Garden 2015 : Tomatoes, part 1

An impressive Hungarian Heart tomato

This year, for the first time in several years, I started my own plants indoors from seed over the winter. And anyone that knows me knows that I get a little carried away when it comes to tomatoes. I don’t honestly know how many plants Matt actually got into the garden. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 to 50?

I know, I have a problem. But I’ve reformed, really I have! One year there were over 100.

I enjoy trying different heirloom varieties. It’s fun to grow tomatoes in interesting shapes and colors, and taste test and compare them. I enjoy reading the histories on them, and you usually can’t find these in stores.

Typically I like to choose an early tomato, a good sauce tomato, a slicing tomato, and a grape or cherry tomato. To that end, this year I chose Siberian, Hungarian Heart, Mortgage Lifter, and Sun Sugar Hybrid. Somehow the Sun Sugar starts didn’t make it into the garden. I’m trying not to take it personally. But I thought I’d give a little review of the rest.

From the left we have a quarter (ha!), Siberian, Mortgage Lifter, and Hungarian Heart.

The Siberians are supposed to be an early tomato, and I always have visions of enjoying early tomatoes, well, before the rest of the tomatoes are ready. Seems reasonable. But I’ve never had an early tomato ripen much before any of the rest of them. Still, this was a really easy tomato to grow. They’re larger than a cherry tomato but smaller than a Roma type. Mine were blemish free with beautiful, smooth skins and a deep red color. I ended up oven drying several batches of these. I’ll share that process later.

Mortgage Lifter is a variety I’ve grown in the past and always liked. They’re a delicious slicing tomato and can get really large. This year many of mine cracked, but that hasn’t always been the case. I’m chalking it up to weather or something.

(This is why I’m not a professional tomato grower. Because I just chalk things up rather than actually finding out.)

I also use ML’s when canning tomato sauce. I think they lend excellent flavor to sauce, and if you’re using a Sauce Master (more on that later, too) it doesn’t matter if these have more seeds than the paste type tomatoes.

Hungarian Heart is another new variety to me this year. These are adorable – they really are heart-shaped! Very meaty, they’re great for saucing. And because they’re so large, you don’t need many to make a lot of puree. I had some cracking with these, also, but not as much as on the ML’s.

The only thing about both the Mortgage Lifter and the Hungarian Heart is that they’re a pink tomato. So sometimes it’s a little hard to tell if they’re ripe or not, because they don’t get that deep, dark red.

Here’s a comparison of them sliced:

You can see that the Mortgage Lifters have more seeds and a higher water content than the Hungarian Hearts. I’m not one that loves tomatoes so much that I’ll just eat them for a snack. But the Mortgage Lifter was so good I did just that, plated up a tomato slice (and then another, and then another) with a bit of salt and chowed down.

We made “hobo packets” on the grill, and you can see the ML tomato slice was bigger than a quarter pound burger. Yum!

I’m not sure what I’ll do next year. I really liked each of these tomatoes. But the fun of trying new-to-me varieties is just so alluring!

2 questions for all of you:

1. What are your favorite tomato varieties?

2. How do you keep yours staked so that you don’t end up with the massive tomato jungle that I’ve got in my garden?

Leave a comment!

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How to Cook :: Stuffed Pepper Soup

Stuffed Pepper Soup ~ Sugar Creek Farm

This has been a fantastic year for growing just about anything. The bell peppers in particular have been beautiful. I froze something like 4 cookie sheets full of them a while back – just cut them in half, scooped out the seeds and membranes, flash froze them on a cookie sheet, and then popped them into a freezer bag.

But even after harvesting more than 3 dozen of those bad boys, they kept on producing! This summer I made traditional stuffed peppers, but wrapped them in foil and cooked them on the grill.

Stuffed Pepper Soup ~ Sugar Creek Farm

So good! But cooler temps had me thinking crockpot and soup.

Stuffed Pepper Soup ~ Sugar Creek Farm

I made this stuffed pepper soup for the first time in August. Some of my peppers had turned a gorgeous red, and some were still green, which makes for a beautiful color combination.

