Category Archives: The Homestead

Our attempts to get closer to our food, give our kids an idea of where food comes from, and teach them how to work.

Book Burning

For most of the world, there is little thought that goes into disposing of something.  You simply put it in the trash bin, set that bin on the curb roughly once a week, and it magically disappears.  When you live where we do, though, there is more to it than that.  For those in our “neighborhood” who elect to pay for regular trash service, they pay roughly ten times what it costs in the city for the privilege.  As an alternative, we have the option of bagging our trash and hauling it off to the local dumpster once a week for a set price per bag.  Many of us, on the other hand, find alternative ways to deal with unwanted stuff.

There is a well-defined and graduated scale of sophistication in back-woods trash disposal.  Lowest on the totem-pole are the jerks who look for some unattended place to simply dump their crap and make it someone else’s problem.  These are scumbags who don’t think twice about throwing a half-empty 20oz beer can out of the truck window and into your yard.  May they get warts and boils on their intimate parts.

Next up the ladder of sophistication are the old-school farmers who never get rid of anything, opting instead to throw it on the pile that’s been building in the back lot since grandpa discarded an old plow or other piece of worn-out farm equipment, saving it “just in case.”  This crowd doesn’t really care much about what others think, but scoff at making their junk someone else’s problem.  They respect others property rights, and expect you to respect theirs by not complaining when their front yard looks like a scrap-heap.  The only time this group becomes a problem is when they die or move, necessitating a major cleanup effort.  They do have a bad habit of dumping fairly toxic stuff rather than incinerating or otherwise dealing with it.

Next there are those who believe in having their own personal landfill and dig a big hole somewhere on their property to push everything into, thereby dealing with the cosmetic issues the first kind of “freestyle landscaping” causes by burying it.  Unfortunately, this group isn’t very particular about what goes into the holes, tossing used motor oil, unused agricultural chemicals, furniture, plastics, and anything else they happen to accumulate into the pit to contaminate the groundwater.  Recognizing the limit on space, they often have a habit of separating at least the large items with metal in them for eventual recycling (usually when they move or die).

Next in sophistication are those who get tired of digging new holes, so they burn the pile in the hole on a regular basis and only cap it off when the ash builds up.  This tends to minimize the space used and consume many of the more nasty chemicals and plastics that would otherwise pollute or clog landfills.   The ash it produces, however, is toxic in itself.

Finally, there are guys like me.  In our house, we separate our waste into a few simple categories.  First, there is food waste.  There is no point in wasting what would otherwise be effective fertilizer, so 100% of it is either fed to the chickens or composted.  Second, there is the organic matter that isn’t easily composted or edible like paper, cardboard and wood.  This we burn in our fire-pit, collecting the ashes and scattering them in the field to return the minerals that remain to the soil.  Third is anyting metal.  Metal doesn’t burn, and I don’t like the idea of burying a bunch of it on my property, even if it isn’t likely to be toxic, so it gets collected until there is a sufficient pile of it and I turn it in for scrap.  Finally there are glass, plastic, and contaminated paper products.  Glass and plastic aren’t worth recycling here, so it isn’t separated from the other things I can’t recycle.  All of this is burned in a ventilated burn-barrel.  When the barrel fills with ashes broken glass, and anything else that didn’t burn up, the ashes are triple-bagged and hauled off to the dump-station where they are taken to a lined landfill.

Between being conscientious about the kinds of stuff we buy and making the most of the system I described above, we’ve reduced our contributions to the landfill to about two to three moderately large trash bags every six months while only spending about $20 in that same time-frame.  I don’t want to hear any griping about air pollution or carbon dioxide emissions.  I’ve considered the alternatives, and this has the least overall impact on the environment without going to uneconomical extremes.  The only real down-side is the work that goes into burning.

So, what is the point of this long dissertation on how country rednecks get rid of trash?  Recently, Liz and I went through our extensive collection of books and down-sized the library.  One consequence of this was a decision to rely on electronic means for many materials that are readily available for free via the Internet, and the library for books that aren’t likely to be referenced frequently.  Many of the books we identified as excess are worth selling, others were worth donating to the local second-hand stores.  However, we had a large number (mostly religious and available for free on-line) that were not likely to be marketable even at a thrift store.

