Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Damn learning curve

Farming for profit, has there ever been a greater oxymoron?  Okay, maybe humane slaughter is bigger.  At least from the small farmer's stand point, when more than seventy-five percent of all small farms in the nation, bring in fewer than ten-thousand dollars a year, of farm income, I ask can there be true economic sustainability in small farming. 

This year we changed our business model in that we are concentrating our selling on only high dollar produce and fruits.  We are still selling mainly on farm but have joined a market in the city.  We are hoping that by cutting back on different varieties and concentrating on a few things we can turn profitable.  Because of our size, we cannot grow, as much so consequently we do not have a large variety.  I want to be a successful grower, but we need to make a profit.  Selling only what we grow is hard because we do not have a bevy of different fruits and vegetables, so variety is not going to be our strong point.  

What we will have this year is strawberries, blueberries and sweet corn.  These crops sell for a premium and there is great demand.  We will be able to conserve the 12,000 gallons of collected rainwater because we will not have so many different plants to water.  Our organic chicken meat has not taken off as we hoped but this is only the third year.  We have increased our layer flock to 120 layers.  We are selling most of our eggs directly to Dawson's Market in Rockville.  Dawson's does not put them out on the shelves.  Instead, they call customers to let them know the eggs have been delivered.  We continue to expand the layers (we have 50 more day olds started) striving to get to where we deliver more dozens so we can make it onto the store's shelves.

Being a small enterprise has great disadvantages, especially, when we go up against the bigger growers and grower associations.  We did not take on this farm without knowing the physical, mental, emotional and economic sacrifice and that failure was more likely then success.  We are going back to the model that first made us money and that is by growing a few things and concentrating on value added products.   

We knew going into this that it was not going to be easy.  What we were not prepared for was all the different ways your heart breaks.  We lost another layer last night.  It was stuck under the trailer.  I had moved the house in the morning before I let the layers out.  I was tilling and I noticed the trailer looked low in the back.  I knew I did not crank the front back down after I moved the tractor away from the ball.  I saw it and made a mental note to lower the front of the trailer when I was done tilling.

Well the day got away and I did not lower the front.  Sunset comes and I go out to put the layers away for the night and that is when I found one under the backend of the trailer.  I can only surmise that it was stuck and died of a heart attack.  I took her over to the compost pile and as we have done with every other body, returned her to the earth that helped nourish her in her brief existence. 

I take it personally, you are not supposed to, you are supposed to let it roll off but I don't.  I know I am too attached at times to see the forest for the trees but that will not change.  As long as they are in my care, I will always take my mistakes hard and demand a greater awareness.  Five years we have been working with layers.  I thought I had been exposed to all the perils of layer life, yet here I am still in this damn learning curve.

BUY LOCAL: Do your family justice, find a local farm, ask questions and then support it if it feels right.  If you do not get straight answers, it is probably because they are hucksters not growers.  

 

 
 

Free Range might not be

When you hear the term “Free Range” the natural thought is grass.  However, given the definition brought about by lobbyist, free range means “access to” the outdoors.  Access to what is the question?  In some cases, access leads to cement pads.  Cement pads that are not big enough to hold all the chickens in the house. 

On the other hand, they actually get to step on dirt surrounded by a fence.  No grass, because chickens are hard on soil and if you confine them to the same space the grass cannot recover.  As long as the building has a door and the door can open the producer can call their product free-range.  USDA for their part is trying to redefine the term and add the amount of time the animal has to be outside in order to combat the unscrupulous. 

Done correctly chickens are tremendously beneficial to the soil.  They cut down on bug populations and they leave fertilizer behind.  The industrial food complex has seized on the USDA definition, raised their prices, calling the chicken “free range” when the chicken most likely has never set foot outside, or even came close enough to the door to get fresh air.  You go into these large poultry houses and the smells can be overwhelming with ammonia being most prevalent.  It is the environment that they live in that causes the need for anti-biotic and other medicines

How we free range as well as other small farmers is to let the bird out of the house at sunrise and then close the door at sunset.  Once the chickens know where their roost is located, they will come home.  Provided there has been no predation.  Predation is one of the major problems with free range.  There are the natural night predators that people know about, fox, owls, opossum, raccoons, coyotes, bears and others depending on the location.  If your structure is sound you will not loose chickens at night, or at least we have never lost any at night.