Stuffed Pepper Soup ~ Sugar Creek Farm

Stuffed Pepper Soup ~ Sugar Creek Farm

The recipe I used called for a can of diced tomatoes, but since our tardy tomatoes were finally getting ripe I just diced up a fresh one to equal 2 cups.

Stuffed Pepper Soup ~ Sugar Creek Farm

Stuffed Pepper Soup ~ Sugar Creek Farm

I’ve been using my Sauce Master to crank out some beautiful tomato puree (Yes, I just referred to tomato puree as “beautiful”. I stand by it.) and canning spaghetti sauce. So it was easy enough to substitute puree for the canned tomato sauce in equal amounts.

Stuffed Pepper Soup ~ Sugar Creek Farm

The recipe also called for adding a cup of cooked rice with the rest of the ingredients. In the end it was a bit mushy for my tastes, so when I made it again this weekend I added the rice at the very end and liked that version a lot better.

The other thing I did differently when I made it again this weekend was to just do it on the stove top instead of in the slow cooker. It turned out equally well!

I’m definitely putting this soup into heavy rotation while I’ve still got fresh peppers and tomatoes in the garden.This recipe was hit with everyone in my house over the age of 13. (Give you one guess which picky eater didn’t go for it!)

Stuffed Pepper Soup ~ Sugar Creek Farm

How to Cook :: Stuffed Pepper Soup

How to Cook :: Stuffed Pepper Soup


  • 1 lb. Sugar Creek Farm grass-finished ground beef
  • 1 c. onion, diced
  • 14-1/2 oz. can diced tomatoes, or 2 cups diced fresh tomatoes
  • 2 c. green peppers and/or red peppers, cut into large chunks
  • 15 oz can tomato sauce, or 2 cups fresh tomato puree
  • 3 c. beef, chicken or vegetable broth
  • 1 T. minced garlic
  • 1/2 t. dried basil
  • 1/2 t. dried oregano
  • 1 c. cooked rice


  1. Brown ground beef with onion. Drain, if needed. Place in slow cooker.
  2. Add undrained tomatoes and all remaining ingredients, except rice. Cover and cook on low 6-8 hours.
  3. Stir in cooked rice, heat through, and serve.
  4. To cook on the stove top, brown ground beef and onion in a stock pot. Add ingredients as instructed above. Cover and bring to a boil. Uncover and continue to boil until peppers are fork tender. Stir in rice and serve.

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Coming into his own

Sunday we loaded batch #2 of chickens out to the processor. It’s always interesting to see what our numbers end up to be. I try to keep track of how many we start with and how many we end up with, but I miss some here and there. We always wonder if the hawks or owls or eagles have taken any without us being aware of it. And then there’s Titus.

Titus is more scared of new kittens than they are of him. But by now they are best of friends.

Titus is doing much better this year than last year. But big dogs take a while to fully mature, and at 20 months old he’s definitely still got some puppy in him. He gets bored and finds it fun to chase the chickens around the shed. One day I arrived at the pen and found him with a chicken on its back between his paws, licking the heck out of that poor chicken. And in the middle of a big growth spurt, a month or so ago, he ate one. (I’d forgotten that Pyrenees have a big growth spurt around 18 months old.)

Titus getting a ride home from work

On the flip side, he’s mostly very gentle with them. If I bring food out for him in the chicken pen, the chickens try to take it and he just gently noses them away. And he doesn’t mind if they sit on him.

Of the 3 Pyrenees we’ve had, Titus has been the best one. He doesn’t bark as much as the others, he doesn’t wander as much as the others. (Although a Pyrenees isn’t really wandering, he’s patrolling what he considers his territory. They’re big dogs, they can cover a lot of territory. However your neighbors may not appreciate this service.)

So we were quite curious to see what story the numbers would tell. There have been a lot of hawks hanging around the pasture this summer. They sit in the trees at the perimeter, screeching as they fly over the chicken pen.

As it turned out, Titus deserved a great big bone for his work. We only lost 12 out of 186, which is a 6% death loss. And some of those losses came before they went on pasture with Titus. We can most definitely live with that. We count anything under 10% as a victory.

Well done, Titus!

