Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Happy Birthday Dear Chickens!

Our chickens celebrated their 5th birthday last week.

Justin the Rooster turned five.

5 years ago - on April 28, 2015 -  33 newborn chickens arrived to the farm.

Little chickens 5 years ago.
One of them is future Justin the Rooster. 

But no baby chicken is complete without the sweet chirping and the clumsy jumping. Here are two short videos from that era: 

Chickens' appetite:

Chickens in the nursery:

Baby chickens grew up and accomplished a stellar career as free-range, free-spirited Egg Layers, each laying hundreds of superb quality eggs before they retired in the fall 2017. (Except for the roosters. They never worked a day in their life.)

Chickens working hard in their offices in 2016.
A daily work shift takes about ten minutes.
The rest is free time.

A peek into the chicken's office from the back door.
(Nest boxes can be opened from the back, making it easier to collect eggs.)

The result of our chickens' hard work.

Free time.

Sadly, only three chickens made it to their 5th birthday: a rooster and two hens.
By now the two hens are very old ladies, fast approaching their natural end... 

Two old ladies: Liliko (left) and Mabuko (right).
May 2020

Two old ladies sleep most of the time. They still drink some water but refuse to eat. They are given the best care an amateur human (Suu) can provide. 

By the way, being able to live their natural lifespan as a commercial chicken is extremely rare. It's like winning a life lottery. 99.9% of the 1.4 billion egg laying hens in Japan die before they are 1.5 - 2 years old. (And I don't even mention the conditions in which they spend those 2 years). Our chickens are very lucky to live this long. 

Now, however, there is only the rooster enjoying this vast greenery. 

Justin the Rooster, pondering over the meaning of life.

With chicken population shrinking, Chickens' Playground is now literary turning into Goats' Playground.

Goats' Playground, with 3 goats and dramatic sky.

We are happy for the goats, but it still feels a little lonely. There's enough space for both! 

We are seriously thinking of bringing in a new batch of chickens. But we need fo fix some issues first,  especially the sparrow curse. There can be no chickens until we find a way how to prevent hordes of sparrows from coming for free meals and poop everywhere.  
None of the approaches that we tried so far -  feed trays with lids, entrance curtain, invisible strings outside of the entrance...  - nothing has worked permanently. 
We realized that figuring this out will take both time and money. We are now working on it.

In the meantime, Happy Birthday Chickens! It's been a long journey and you've been amazing. Here is Justin the Rooster performing his Birthday Song a few days ago. (It's in fact very similar to his everyday morning song, and brunch and lunch and afternoon tea song):

Justin the Rooster yelling "Happy Birthday" to the world.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

The most amazing toilet paper in Japan

Where to buy your toilet paper when supermarket is empty. 


I have always wanted to talk about our toilet paper because it's fabulous, but goats and chickens don't wipe their bottoms so the topic never seemed relevant enough for this blog. (Nobuo and I use this toilet paper at home.) But now with the coronavirus panic, it seems toilet paper can save lives. Or bottoms. So I decided to share my extensive know-how here.

We haven't bought a single roll of toilet paper in the past few months, but the shelf in our bathroom still looks like this (picture taken today) :

toilet paper from Kyodogakusha 共働学舎のトイレットペーパー

Where does this paper come from?

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Interview for Thai TV

"What have you gained from this project in the 5 years since you started it?"
The director asked Nobuo and me through interpreter. 

The interview

The original question was in Thai, translated via interpreter to Japanese, and here I'm trying to articulate the memory of it in intelligible English. It was the kind of question that makes one pause and think. It was a good question. 

Sunday, January 5, 2020

May there be many mice in your straw in 2020!

Happy Belated New Year from Chickens and Goats!

Solar sharing, chicken, free range, Tsukuba, ソーラーシェアリング、ニワトリ、放し飼い つくば
Mabuko, representing all Chickens

Tobi-chan, representing all Goats

However, if chickens and goats knew that 2020 is the Year of Rat in Chinese Zodiac, I'm pretty sure their wish would be much more specific, something like:

May there be more mice in your straw bags this year!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Miracle Egg

Awww, what a miracle! One of our long-retired hens laid an egg this morning! 

Here it is.

Free range chicken farm, egg, Tsukuba, solar sharing, power plant Oo, Chickens Playground, おお発電所、とりの遊び場、ニワトリ 放し飼い
When I went to the farm this morning, this is what I found.

