Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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BPA "It's not just for kids, anymore".

There have been warnings about BPA (Bisphenal-A) for years.  Now we read news that it is affecting more then just kids.  BPA resides in food grade plastics and can linings.  Scientist found that when BPA gets heated, by the sun or other means, it leaches into the substance it is suppose to protect.  What it is protecting is the profits of the few at the detriments of the masses.  When the product is eaten, BPA enters the body.  Once again, the authorities will argue "trace amounts" to point to the relative safety of this supposed benign substance.

Yet, BPA is an endocrine disruptor (think castrated bullfrogs, feminized bass).  It has also been proven to cause birth defects.  However, the industrial food complex still disregards these findings and continues to use the substance in there packaging and canning material.

Now more adults are being adversely affected with the latest news that BPA is causing the narrowing of arteries.  You cannot make this stuff up.  We are actually supporting the people that are slowly poising us so that their stockholders and executives came make a fortune.

At our farm, we use corn containers, pulp and wood boxes and wooden bushel baskets.  It is part of being organic but it fits our practice of environmental sensitivity.  I do not think the cost of our containers and jars out-weigh the potential ill affect of using plastics made with BPA.  Could we benefit from purchasing cheaper containers?  Yes, we could, but not at the cost to the consumer, or environment or future generations.  It is not within our DNA to sacrifice health for profit. 

I have said it often; we are in it for the health not the wealth.  Besides, there is no such thing as monetary wealth on a small farm.  Wealth is measured against mostly environmental and sustainable health.  Are we raking in tons of money, no, (for that matter not even ounces).  However, our consumers get SAFE, fresh wholesome food and at the end of the day that is why we started growing for ourselves in the first place.

We just had this crazy idea that other people would want the same thing.  If you are going out of your way to eat healthy why place yourself in peril because of the industrial food complex’s' penchant for the almighty dollar.  Take the next step to find local farms.  Small farms are out there and waiting for your support.  Do something that the next few generations can look positively upon and makes them feel good.  They will reap the benefits of the stand their parents and grandparents took on their behalf.

Buy Local: It might not be perfect looking but it is healthy and safe

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Hell hath no fury...

Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  So goes the line from William Congreve's The Mourning Bride.  To this day, that line conjures up all sorts of imagery.  So few words yet they represent such a vast oasis of thoughts and actions.  

My story started simple enough.  I have a farm dog that likes company, human company to be specific and does not take kindly to being left outside to do her job alone.  Especially if she knows someone is on the farm.

Funny thing is she is on the farm all day by herself watching the chickens.  She has access to inside the garage all the time.  Inside the garage is where most of my shoes reside.  I have a couple pair of steel-toed shoes; a couple pair of muck boots, snow boots and of course my tennis shoes.  I wear the tennis shoes mostly when I leave the farm.  I recently started wearing a new pair while not quite getting rid of the old ones.  The old pair is now the official chicken pen shoe.

Because of poultry bio-security, we cannot allow shoes worn off the farm to set foot inside the chickens’ domain.  It is one of those ounces of prevention measures to keep the organic chickens healthy.  So we tend to have multiple pairs of older shoes in case there is a need to go to another farm or dirty environment.  For visitors, we have single-use booties when giving educational tours.

The shoes are stored on a low shelf in the garage by the door of the house.  If I am in the house, I have on a pair of shoes that never touch anything but the floors of our house.  I change shoes before I go outside and once again before coming back into the house.  Last thing we need is to bring salmonella, listeria or any other viral or bacteriological organism in the house.  Family and friends come over with babies, children and young adults.  Besides, being germ-phobic I am very cautious about cross-contamination.

I was home the other day doing computer work.  We have to redesign our labels to meet new requirements, access email etcetera.  Therefore, I spent most of the day inside working away.  Little did I know the ramifications of my supposed thoughtless actions.  I had gone out to let the chickens out for the morning.  Coadee went with me as normal.  Except this time, I did not stay outside or leave the farm.  I came back inside to catch up on the paperwork.

Coadee for her part tried to come along.  I wanted her outside protecting the chickens so I stopped her, made her sit, took my shoes off and went into the house.  She barked her disapproval and I set about getting the paperwork done.  The day got away from me, the next thing I know my wife is arriving home.  I look outside and see one of my new tennis shoes on the lawn.  "Okay," I think to myself, Coadee drug one of my shoes outside.

Except, when I go to retrieve the shoe I find Coadee decided to show her displeasure at not being allowed in the house.  As the picture below shows, she made quite a statement.

Let us review; she has had access to these shoes for over six months.  She is out all day by herself with access to the garage.  She is out all day on the weekends when we are working the gardens and the chickens.  Coadee has not chewed anything since being spayed.  No chewing of drywall, table legs, wood molding or anything except for her toys.

I am not a dog whisperer but I think she might have taken being left outside just a little too personally.  Yes, I was the one that made her stay outside.  Yes, they were my shoes and the newest pair at that, but there were over eight pairs of shoes to choose from.  I had a perfectly good pair of chewable shoes that she strategically passed over to select the best shoe.  I will never know how she did this, she has refused to take English lessons, so I am stuck with mere conjecture.  

What I do know is "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned...."

Buy Local: By doing so, you support a safe, healthy, food supply and the environment in which it is grown

 

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The transition is complete

It has been over a month now that we placed the new flock of layers in with the older women.  The transition has gone surprisingly smooth.  Yes, there were some territorial disputes at first and Coadee and I ran a lot of interference but the flock is meshing.

I still think that the derecho that came through Western Maryland, brought them all together.  Ever since that stormy night there have been no skirmishes, do not get me wrong, there still is a pecking order.  If a little one impedes an older layer in any way, the older layer is quick to point or peck it out.  Last night, I went to close the door to the trailer and saw then completely mixed with no pecking.  That was a welcome sign and an indication that both groups have accepted each other as part of one flock.

The new layers are starting to produce eggs.  They are these tiny little eggs a little bigger then golf balls.  The shells however are as strong as any adults.  They have even learned from the older ladies’ that the nesting boxes are where to lay their eggs.  We are still finding one or two on the ground, as if the chicken was just walking along and out popped the egg.  For the most part, we are finding more in the nests.  The most surprising part is that the other chickens are not eating the eggs on the ground and we get to harvest them.

I did read about introducing old and new layers and most of what I read was cautionary.  We did take extra steps to make sure the transition was not hard on either of the groups.  Of course, when you have a sixty-pound English Sheppard in your yard your attention is more on the dog then the other different looking layer next to you.  The older ones especially are attune to Coadee.  The older birds know they are okay when inside the electric fence but they are still leery of the dog. 

I did not teach her but. Coadee will instinctively run towards two chickens that are squaring off, just to break up the ruckus.  When I first saw that I thought it a fluke, but when a saw it a second and third time I was amazed.  I am learning more about the dog then the dog is learning from me.

Well it looks like there is cohesion.  I am still trying to keep the older ladies inside the fence, but when I till, the turned soil is just too much of an attraction.  Coadee for her part hides when the tractor is in use or at least is not anywhere in the vicinity.  I have to stop what I am doing, whistle for Coadee and then she comes and herds them back to the pen.  I still have not been able to get Coadee to make the chickens get into the pen, but at least she gets them close.

This has been a good year from a growing perspective and a year that we really needed for our own psyche.  If it were not for the support and generosity of our customers, friends, colleagues and family we would not be doing this.  With that in mind I am please to say, for the birds, the transition is complete.

Buy Local: Your money stays local.

 

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The journey they have chosen

We are two-thirds into our growing season.  The spring salad and greens did well.  The organic strawberry pick-your-own was an overwhelming success, the corn came in for the first time in two years and potato harvests have been good.  String beans are coming in at about eighty pounds a week and we finally got our first “word of mouth” sale on the organic chickens.  Just to even out all the good things. I found out I have to start a five-year inoculation protocol because I am dangerously allergic to bee and wasp stings.  I guess being stung as many times as I have (at least 50 since moving here) has not helped.