Our losses have all come during the daytime and there are two reasons, dogs and hawks.  Since we got Coadee, the dog attacks have stopped.  The hawks on the other hand she is hit or miss with.  I have seen her chase hawks barking as she runs after them.  Then we have lost one or two while we have had her.  As with every problem research and knowledge gathering came into play.  I found that hanging CD’s up deters hawks.  I called around and verified that yes indeed, hawks have acute eyesight and the reflections glinting off the CD’s bother them, so they tend to stay away from those areas.

Besides making the place look sparkling, we have not lost birds to any hawks.  We have moved fifty more out on grass but kept them in the barn too long.  How do I know this, the birds are not coming outside of their new home.  The other day we did a forced evacuation but as soon as all were out of the trailer, they started to head right back inside.  It was cold but the sun was out still one by one they all went back into the shelter.  It has been three days and we might have ten outside. 

Chickens are like that, they get use to an environment and they tend to stay with what makes them comfortable.  That is why “having access to,” is so ridiculous.  Chickens last maybe eight weeks before processing.  If they have not gotten out by the fourth week, they are not going to be true free range.  Unless of course we are talking about layers, given enough time and we will be chasing them back into the pen just like every other flock we have ever had.  It is a familiar pattern but one that stills brings delight while watching them explore and get use to the great outdoors.  That and Fer Coadee.  They have known Fer Coadee since they got on the farm as day-olds.  The peeps have seen her everyday twice a day since October.  They do not know what she is there for but once they get outside the fence, of their pen, they will quickly learn. 

Coadee enforces the boarders and keeps the layers close.  As an added bonus, Coadee gives them a complete checkup before letting them go back to pen.  Okay, she may be licking all over them and feeling their skin and feet but I prefer to see it as a health check.  The layers see it as a reason to stay inside the pen.

Buy Local: It is how you make a difference.

 

 
 

The grower in all of us

It has been a bad two grow years, economically, physically, environmentally and emotionally.  We have our doubts.  This winter has been a low point for me when talking about future growing efforts and sales. I have heard the saying, "when one door closes a window opens". I never understood that, does it mean I am suppose to climb out the window or let the fresh air in to reduce the odor of defeat.

But as spring nears and the stinkbugs begin to fly around the inside of the house, my feelings change.  We are cutting back drastically in an attempt to reach the black this year.  Yes, we still might not make it, but I still see potential and my internal clock is starting to wind. I have opened up the rain water collection tanks, we are only planting a few things and we have increased egg production.  A thousand strawberry plants will start to produce, eggs are sold into the future and corn will not be planted near BMSB areas increasing the potential for yield. I came across this poem from Alexander Pope, titled "An Essay on Man", and it just struck a cord. 

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never Is, but always To be blest: 

The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home, 

Rests and expatiates in a life to come. 

I like to think he is talking about spring as well as humans, and I could not have said or explained it any better. Despite what we will face, we look to the future because of this feeling.  Yet, it is just a feeling that Spring brings and jump starts the grower inside of all of us.   

 Buy Local - Stick it to the IFC and all those that support GMO's

 

 
 

Food is in our blood

Food is in our blood, whether, growing, preparing, cooking or, consuming, food is in our blood.  It is why we produce fruits, vegetables, chickens, eggs, honey, jams and jellies.  We make our own bread, pasta and tomato sauces.  It is why we share our knowledge of Italian cooking.  With me, it started in my grandmothers' kitchen.  Going over to my grandmothers house brought about gastronomical anticipation beyond mere description, and if dinner was ravioli "fa gedd about it".  Arriving at her home and taking that first step through the threshold of her house brought olfactory nirvana. 