There are two eggs in the nest, but only one is real. 

Free range chicken farm, egg, Tsukuba, solar sharing, power plant Oo, Chickens Playground, おお発電所、とりの遊び場、ニワトリ 放し飼い
We always put a fake egg in the nest box
so chickens have no doubt where to go
when they're in egg-laying mood.

Today morning, there was a real, beautiful, still warm egg in the nest box, right next to the plastic one which is there all the time. 

And why is this a miracle? 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Can tofu be too tasty? (Yes, it can.)

This is almost an existential question.

Can tofu be too tasty? 

The answer is:

Yes, it can.

To some people, at least.

Here's how we came to this conclusion.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Photo report: Chickens and everyone in Autumn 2019


It's been two years since we stopped selling eggs and our chickens officially retired. The farm is now living a quiet life while Nobuo and I are trying to figure out how to revive the chicken business. 

Solar sharing chickens eating breakfast on an autumn day. Tsukuba, Japan.
Breakfast time! 
October 2019

Meanwhile, here's what the farm looks like now.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

How to make weeding a popular blog post


I have a problem.

I wrote an interesting blog post the other day, but no one reads it.

Even though the content is dazzlingly captivating, almost no one clicks on the link.
It's about weeding.
Here it is:

The Perfect Weed Is ...

I think it's a super exciting topic. 

I posted it on FB too.
In one week it got 6 likes. The first one was from my husband Nobuo, who gave it a like after I was lonefully complaining "Why is no one liking my post?" (He has not read it.)
The remaining five likes too were all from compassionate friends.

And so I noticed that, since it doesn't even get clicked on, there must be a problem with the title.

It's not only about this latest article. Topics like what kind of weeds we have on the farm; that sparrows come to the chicken coop and drive us crazy; that goats don't work (don't eat grass) as much as we want them; that spiders build huge webs all over the farm overnight - these are obviously the most exciting topics  in the world and something must be wrong if they don't get read!

So I decided to do some research about article titles that inspire.

Here are some of my research findings applied.

Title 1

Ranking: The handsomest face in the world.

(Original was in Japanese.)
The Handsomest Goat in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan

Sunday, July 28, 2019

The Perfect Weed Is ...

While everyone else spends their summer weekends on the beach, in the mountains or at summer festivals, we do mostly weeding. 

Goat weeding on solar sharing farm in Tsukuba, Japan
Worktime (front: Tobi-chan, back: Nobuo)

Solar sharing, goat, Tsukuba, Japan
Breaktime (left: Tobi-chan asking Nobuo 
for a cold drink; right: Haru-chan and Momo-chan)

It's the fifth summer since we built the farm/power plant, and every single year the vegetation has been a pure, unchallenged life force swallowing everything and everyone who doesn't fight back. Without intervention, in a matter of few weeks the place becomes a jungle. 

Goat weeding on a solar sharing farm in Tsukuba
Jungle in the making

Of the 1150 square meters of land, 1000 square meters are the goats' and chickens' run. We expected animals to take care of the greenery in their run, leaving only reasonable 150 square meters outside the run for human management. 

Alas, men plan, goats and chickens laugh.  

Now there are too few chickens to scratch the ground sufficiently to disrupt the plant growth, and goats get so many delicious treats from outside that they don't bother to eat what grows inside. This means that the entire 1150 square meters need human intervention to avoid junglification.

And we only have weekends for this.

Goats fighting on a solar sharing farm, Tsukuba, Japan
Instead of weeding, Haru-chan and
Momo-chan are fighting again. 

So we need a strategy.

Our current strategy consists of two approaches:

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Taste of Sustainable Protein?


The other day we organized a rare event: Tofu Tasting (利き豆腐).
Tofu Tasting! (June 2019)

As tofu is generally known as that thing that has no taste at all, tofu tasting may sound like a contradiction in terms - how can you compare the taste of something that has no taste? 

Except, this assumption of tofu tastelessness is wrong! It's hard to find, but tasty tofu exists. In our tasting, one brand was a clear-cut winner. 

By the way, if you're wondering why I'm writing about tofu here on this blog devoted to chickens and eggs - well, it's no coincidence. Tofu and eggs have at least one common denominator. But I will get back to that later, right after I tell you about our tasting, the most exciting event of the year far surpassing Christmas and Buddha's birthday and Sumidagawa fireworks combined. (Okay, that's a little exaggeration)

Tofu Tasting!