We started at a new farmers market, located in the city, that is truly a producer’s only market.  I know you are thinking, “aren’t all farmers' markets producers only” and no, they are not.  Always be weary of the huckster, ask your farmer questions about his or her sustainable practices, the names of their vegetables (is it a Diva cucumber? an heirloom tomato?) and where their farm is located. 

Caveat Emptor is the way you should approach farmers markets.  There are more posers trying to make a fast buck by not growing but buying in bulk and re-selling.  Do not be afraid to ask questions, they will only serve to help you.  Your farmer is there because he or she is proud of what they have to offer.  To do what they do is truly amazing.  Think about that, before they even plant a seed great care has been taken to make sure the soil is ready and at its optimum.  It takes time and energy to keep weeds and insects down and virul and bacterial outbreaks minimized. 

The latter issue is important and makes soil and crop rotation so vital to the operational health of the soil.  Not only does resting soils and planting nitrogen fixing grasses and other biomass greens help to maintain soil health it reduces the potential for major infestations.  Your farmer will know about this, they will know about integrated pest management and management intensive grazing, if they have animals.  Most will speak to the trials and failures that they face and how hard it is to get fresh, safe produce to you.  Farmers are not perfect they are human but the ones that take great care of the environment and their animals are the ones that truly deserve to succeed. 

Your farmer will know intimate details about the products they sell, be it animal, vegetable or mineral.  I always thought farmers talked so much because of the solitude of the job.  Now, I think, it is just shear knowledge gained from the struggle of providing food for their community.  There is a plethora of experience and knowledge obtained each growing season.  No one season is ever the same, I go back through years of our daily notes and the only constant is problems.

Problems in the form of insects, drought, disease, and predator attacks, infrastructure breakdowns, equipment failure, bee stings and so the list goes.  I have nothing but admiration for anyone that chooses to grow.  When asked to help educate, I give of my time and knowledge willingly in hopes that these people have an easier time then we have.  Yes, I joke about the sanity of making the choice to grow but, food never tasted so good.  Small family farms struggle, the life is difficult.  However hard, they should be respected because it is the journey they have chosen. 

Buy Local: Why support the IFC when they are the ones placing the environment in peril?

 
 

Full time work

It is unique how we use euphemisms to describe the human condition.  Like "No good deed goes unpunished", means usually you sacrifice time by helping someone or thing and you get dumped on for your sacrifice.  There is, "Don't let the screen door hit you on the way out," meaning you are no longer welcome and cannot leave fast enough.  Another lesser-known one is "Off farm income,” that's the euphemism for “works two to four jobs in order to pay all the bills associated with small farming and living”. 

Off farm income is a category tracked by the USDA.  When you look at those numbers, in the small farm catagory, it is appallinb.  As of 2010, small farm income as a percentage of total farm-household income is projected to be a whopping 8.7 percent.  Down from the 11.1 percent it was in 2008.  That means that for every dollar of income a farm brings in, 91 cents is from "off farm income".  As in "farms and works another job to earn enough in order to sustain an existence".

Okay, so I am late to the party, but is this normal?  I mean, I know it is reality but is this normal for any industry.  Let alone an industry whose main function is to provide a basic form of human sustainability.  Maslow's paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation" points out the hierarchical needs of humans.  The paper was accepted in academia in the forties and is still being taught today.  After air and water, food is at the level that everything else in human life builds upon.   

Food, water and air are what sustain human life.  Would not small farmers producing food for human consumption be allowed to focus all their energies on producing that food in an environmentally sustainable way, be healthier then forcing them to use practices that are detrimental to the environment and humans because it saves time?  Should not the person growing your food be able to spend the time learning new technology and methods in order to use and preserve scarce resources like soil and water?  Why did we compromise the small family farm?  What dove tails with the demise of the small family farm is manufacturing.  As consumers, why have we left ourselves so vulnerable to other countries.  We buy American as much as we can, it is almost as hard as growing.  Try it, see for yourself.    

You can very easily be mired in the economics of this argument but my point is to explain yet another hurdle that small farms face as part of being a sustainable, safe and eco-friendly operation.  Small farms, as defined by the USDA, are those farms with net-income of $1,000 to $250,000 in gross sales.  Small farms represent about ninety percent of all farms in the United States but make up only twenty percent of all gross farm sales.  

Within the small farm category, there are two sub-categories, those that make fewer than 10,000 dollars and those making 10,000 to 250,000 dollars in gross sales.  Sixty plus percent of small farms makes less than 10,000 dollars in gross annual sales.  Thirty percent of small farms fall into the other category of gross sales over 10,000 dollars.

I am not saying that farming is the only profession in which people have to work two jobs in order to maintain some standard of living.  The term “standard of living” is very subjective when it comes to the individual consumer.  Economic compensation has always been disproportionate when you look at the value added to society from a particular profession.  Teaching comes to mind, for instance.  We put the weight of the world on our future generations but the people that are there to teach and prepare them for that burden are grossly under-paid.   

The men and women that risk their lives whether in the military, law enforcement or other hazardous jobs face the same inequities.  On the other side are those people that can put together complex derivatives and manipulate hedge funds such that they topple the economic stability of an entire country and they are valued economically at grossly astounding figures.  Money does not feed a nation food does. 

There is no wonder small farming is so incredibly hard when you see those numbers.  The deck is stacked against you from the start; it is an uphill battle that most people would not think of taking on.  As I tell our staff, “you all are very unique people, first off very few people choose to work such a physically demanding job and of those that try most cannot do it".  We have a great staff of hardworking conscientious people.  They never cease to amaze me with their eagerness to learn, there ability to understand, ask deeper questions and how they carry themselves. 

We also have a business plan, one portion is strategic the other dynamic.  Our long-term goals quite simply are to be sustainable both environmentally and economically.  Our dynamic goals are geared more towards revenue generation and expenditure controls.  The two are symbiotic but it is the strategic plan that we have the greater concerns about.  Without the ability to be totally, sustainable we are not going to be in business long.  At least ninety percent of small farms face this dilemma.  When you find out that only nine cents out of every dollar is earned from farm activities you start to question the sanity of why anyone would get into a business like this (see Who in Their Right Mind).

We work full-time and I can attest to those numbers about outside income.  We are a small farm and the total income from farm related activities, in a given year, has not been enough to cover just farm expenses, let alone what living expenses there are.  Yet we persist, because each year we do a fraction better in terms of revenue, knowledge, our customer base, our reputation and our ability to expand yet keep the food safe and tasty.  For us, it is important to do the right thing, to not shy away from hard work or impossible tasks and to help those that need help because that was instilled in me when I grew up.  Growing safe, fresh food is as much a part of me as “off farm income”.

Buy Local:  From a farmer that grows it not hucksters claiming they do

 

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Superordinate Goals

In group dynamics there is a term that describes how you can get the group to be a cohesive entity.  Sometimes in groups you have a “them” versus “us” mentality not a “we are all in this together”.  If that occurred, the reason the group is together in the first place gets lost and productivity suffers greatly.

I know you are asking yourself what does this have to do with farming.  What we have read is that you cannot integrate an old flock of layers with a new flock of layers without taking certain precautions.  One method is to make sure you have a greater number of new hens to old.  That way the old hens are somewhat intimidated by the shear number of new birds and not as likely to attack.

That turns out not to be as true as logic dictates.  There is a pecking order in the flock.  The alpha hen literally pecks at the “perceived” offender until the offender runs away.  Every so often, one will stand her ground and feathers are ruffled.  If I am around I yell with a deep timber and loud tone and that usually settles things.

Recently, we introduced our newest flock to the hens in the horse trailer.  Coadee and I spent the day off and on policing the transition.  The older hens did not take kindly to the intruders and made it quite clear.  Coadee for her part has learned to identify the sounds of aggression versus egg laying.  She does not like when harmony is not balanced.  When needed Coadee polices and keeps the peace.  Once she jumps into the pen the only thing the chickens do is hide.

Still as one day turned into two the behavior was about the same.  The group was distinctly divided with the old layers occupying the trailer and surrounding area and the new hens were off in the trees far away from them.  A peculiar phenomenon, we found early on, was hens like drinking water out of bowls.  It is not due to thirst, they have plenty of water in drip buckets all day but when my wife fills the bowls with water it is a stampede.  It is an animal activity that brings a smile to your face.