4 years ago:
Installment # 11: One of these things just doesn’t belong here

6 years ago:
Watchin’ out for me

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Soaking it in

It’s August. Everyone, including me, is wondering where the summer has gone. It’s been a glorious summer, weather-wise. Rain at just the right times. Not an excessive amount of heat and humidity. And I have been doing my best to soak it all in.

On my morning walks to the chicken pen I’m soaking in the feeling of warm sun on the back of my neck, and cool breeze on my bare arms and legs.

I’m soaking in the vibrant colors of wildflowers in the ditches, and the smell of blooms.

I’m soaking in the taste of fresh garden produce; the joy of walking out our back door, poking around the garden to see what’s ready, and then coming up with a supper menu on-the-fly with whatever vegetables I’ve filled my arms with.

I’m soaking in being a family of five under one roof for just a couple more weeks until Madeline returns to college.

I’m soaking in time around the table that Rafe built for his 4-H project last year, which now sits on our back deck. We play card games there, we eat meals out there. It looks over the creek and pasture, which provides such a great backdrop. We eat supper with binoculars close at hand and take turns observing all of the waterfowl that enjoy Sugar Creek.

I’m soaking in the start of Olivia’s senior year of high school. It’s a mix of feeling nostalgic and a bit sad about another one leaving our nest, and pride at the wonderful and unique human being she’s become, and excitement to see what comes next for her.

I’m soaking in time spent in kayaks with my best friend.

I’m soaking in time spent reconnecting with old friends, and connections made with new friends.

I’m soaking in twilight, which is when I walk around watering my flowers and watching the dogs chase each other around when Titus returns from his duties at the chicken pen. Ava will be 10 in the spring. We’ve had her on a diet this year, and she’s become much more active again. Helps to have Titus around to get her moving.

It’s easy to soak it all in when you’re in your favorite season. My challenge is to soak it all in with the same sense of joy and gratitude in times when it’s not as easy to do.

1 year ago:

2 years ago:

3 years ago:
Garden, August

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What I Bought at Farmers Market :: June, Week 2

Remember the first post in this series, where I mentioned that I had bought the food, prepared the food, and taken pictures of the food, but didn’t get around to posting about the food right away?

Apparently that happens a lot.

So playing catch-up again, here is June, Week 2! This week we were at the Osage Downtown Farmers Market. This market happens 8:00 to noon on the 2nd Saturday of the month, June through September, just south of the intersection of 7th and Main. It’s a small but really diverse market. This particular day there were 6 vendors that included flowers, strawberries and veggies, baked goods, soaps, homemade jam, and of course our meats and Olivia’s pies. Impressive for a small market, I think!

Of course, being a morning market, I’m usually hungry for breakfast. These sticky rolls hit the spot:

So soft and just the right amount of sweet!

One vendor was selling homemade jam. Rhubarb is one my favorite things on earth so I couldn’t pass up a jar of cherry rhubarb jam. She said it was her best seller and I can see why! I’ve been enjoying it on toast, but thinking I’m going to have to play around with using it in a marinade with some chicken.

Another vendor had a beautiful display of soaps, scrubs, shaving kits and lib balms. I picked up a minty lip balm and I love it! Very nourishing for dry lips!

Finally I picked up a bunch of onions and a beautiful head of broccoli. I put these together in a broccoli salad. Usually I use dried cranberries in this salad, but since I had a bag of purple grapes languishing in the fridge I decided to use those instead.

I feel like such a superhero when I rescue languishing food and put it to good use before it becomes a science experiment!

We had the broccoli salad for a simple supper with some of our grilled hamburger patties. I didn’t get a picture of the plate. You guys, I get hungry and completely forget about photography!

What are you buying at farmers market lately? And how are you using it?

Broccoli Salad

8 slices bacon
1/3 cup sunflower seed kernels
1 head broccoli, cut into pieces
1/3 cup diced onion
1 cup seedless grapes, halved
1 cup mayonnaise
3 T. apple cider vinegar
2 T. sugar
salt and pepper to taste

Fry bacon until browned. Drain and crumble. Combine bacon pieces with sunflower seeds, broccoli pieces, diced onions and grapes. Whisk together remaining ingredients for dressing and pour over broccoli mixture. Cover and refrigerate until serving.

