Adventures in Coop Building

The Hilliard Family Farm est. 2012

Hi everyone!  It’s been a while since I last posted and I’ve been busy!  I thought it was about time that I got back in to blogging and I wanted to share my latest project with you all.

Ever since I moved to Portland, I’ve thought about getting chickens.  The urban farming culture here is one of the things I love most about this city, so when Mike and I were looking into buying a home last summer, a backyard with room for a coop was essential.  We finally did it last September, and I immediately got started thinking about the type of coop I wanted to build to accommodate some new feathered friends who would supply me with fresh eggs every morning.  We were thrilled when we found out that the previous owners were going to leave their play structure in the yard but had a tough time deciding if we would keep it for our kids someday or turn it into a chicken coop.  In the end, who doesn’t love a good re-sourcing project?!  (sorry future kids)

The chicks arrived right around Valentine’s Day, and I fell in love with them immediately!  Here, let me introduce the little ladies…

Sleepy babies on their first night home. Front to back: “Vegemite” the Black Australorp, “Belina” the Buff Orpington, “Stephanie Colbert” the Ameraucana, and “Taunton” the Barred Rock (Taunton was replaced in week 2 by “Strata” due to a few toe eating incidents…a blog post for another day)

I still had a few weeks of school left at this point, so I was happy to have their little “cheeps” helping me get through some late nights, but as soon as I was done, it was go time!  I had 3 weekends to get the coop built before they would outgrow their brooder and be ready to go outside.

The swing set after removing the slide and swings.  Emmett, our cat was acting Coop Inspector throughout the process.

I should mention that I went into this never having built anything before and being entirely intimidated about having to use an electric saw, but the cedar swing set was a perfect solid structure to build off from, and it made me comfortable enough to tackle my first construction project.

After some research, I learned that certain things were going to be key in making my chickens safe and happy.  These included a dry place to sleep, preferably off the ground (the second story of the play tower is perfect!); a run that they can access during the day (the swing area); a covered area for their food (first story of the play tower); and security from predators.  The predator issue is different for everyone depending on where you live, but in the city they tend to be mainly domestic dogs, opossums, and raccoon.  Luckily we have a fully fenced back yard, so that takes care of the dogs, but for extra safety against the others, I decided on 1/2″ wire mesh instead of regular chicken wire, and then buried it in a trench around the run so that nothing could dig its way in.

Bare structure ready for building with trenches dug around the run and an added support beam in the back right corner.

I was determined to use as many re-sourced materials as possible in the build, and our local ReBuilding Center came in really handy.  I found some great things, like a full size door for the run, an old solid wood cabinet, and all the lumber I could ever need.  One thing I didn’t mention before is that chickens need a safe cozy place to lay their eggs.  This is the result of my first attempt at using a reciprocating saw on that cabinet I found…I don’t think the ladies care much that the lines aren’t straight 🙂

Nest boxes.

One thing that I did buy new was some good 1/2″ plywood for the sides of the hen-house.  I wanted it to be ventilated but not too drafty so that the girls don’t get cold in the winter months

The hen-house is enclosed with plywood, leaving room for a door in front and on the right side leading to the run.

After a few weekends of building and help from some amazing friends, we got the coop ready for the chickens to move in just as they turned 8 weeks old.  Which is a REALLY good thing!  I would recommend them to anyone, and raising them from day-old chicks is an absolute joy, but by week 5, I guarantee you will want them out of your house.  There is nothing quite as smelly as chicken poop, and the garage probably would have been a more suitable place had I not totally fallen in love with “Chicken TV”.  Cable shmable…these guys are entertaining!!!

Inside the hen-house there are nest boxes for laying and a roosting bar for sleeping. I use pine shavings inside as well.

I can open their door from outside the coop just by sliding it.  This is important for when I want to keep them warm in the winter.  It took them a few days to get comfortable with the ladder, but now they are pros!

Good night babies!

I have always loved the Tudor style houses and wanted one for myself, so I figured since I don’t have one, I would make one for the chickens!  They deserve it…they are going to give me a delicious breakfast every morning!  I used all low VOC paint, and the guys over at Miller Paint were super helpful!  We also got some corrugated roofing to keep the rain out of the coop which was a little leaky from the existing wood roof.

Primed plywood and added trim + Stephanie, Vegemite, Belina & Strata

The Chicken Tudor (front)

The Chicken Tudor (back) – There is a back door which makes it convenient to change out food and water without having to walk through the run. +Stephanie

The Chicken Tudor (run) +Belina.  I use straw in the run to keep it from getting too messy.  It keeps things dry and the chickens like to dig around in it.