The new hens saw this and slowly came over to see what was happening.  One by one, the older hens would drive them away, until I had had enough and went in to scatter the old hens and let the new ones get a drink.  Day two turned into three and four and behavior was slowly changing.  Not much but I saw some integration.  Day five was the turning point.

A superordinate goal is a technique used to bring two opposite groups together in order to achieve a common goal.  Common goals take on many forms basically boiling down to the groups uniting because they both face the same issue.  As an example, take that of an office environment divided.  Both parties are working against each other.  Suddenly a new boss is brought in, one that is terrible.  Both sides of the office face the same situation now, a terrible boss.  Not soon after, the groups unite to fight the terrible boss.  A kinship develops and the whole office works toward a common goal, getting rid of the terrible boss.  How does this apply to hens?

Friday night, the end of day five there was a terrible, wind, thunder, lightning and rain storm.  We had at least twenty trees come down.  Some trees came close to the trailer others in the corn, string beans and driveway.  The storm lasted for several hours and knocked out power all around the region.  It took us two days to clear things and we are still cleaning up a week after.  I wonder what it was like in that trailer with all this noise, lightning and trees breaking and falling around the hens.  Did this storm give them a sense that they all survived something together?

This is merely observation on my part but when I turned my attention to the hens, they no longer separated into old and new.  They were co-mingling, scratching and pecking and when the water was poured in the bowl, there was much less pecking and more of a mix drinking at the same time.  The other thing that changed was that the new hens were getting into the trailer sooner; some were even on the top rung of the roost with the older women.  I observed a stark behavioral difference with the flock.  It is not Shangri-La but there is a lot less pecking and more intermingling.

I thought maybe having lived through such a terrible night that might have brought them closer together.  Yes, I am anthropomorphizing but over the years, I have had flocks that have taken weeks to acclimate.  Yet here they are together within two weeks of introduction.  Besides, I have learned that nothing brings unity quicker than superordinate goals.  

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We are Official

The Maryland Department of Agriculture (MDA) has certified us as a poultry processor.  This allows us to sell our organic chickens at farmers markets, restaurants and stores.  The MDA came out, inspected our processing, and tested our wastewater and chilling process along with all of our documentation.

I cannot adequately describe how conflicted this feels.  We accomplished something big but at what cost.  I started writing this blog as a way of helping others that choose this path, purging my actions through explanation, and documenting our struggles, failures and possible successes as urbanites transitioning into organic farmers.  As was previously stated we took on this challenge knowing failure had more weight on the scale then success.

We carefully planned what we would do, as a farm, and how we would go about growing healthy, safe food for our community.  We had been growing for ourselves for twenty years so we felt confident (unjustifiably) that we could grow on a larger scale.  Confidence is a fickle emotion and fleeting feeling.  You know you are going to have setbacks, life is never perfect and neither are humans.  Therefore, we understood that a certain amount of perseverance was necessary in order to sustain our trek towards our goals.

My wife and I have changed, no big shock there, we all change.  However, this certification points to one of the most radical changes that have ever occurred in my life.  In the city, you do not grow up killing things, unless you are a gangster.  Killing was not part of my life, okay cockroaches and crickets’ different story.  Taking a life was not part of our experience growing up.

I have documented here the pain and anguish we have suffered from all aspects of farming.  Be it someone getting hurt, chickens perishing due to dogs and hawks, fruit and vegetable crop failures and not being economically sustainable.  All aspects have served to make us stronger, our resolve more intense and our fortitude unyielding.  However, I have changed in a way that now does not fit with the person I once was, or what I ever thought I would be. 

Since starting the farm, I have lost loved ones, friends and animals dear to my heart.  You are not supposed to be attached to your food.  Nonetheless, I baby my corn and tomatoes the same way I baby our layers and our meat birds.  There is this dichotomy wrapped in a paradigm (of what was and was not) that reflects the struggle I have with farming.  It is an undertaking that makes you change your views about who you are and what you need to do in order to be sustainable.  I am not talking about shades of gray or operating on the line of right and wrong.  I am an ethical, moral, honest, law abiding citizen.  I volunteer in my community, as well as, donating money to the Humane Society and other worthy causes.  We give our spent layers to the soup kitchen so the last thing the chicken does is to nourish the less fortunate among us.  The toll our endeavor exacts has been unexpected.

Nevertheless, I have changed in a way that any one who knew me would not expect.  In farming, you have to do things that you may not be comfortable with.  I can only speak for myself, but a part of my heart, emotions and feelings have taken a pummeling.  When you routinely take the life of an animal that you have raised since its birth there is a certain distance that must be maintained in order to protect yourself.  Which I find is impossible, yet I have to and there in lies the quandary.  We are a humane farm, we will always be a humane farm but I struggle with the whole processing certification.  Food is fruits, vegetables, seafood and animals and growing is like a roller coaster that never ends.  No matter the intangible side, at least now, we are official.

Buy local:  Tens of thousands of us are struggling to provide you with safe fresh alternatives. Take advantage!

 

 
 

What is Organic?

We are often asked to explain the difference between organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables.  It is hard to sum up, such that the person that inquired does not regret asking the question. 

It is such a basic question yet, the answer can go from the scientific to the metaphysical and everything in between.  Sometimes, I will give a one-word answer, TASTE, then there are the studies that point to the twenty-five percent increase in vitamins and minerals when compared to their conventional counterparts (see University of California-Davis study).  Nevertheless, you will find counter arguments to those studies and then cost comparisons are tossed into the discussion.  "Why is organic so much more expensive and is it worth it?”  Depending on the view, you get different answers but CNN answered the question succinctly.

Not everything was right in the article, especially about the start of Organics.  The father of modern day organic techniques comes from a man named J.I. Rodale and the Rodale Institute that was founded in Kutztown Pennsylvania in 1947.  Most people look at organic as the result but it is just one variable in the whole sustainability model. 

We have been saying we are beyond organics for a while, because organics speaks to how vegetables, fruits and poultry are grown and handled.  It does not address all aspects of sustainability on a farm.  When we first started growing professionally, I looked at sustainability as making enough money to be able to live and produce in the next year.  Until you start to make money, you cannot support the operation unless you have capital or some sort of financial backing, which is why 90+ percent of all small farms have income from off farm activities, i.e. another job.  This is from the 2002 USDA census.  However, large or small, money is not the only variable, the other parts not to ignore is environmental which entails water, soil quality and treatment of animals.  The whole sustainability model as professed and proven by Joel Salatin of "Polyface Farm." in Swoop, Virginia looks at the farm as a whole with intricate parts woven together in concert mimicking what Mother Nature does on her own.  

Because of farm practices that emphasize environmental consciousness, soil and nutrient replenishments, water resource conservation and protection of scarce resources the sustainable model re-enforces what is right and wrong with today's farming practices.  In Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivores Dilemma," Joel Salatin points out the difference between a farm that does one thing only, like growing corn or just beef and that of a farm that uses the sustainable model.  Paraphrasing Joel, he said look at a cornfield and look at a field that has been left alone to Mother Nature.  What do you see in a conventional cornfield?  You will find one species of plant life, the corn and maybe an insect if it was away when the insecticide was sprayed.  Looking at the other field you see Mother Nature’s diversity, you will see thousands of insects and plant varieties in that field and that is what the sustainable model is designed to accomplish.  How do these plants in the field get nutrition from year to year as opposed to the cornfield that is sprayed with fertilizer and insecticides?

Simplistically stated, plants, trees, insects and animals get nutrients through a complex dance of decay, rejuvenation and replacement  Much like rotating and resting fields planted with green manure and nitrogen rich grasses and legumes, then letting your animals graze on those grasses to keep it down.  You do not let the animals eat the grasses until the grass cannot replenish itself, you let them eat enough to maintain the stability of the soil in the field and then you move them to the next grazing ground.  Management intensive grazing is a sustainable practice that uses the grass but not enough to abuse the grass.  An example would be to bring cows onto land, let them eat some and move them off to the next section of field.  Next, you would move chickens in the grass that the cows have left behind.  Cows like higher grass heights while chickens prefer short grass.  When all is said and done what is left behind is incorporated into the composition of the field replenishing nutrients and minerals naturally, you get to see the complete cycle of life in this field.  Grass is eaten, the cow gets nutrients and gains weight, it leaves behind manure, enough to attract bugs, which lay eggs and then the chickens, get a crack at the grass and bugs that helps them lay eggs high in Omega-3's.  