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What I Bought at Farmers Market :: June, Week 1

When I’m selling at market I usually try to buy some things to take home as well. A couple of weeks ago I had the idea to start a weekly post on what I bought at the market that week, what I did with it when I got home, and which of our meats I paired it with. The first weekend of June I bought the food, prepared the food, took pictures of the food… but didn’t get around to posting about the food. Until now!

If I’m going to shop at market it’s either during a slow moment, or if I have help. The first week of June I was at the Clear Lake Farmers Market, and I had Rafe along. But Rafe doesn’t feel confident enough to run things by himself yet, so I sent him out to do the shopping. First things first, I wanted rhubarb and it goes fast at market!

After he procured the rhubarb for me, I sent him back out for “something green and leafy”… lettuce, spinach, whatever he wanted to buy except for kale or chard. I was trying to avoid the bitter greens that I didn’t think most of my family would eat. What did he bring back? “Mixed Greens”, consisting of arugula, tatsoi and mizuna. I wasn’t sure how bitter that mix would be or how the fam would like it, but I was excited for the challenge.

Finally I sent him for some radishes. Yes, this is a lot of back-and-forth. Yes, this is my strategy for keeping a squirrely 13-year-old boy occupied at market.

So this was my haul: rhubarb, 2 bags of mixed greens, radishes, plus some asparagus from a friend. Yum!

Since I expected the greens to be at least slightly bitter, I went with a slightly sweet dressing figuring that would help them go over better with the family. A little bacon, some walnuts, plus the radishes and I had a winner! (See recipe below)

The asparagus I simply steamed and salted. We paired everything with some ribs slow cooked on the smoker, courtesy of Madeline’s boyfriend Dustin. You could also use my usual rib recipe with our beef short ribs.

A glass of wine and we had ourselves a feast!

But it wouldn’t really be a feast without dessert, would it? For that I turned to my mom’s recipe for rhubarb crisp. (See recipe below)

Warm from the oven with some vanilla ice cream on top… perfection!

What did you buy from the farmers market this week?

Mixed Greens with Warm Bacon Dressing
4 slices bacon, cooked, drained and crumbled
3/4 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 clove garlic, minced
1 bunch mixed greens
4 radishes, or to taste, sliced
Walnuts, pecans or sliced almonds, to taste

Place mixed greens, sliced radishes, bacon crumbles and choice of nuts in large bowl. Combine olive oil, red wine vinegar, sugar, salt and garlic in a small sauce pan. Warm over low heat, whisking dressing ingredients until smooth. Pour over salad and toss to coat.

Rhubarb Crisp
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

4 cups rhubarb, sliced
3 Tablespoons flour
1 cup sugar

Combine above ingredients and pour into 9×13 pan.

1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons butter
1 egg, beaten

Combine, making a lumpy batter. Pour over rhubarb mixture. Sprinkle with cinnamon. Bake 45-50 minutes.

Posted in What I Bought at Farmers Market | 3 Comments

How to Cook : Slow Cooker Beef Fajitas

It all started with tortillas. My sister-in-law asked if they could bring us anything from Texas when they came to visit Memorial Day weekend. Since shrimp doesn’t travel so well when you’re flying + driving, we settled on fresh, authentic, flour tortillas.

So what to make to go with the tortillas? I considered these pork carnitas. Even though we aren’t raising pork at the moment, we’re still stretching the last of the pork cuts we have in the freezer. I considered trying the pork carnita recipe with a beef roast instead. I considered straight-up tacos with ground beef.

And then I wondered, could you make fajitas in the crockpot? A quick Google search said, indeed you can. And then I wondered, could you make fajitas with a beef roast instead of steak? Again a quick Google search said, go for it.

So I started with a 3-pound boneless beef sirloin tip roast,

a couple of green peppers,

a couple of red peppers,

and a couple of onions.

Then it was time for the seasonings. Most of the recipes I looked at called for some combination of chili powder, cumin, coriander, salt and pepper. I didn’t have any coriander, and it’s one that’s hard to substitute for. So I literally started taking the lids off various spices I did have in the cupboard and smelling them to see what might combine well with the chili powder and cumin.

Some people might say “weird”. I say this is where cooking becomes a “creative art”.