Now that the coop is done, I’m really enjoying bonding with (bribing) my new buddies.

Mother Hen and her Chicklets at 13 weeks.

I was originally really worried about how Emmett would react to the chicks, but they get along great!  He loves to watch them, but has never been aggressive…he may be a little too relaxed actually.

My backyard wild kingdom

Now, this was a fantastic project, and I couldn’t be more happy with the outcome, but there were definitely some lessons learned that I feel like I should share:

Firstly, chickens do not require a structure this large.  It was great to have the play set to work from, but it also presented a cost issue that I didn’t anticipate at the start.  Wire mesh and lumber, yes even when used, is way more expensive than I thought it would be!  This is construction 101 for sure.  I wanted to work with what I had and also be able to walk into the run, so in the end that is what won, but my chickens will probably finish paying the mortgage on their coop (in eggs) right around the same time I pay off mine.  Thank goodness they have entertainment value too 🙂

Secondly, you know that saying “It takes a village”?  I love my friends!  They were amazingly helpful as construction consultants, chicken consultants, heavy lifters, and wire wranglers.  I could not have done it without them.

Lastly, a project like this is absolutely invaluable when it comes to gaining self-confidence for future home improvement projects.  I feel so much more capable now and look forward to the next project we take on, whether it is replacing our old windows, moving the gate on our fence, or converting the back of our garage into a workable barn for a pygmy goat 🙂  (I kid I kid…hahaha)


Lamb Stuffed Cabbage Rolls Make a New Year Happy!

Happy 2011, friends!  OK, first I would like to apologize for being M.I.A. for a while now.  The end of 2010 proved to be a bit stressful, and unfortunately blogging had to be put on hold for a bit there.  It’s amazing how a mysterious flea infestation and moody pre-teens can really bring you down!  And seriously…since when is pre-teen a thing?!?!  Either you are a teenager or you are not…you can’t mess with the system, tell everyone you are a pre-teen at the age of 11 and start acting all emo because you watched the Twilight movie and now think all boys should be that brooding…seriously!  Ok…hang on…Mike just told me they are called tweens now…what the hell is a tween!?!  Oh I’m so screwed when we have kids!

But it’s a new year!  I’m starting winter term at Portland State tomorrow with some great classes and have tons of goodies planned for this year.  I also recently joined the board of directors for Friends of Portland Community Gardens and will be working with Portland Parks & Rec to help get funding for and coordinate the expansion of community garden plots throughout the city.  I’m working with a great bunch of folks who really believe that growing food goes hand in hand with growing communities.  I can’t wait to work with them all and hopefully learn some gardening skills along the way too.  There are a lot of great things in store for 2011!

On that note, I have to say I started this year off right!  Mike and I had dinner with some friends on New Years Eve, and it gave me an opportunity to experiment with super tasty new recipes that I’ve been meaning to try for a while now, including lamb stuffed cabbage rolls!

I had dinner at Broder in SE Portland about a month ago and had these for the first time.  They were amazing and I decided that I had to try and recreate them.  Unfortunately none of my pictures came out well, but the one shown looks just about right.  Ideally you would eat them in a bowl of beef broth with a spoon.  they are the perfect bite of happy on a cold winter night!

Lamb Stuffed Cabbage Rolls - Photo Courtesy of Balkan Express Restaurant

Lamb Stuffed Cabbage Rolls


12 large leaves of cabbage

1 lb lamb (pasture raised of course)

1/2 cup brown rice, cooked

1/2 tsp salt

1/4 tsp black pepper

1/4 tsp thyme

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp cinnamon

4 cups beef broth


1.)Combine ground lamb, rice and all seasonings in a bowl and set aside

2.) Separate cabbage leaves from the head of cabbage by cutting out the core and placing the whole head of cabbage in boiling water for a couple minutes.  Remove the cabbage from the water and carefully peel off the leaves.  You will get to a point where the leaves are uncooked and you should place the head back in the water to loosen some more leaves.  It is a process but was the best way I found to remove the leaves intact.  If they are tearing, try boiling them a bit more.  And be careful not to burn yourself…use a big spoon to remove the cabbage from the water.

3.) Place 2 tablespoons  of meat mixture in a cabbage leaf and roll firmly, tucking in the sides after the first roll.

4.) Poke each roll a couple times with a fork or sharp knife to create tiny holes and place them in your slow cooker as you roll them.

5.) Cover rolls with the beef broth

6.) Cook on low setting for 8 hours or high for 5 hours

7.) Serve in bowls with some of the broth.