Given that we have to pay for every bag of trash we throw away, and that you can only reasonably put so many books into one bag without it tearing through, I didn’t want to just throw them out.  Not only that, but the ash content of the paper is rich in trace minerals that can fortify soil, and most of the inks used in modern printing are vegetable based so I wasn’t worried about any concentration of toxic crap in the ash.  The books simply had to be burned.

Burning books is not something that feels intellectually good.  Generally speaking, book burning brings up imagery like the Nazis prior to WWII or the firemen from Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451.  I treasure books, information, and the free-exchange of ideas (even when I disagree with them).  The idea of doing something supported by fascists to stamp out or bury information causes cognitive dissonance.   However, I’ve a long track record of overcoming hesitation when something needs to be done.

Last night, Isaac, Michael, and I spent the evening burning the pile of junk books.  Something I’ve learned over the couple of years we’ve lived here is that you can’t just throw a book in the fire and expect it to reduce to a small heap of ashes.  In fact, there are few things that are ultimately flammable which are harder to burn.  If you want a book to burn, you have to separate the leaves of paper to allow the air to circulate, otherwise the ash from the outside pages smothers the pages within and results in a book with scorched edges that is generally intact.   The three of us spent most of the night tearing out pages, crumpling them, and adding them to the fire slowly enough to prevent suffocating it.

Burning books is a slow, hot, smelly, smoky, painful, tiring process.  While I was stirring the pile of burning paper with a shovel last night to make sure everything burned down completely, I reflected on how much malice there must have been in the hearts of people who participated in burning “unwanted” documents in Nazi Germany.  While I don’t understand how you could get to a point where it would be appropriate to eradicate and criminalize dissenting opinions, I now have some minor insight into how committed those who got to that point were.  They must have really been committed to spend that kind of energy.  As for me, I’ll be happy if I never have to burn another book again.

A Day on the Farm with Michael

Editor’s Note:  Liz started this with Michael a while ago, but hasn’t been able to convince him to finish it.  Rather than wait for what will probably never happen, I’ve decided to post what he’s done so far for the benefit of people who want a view of our world through the eyes of Michael.  Who knows what this would have looked like had Michael finished it, but for now, enjoy the sneak peak.   –Peter

Today Michael and I decided to make a book.  He asked me to take pictures of “bugs, animals, chickens, Thornton, and cracks in the dirt.”

The adventure begins…

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“I’m standing on the chicken roost.”
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“These chickens are having a happy day ’cause we didn’t mess around with them.”
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“This is what eggs look like.”
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“This is a striped rooster.”

 

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Meatloaf and Cabrito

This day has been approaching for some time now, and finally arrived… A gaggle of goat kids, barely over the trauma of having their horns or other body parts removed (as was the case for the males), have been traumatized again. Having reached adolescence, it was time to wean them from their mothers by forcibly separating them.  I’m such an evil man.

Today has been a day of musical goats so to speak.  Atticus (Cocoa’s baby), Patricia, and Stephanie (Nippa’s girls) had to go away today so their mothers could rest and I could get more milk.  At the same time, Meatloaf (Laura and Banny’s only goat kid this year), Dasher and Flash (LInda’s male kids this year) needed to find new homes for the same reason.  Atticus went on an extended holiday to Banny’s place, Stephanie found a permanent new home there in exchange for Meatloaf (who came back here), Patricia went to Linda’s in exchange for Flash (renamed Cabrito),  and Dasher went to Linda’s neighbor.     I’ll go get Atticus back in a few weeks after he’s fully weaned and add him to the flock of future hamburger.

DSCF0491 Say goodbye to Patricia and Stephanie, and see ya later to Atticus.

And, with the caveat that nobody is to get too attached to them, say hello to Meatloaf and Cabrito (Meatloaf is the cream-colored one between Coca and Nippa, and Cabrito is the white and black one behind Nippa). DSCF0493

Good Ideas

The weekend after Thanksgiving we took the family up to Waco to a harvest festival put on by a group of anababtists who farm using traditional (non-mechanized) methods, teach traditional crafts, and generally do things a bit slower than the general population.  Along with selling their wares, they teach a series of seminars on self sufficiency, skills like blacksmithing and beekeeping, animal husbandry, etc…  It’s interesting and fun to spend a few days wandering, watching, and listening.  This year, Liz came home with a few “good ideas.”  Good ideas generally mean work… lots of it.