Also, I would rather make a crazy substitution than make another trip to town.

I strongly considered a smoked hickory salt I have, thinking the smoky flavor would work well for fajitas and I could just leave the regular salt out. But I was afraid it would come out too barbecue-y. So I ended up going with ginger.

The onions get piled in the bottom of the crockpot first, to keep the roast moist from underneath.

The seasonings get mixed together and rubbed all over the roast, which then gets placed on top of the onions.

Pile the peppers on top of the roast and sprinkle any extra spice rub over them, as well as some minced garlic and soy sauce.

I put the roast in around 1:30 in the afternoon on High and figured we’d be able to eat around 5:30.

At 3:00 I checked on it, just to discover I’d forgotten to press “Start”.  Oops.

But even with a delayed start, when Matt checked the internal temperature of the roast around 6:00 it was at 160 degrees. Perfect!

Most recipes called for shredding the meat, and you can sure do that. But I wanted the strips of meat like real fajitas so I simply sliced the roast into strips. That’s why a sirloin tip or rump roast works well for this. They hold up well for slicing even after being slow cooked.

If you wanted to go the shredding route, a bone-in chuck or arm roast would also work. You might need 4 to 5 pounds of that type of roast to make the same number of servings, to account for the weight of the bone.  Also I would cook those types of roasts on low for a longer time so that they easily shred and fall apart when they’re done.

Another thing I considered doing, and still want to try sometime, would be to take those strips of beef and fry them in a cast iron skillet with some olive oil before serving. You could also fry the peppers and onions with the meat. That would get you even closer to that authentic fajita experience, I think.

But since supper was already past due, we just went with the beef strips straight out of the crockpot. And they were wonderful!

Matt kept his fajita (er, fajitas plural, since he ate many of them) pretty simple, with just the beef, peppers, onions, and a bit of cilantro.

I added a couple dollops of sour cream and a bit of cheese to mine. Absolutely delicious!

So tell me, are you apt to make weird substitutions like ginger for coriander? Or are you a stickler for following the recipe?

4 years ago:

Visit to Lime Springs

Slow Cooker Beef Fajitas

Slow Cooker Beef Fajitas


  • 2 green peppers, sliced
  • 2 red peppers, sliced
  • 2 onions, sliced
  • 3 pound beef sirloin tip roast
  • 1 T chili powder
  • 2 t cumin
  • 2 t coriander or ginger
  • 1 t salt
  • 1/2 t pepper
  • 1/4 c soy sauce
  • 4 t minced garlic


  1. Place sliced onions in bottom of slow cooker. Combine chili powder, cumin, coriander or ginger, salt and pepper. Rub seasonings into and over entire surface of beef sirloin tip roast. Place roast on top of onions. Top roast with sliced peppers. Sprinkle any remaining rub mixture, garlic and soy sauce over peppers.
  2. Cook in covered slow cooker on high 3 to 4 hours, medium 5 to 6 hours, low 8 hours, or until internal temperature of roast reaches 160 degrees. Remove roast from slow cooker and slice into strips. Serve on tortillas and top with the peppers and onions.

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Kids and blogging

Those of you who have been with me a long time know that I used to blog a lot. Like, a lot a lot. And I’ve written before (also here) about how or why I just sort of tapered off. I think it boils down to two things: circumstances, and dreams.

The dreams part I’ll talk about next week. The circumstances part I think has to do with seasons of life. When your kids get to be teenagers, they’re just busy. And it was (and still is) important to me to be there for them during that season. “Being there” for teenagers looks a little different than what it looks like for littles.

Sometimes it means knowing when not to be there.

Sometimes it means waiting around all hours for your moment to be there.

Sometimes it means making those moments, like in the car on the way to the dentist, or bribing them with a trip to the drive-in for ice cream. Because car time is the best talking time. They can’t get away from you.

And you think your sleepless nights are over when your babies start sleeping through the night? They are, for a while. And then your babies get drivers licenses and boyfriends and curfews and there you are, not sleeping again.

For me it’s also meant attending a lot of volleyball/softball/football/basketball/baseball games, wrestling meets, track meets, band and chorus concerts, 4-H functions, etc. And I love (almost) every minute of it. My kids have never made me feel like I’m a bad parent if I’m not there, they understand when I can’t be, but I also know that they appreciate it when I am.