The smells of homemade tomato sauce stewing on the stove, fresh Romano cheese, grated that day and bread baking in the oven made my mouth water.  Not knowing at the time but it was the start of a path that has led me to today.  Food has always been at the center of my existence.  Growing up, food was at every occasion and if it were a special occasion, the spread would be overwhelming as a child.  First learning how to buy fruits and vegetables, then learning how to cook, spending time in professional kitchens and then moving into growing has given me immense satisfaction and as noted here tremendous challenges and pain.  If you hear a farmer say, he or she has put blood, sweat and tears into the farm that usually is a literal statement.

You see, food is in our blood and the food we put in our body today will end up being a part of us.  This makes why we grow and how we grow a symbiotic relationship.  There are tens' of thousands of us doing just that for our communities.  Thus making the choice you make on what to eat and where to buy the food even more important.  The more you know about your food source the greater the impact you will have on your own health, the health of your family, the environment and future generations.  This is our way, your way and everyone's way of making a difference in the lives of others.  Lives that we will not know, people we will not see and an earth we will have long ago inhabited.

Food is in all of our blood, so too are all the trace amounts of chemicals and DNA spliced genes.  The additives, preservatives, stabilizers and enhancers that are all synthetic are being exposed for the harmful substances that they are, yet we continue to let the IFC introduce new ways to generate profit at the cost of our health, my guess for future health problems will come in the form of nano titanium dioxide.  Greed has taken over as the new norm.  Greed at any cost is too much, then tie in the detrimental effects to the environment and you see, man is playing with the lives of every being to come after, and they do this with no moral regard.  

We say it often; we grow for health not wealth.  Unfortunately, we prove that saying each year.  Do not get me wrong, we do grow for health, but damn I would like to make enough money so I only have to work one job.  It is the first weekend in December and this is the first weekend I have had off since March.  Moreover, I am not really off, we still have the chickens, the pullets and all that comes with small grazing animals.

The odds of success are against us, it seems likely that we will fail in trying to make this a full-time profession, but If and when we do have to make that decision one thing will remain and that is growing food will still be in my blood.

Buy Local:  Support those that chose to sustain the environment with you in mind.

 

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Things happen

I guess I jinxed myself.  I do tempt fate, as it were, but I think that is standard operating procedure for anyone who tries to make a living growing food.  We got into a new market that is willing to take our eggs. 

Just in time, coincidentally, for the layers to slow down production in keeping with the loss of day light hours.  We thought we could deliver about ten dozen a week.  They originally asked for one hundred and twenty, so I had to temper expectations on one hand, while at the same time, plan for expansion in the other. 

Then the layers dropped down to about five eggs a day, about the same time we started losing birds to a hawk.  Coadee was outside but we still lost them.  We started putting her on a lead by her house.  But that was not happening all the time and I got lazy about making her stay around the chickens.  The other problem was we lost Floppy.  She was the oldest layer and was the one that would warn the others when danger was in the air.

I got to the point, with Coadee, were I would put bailing twine under her collar and attach the other end to a pole outside of her house.  All she has to do is walk away and the rope would come out from under her collar.  The thought was she would stay until an intrusion.  Which she actually does, except, this practice was not a daily ritual.  So when a hawk landed on a barren tree outside of the chicken pen, Coadee was not around to distract and run it off and Floppy was not there to screach.

Today, I just happen to go outside, Coadee comes around the house and we head to the pen.  I wanted to close the door of the chicken house to keep heat in the house.  I climbed over the electric fence and saw a grey hawk on top of what I presumed to be a dead layer.  I immediately started throwing things at the bird.  None of which seem to phase it.  I throw a rod, chicken wire, wood blocks (2) and an orange peg.  The only thing that scared it off was a large block of wood used as a chock for the wheel on the chicken trailer. 

It flew into the trees near its catch.  I went to the house to retrieve my gun.  The dog for some reason was aware but was not barking or trying to distract the bird.  I do not think she knew really what was going on, or I was too distracted with the task at hand but she was not the dog I had seen before.