Pumpkin Lasagna

I made this lasagna for Thanksgiving this year and it was a big hit.  It is pretty time-consuming to make (about 2 hours), so I would actually recommend making 2 at once if you can, and freeze the second one for later.  Lasagna freezes really well, and I’ve found that they are almost always better when cooked ahead of time and then reheated.  I promise, you will not regret making two…or three or four 🙂  Just be sure to share…this is a 4 cheese and is not low on calories!


  • 1 pie pumpkin
  • 1/2 butternut squash
  • 1 pear, cored & cubed
  • 1 med.  leek, sliced
  • 1 cup vegetable stock
  • 1 clove garlic chopped
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • 3 Tbs pumpkin butter (click on the link for my recipe)
  • 6 cooked lasagna noodles
  • 1 (15 oz) container ricotta cheese
  • 1 (4 oz) package goat cheese
  • 1 package frozen chopped spinach, thawed & drained
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees
  2. Cut pumpkin and butternut squash in half, remove seeds and place skin side up on a rimmed baking sheet with 1/2 cup water.  Roast in oven for about 45 mins or until you can very easily stick a fork through the skin
  3. In a large bowl, mix ricotta, goat cheese, spinach and eggs.  Set aside for now.
  4. When the pumpkin and squash are done, remove from oven and let sit for a few minutes.
  5. Meanwhile you can start your sauce: heat veggie stock in a pot over medium high heat.  Add pear, leek, garlic, pepper, and oregano.
  6. Remove skin from the butternut squash, cube the squash and add to the sauce pot.  Bring to a boil and simmer until all ingredients can be easily mashed.
  7. Add pumpkin butter to the sauce
  8. Blend the stock & veggies until smooth.  An immersion blender is ideal, but you could use a food processor or regular blender in small batches as well.  Set aside and let cool
  9. Remove skin from the pumpkin and cut into 1/3″ slices, or cut first and remove skin as you go.
  10. Spread 2/3 cup sauce in a 9″x13″ lasagna dish.
  11. Layer 3 lasagna noodles, 1/2 remaining sauce, 1/2 ricotta mixture, 1/2 pumpkin slices, 1/2 mozzarella & 1/2 Parmesan.
  12. Repeat layers one more time with remaining ingredients.
  13. Bake in oven at 375 for about 45 mins

Substitutions: The sauce is basically a homemade butternut squash soup with some pumpkin butter added.  If you are short on time, you could buy canned butternut squash soup, cook it down a little on the stove to thicken it and then add some canned pumpkin pie mix in place of the pumpkin butter.

5 Tips for a Sustainable Thanksgiving

This is a guest post that I wrote for The MBA Hub blog for Portland State University.  Check them out if you are a student or are interested in what the Portland State University School of Business is up to.

This Thanksgiving I am thankful to live in the land of plenty!  Portland has so much to offer with its sustainably focused farmers and long growing season.  Here are 5 tips toward a more sustainable Thanksgiving:

1.)    Local Organically Grown Produce – Green Bean Casserole, Cranberry Sauce, Mashed Potatoes & Pumpkin Pie are all opportunities to buy local and pesticide free.  Support your farmers as we run to the end of the market season.  The Portland Farmers Market on campus is still open through December 18th, and many others are open year round.  Check out Local Harvest or USDA  farmer’s market database for your local farmers’ market availability.

2.)    Gobble Gobble –  If you aren’t having a vegetarian holiday, a Free Range Pasture Raised bird is the only way to go.  They have eaten all of the things that birds naturally eat instead of being confined and force-fed a diet of grain and antibiotics.  This varied diet makes a much tastier juicier bird, which has fertilized the land throughout its life.  You are definitely going to pay more, but once you try one of these birds you won’t go back.  You can really taste the value!  Oh, and don’t forget to use the drippings for gravy, and the carcass for turkey soup after the holiday.  Nothing should go to waste on this tasty bird!

3.)    Local Brews and Vino – Thanksgiving is a great opportunity to sample some of the seasonal microbrews available from your local brewmasters and to treat your guests to a bottle of local Willamette Valley wine.

4.)    Forget the Packaging and Preservatives – Try cooking from scratch this holiday.  Prepackaged foods come with a lot of extra packaging and are full of preservatives.  Bring your own containers to the store and buy your ingredients from the bulk bins.

5.)    Serve – Sustainability is all about making strong healthy communities.  Find some time this holiday season to help out in your community and give back.

What are you thankful for this Thanksgiving?

Farmers Market Database!

I’m not always a huge fan of the USDA, but when they do something good, it should absolutely be recognized and encouraged!  Their new farmers market database allows you to search by location and find all of the markets in that area along with dates and hours of operation.  It even lists the types of items you can find there.  This is a great tool if you aren’t sure where your local markets are.  If you find that your market isn’t on the site yet, contact their Marketing Services Division and let them know.