The chickens through pecking and scratching have aerated the soil leaving enough manure behind to feed the flora and fauna.  This dance takes place such that a cow and chicken are never on a previous field until that field has fully become reestablished (usually in 8-12 months).  Our production gardens are rested and fertilized this way.  Although we do not have, cows we keep moving the chickens from space to space in order to evenly fertilize the whole garden. 

What is organic?  It is a way to protect our environment for future generations.   

Buy Local:  Become part of the sustainability model.

 

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AGRICATION

Agrication - [Ag-ri-kay-shun];  1. Verb;  The act of educating people about their food source and why the industrial food complex is doing the exact opposite.  2. Noun; One who takes a weeks vacation from their full time, off farm income job, to work full-time on the farm.

Iowa recently passed a law called the "Ag-Gag".  This law makes it illegal to go into large animal farms and slaughterhouses, undercover, to document animal and environmental abuses.  Seems the big concentrated animal farms are tired of being exposed for the deplorable conditions and actions employees take at their corporations.  Other states have tried to pass similar legislation and thankfully, have not succeeded.  This legislation was conceived and sponsored by ALEC.  ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council and is funded by some major fortune 500 companies.  What does ALEC do?  Basically it writes legislative briefs or whitepapers and lobbies for causes that benefit its sponsors. Their sole reason for existence is to influence politicos. 

All you need to know is the two middle words of their name.  Legislative Exchange, broken down; legislative stands for laws, exchange stands for what the corporations get from those changes in the law.  Okay, maybe I am the only one that sees the correlation between the former and the latter but it is too rich not to draw the conclusion or collusion if you will.  ALEC by the way was the chief architect of the “Stand Your Ground” laws. 

We have always been big into Agrication.  Besides being an environmentally sustainable operation our mission includes education.  We hold educational tours, seminars, speaking engagements and hands on classes.  More and more I am talking to people that get it and are asking informed questions.  Ten years ago conversations with customers centered on the type of vegetables and how they tasted.  Today people are more likely to talk about sourcing their food and sustainability.  I get plenty of questions about chemicals, general gardening, insects, native plants, humane farming, poly-cultures, colony collapses and other aspects of fruit and vegetable growing.  Agrication forms the backbone of helping people understand why industrial farming is harming our environment, making people ill and affecting the ecology negatively.  Our intent is to inform, if people decide to support their local farmers then in a big way the surrounding community has benefited.

We are in a major shift in our society’s way of viewing food and sustenance.  Books covering topics such as living off local food and sourcing your food have been great sellers and continue to be referenced. This has to happen if our future generations are to live in an environment that will not harm them because they breathe, eat or drink water. 

We all owe due diligence for our future generations, we cannot be so shortsighted and profit driven that we rape the very earth that will sustain our future family.  We learned from the dust bowl, why cannot we learn from castrated bullfrogs, feminized bass, upper-respiratory issues, food-borne allergies, illnesses, anti-biotic resistant bacteria and sometimes death.  What will it take?

Buy Local: There is too much at stake not to.

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Anger Management

We are a humane farm, which means we treat our animals with kindness, care and respect.  This philosophy extends to the chickens own community.  We think there should be peace and harmony in our chicken flocks.  They all grew up together; they are in the same pasture together and roost in the same houses together.  We have them living in plenty of space, more than four square feet per bird when housed and much greater than that when out doors.  We do keep them in moveable fencing to keep predators out and them safe.  Sometimes it works; unfortunately, we have learned that sometimes it does not.  Our chickens have plenty of access to food and water and we provide shade and fans during the hottest parts of the season.

If a chicken pulls up lame, everything we have read points to management as the problem.  Like excessive pecking is caused by competition for resources such as food, water or space.  Soft egg shells indicates there is a calcium deficiency in the food source, which correlates to us not getting the feed mix right; and too cold or too hot and egg production drops and so on.  Fortunately, the problems we do create we find quickly and fix, but what we read was right.  Most problems we have had with chickens could be traced back to our management or lack of attention.  You look for consistency in all facets of their existence.  If anything is inconsistent, it usually is an indication of the start of a problem.

Every so often, a fight breaks out or one chicken will start pecking another, which is their nature.  There is a pecking order but we discourage this behavior from the time they are chicks.  We only have about two hundred birds at any one time.  We do not de-beak because that is cruel and it works against the chicken and the goals of raising chicks.  A de-beaked bird will spend more energy eating and wasting food than a bird with a full beak, and that energy could be going toward laying eggs or gaining weight.  We do not clip their wings either; we let them fly as much as they can.  Once they get to a certain weight, their wings cannot sustain them in flight but they try to fly just the same and it is a fun thing to watch when they all get going.

How we deal with pecking and rough housing is to yell.  This startles all of them but it is directed at the antagonist, which usually gets her attention, and given the attention span of a chicken is long enough for the tormented one to get away.  Seldom is there a prolonged problem.  I yell" HEY," usually followed by "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" with a loud voice, deep timber and baratone measure.  They hear the volume, timber, tone and that gets their attention.  The combatants, stop briefly enough, look towards the sound and forget what they were doing.  They do have chicken brains so, once distracted they go on to something else. 

My neighbors on the other hand just hear me yelling.  Not knowing what I am yelling at or why but, they too hear the volume and tone.  It does not help that we are on the top of knoll and there is an echo.  I have never been asked by a neighbor but, I cannot help but speculate that my neighbors must be thinking, "man, they need anger management classes.”

Buy Local: When you do, you help your community and what are we without community?  

 

 
 

Natures curve ball

We have a hen that has taken to, let me see, how to say this so I keep a "G" rating.  We have a hen that has taken to being the rooster.  I kid you not.  She has taken on the roll of the fertilizer or pretend fertilizer.  I've said before we've only been raisng hens for three years going on four.  So I might think I've seen it all, but apperantly that's not true.   My wife read a book that said hens can change gender but we never took it seriously.

We thought it was one of those things, except we have this chicken that doesn't really fight the other hens as much as she gets on their backs.  A rooster when he is in procreation mode will grab a hen by the back of her neck holding her down so he can do what a rooster does.  My wife said she thought she saw this behavior in one of our hens, but me being me, I wouldn't believe it until I saw the event for myself.

We were all eating lunch one day sitting outside in the shade and enjoying a slight breeze.  I was facing the pen of the second generation hens.  Their numbers have dwindled due to a neighbor's errent dog, but the ones that survived have rebounded and they are pretty good layers.  It was a Saturday and we had picked corn for taste testing.  We feed our help most times and its always a good time when breaking bread with them.  No matter what I cook they always seem to like it.  Of course when you work on an organic vegetable farm you tend to work up a big appetite.  Male or female they can all put food away.  So I cooked the corn for everyone and we were sitting there enjoying the sweet taste and the respite.  

If the hens start fighting or going crazy I usually yell at them which startles them and is enought to return the flock to some sort of harmony.  I heard a commotion and looked up to see a hen on top of another hen biting and holding her down while seemingly girating like the rooster does.  I looked at my wife; she gave me a look and just shrugged.  I yelled, then got up to get closer and yelled again.  That broke the hovering hen's concentration and her captive scurried away.  So, once again I think I've seen it all.

We kid ourselves by thinking we've got a handle on things.  Then we discover that the learning curve just seems to keep bending upward. WE learn sometimes nature throws a curve ball..

Buy Local - from a farmer, not from a chain that advertises "Local" 

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These Times They Are a Changing

A New York Times columnist wrote an article about how the grass fed grazing model is not sustainable.  I grew up in an era when Edward R. Morrow was retiring and Walter Cronkite was becoming America's uncle.  Journalistic integrity was paramount in all mediums of news back then.  Yes, there was the National Enquirer and people would sneakily purchase it as a guilty pleasure. 