I returned with the rifle saw the bird in the tree and aimed at the bottom of the tree.  I fired, it flew to another tree, I fired it flew further away; I just kept that up until it was gone.  Hawks are a federally protected species as well as it being illegal in the state of Maryland to kill a hawk so I did the next best thing. 

I then turned my attention to the layer.  I picked her up, took her over to the compost pile and correctly composted her.  With each and every one we thank them and return them to the earth that nourished them so that they can in turn nourish the earth.  It makes me feel humane, in light of my failure to provide a safe humane existence for my charge. You learn when growing food that things happen.           

 Buy Local:  Make sure your farmer is real, there are imposters.

 
 

The Humane Choice

My admiration and adulation goes out to all of those farmers that have big animals and do it humanely.  With winter coming their job caring for the animals becomes infinately harder.  To me, anything bigger than a chicken is a big animal.  Well, maybe except for pigmy goats.  Of course, my rule is to not raise an animal that can take me in a fight.  Although poultry meets that criterion, I refuse to raise turkeys.  Turkeys can get large and are agile, I am just saying. 

The knowledge big animal farmers have to possess and shear dedication is daunting, and to do it all humanely amazes me about them.  The dedication alone makes me think what I do is just playing.  I know I am not but, by comparison, I have it much easier then my counterparts.  Do not get me wrong, shoveling five feet of snow around a trailor, so the chickens can get out. is no easy task. 

When you choose to be a humane farm, in my opinion, that choice is made from one of two motivations; one is reason the other is emotion.  Reason looks at the facts of animal production and takes into account, taste, productivity, health, environmental impact, total cost, rate of return on your investment and workload.  Then there is the emotional decision.  You take into account the health of all the animals, you anthropomorphize to a certain extent and you want to make their brief existence on this earth as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.  No matter the reason an unstressed animal performs and tastes better and they need no or minimal drugs because of the healthy environment they inhabit.  No matter what motivation drives the choice, both ultimately benefit, people, animals and the environment.      

I think when reason comes into play there is less angst when dealing with mortality.  Having talked to colleagues and reading posts here, I know there is grief no matter how slight.  I can see it in the words we all use when describing the loss, be it to slaughter, age and illness or shear economics.  Even with reason your heart is in it, because with reason comes compassion and with compassion comes some amount of strings attached to the heart that will be tugged when a beloved animal leaves.  

I fall squarely into the emotional category.  Mortality was and still is my biggest hurtle.  I did not want any animals, at all, because I knew that mortality, for whatever reason, was going to fall on my shoulders.  I would be the one to bury an expired animal or put one down to relieve its misery or taking the life because of economic reasons.  I was against the notion of animals and concentrated on fruits and vegetables.  We did eventually get into animal husbandry as has been chronicled in our blog.  As I age and mature, in my new role, I can say that my heart is not hardening but that I am getting less unsettled when dealing with mortality.  It still takes a toll and I am reminded of Dr. Temple Grandin’s statement that ordinary people “can become sadistic from the dehumanizing work of constant slaughter.”  We fall way short of anything close to that but the thought is there.

I will tell you since we have gotten our processors license I have stayed away from processing our layers.  I realize this will happen within the next two years and it will not be easy on me.  However, knowing they will be going to the soup kitchen to feed the less fortunate makes me feel better.  That thought is what got us through the first culling.  (See Spent Layers and Humane Farming).  

I do find the thought of processing our own layers appalling and hard for me to accept.  You see our layers trust us to keep them safe.  Yet, this last time their demise will be at my hands not that of someone else.  The hens do actually become pets as much as you try to keep a distance.  When you deal with them everyday, twice a day, they grow on you.  You start to see contrasts and nuances, in each of them.  At most we have seventy birds on the property but some seem to have their own little variance from the others.  Some walk right up to you and follow you around others mill about. 

When we take a tour of kids around the farm, the older layers are my go-to girls.  I can walk up to one pick her up and let them see a chicken up close and personal.  The hen stays calm without throwing a fuss and lets the children pet or touch her.  I will talk about the hen and point out the waddle, comb, beak, nostrils and ears.  I skip the vent unless asked, “Where do the eggs come out?”  I will then point to the hen’s ear and tell them that is how you can tell what color egg the chicken will lay.  I usually get responses from the parents at that point because it is a fascinating tidbit.  Education is a big part of our existence and mission.