Pop pop pop…salty and sweet, now without carcinogens!

Popcorn is one of my favorite snack foods.  As a kid, we had an air popper and I would pop giant bags and sell it along with lemonade at my summer lemonade stands.  I mean really, who doesn’t feel like a refreshing lemonade after a salty snack?!  Then as I got older, microwave popcorn came on the market.  Pretty quickly, convenience and buttery flavoring won out over lugging out the old air popper.

Then a few years ago reports started coming out about how microwave popcorn plant workers had unusually high rates of cancer and how all of the chemicals they use in the bags and artificial buttery flavorings were pretty nasty stuff.  It made me think…why do I need a microwave to pop corn?  My next trip to the store resulted in a bulk bag of organic corn and a mission…to pop corn from scratch and use the deliciousness of nature as my flavor guide.  I have to say, it was an entirely liberating experience!  As I held the pan handle over the burner and felt each little kernel explode, I wound up giggling like a little kid again, and my husband looked on questioning my sanity. (Really just another day in the Hilliard home)

Popcorn has become a staple snack once again, but now instead of the artificial flavorings, it’s salt and local honey all the way.  I think the salty & sweet combo is perfection, but pop up some corn and experiment with your own flavor concoctions!  I promise you won’t go back to the expensive, overly packaged, artificially flavored, possibly cancerous, microwave version ever again.

How to pop corn:

1.) Pour just enough oil in a pan to coat the bottom when heated.  A tablespoon is usually pretty good.

2.) Place a few kernels in the pan and cover

3.) Heat to medium-high and wait for a kernel to pop

4.) Add enough corn to cover about 2/3 of the bottom of your pan & cover

5.) Give the pan a shake every 10 seconds or so to keep things moving.  Your kernels will begin to pop…and smiles begin to widen 🙂

6.) When there are about 2-3 seconds between pops, remove the pan from the stove and pour popcorn into your favorite bowl

7.) Add seasonings.  I start with some honey drizzled on top and a little shake of salt!

8.) Share with a friend and enjoy a good movie…I don’t want to spoil the ending, but I think “Real Genius” might be appropriate 🙂

This post inspired by: Fast Food Wrappers and Popcorn Bags Leach Fire-Fighting Chemical into Food

Would you fly to Chile to buy an apple?

Photo courtesy of Neocolours

One Wednesday afternoon last month I was craving an apple, so I ran down to the cafe in my office building.  When I got there I selected one and saw that it had the “grown in Chile” sticker on it.  “Hmm”…I thought.  “Why do they need to ship apples in from Chile when we have a farmers market right across the street on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and apples are in season right now!”  But I was pretty hungry and junk food was really the only other option, so I brought the apple to the register, paid $1 for it, and went back upstairs to my desk.  When I got there, I took a bite.  Now when I say that this was a bad apple, it was a REALLY bad apple!!!  Although the outside looked perfect (no bruising, cuts or discoloration), the inside was entirely rotten, grainy and brown.  Both the taste and the texture were off-putting.  I decided to give it one more chance though and thought that maybe it is just a bruise that I didn’t notice before, so I took a bite from the other side.  Same thing this time around.  It lacked everything that makes an apple an apple.  There was no crispness, it wasn’t sweet, and it definitely wasn’t juicy, all the while looking perfect on the outside.  I thought false advertising was illegal!

Now, Chile is an amazing location to grow many things, and if the Chileans want to grow and eat their apples, that’s awesome, but I would like to suggest that we let them keep them.  These apples have been grown to withstand the Chilean climate as well as the transit that it takes to get them to market in the United States.  I live in the Pacific Northwest where orchards are plentiful.  The climate here is perfect for the most delicious apples I have ever tasted, but all too often, retailers will just buy what is cheap and available through their normal distribution methods.  It seems like they don’t  even bother to think about the quality of the product they are selling… I mean, hey, it sells right?

I am incredibly lucky to have access to fresh fruit and vegetables from my local farmers markets year round, but I recognize how rare this is, and most people are making their buying decisions based on those nasty apples from over 6,000 miles away.  No wonder people don’t want to eat their fruits and vegetables!

Here is the thing.  Until retailers start to challenge the system and demand local, sustainable produce from their distributors, nothing is going to change.  And further, until WE, the consumers start to demand better, the retailers have no reason to change suppliers.  Next time I am at the market across the street from work, I think I will pick up a few extra apples and bring one to the owner of the cafe.  I will ask that he check out the farmers market, or order some local produce from his distributor.  My guess is that he would increase sales if he offered quality product.  Until then, it’s just not worth being a customer.