What I see today is that the National Enquirer model has become the standard-bearer for news in general.  What is particularly galling about this article is that the reporter did not have his facts correct nor did he try to make it a balanced article.  He went as far to attack Polyface Farm and Joel Salatin.  Yet, I derive great pleasure from this article.  You see it indicates to me that the industrial food complex is becoming concerned.  Buy local and sustainable agriculture are making headways into American consumerism.  Judging from the backlash and furry that I see on internet posts we are pro-sustainability.  I ask myself; why else would this reporter tout concentrated animal farm operations (CAFO’s)?  He blatantly or conveniently leaves out the suffering of animals in these CAFO’s and does not even begin to address the pollution and environmental degradation caused by them.

Study upon study points to increased endocrine problems including hormonal imbalance, anti-biotic resistant bacteria, cancers, food allergies and other maladies caused by the exact object he touts as being the proper way of feeding Americans.  He goes so far as to say that animals reared outside using management intensive grazing (sustainable techniques) actually adds to the methane levels and global warming. 

We have known for years that governments use fear and misinformation as ways to sway public opinion.  Look at our last leader and yellow cake uranium.  Yellow cake was used as the reason to start the Iraq war.  Only after CIA agent Valerie Plame was outed, did we find out that they knew the analysis was wrong.  Fear (WMD’s) and misinformation (yellow cake) caused public opinion and congress to sway in the desired direction.  I think it started after the “War of the Worlds” incident; someone saw the general widespread panic and learned from the experience.  Phsyops or psychological operations are an integral part when trying to sway public opinion, not the facts.  Fact has become a casualty in modern society, as has integrity in most aspects of public discourse. 

I think Mr.’s.  Marrow and Cronkite would be appalled and ashamed at the standards of today’s reporting.  The Times article was so skewed towards the IFC to be a blatant endorsement of all that is evil in CAFO’s and its known detriments.  To say the least it did nothing to stop the proliferation and use of GMO’s, or Atrizine that castrates and feminizes predictor species or the rise in food born allergies, contamination and resulting recalls.  The reporter conveniently leaves out or is ignorant to the pollution and huge carbon footprint needed to generate all these quality CAFO meat products.  Joel Salatin responded to the Times article and he addresses the misnomers far better than I ever could.

Lastly, but most importantly the reporter does not even begin to talk about recalls and the devastating affect that contaminated food, supplied by the IFC, has on the general consumer.  I have asked this before; have you ever heard of a recall from a local small farmer or a local butcher?  Why not?  I think it is because your local small farmer or butcher has everything to lose if someone gets sick or dies from his or her product.  Besides that, they feed their family and friends.  The IFC companies can simply change their name, re-incorporate and keep operating.

The NY-Times article is so biased it leads you to only one conclusion and that is the IFC is the only true food source.  What they failed to realize is the breadth and depth of the buy local and sustainable agriculture movements.  It is pathetic to say the least but it is an indication to me that the IFC is feeling the affects of these movements.  They must be concerned about local food and the fact that you are supporting local small farmers.  Maybe the article was a shill for the IFC I do not know and maybe I am to close to the issue to see that the article was balanced and not tipped in anyone direction.  However, the logical side of me thinks it is an indication that these times, they are a changing. 

Buy Local:  We all can and do make a difference, which is an investment for future generations.

 

 
 

Planting Seeds

We started planting the spring garden, growing lettuces, kale, and chard and of course, the strawberries.  We have been doing research for the past year to determine if anyone in the state of Maryland opened an organic pick your own strawberry patch.  We know of organic pick your own vegetables, but we have not found strawberry in particular.  We checked with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, well-established organic farmers in the state and news articles from the past two decades.  We have not found any, so I believe we are going to be the first in the state to do so.    

We are using landscape fabric this year even though I viewed a webinar on yield differences between fabric and cover cropping for weed suppression.  It turns out cover cropping increases the yield of corn, tomatoes and other vegetables.  The scientist went on to explain the chemical reaction that takes place causing the increase.  We had already committed to landscape fabric so we will store that knowledge for the future.      

After the planting comes weeding, watering and watching, the three w's of organic growing and producing.  Weeding is broken into the three H's: hoeing, hands, heat and spraying.  Okay spraying does not fit but we do control weeds by spraying concentrated vinegar, lemon juice, clove oil and lecithin.  The spray has a pleasant fragrance that I like but is not for everyone.  You can only use the spray if it is above seventy-five degrees and it is not going to rain for awhile nor should it have rained for awhile, which doesn't make it the most ideal weed control but we use it when we can.

My most favorite way to weed is heat.  The heat is easier than the other methods but it does have its drawbacks, I may have gotten a reputation for starting fires but it is not on purpose and I am very careful despite what my wife says.  I did set an old abandoned concrete silo on fire once, by mistake.  Let me explain before you determine my culpability.

The silo was made of concrete block, had no roof, and was loaded with old wood from the previous owners.  My weeding tool is a propane tank with a hose and torch attached.  You turn it on, rub the flint for a spark and you have about 25,000 BTU to kill weeds.  I had been using the torch for over a year before the day the silo caught fire and I was pretty successful not burning things down, with the except of weeds and maybe carrots.  I knew the silo was loaded with wood and in essence, it was a tinderbox, so I was careful whenever I was around it with the flame. 

It was late in a long day of work and I wanted to get the weeding done; I started around the silo then went around the barn and to the grape vines.  From the grape vines, I went to the production garden and started doing the perimeter.  Out of the corner of my eye, I see my wife running towards the silo.  I knew immediately why she was running; I turned to see flames licking out of the top of the silo.  When I got closer, I could hear popping sounds and then clinks on the tin roof of the barn.  The cement covering from inside the silo was heating up and exploding out hitting the roof.  I took everything off and went to the barn to get the water pump.  I pulled the pump out hooked up the hoses to the water tank and pulled to start the pump engine.  Of course, it does not start.  After three pulls, it coughs to life and water starts to come out.  Once the water was flowing, I was able to cool the fire down and eventually put the fire out.  It took about eight-hundred gallons of rainwater to accomplish that feat but we did get it out.    

My wife was standing there eyes wide open, heart pounding and shell shocked.  What could I say, I had a torch, the silo caught fire and I was in the area, there was no wiggle room, none.  I think we were both in shock at the time so we put the pump and hoses back, and we stopped for the day.  I look back and see how lucky we were, how things fell into place, the pump worked and we actually had water in the collection tank.  Any one of those things not happening and we might have lost the barn.  I still weed with heat but my wife prefers the hoe and hand method best.  I can laugh about it, my wife is to the point were she can grin and shake her head but not quite laugh.   

 Buy Local: But, make sure your farmer is actually growing what they are selling

 

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Homesteading

I cannot help but start to feel excited now that the weather is changing.  I question my sanity and everyone else that has taken up growing.  That is the conundrum with growing safe fruits, vegetables and chickens.  It is incredibly hard, unpredictable and totally at the mercy of the environment.  For the small farmer it is gambling with the steepest of stakes.

Yet, there are tens of thousands forging ahead pushing physical barriers and toiling for the benefit of others.  To me growing transcends everything but money.  If you do not make money in essence, you have a hobby.  There are not a lot of people that would perform physical labor in July and August in Maryland, if they did not have to or if there was no passion for what they were doing.  However, it really does make me wonder if I am tilting at windmills sometimes. 

This year however, has promise for something special.  This season marks the first time that we have two experienced farm hands returning to help us.  These young adults are bright, hard working, honest, thoughtful and dependable.  Last year would have been worse had it not been for their help, ideas and dedication.  I have two people that understand the dangers of farming, the correct way to plant, weed and care for the chickens.  This means most of my time will be spent doing other tasks, like flame weeding, much to the chagrin of my wife.

The people that help on the farm are a stark contrast to what I have seen from people their age.  This negative image was borne from dealing with the dolts that have ridden through our property and various other interactions.  I do not mean to say that the actions of a few represented the group as a whole, but I was jaded having visited the Future Farmers of America class only to find out that their idea of farming was using air-conditioned tractors.