We’ve been meaning to put in a garden since we got here, but the holdup has been putting up enough fence to keep critters ranging from chickens to deer and wild pig from eating the fruits of our labor.  In preparation to put in the garden and with her interest to learn new methods for gardening and natural pest control Liz attended a seminar that piqued her interest.  That’s where the work comes in.

Apparently, grasshoppers and similar pests don’t fly or jump nearly as far or as often as they crawl.    One suggestion for ways to minimize damage due to bugs was to surround the garden with an eight-foot wide chicken run.  Chickens LOVE bugs, and will scratch and peck their run down to nothing but dirt, leaving a barren wasteland of death for any bugs brave enough to attempt to cross it.  I guess the odds of a bug getting across an eight-foot wide no-man’s-land filled with ravenous predators are pretty bleak.   Sounded great… until I did the math.

Something I learned a while ago is that most of the work putting in fences goes into getting the corner posts and braces in.  For every corner I have to dig three post holes (2 1/2 feet deep into hard clay) and tie in two braces.  Given how hard the clay is once you dig down more than about six inches, it can take up to an hour to dig a single hole, and in the end you end up with a gloppy mess because the only way to get through it is to use a combination of water and a 16lb digging bar to break up the clay before scooping it out with a post-hole digger.  That pile of goopy glue sticks to my shoes, gloves, tools, etc… making everything about 5-10 lbs heavier than it would normally be.  Then you get the pleasure of putting the post in the hole, backfilling the dirt you just took out, and using that 16lb bar to tamp and pack the dirt down by repeatedly pounding the flat end of it against the ground.  Building fencing sucks…  But it’s a great workout for your upper back.

When we put the fence around the 1.2 acre “yard” I ended up with about 30 wood posts including posts and braces for three gates.  The rest were T-posts that are quick, cheap, and easy.  It took me several weekends to get it done.  With that in mind, consider the following:

chicken_yard If you subtract the six posts that are already there from the earlier fencing effort, that still leaves 27 posts if I did the arithmetic correctly.

The holes are done, posts in the ground, and now I get to finish bracing and stringing the fence fabric.  I guess I’d better quit writing about it and get busy doing it.

Building the Back Yard

Every project we’ve done so far in the “yard” has been geared towards something that produces food or is food.  So far projects have included things like the barn, fence, chicken coop, electric to the barn and coop, water to the animals, etc…  The only thing I’ve done to the yard is to cut back the brush and let wild grasses grow in.  Not much of a yard, and not particularly good at keeping the mud down when it rains.

Now that some of the major projects are done, and all the animals have homes and water, I decided to finally break out the big bag of grass seed I bought last year and work on getting at least a small patch of grass for the kids to play on.  The funny thing about the kind of clay we have here is that it’s about like an adobe brick when it’s dry, and about as sticky as rubber cement when it’s wet.  This makes working it and getting it ready for seeding kinda difficult.  To make matters worse, Liz is pretty adamant that I not use weed killer to get rid of the prairie grasses that “filled” the void when I cleared the brush last year.

It isn’t much fun, but a sod-buster on my puny tractor is decent at tearing up grass and the first few inches of dirt.  It turns over the sod, leaving a narrow trench and extremely uneven ground that has to be run over multiple times and directions to get all of it since the wedge is much narrower than the wheelbase.  My back would appreciate suspension, but that’s not a real option on my tractor.  After an hour bouncing and rattling and banging through the hard dirt, the deeply furrowed and rough ground looked worse than when I started.

To try and clean things up some I used a crappy disc plow that came with the tractor to cut the big blocks of clay into smaller blocks.  Along the way, the grasses got torn up for the most part. The problems with this approach are that the ground ends up pretty uneven and is completely covered in golf-ball sized chunks of hard clay, and the grass forms hard root-balls in the clay that won’t die unless you break up the roots and pull the grass out.  I had to come up with something better.

