Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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This time of year, a strange sound comes from my large kitchen pantry. A beep...beep...beep...beep sound. One that always seems to make friends and family look around as if there is either something on fire or about to blow up. But for me, it's one of the wonderful sounds of spring. So what machine is lurking in the pantry, making ominous beeping noises? It's the incubator!
A few years ago, Dan & I invested in a large cabinet incubator. It has three trays, each capable of holding 66 chicken, turkey, peafowl or duck eggs. (Quail eggs, being much smaller, mean we can use smaller trays which hold many more.) We generally set one tray each week. This works really well, as chicken eggs take 21 days to hatch, so we can have a continuous supply of adorable chicks all spring. It is fully automated, with a digital thermostat for keeping a steady 100 degree temperature, a five gallon bucket that feeds into the machine's tray for steady humidity, and an automatic turner. This turner is necessary so that chicks do not develop lopsided and sickly. A real mother hen shifts on her nest, turning the eggs during incubation, and this fills that function and saves me from turning them by hand multiple times each day. The incubator beeps each time the trays turn, which happens every couple of hours. After a day or two, it becomes a background noise to me, just like the roosters crowing, one that means everything is going just fine. (But a noise that sounds suspiciously like a fire alarm or bomb to visitors!)
I'm excited to have chicks again. As always, we'll be saving some of the laying breeds (our Barred Rocks and Delawares) and keeping some hen chicks to replenish our own laying flock. Others we offer for sale to those looking to start their own flocks. We're looking forward to adding turkey and, hopefully, quail eggs to the mix in the next few weeks, and peafowl eggs later in the spring, probably May sometime. But most of all, I look forward to the day when I can pull out the hatching tray and pull out the first few downy chicks to move to the brooder pen. Because even though I've pulled literally thousands of chicks out of the incubator so far, it's still exciting every time. Seeing new life never gets old.
Posted by Emily
@ 08:39 PM EST
It was a very busy weekend here. Thursday night I heard the first peeps coming from the incubator, we kicked off hatching season with a Delaware chick followed by many more Delawares, some Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons and a few Polish and Blue Cochins. My favorite part of hatching season is opening up the incubator in the morning or after I get home from work. When I pull out the hatching tray, it's just amazing to see little fluffy chicks where solid eggs were just a few hours prior. Even after hatching hundreds of chicks, it never grows old for me. In fact, this is later in the year that we started hatching previously, and I really missed it!
Another successful event this weekend was Friday's Farm to Table conference. We only got a little lost on our way to the convention center! It was great to finally meet Mia from PASA, I feel like I know her since we've exchanged so many emails. She was really great in person, truly excited about local foods, and I look forward to meeting her again. We had samples of my Black Forest Preserves, Carrot Cake Jam, Horseradish Mustard, Ginger-Garlic Mustard, and Thai Dipping Sauce available to all who walked by the PASA table. Although all were well-received, the Carrot Cake Jam was the hands-down winner. My favorite quote from the conference was a woman who not only wanted to buy a jar, but wanted me to make a whole bathtub for her so she could "just soak it all in!" I was amazed, even in a big place like Pittsburgh, about half of the folks who stopped by knew where Tionesta was. We hope to see lots of them at our stand this summer! It was a great place for farmers and other vendors to network as well. Although I had quite a few requests to carry my products at other locations, for now the only place they will be available is at our stand here at the farm.
I was pleasantly surprised by the edible Allegheny table as well. The magazine had contacted me last year about advertising in it. Although it was a bit too expensive to fit into our current advertising budget, I offered to host them if they ever cared to do a story here. I was told that only farms that advertise would get stories published about them This really soured me on the magazine, because it is a beautiful publication that states its purpose as supporting local farms and seasonal eating, but I felt that if they only profiled advertisers, they were misleading the audience about the true availability of local food by ignoring small producers. One of the women at the booth asked if I had heard of the magazine before, and when I relayed this story, she told me that it was not true at all, and that she was in fact the editor of the publication. I gave her one of my cards, and whether or not they ever want to do a story here, I'm excited about the magazine now. I'm looking forward to sitting down with the issue they handed out at the conference and to seeing the subscription come to my mailbox.
Posted by Emily
@ 11:30 AM EDT
It's a bit later than past years, but this week we're dusting off the incubator and filling trays with fertile eggs. We invested in a large incubator that lets us set about 60 eggs per week. This year, we'll be hatching Barred Rocks, Buff Orpingtons, Delawares, Golden Phoenixes, and Blue Cochins. There will probably be some crossbred chicks from the other breeds as well, but we don't keep aggressive roosters, so I don't have an Ameracauna or Polish rooster at the moment. That may change as spring moves on, but for now we're not planning to offer them this year.
I've missed hatching, so I'm happy to get this underway. Even after hatching literally hundreds of peeps the past couple years, it's still exciting to get up in the morning and see small fluffy birds where eggs were the night before. We set on Sundays, and the chicks will hatch about 21 days later. We have three levels for trays in the incubator and a hatching box in the bottom, so once we start setting we will have 50+ chicks hatch every week. An 80% hatch rate is pretty good, although we've hatched 95% or better in some batches. Some batches were below that too, which is why it's important to keep good records to find out what happened. Once the eggs are set, it's pretty low maintenance; our incubator has a bucket on top for water to keep the humidity up that doesn't need filled often, and the trays turn every 4 hours, eliminating the need to do it by hand. A mother hen will rotate the eggs by shifting around on her nest, but a mechanical incubator just tilts the trays at an angle one way, then the other. If you have an incubator that doesn't come with that feature, you need to turn the eggs over by hand every few hours (at least 3-4x per day) or the chicks will develop lopsided and stuck to the inside of the shell and won't hatch. The incubator beeps every time it shifts the trays, and after a week or so we don't even notice, it just becomes part of the normal noise of the house. (The incubator is inside, in a small heated space off of the kitchen.) However, guests notice the noise right away and tend to look at us slightly alarmed, since it does sound a bit like a smoke alarm or other such warning!
Dan and I started this project 2 years ago, the first batch was hatched in a small Styrofoam incubator in a spare bedroom in a trailer I rented at the time. Most hobbies give the encouragement that you, too, can learn to do this, but we were a little apprehensive about incubating eggs. The catalog we got our first incubator from also had a book called A Guide to Better Hatching. The description said that hatching was possible now with this new book. The book itself was no more reassuring...humidity too high? Nothing will hatch. Too low? No hatch. Too warm? They might not hatch, or they might be deformed. And so on...we were partly worried we'd never get it right, but tried to reassure ourselves that it couldn't be that hard, since after all, a chicken could do it! I can still remember the excitement of looking through the small plexiglass window and seeing small cracks in the shells on day 21. I must have called Dan three times between the time I got home from work and the time he came to my house with updates! Having a large incubator, we set up brood pens with heat lamps out on the enclosed porch, but for a time the brooder was right in the house too. I was a bit worried that Puff, my big fluffy house cat, would think the chicks were kitty play toys and bat them through the bars, but he's lazy and just thought that the heat lamp was set up for a nice warm kitty sleeping area near the pen. While it will probably never be quite as exciting as the first time, it's still a joy to get up on a Sunday morning and hear soft peeping coming from the incubator while you put the coffee on! Another sure sign of spring!
Posted by Emily
@ 07:24 PM EST
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