There is something about farming that makes one mature faster.  I see it on family farms where the kids do some major chores.  Some of the folks that have worked with us have gone on to establish themselves in their own communities.  One runs a farm another works in an urban farming initiative.  They were civic minded before they got here.  I would like to think what they learned during their tenure reinforced their core beliefs.  We let our actions speak for us and that is what they saw.  We talk the talk to our customers but they saw that our actions supported our views about healthy sustainable farming while providing a safe, fresh, food source for our community.

We actually made money this year.  It was not much but we were not in the red as we have been in the past years.  Losses have been due to stinkbugs, lack of water and nutrient management.  To get around the stinkbugs we planted more spring and fall crops and for summer, planted underground vegetables that they could not get.  `

Therefore, we start this spring as we do every other one.  Renewed and rested in body and spirit, filled with potential and possibilities.  This season with our veterans coming back to help us the sky is the limit.

Buy Local: Preserve those who chose to persevere for a healthy environment and food source.

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Growing for Health

There is institutional advertising that a major seed manufacturer is playing over the radio airwaves.  It is about how farming uses so much water and that their genetically engineered seeds will use less water and yield more food and how this is going to help farmers world-wide.  If that is true, why is this major seed manufacturer suing American farmers for patent infringement?  The infringement, by the way, is caused by pollen drift.  Pollen drift, think about that, bees, wind, birds and insects all carry pollen.  Pollen from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) fields or even trucks carrying gmo products drift into neighboring fields and boom, the company sues the farmer for patent infringement.  In addition, the court rulings have backed up the company not the farmer.

When pollen drift is as natural and inevitable as the sunrise why is the farmer on the hook for stopping GMO pollen drift?  Go to www.hulu.com and search for the "Future of Food".  It is a documentary on how genetic engineering was accomplished, how seeds are patented and then used as a big stick to force farmers into the herbicide ready club and how pollen drift allows Monsanto to sue farmers.  However, in one of the greatest examples of turning the tables Wood Prairie Farms, an organic potato farm, has brought a class action lawsuit against Monsanto for contaminating their organic potatoes.  Now that is fighting fire with fire.

We are at a cross roads in our concepts of food, where you see grass root efforts like the Slow Food, buy local, urban farming and support local farms movements.  We have groups like Ark of Taste, which is a movement to bring back heritage breeds from pigs, cows and chickens to tomatoes and everything else that has been genetically modified to fit the needs of the profit motive not the taste for consumers.  From my standpoint, nasty chemicals on the food and pathogens cause health problems.  Recall after recall, year after year, has become commonplace because the industrial food complex is making people seriously ill, with some resulting in death.  What is worse is that recalls are a relatively new phenomenon.  Did we have recalls in the sixties and seventies?  My mind is going but I do not know of any.

We have had recalls because people are getting sick and we are hearing more and more about bacteria becoming anti-biotic resistant.  We know that Atrizine is an endocrine disrupter.  The endocrine system in the human body regulates hormonal balance.  Studies recently found that high levels of Atrizine are castrating and feminizing other predictor species.  Predictor species like bass and frogs have similar physiological make ups as humans, hence “predictor”.  Scientist look at predictor species with the supposition that what happens to them is an indication of what can happen to humans.  Atrizine is one of the most used chemicals by the IFC.

Then there is taste, remember taste, when tomatoes were sweet, soft, watery spheres of goodness.  Which would you pick to eat, a tomato from the grocery store or one out of the garden?  So far, every single person that I have asked that question picks the latter.  Why?  Because there came a time when the IFC turned the tomato into a bottom line calculation and its taste was compromised for its longevity.  As was most vegetables and fruit.

An organic plant struggles to get its nutrients out of the ground.  When a predator attacks the plant, the plant releases its own sent that attracts bugs that are predators or parasites of the bug eating its leaves.  This does not work with a heavy infestation but if the plant survives, it grows stronger and has a better taste then a plant that was sprayed with synthetic fertilizers and insecticides.  That is why when you grow fruits and vegetables you want to get native plants in your own area.  The fauna has lived and adapted to the environment.  That means they have adapted and survived the bugs, fungi etcetera.

I trust my taste buds, I know what is on my plants, I know that the more we allow large corporations to genetically modify food the greater susceptibility we all face for unknown genetic mutation, and greater risk of bacterial out breaks caused by anti-biotic resistance.  That is why more than ever supporting your local farmer is important.  It really is cheaper and healthier for everyone in the end.  

 Buy Local: Every dollar you spend keeps local growers growing.

 

 
 

The escape artist

Coadee is thirteen months old.  She is still nipping at people’s hands and legs.  Se we keep her in an outside pen so that she is secure when not supervised.  At least we tried to keep her in the pen.  I was so proud of myself when I was able to put the dog pen together straight out of the box.  I first started assembling the pen in the garage.  As I went from one-step, to the next, I had a nagging feeling.  As the bottom square started to take shape, I realized, if I had finished the pen, it would not fit through garage door.

As much as I hate making a mistake, I relish the times when I catch myself.  I took everything outside and restarted the assembly.  True to the direction’s (yes I did read them) it was easy to assemble.  The bottom of the fence itself is held in place by metal ties spaced every two feet to the cross bar.  I put the whole cage on a pair of skids so I could drag it from place to place as the chickens moved.  Along with the pen, we added an igloo doghouse so Coadee can get out of the elements, keep her food dry and get warm on very cold days.  

We purchased the pen because we needed a bigger area for the dog to roam but remain close to the chickens and the house.  When we first put her in the new encampment, we left the farm to go to the store, total time away two hours.  Coming up the driveway, we see Coadee bounding down the hill towards us, tail up and waging, tongue lolling on the right side of her mouth, this little twinkle in her eye, as if to say, “FREEDOM ain’t it grand”.  Okay, I may be anthropomorphizing a little.

I looked at my wife and our minds came to the same conclusion.  Coadee had jumped on top of the doghouse and jumped out.  Then we started looking, the house was right in the middle of the pen, our first instinct was proving to be wrong.  I thought okay, I would place her in the pen, go back to the house and watch what she does.  Problem was, by the time I got to the house, she was already out and standing by the door, tail waging, mouth agape, and those big brown eyes looking through the windowpane.

I took her back to the pen put her in and turned to walk away.  I might have gotten five paces when I hear the fence rattle, I turned around to look at her and there she is going underneath the fence.  Ahhh ha, let the games begin I said to myself.  This would be a piece of cake, I knew her future attempts to escape would prove futile.

I went to the barn got more metal ties and tied down the side where she was getting out.  “Beat that”, I had taken the ends of the metal strands and twisted it around the pole and the fence.  “Finnie,” I declared when entering the house.  Later, she was still in the pen and I was victorious.  We could see she was inspecting and pushing where she had gotten out prior but it was not budging.

Satisfied with my fix we went about the day doing chores and other work.  Time passed; I was behind the barn when I heard the distinctive jingle of Coadee's collar.  I turned and there she is coming at me tail high waging, with what could pass for a  smile on her face and proud as she could be.  Upon inspection, she had pushed the fence and the metal ties out and off the frame.  Not to be outsmarted by a dog, zip-ties were next.  Long story short, the zip-ties failed so I tripled up on them.  Yes, she broke the zip-ties by pushing the fence out.  However, since I tripled up on the ties it worked out pretty well, but there were three other sides of the pen left.  I placed double zip-ties around the rest.

I think it was a couple of days before she broke out again, this time it was the east facing fence not the north side she started with.  We had bailing twine from our straw bales; I use it to tie most things down and it lasts pretty long out doors.  I took some strands and started to mend the fence where Coadee had escaped. 

She beat that perimeter defense by chewing on the available twine until it snapped and then simply pushed her way under the fence.  Once again, we are driving up to the house and here comes this dog running towards us, tail up and wagging, mouth open, eyes sparkling ready to greet the people that give her food.  This is really starting to get old and I am starting to wonder if I should just turn the keys over to the dog.  I still have an ace in the whole I think to myself; we have metal cable and fasteners that I can use.  “I am breaking out the big guns now,” I explained to my wife.  She did look skeptical but I brushed it off.  “This is the last time we will visit this,” I went on to say. 