A few weeks prior, I had acquired some scrap expanded metal when I taught a neighbor how to weld together a milking stand.  There were two pieces of it left that would be about the width of the tractor if I welded them together on some kind of frame.  I figured if I dragged the expanded metal grating across the dirt it would help to both smooth out the ground and to break up some of the chunks.  A few minutes with some more scrap from the garage, some random things to weigh the sled down and my excessively cheap Harbor  Freight welder, and I was in business.

It did a decent job of breaking up the chunks, and a great job of pulling the roots and grass out of the clods.  After a few passes (maybe more than a few) the grass was all clumped up in a handful of balls that either blew away in the wind or were easy to pick up by hand.

The best part… I didn’t have to drag it around the yard.  Isaac and Sydney are still under the delusion that driving anything that is powered by an internal combustion engine is fun.  I don’t want them dragging a plow yet, but a fairly light “sled” that just smooths out the dirt seemed about right for them to cut their teeth on.  I even used the kids and sled to pack or cover the seed after broadcasting it.

IMG_8232The only bad part of the whole deal is that the next week it rained several inches overnight while I was out of town on business.  When I called Liz later to say hi, I got an ear-full because the freshly turned and broken-up earth was now an ankle-deep muck pit that sat squarely between the house and the goat-pasture.  Turns out it’s hard to walk through gloppy, sloppy, deep and sticky mud in the rain carrying a bucket of fresh milk without falling down.

It’s been a few weeks and one or two rains, and now I have a bunch of clover (on purpose) and the beginnings of a green lawn behind the house.

Free cats are REALLY hard to keep

A while back I wrote that free cats were hard to keep.  That hasn’t changed.  Since that post, we’ve had another three to four cats go AWOL.  All of them quite friendly, dedicated, and effective at keeping the mice under control.

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Our most recent mouser (Cocoa’s friend seen above) lasted only a few weeks.  At this point, I can’t even remember it’s name because we’ve been through so many.  Needless to say, it was named for some Shakespearian character (Guildenstern maybe).

The unfortunate thing about cats around here is that they are just about meal-sized for coyotes, and they don’t respect fence-lines. While the goats and chickens stay inside the fence for the most part, the cats like to hunt off-reservation.  The unlucky part for the cats is that so do the coyotes.  I recently read an article claiming that most of their diet was made up of cats.  That article was focused on urban coyotes, but it seems the same problem exists here.  We’ve been through nine cats since we brought the first one home and are now totally cat-free.  I never thought that kind of statement would bother me, but I don’t relish a repeat of the snake in the garage incident.

We do still have some form of semi-effective pest control though…  When we first moved in, I was killing a handful of scorpions every night.  As soon as the chickens started wandering the yard, that stopped.  I haven’t seen a single scorpion outside in months.  However, it appears at least one of them got smart and decided to hide-out in a laundry pile Sydney had left in the bathroom.   No chickens in there.  Welcome to Texas!

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Meet Cocoa

The coyotes seem to have given us a break recently.  Between permanently moving Thornton outside and doing a better job making sure the electric fence isn’t shorted out, we haven’t lost any animals to predators in a few months.  So what do we do to celebrate…  get more animals I guess.

Nippa the milk machine had a pair of very nice kids last March.  Rex, the boy, has found a home with Linda’s (the lady we got Nippa from) neighbour,  but Linda figured Nippa could use some company and sent Cocoa our way rather than continue to spend money to feed her.  Meet Cocoa.

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So, how does Nippa feel about having her daughter around to keep her company?  Let’s ask…  Are you happy Nippa?

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That’s a resounding YES!

Both Nippa and Cocoa have been bred and will be kidding sometime around the first week in March.  Nippa has a track record of throwing two kids each year, so if Cocoa has two we could have up to six goats within a few months.  Not quite like rabbits, but still pretty awesome.  More milk and some cabrito assuming we end up with a male or two.

On the flip-side, since Thornton has been banished outside to discourage coyotes and for tracking in unacceptable levels of mud and other dirt, he has become very lonely and somewhat depressed.  I think we’ll get him a friend next.  It’s almost disturbing how quickly animals multiply here (unless it’s a cat).