Our tofu tasting took place at a friend's place last month. 8 participants tried various brands of tofu in two categories - 8 samples in the Kinu category (soft tofu) and 8 samples in the Momen category (firm tofu).

Unlike in Europe, there are many tofu producers in Japan. A tofu shelf in the Japanese supermarket is the size of a cheese shelf in Europe, so it's easy to pick up a varied selection.

Tofu tasting samples

At our tasting, samples were anonymous. Each sample was randomly assigned an alphabet letter, and that was pretty much the only information the participants had. Everything else was, for a while, a top secret.  Participants didn't know whether they are eating a high-end or low-end product, made in a local tofu shop or in a large tofu factory, made from soy beans produced in Japan or from imported ones. They had to rely solely on their taste buds. 
Each participant chose the "Best" (their most favorite), "Second Best" and "Third Best" sample in each category. After everyone finished their evaluation, evaluation sheets were collected, answers were counted, the information about the samples was revealed and the results announced.


One would expect that participants' preferences would be scattered among different brands, but the results were surprisingly uniform. 

Can I say it here? A clear winner was Ohmomo-tofu 大桃豆腐, a small tofuya in Ikebukuro, Tokyo, where I used to work a long time ago. (This wasn't a coincidence. The reason I worked there was that I found it to be the best tofu I ever had). Ohmomo tofu won eight out of eight "Best" votes in the Kinu category, and seven out of eight "Best" votes in the Momen category.

A somewhat distant second was Inamoto-tofuten 稲本豆腐店, a mid-size tofuya in Tsukuba. It won one "Best" vote in the Momen category, and a few "Second Best" and "Third Best" rankings. 
Other brands fared poorly.

By the way, this is not paid advertisement and neither Ohmomo-tofu nor Inamoto-tofuten know that their products were used in our tasting or that I'm mentioning them in this post. (Please don't tell them!)

Where does the difference come from?

It's hard to describe taste in words. As opposed to the typical no-taste associated with tofu, the winning tofu in our tasting had natural mild sweetness and creaminess to it, making it easy to enjoy on its own, without adding any soy sauce or salt or whatever spice at hand. Just plain tofu tasted good.

If food was music, hamburger would be a noisy pop song bursting out of loudspeakers - exciting at first, but ultimately tiring for its overstimulation; regular tofu would be like three piano notes repeating themselves in a never ending loop - hard to bear without adding a melody; and our winning tofu would probably most resemble a quiet but beautiful piano symphony - if you don't listen, you can easily miss it, but if you do listen, you'll realize you can keep listening and enjoying it forever. 

Needless to say, the best way to see the difference is to try it yourself.

The difference in taste of course has everything to do with the choice of the raw ingredients - which are exactly three: soybeans, coagulant and water - and with the way these ingredients are processed.
I could elaborate in great length on the best variety of soybeans or the best type of coagulant or the way the coagulant is mixed with the soy milk, and pretend that I actually know something about tofu. I just deleted a long paragraph on exactly that. I realized it's endless. I will just mention that both Ohmomo-tofu and Inamoto-tofuten use soybeans produced in Japan and use nigari as coagulant. (Nigari, or 粗製海水塩化マグネシウム, "crude seawater magnesium chloride," a byproduct of making salt from the seawater, is a traditional coagulant in Japan. It makes the best tofu, but it requires skill and experience to use.)

Another tasting? Invitation

Eight is  admittedly a small number of participants, although the results are clearly not accidental. I would nevertheless love to do this experiment again and see how replicable the results are.

If you are interested in tofu tasting and are around Tsukuba, please comment under this post, or drop me a message via email or Chickens' Playground page on Facebook.  If there are enough participants, I'll be happy to organize tofu tasting again.

Why the taste of tofu matters?

Now perhaps I should explain why we organized this event in the first place and what implications the taste of tofu has for the world peace. Obviously the implications are huge :D

To those who think that tofu and eggs have nothing in common: In fact they do. 

Tofu and eggs have at least one thing in common: They can both be a wonderful source of sustainable protein.
But for both, this status is conditional - they have to fulfill certain conditions if they want to be called "sustainable." (These conditions are different for eggs and for tofu.)

As for tofu, I insist that to qualify for the sustainable protein badge, it must be "tasty." 