Time lines are starting to blur in my mind but this whole saga began in late November 2011.  I got the one side triple zip tide; the other side is wrapped with ¼-inch metal twisted cable.  I thought for sure I had Coadee on two of the four sides.  She got out on the CABLED side of the pen.  In the fence each strand of wire is woven with the next wire to make a diamond pattern, at the bottom of the fence one strand of wire is hooked to the other strand.  Both strands are tied together at the bottom forming a closed diamond shape or an open half diamond shape.  Coadee pushed the fence out, such that those links, at the bottom of the fence, bent straight and she was able to push them through the cable that was holding them down. 

One day there was freezing rain; we thought okay, she would stay in her doghouse out of the weather.  However, when we returned, we found her inside the heated hen house.  The chickens were a little ruffled at her taking up residence but they were with her in the house too.  Coadee was dry and warm; tail waging, mouth open, ears up checking out the car coming by her.  She has this smug look on her face like; she is already plotting her next escape. 

The main reason for the pen now is to keep her near and allow whoever is leaving the farm, to leave without the dog-giving chase.  I had to compromise; I figured that if I tied a bow to keep the door closed, she could tug on the line to untie the bow.  The door would open and she could go free.  By that time, the car was gone.  Besides, we got her because we lost chickens during the day.  We need her out to protect and heard them back to the pen.  Given all her past escapes, Coadee had proven that she stays on the farm.  After some discussion, I went about setting up the tie.

It did not take long before she learned how to untie the bow and let herself out.  I took a short video of her doing that.  Besides, I do not think my poor ego could have taken another escape anyway.

Buy Local:  It is a way to future proof your food supply.

 

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Education

I gave a presentation to the Organic BMSB workgroup on how our growing year faired and what we did to rectify last year’s infestation.  We improved marginally, however I look at improvement as a great step, no matter the measurement.  Improvement equates to moving forward in our fight to grow fruits and vegetables organically against a devastating adversary.

I was finally able to put faces to the voices I have heard on all the conference calls.  As usual, I learned more from everyone else then I was able to impart but that is why I wanted to be in the group to begin with.  I could not stand by having suffered the losses from 2010 without trying to do something, education, as with most things, is the first step.  At least this year I had much less anxiety presenting to such a distinguished group.  I am still in awe of the work they do and the dedication they show.  I am a babe in the woods filled with entomology experts, seasoned practitioners and other heavy hitters in the organic growing community.  I met Jeff Moyer from the Rodale Institute and Dr. Russ Mizell from Florida State University.  We followed Dr. Mizell's 2008 native stinkbug study to establish a trap crop solution for this year.  During the two-day event, I found I was still writing jargon down, for later research, but the longer I listened the more things started to fall into place. 

Entomologist from around the country showed up to participate.  It was truly fascinating to sit and listen to the work that they have been doing this past year and years past.  They have been studying this bug for sometime.  It was not until the last few years that BMSB started to show their true capacity for fruit and vegetable damage.  If left unchecked many small organic farms will suffer and more than likely go out of business.  The Washington Post recently had an article about a peach grower, in the area, that decided to stop instead of continuing to suffer monetary loses due to the bug.   

Orchards around Maryland and Pennsylvania are suffering great losses.  The bug continues to hitchhike across the United States with no indication of abatement.  Once in a place they multiply consuming the most desirable and costly flora.  They are not only destructive they are dumb.  They fly but they do not know how to land.  They land by hitting something first.  Then they either grasp on to the surface in order to stay put or bounce off to fall to the ground.  Most times, they bounce off.  If it is a hard surface, you hear them hit the surface and another thump when they hit hard ground.

Besides trap cropping we will try native parasitoids this year.  Parasitoids lay eggs on their host and the larvae feed off the host in order to mature.  As the larvae grow, the host dies.  Like the Trichogramma wasp laying eggs on the green tomato hornworm.  We will try different species and wasps that are predacious.

We are fortunate that we can participate in the group and learn as we go.  I do feel better about growing but we are not out of trouble.  This season’s grow area has hedgerows and tree lines surrounding the land.  Both places are over-winter habitation areas for the BMSB.  We will also plant near the barn, another highly concentrated area for over-wintering bugs.  We have our planning cut out for us, we will need to come up with a perimeter defense that takes into account both ground and air assault.  Adult BMSB are high in the trees and glide down to earth.  Planting a trap crop too close to the trees will not stop them from making it into the cash crop area. 

We will put up trap crops, physical barriers and try repellant plants on the interior.  The idea of the repellant plant is if the bug gets through the trap crop the next thing they get to is an undesirable plant, which may turn them back around to the trap crop for food.  We will have to see; what I do know is the more we learn the better able to educate others.  If we are able to further that cause then it fits within our own mission.  Without education, we are all lost. 

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What you do not read in the farm books

I do not mean to be so negative when describing the difference in lifestyles growing up in a metropolis versus trying to live a life sustainably.  There are stark differences when the environments are compared and contrasted.  There is a ton written about the minutia of growing, most everything, from seeds to harvest have been studied and documented.  Then there is the whole animal side, once again well researched and published.  What we found lacking in all that we read was the casual need for euthanasia.

Yes, if you are involved with animals euthanasia is naturally part of the farm cycle.  When I say naturally, in the best of production, you will have to deal with mortality and or the decision to end the animal’s life for health reasons or for processing.  That is what we thought going into the vegetable side, if you had no animals you do not have to end the life of God’s creatures.  That you would not have to kill, anything other than vegetation was law as far as we were aware.

Truth is, if you are on a farm you cannot get away with not killing something.  Inevitably, you will someday have to take the life of something, even if it is mice eating your seeds.  When you lay poison down you have stepped over the line and become something that you said you would not.   Mice are but one in many instances where taking the life out of something fixes your problem.  Have all the romantic fantasies you can conjure about living in a rural environment on a farm.  Growing up in the city, we were led to believe in the farm where Lassie grew up.  Sure Timmy was locked in a fiery barn, but Lassie was able to run and get help. 

Why didn't they run an episode where Lassie kills a groundhog because the groundhog is undermining the foundation of the milking shed?  At least it would have evened out the perspective of farming.  Then there was Oliver Wendell Douglas, they could have shown him chopping the head off a snake he found in his kitchen.  Having to take my phone outside and connect to a box on the telephone pole did not phase me in the least.  That was because of the legacy of Green Acres.  I do not mean to imply that our view of farming was predicated on television broadcasts; but I would be lying if I said they had no influence on our perceptions.  

I am a very cautious person, I go into a decision only if I feel I have exhausted what is known and understood about the expected outcomes.  We did not buy this farm and go into growing on a whim.  We spent thirteen years reading and playing in our small garden before we even started looking for a farm.  

In all that time, euthanasia was never brought into the discussion.  That is unless animals were discussed.  We were vegetable people, not vegetarians; we ate meats from local butchers and purchased fruits and vegetables from Knill's, our local farm.  We just settled on growing vegetables instead of animals to get away from our own squeamishness.

We got a rude awakening within the first five days of living on the farm.  Nevertheless, if you are thinking about farming and you are like us, do not think you can farm without having to someday take out an animal or reptile. I wish it was not the case but at some point in time, it will happen.  Just be aware when planning, you will have to kill.  If you have a hard time with it like us, I wish you all the strength in the world.

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Marketing 101 or Think before you speak

I was fired recently as the official spokesperson for the farm.  Seems that the last interview I did turned out to be perceived as negative.  Now I have heard that publicity, good or bad, is still publicity and perception is in the eye of the beholder. The article centered on the organic research of the brown marmarated stinkbug, the damage that it caused and the potential for damage to organic crops.  We have had a hard time fighting this bug and we have lost entire crops.  Just because we are, a small farm does not mean that the losses were small.  

Going into a growing season you have certain expectations, profit is one of them.  You dream, plan and then you contingency plan.  In Maryland, you need pre-approval for any amendment used in the coming growing season.  Amendment means anything applied to the crop or land.  This is a growing trend among organic certifiers.    