Making Mozzarella & Butter

Nippa, the milk machine, generally produces almost exactly the amount of milk we tend to drink every day as a family.  However, when one or more of us aren’t here, the milk can begin to pile up in the fridge.  Recently I spent several days out of town for work, and Sydney had spent a week at summer church camp.  That translated into a couple gallons that were threatening to go bad if we didn’t do something useful with them. To add to the problem, Liz had bought a half-gallon of cream from the dairy down the street, but had only used about half of it making Ice Cream and Creamy Tomato Soup.

Liz has been meaning to try making cheese for quite a while, and had even bought the rennet to do it with.  However, circumstances never aligned until this last Monday.  We decided to make cheese and butter for “Family Night.”   The kids each got a mason jar half-full of cream to shake while I used the opportunity to teach the science of cheese making (yes science… I’m quite the geek).  In the end, we ended up with a delicious ball of fresh mozzarella, ricotta, and braunkase (reduced carmelized whey).  All of it tasty and none of it from the store.  Nothing went to waste.

Just as luck would have it, we had run out of butter that day, and the butter we made got us through until the next in-town shopping trip where we could re-stock on grass-fed organic butter (man… that makes me sound like an uppity food snob, but there are good reasons for it).

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A Doghouse for Mr Thornton

Liz has never really liked the idea of an “inside dog,” coyotes were wreaking havoc on our chickens, and we were planning on going on a family vacation for two weeks and leaving the Dog outside to “protect” the other animals and to make it much easier on the family who was going to be feeding and watering the animals.  The dog would need somewhere to get out of the weather.  Because the barn is behind the back pasture fence and I don’t like the idea of the dog hanging out in the chicken coop I decided the best option would be to knock together a doghouse out of scrap lumber in the (vain) hope that he would use it.

As far as the dog goes, it was a wasted effort.  According to our friend who was feeding and watering him, Mr Thornton spent his time hiding in the shade under my truck, and I can’t see any evidence that he has been in there.  Since we got home, he’s insisted that he belongs inside with us, and I think we’ve given up on trying to convince him he lives outside.  On the up-side, the boys had fun painting it to match the barn and coop, and the one turkey the coyotes didn’t get while we were out of town has decided it makes a decent roost, and he  spends the night on top of if after the chickens he’s adopted as his flock go in for the night.

As for Thornton protecting the other animals, ALL of the chickens survived the coyote raids.  Only the turkeys (who were in the back pasture where Thornton couldn’t go) were picked off.  Apparently a coyote had managed to get through the electric fence, grabbed a turkey to take back to the den, then dropped it on the wires when he got shocked by the fence.  The dead turkey shorted out the fence and opened up a hole that made it easier for the coyotes to get in and out over the next few days to pick off most of the rest of the birds.  You could see where Thornton had been scratching and digging at the fence and gate to get to the back pasture.  I suspect he was trying to go after the coyotes, because he doesn’t bother any of our animals.

In the end, I don’t mind the lost turkeys.  I’m tired of scraping and spraying poop off the porch and listening to the constant noise.  The one bird that’s left is noisier than our rooster and leaves more messes on the porch than all 15 of the chickens combined.  Now that he’s the only one he spends his time with the chickens, and without a flock to keep him company I can’t keep him in the back field where I wouldn’t mind the mess and noise.  If this one makes it to Thanksgiving I’ll be surprised.

Whole-Wheat Sourdough Kefir Bread

I love bread.  However, with the nutrition approach Liz has adopted you’re supposed to soak all grains overnight in an acidic liquid before consuming/cooking them to break down phytic acid.  The conventional (if you can call it that) method is to add a few tablespoons of cultured whey to act as a starter and get lacto-fermentation going to generate the acid.  However, I don’t like the flavor the whey adds.  To make it worse, most of my recipes for homemade bread don’t include an overnight soak/rise.

Sourdough, on the other hand, essentially is an overnight soak because it can take all night to rise depending on your starter.  Unfortunately, I’ve not had great success getting sourdough to produce the results I wanted without cheating and adding commercial yeast, mostly because I tend to let the starter go too long between uses.

