers of topsoil. Hence the tiling effect without mechanical soil turning that disrupts microbial activity and over-oxygenates the soil.

Erosion resistance and water absorption are boosted so well by this process that many riparian managers are studying the effect of planting them in drainage areas. Urban sprawl of impervious surfaces change the hydrology of the area by providing a flush of water during precipitation rather than an sponge-like absorption by local soils that gradually releases stored water into waterways. By aerating the remaining available soils with brassica cropping, that rush of creekbank-eroding rainwater can be somewhat alleviated.

I haven’t found much scientific data (at least not behind a paywall that double dips into taxpayers’ pockets). However there is a bit of literature from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (government source and PDF warning!) that makes me think this is an interesting development to follow!

I was introduced to this concept by my friend who is the farm manager at Frying Pan Farm Park in the bustling DC metro area. Being the last working farm in the county, they strive to strike a balance between typical farm operations and acting as a working farm museum for public education and enjoyment. Its great to see a farm with such a strong public presence exploring concepts of sustainable farming!

Side Projects

Fun With Lidar and Local Lore: Sinkholes!

I decided to have a bit of fun to further research a bit of unsubstantiated lore regard the karst land I will be farming. The previous owner mentioned that local lore told that one of the many sinkholes on the farm opens to a 20′ x 10′ cavernous room.

Here is the raw LiDAR:

Raw Lidar


Not much is visible. So when I clip it down so the elevation range is smaller, feature become a bit more apparent:

Clipped LiDAR

However, creating a hillshade layer applies illuminated shadows to the hillshade relief makes the sinkholes pop!


I have no idea how to go about exploring the sinkholes even if I wanted to, but I had fun finding them digitally!