And so we cut back on some things around the farm. Some by choice, some by circumstance.

Which meant less to write about.

The other thing about teenagers is that they generally don’t like you blogging about them anymore, and I’ve tried to respect that.

Which meant less to write about.

Those of you who follow me on Instagram and/or Facebook may have seen this picture from a couple of weeks ago of Madeline helping us move chickens to pasture when she got home from college for the summer:

which led to this conversation…

Madeline: People are going to think you don’t even have kids anymore, just dogs and chickens.

Me: Well, once you guys got to be teenagers you didn’t really like to be blogged about anymore.

Liv: Right, have you ever googled yourself? I don’t recommend it.

Madeline: Good point. I did once and what came up was a dance picture of me from the blog when I was about 9 years old and looked like I hadn’t eaten in several weeks. It was awful! But now I’m in college. I give you permission to blog about me all you want.

So, to catch you all up… Madeline graduated high school, just finished up her sophomore year at Iowa State, is majoring in Child & Family Services and minoring in Financial Counseling.

Stay tuned for more, I guess. Apparently blogs, and teenagers, are cyclical.

1 year ago:

Titus on the job, Part 1

Titus on the job, Part 2

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How to Cook : Chicken, Two Ways

(Plus a bonus recipe!)

With fresh chickens coming soon – next month! – it’s time for me to get the ones I still have in the freezer used up. Of course I love the internet for new recipe ideas. Sometimes I love it too much. I did a search for “baked chicken”, found two great sounding recipes, and couldn’t decide between them. Both recipes sounded not only tasty, but they called for ingredients that I either already had on hand or had reasonable substitutes for. So I made both! Because I love leftovers even more than I love new internet recipes.

For each recipe I thawed out one of our cut up chickens and put the pieces of each chicken in a 9×13 pan. Both of them called for chicken breasts but they worked just fine with chicken pieces. Our cut chickens come in an old-fashioned 8-piece cut, plus back pieces and neck/liver/heart/gizzard. The back pieces and neck I throw in a Ziploc to make stock with later. The other pieces become cat or dog treats.

Recipe number one was for Parmesan Chicken Bake from My Kitchen Escapades. It’s one of those super simple recipes where you just mix together a few basic ingredients, spread them over each piece of chicken, and bake.

Here’s the before:

And the after:

Lots of flavor and very tender!

Recipe number two was for Cheesy honey mustard chicken from Plain Chicken. Also super simple!

Begin by seasoning with lemon pepper.

Remember this big jug of tastiness?

It gets mixed with mustard, lemon juice and paprika. And the whole works gets poured over the chicken.

Such a pretty color! The recipe also called for topping each chicken piece with bacon and mozzarella. I did that, and it was tasty, but I think this recipe would be just as good without them. Plus without them I think this recipe would be a good candidate for grilling instead of baking. Here’s the after with the bacon and cheese:

The family loved both recipes. They’ll definitely be on my list to make again soon!

I served them with this great Parmesan Roasted Cauliflower recipe from Back to Her Roots.

Have you noticed I favor simple recipes with basic ingredients? It’s pretty amazing how much flavor you can get with just a few spices!

If this made your mouth water at all, be sure and get your chicken order in! They’ll be ready June 26 and my list is filling up already. Just call or email your order – contact info is on our about page.

2 years ago:

How things change

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Free rangers in training

I’ve got some seeds started in the basement this year. The brassicas I start 2 seeds to a pot and then clip one seedling out if they both germinate. These fresh, tender little greens are perfect for introducing the chicks to foraging before they get moved to pasture.

The first time I toss some baby plants in the pen the chicks aren’t sure what to think. They very cautiously check out the alien being that has just fallen from the sky.

Soon more chicks gather round. So curious!

Finally one brave chick picks up a piece of green.

And the race is on! Once one chick has something, the rest of them want it. The have nots chase the have around the pen trying to get him to drop it. That little piece of green will typically change hands – er, beaks – several times before one victorious chick finally eats it.

Very entertaining!

4 years ago:

Spring piggers

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