However, I’ve found an alternative that seems to work very well for me.  In an attempt to break myself of the Diet Coke habit, I started brewing “water kefir,” aka “tibicos” – a fizzy pro-biotic drink brewed with a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) kind of like kombuscha but using a different starter culture and sugar water instead of tea.  The end result of the brewing is a mildly acidic liquid rich in lacto-bacteria and yeasts like a sour-dough starter, but with more pleasant flavors and more than one use (I like to drink it straight, kinda like a carbonated unsweetened or lightly sweetened lemonade).  Because I use it as a regular drink, I haven’t had trouble with killing it from lack of use, and I pretty much always have a bottle or two in the fridge.

Now for the recipe…  Start the recipe the day before you want the bread.  The rise-time for me always seems to take at least 8 hours, and most of the time it’s more like 18.

  • 4 C Water Kefir
  • 1 Tbs unrefined sea salt (should be gray or pink)
  • 3 eggs (pasture raised in your back yard if possible)
  • 1/2 C melted butter (from grass-fed cows if possible)
  • 1/2 C malted wheat flour, 1/4 C maple syrup or 1/4 C rapadura sugar (optional)
  • 9-12 C fresh-ground whole-wheat flour

Start with cold Kefir and mix in the sugar and salt.  Melt the butter and whisk in the eggs until well mixed and add the eggs and butter to the Kefir.  Add about half the flour and stir until smooth, then add the remaining flour (more if needed) and knead to make a moderately stiff dough (I do it by hand because I got tired of repairing stripped out gears in my KitchenAid, but a machine works well if you don’t abuse it like I tend to).

Once the dough is smooth and stretchy, shape it into 2 or 3 loaves and plop them into bread pans greased with lard, tallow, or butter (I don’t like any form of highly processed vegetable oil, and butter tastes better anyway).   Grease the top of the loaves with butter.  Cover loosely with plastic wrap leaving the cover loose enough to let the bread rise and let sit at room temperature overnight.  If by morning the dough isn’t rising, place the loaves somewhere warm (I use my dehydrator set to about 100F) until they have doubled (anywhere from 1-6 hours).  If they still haven’t risen, you have a choice to make.  You can either bake them anyway and eat fairly heavy but delicious bread (what I usually do) or wait for the yeasts to finally take off.  They will eventually, and with the acid in the Kefir, you don’t have to worry much about putrifying bacteria and the like.   Bake at 350 for about 30 minutes or until it sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom of the loaf.  Let it rest on a wire rack for 5-10 minutes, cut off a thick slice, smear thickly with butter, and enjoy!

Notes:

Water Kefir: look it up via your favorite search provider.   There are several places that describe it and how to obtain a culture and brew it.  I’ll eventually post something about how I make it, but no promises when.  Sometimes I add fruit juice or pulp to the kefir to flavor it, and that adds a unique and generally pleasant flavor to the bread.

Unrefined Sea Salt:  I use Celtic Sea Salt because I understand that it retains all of the minerals found in the seawater used to make it and that it is an excellent source of trace minerals.  I suppose any kind of salt would work if that is what you have.

Pasture-Raised Eggs: Eggs from pasture-raised chickens have dark yolks and firm whites.  I believe they contain higher levels of vitamins and minerals (particularly fat-soluble ones like A, D, and K2) than the eggs produced by factory-farm raised chickens, and know they taste better either way.  If you don’t have chickens in your back yard, I feel sorry for you.

Butter (from grass-fed animals in particular): Butter is one of the best sources of vitamin K2 (as long as the animals making the milk are eating stuff containing chlorophyl), a substance that science is only just beginning to understand, but Winston Price without knowing what to call it tied it to strong teeth and excellent health including immunity from tooth decay and heart disease.  Furthermore, I don’t buy the saturated fat and cholesterol scare tactics employed by modern medical practitioners.  Their low-fat, low-cholesterol, low-taste diet seems to have gotten us worse off than our ancestors were on a high-fat nutrient rich naturally grown diet.  See for example www.westonaprice.org. The research is quite interesting.  Avoid margarine and other processed vegetable oils like the plague.

Malted Wheat Flour: I make my own by sprouting wheat berries until the baby-plant (not the furry rootlets, but the thing that will be grass if you let it grow much more) is about as long as the grain, throwing them in my dehydrator for a while at temps below 115F until they are crispy and sweet, then grinding them into flour.  it adds a sweet, nutty flavor, and provides sugars for the yeast to digest.