Sustainable Protein

If you never heard of sustainable protein before, don't worry - no one did. I first realized that the term officially exists when I looked it up online last week. 
There are initiatives like Protein Challenge 2040.
There is a book called Sustainable Protein Sources.
There is an extensive article called Sustainable Protein: Meeting Future Needs on the The European Food Information Council (EUFIC) website.

Without knowing any of this, it seems that I have been in quest of sustainable protein for the past decade or so. Raising free range chickens was part of it, and learning how to make tofu was also part of it.

Tofu making (Tokyo, 2013)

Our first chickens (Tsukuba, 2011)

What's sustainable protein?

It's exactly what you think it is: a quality protein that can be produced (1) in large quantities, (2) at low environmental cost and (3) at affordable price.  
And I would add: (4) that people enjoy eating. 

Sustainable protein includes all the protein sources that can support the 9.7 billion people that are projected to live on Earth in 2050, or 10.8 billion in 2100 (the United Nations World Population Prospects 2019) without destroying the planet. 

If you now have a baby, she still might be around in 2100, and she might have grandchildren of her own. They will all be part of the 10.8 billion. If we assume that by then we will have built a reasonably fair society and every person on Earth has access to 60 grams of protein a day (which is about the amount we need to stay healthy), that means 648 million kilograms of protein consumed by humans every day. And that's just protein. Unless we will have expanded to Mars by then, all of it will have to be produced out of the same finite resources we are using now.

Protein sources involve - in traditionally recognized order - meat, fish, eggs, dairy, soybeans, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains and some vegetables (broccoli, asparagus...)
The amount of energy, land and water used in the production of these protein foods varies, as does the amount of waste that comes from the production process. 

Since plant foods almost always require less land, less water and less energy to produce and process than animal products, sustainable protein often means shifting diets toward more plant-based sources. It doesn't mean becoming vegetarian or vegan though. Within the animal protein category, sustainable protein makes a distinction between the environmental impact of various animal-derived foods and encourages a shift towards those with relatively smaller footprint - for instance eggs are (in general) more sustainable than beef or pork. 

For example, according to the IME Global Food report (2013) one hectare of land can produce rice or potatoes for 19–22 people a year, but the same area will produce enough lamb or beef for only one or two people. 
It takes about 15,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of beef, or 6,000 litres for 1kg of pork, but less than 3000 liters to produce 1 kg of eggs (200 liters per egg), or 2,500 liters to produce 1 kg of rice, or 287 liters for 1kg of potatoes.

Also, in processing of foods after the agricultural stage, there are large additional uses of water. This is especially important in the case of meat production, where beef uses about 50 times more water than vegetables. (IME Global Food Report)

According to a case study The water footprint of soy milk and soy burger and equivalent animal products (2011), the amount of water necessary to produce a 150 g beef burger is 15 times higher than the water required for a soy burger of the same weight. (2350 liters and 158 liters, respectively). In other words, with the amount of water necessary to produce a single beef burger, you could produce 15 soy burgers. 

As for energy use, quoting again from IME Global Food report, estimates show that an average of 7–10 calories of input is required in the production of one calorie of food, but this varies dramatically depending on crop, from 3 calories for plant crops to 35 calories in the production of beef. 

Why does the taste of tofu matter?

First, tofu is made of soybeans. Dried soybeans contain 30 -40 % of protein, and it's the most complete protein among all plant protein sources. (Complete protein means that it contains all 9 essential amino acids in a balanced ratio. More on that some other time). 
150 grams of momen (firm tofu) have 9.9 grams of protein, 150 grams of kinu (or kinugoshi, soft tofu) have 7.4 grams. (150 grams of tofu is about half of the regular tofu size sold in Japan.) Add to it all the minerals and vitamins tofu contains, all the while being low-caloric and non-cholesterol, and at least in theory you might appreciate what a perfect food tofu is. Except, many people are not big fans of it.

In other words, tofu can easily pass the sustainable protein definition mentioned earlier: (1) it can be produced in large quantities (2) at low environmental cost and (3) at affordable price; but it often fails point (4) - taste. Few people crave tofu the way they crave hamburger or ramen. Tofu is rarely listed as someone's "favorite food." 

If people don't like it (or are indifferent), they won't eat it, and what's the point then.

That's why I added "being tasty" as a  condition to tofu's sustainable protein potential. Our tofu tasting the other day was an experiment on this. 

So, to answer the question in the title: 
Sustainable protein tastes like, among other things, a tasty, delicious tofu!