For the grower this puts extra emphasis on contingency planning.  You need to know what you may face from an environmental standpoint.  That was a lot easier to do before 2010.  As a part of growing, you learn what bugs, viruses, bacteria and weather conditions are like in your region.  Armed with that information the amount of variables you face begin to dwindle.  It is not as daunting as it seems.  That is until you face an unknown enemy with no known organic amendment available.  

Some of the older farmers around here talk about when Japanese beetles first invaded and the similarities.  Nevertheless, they are talking about a different world and time when the scientist developed a quick chemical response.  The uses of those chemicals are band today, for good reason, but conventional farmers did get relief relatively quick.   

Organic growers on the other hand do not get quick relief.  The normal process for allowing new amendments takes time.  The amendment needs vetting for organic properties, it needs a review period in which growers and others can comment, then it goes to the National Organic Standards Board for discussion and vote and if it makes it there, it goes to the Secretary of the USDA for approval in the NOP.  Recently, the EPA came out with a few rulings allowing the limited use of certain chemicals.  This was great news for the conventional folks but it had little impact on the organic folks.  The EPA went as far as approving some banned organic materials for use. 

The problem is, as I understand the regulations, EPA does not have final say over what is and what is not allowed in the NOP.  Using any of these EPA approved organic amendments could very likely result in the decertification of the land where the amendment was applied.  The complete pre-approval process, mentioned above, is designed to prevent that decertification from happening.  Once you get the certifiers approval, you have in essence obtained the right to use the amendment accordingly.  However, you must still conform to the NOP, IPM, Nutrient Management and other environmental guidelines.  There is no quick fix in organics and that is what makes growing tenuous when facing an invasive species with no natural predators or is impervious to existing organic amendments. 

When Dr. Nielson, from Michigan State University, gave the reporter our name it was so the reporter could get a growers perspective on the bug and what we face being organic.  Having lost what we lost and living with the bugs over wintering in our house peaked the reporter’s interest.  A year before, the local ABC affiliate was doing a story on Congressman Bartlett running for office and some of the story looked at his effort to get funding for research of the BMSB.  The local ABC channel interviewed him, his opponent and us.  The last thing my wife said before she left was that the house was off limits and I was not "under any circumstance" allowed to let the reporter in the house.  Therefore, they took video of the piles of stinkbugs in the barn.  

Apparently, that warning was meant for all eternity, because I was still not suppose to say anything about the house.  Now the writer did not get every detail correct in the article, I did not teach Coadee to eat stinkbugs; she just does that on her own and we do not have thousands of stinkbugs crawling on our floor.  Anyone that has encountered the bug knows the adults fly and the instars walk.  We had adults in the house just like everyone around us.  Our house sits in the middle of fifty acres of farmland.  Harvesting the soybeans chased the bugs from the field to the closest structures, which in this case, was the barn and the house.  

The first sentence in the article started this way “Brian Biggins’ life stinks.” and it went down hill from there or so I am told.  After my wife read the article, she was horrified that I had spoken about the house.  “Who is going to want to buy any of our jams or jelly’s?” she asked.  Never mind the fact that it was made in August when the bugs were outside.  "Would you go to a farm like that?”  We are an organic farm; of course we are going to have bugs people expect that.  She is entitled to her opinion as well as her privacy and I violated that, for which, I am truly sorry.  

I told her “Look, this will go the way every other bit of publicity we have had goes,” which is nowhere.  We were on the radio in Baltimore for an hour, I got one email, and we have been on local television a couple of times.  We received no comment what so ever, not even someone saying they saw us.  A local newspaper covered our cooking class three years ago.  One person asked if we were the farm in the paper.  We have been in the local paper multiple times, we even took out an advertisement, paid two hundred dollars, to run one day (in the food section) and we got one reply.  “Let’s face it,” I said, “our track record for getting sales out of our publicity has not exactly been stellar.”  Nothing seemed to change her mind to her the damage was done.  “You cannot un-ring a bell”.

She is right, you cannot un-ring a bell, but it is not like we are the only ones with bugs in the house, everyone around us faces the same problem.  She is getting better about it but I am still no longer the official spokesperson for the farm.  I am just hoping she has forgotten the password to Local Harvest, I am sure this piece would not go over so well with her either.

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No Chance of Return

Growing up in the city, I saw and heard some horrific incidents.  From car accidents, a friend’s brother touches a live wire on top of a train; a body lays in pieces after a motorcycle accident, to burying my puppy after being struck by a car.  All of which make me cringe at the thought of blood shed at my own hands.  I have written about this theme often, because it is something that has caused great anguish and emotional pain, which I had hoped by exposing, would allow me to move forward. 

I guess in a way I was right, if it was most things, I would like being right.  This is not one of them and I have lost more then I bargained for, at least in the end.  I do have perspective; I have talked to my nephews who have both served on the frontlines in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The things we have talked about and how they conducted themselves while transitioning back into society has been inspiring and made me feel foolish at my own inadequacies.

We have exhausted every possible angle for selling our chickens, legally, without us processing.  In the state of Maryland, if you do not process your own chickens, legally, you cannot sell them off the farm, let alone retail.  If you want to expand your market to restaurants, wholesale or even farmer’s markets, you need a license.  Therefore, I have taken the next step in getting our state certified poultry processor license.  First step was taking the processing class and passing the test with at least an 80.  We have accomplished the aforementioned.

Since then, I have completed the twenty some page application.  The next step is to mail it in and wait for the evaluation of our production, sanitation, safety measures, hazard mitigation, waste disposal and chilling process.  After examination, comes the letter announcing the results of our plan.  If we succeed in meeting all sanitation, safety and disposal procedures, we move to the inspections phase.  We then wait for the inspector to call and setup the inspection of our processing. 

This has all come with little cost but a lot of emotional angst.  However, I took a step that I thought I would never take, nor did I have confidence that I could ever bring myself to take.  It has been years in the making but I have crossed over into the realm of grim reaper.  I did not lose my breakfast, lunch or dinner as I thought I would, but I lost something worse.  To a certain extent, I lost a piece of something, that I had fought a lifetime trying to keep safe.  The idea of me ending the life of an animal, that I had raised and cared for, was not fathomable.  I have written here, that it was something I was not able or willing to face. 

I feel no sense of accomplishment, there is not a speck of satisfaction or any positive feeling having faced one of the hardest tests of my life when I stepped up for the sake of the farm.  I am not relieved, if anything I am saddened that I have had to take this step after so many years of fighting against our raising and processing of animals.  

Temple Grandin said that constant processing of animals makes people sadistic.  I can see why and I have only done it twice.  I think it is a defense mechanism used to reconcile what you are doing on a daily basis.  I am not saying it is right, it is not, there is no justification for the mistreatment of animals no matter the situation.  However, there are emotions involved, we are humans and emotions come with the package.  Some of us are better able to handle situational emotions then others and I am trying. 

Humane slaughter is an oxymoron but as Temple and Joel Salatin illustrate the end of an animal's life, although permanent, should and can be done with the least stress possible to the animal.  I know our birds are raised in the most humane, comfortable and invigorating environment possible, that they lived free and outside with plenty of room and were protected from predatory ills.  I try to joke that they live better then I do, what with their organic diet, freedom, fresh grass and a stress-less environment.  

However, it does not lessen the fact that my attempt to be a successful vegetable grower is in great peril.  It is a bitter pill to swallow given what we now must do in order to keep the operation viable.  This is just the beginning, eventually I will need to process one weekend every month.  Michael Pollan in "Ominvores Dilemma" pointed out, how far removed people are from their food source.  This makes it harder for consumers to see what small farms go through in order to survive and provide safe, fresh food.  That is why education is important, the more people learn the more they understand the earnest effort that small sustainable farmers put fourth for their health and the environments. 

On a farm, you face difficulties frequently and you do what is warranted within guidelines, humane treatment, regulations, and social mores, ethical and sustainable practices and sometimes by doing so, you just find yourself over the edge and there is no chance of return.

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