No matter why a person decides to be a humane farm the practice is good for the animal, the environment and healthy for the consumer.  As for the farmer, I think that the practices make us all feel good.  Once again, that giving back aspect makes a person feel good.  By providing open spaces, natural grazing and comfortable living conditions we benefit from production, the animals thrive and the environment recovers naturally.

 

 Buy Local: Who is your farmer?

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Contrast Personified

Fer Coadee - A tale of two dogs

It was the dog days of August.  I was in the barn fixing the lawn mower and Coadee was outside sitting in the shade under the black walnut tree.  The temperature was in the high nineties with typical Maryland humidity.  I have sweat streaming down my face and into my eyes, making them sting.  The reason I had this task was that I accidentally drained the lawn mower battery.  It does not matter how the battery totally discharged, you only need to know I was involved.  I had re-charged the battery and was hooking the thing back up to test.  

I tried to turn the mower on only to hear the soothing sounds of chickens laying eggs, not the start of an engine.  The battery was not going to take a charge.  Not to worry, I have done this before so I have a spare battery.  I hooked the trickle charger up to the spare and after twenty-four hours no, that too did not work either.

So here, I am installing a newly purchased battery and out of the corner of my eye, I see a chicken where it should not be.  I am wet, my eyes burn, I am close to finishing the install and Coadee is sitting under the walnut tree.  Per routine, I scolded the chicken for being out of the pen and told it to get back and true to form, it did not listen.  No problem, I will call Coadee and she can pick her up and take her back to the pen.  

I called for Coadee.  She looked towards me acknowledging my beckoning.  I said "Coadee, chicken, get the chicken".  She does not move she just gives me that look.  If you own a dog, you know the look.  It is a look of “Yes, I hear you but no, you do not have anything close to interesting enough for me to come”.  I called again she got up on all fours.  Okay, now the chicken will learn to get back when I tell her too.  However, Coadee is still standing, so I call her again.  I watched as she took a step and turned to her right walking towards the garage bay.  I called her name with a little more force with the command to come.  Coadee continued to saunter towards the garage.  Not only am I being ignored, apparently my presence is no longer of interest. 

Okay, I need to pull out the buzzwords now, so I whistle and say, “Come Coadee lets go to work”, which usually brings her.  At that moment, she picks up her gate to a trot, rounds the corner of the garage and is gone.  To say I was stunned is understating what I had just witnessed.  I am starting to think a calculating dog just ignored me.  It looked like Coadee weighed the situation, figured it was hot enough without chasing a chicken and I was there so everything was a okay.  Is this what they mean by the dog days of summer?  Well, I picked the chicken up marched it back to the pen and placed her inside.  I fixed the mower and went about other chores. 

Later in the day, I was stowing the garden hoses we use to deliver water to our irrigation zones when I heard a ruckus by the chicken pen.  It was an unusual sound so I turned and looked to see a brown flash flying from my right to left.  My heart sank, I ran around the silo to get a better look at what flashed past my eyes.  It was what I feared, a brown tail hawk swooping down to get a chicken.  It was in flight going away from the pen.  I looked at the hawks talons and much to my relief did not see any bird.  What I heard and saw next surprised me.  I turned to see Coadee full stride running past the chickens to where the hawk had flown.  The hawk landed on a branch at the very top of a tree.  Coadee was below and barking up at the predator.  

I guess the hawk did not like the attention because it quickly flew off to the east.  Coadee gave chase.  Once the hawk was out of sight Coadee patrolled the area looking up in the sky for the danger.  At one point, the hawk was visible and heading east away from the house.  That did not stop Coadee from running after to see what the hawk was doing.  Once the hawk was far enough away, Coadee came back and stayed vigilant watching 360 degrees of sky.

It was amazing to see those farm dog instincts going to work.  She was all business and determined to keep an eye on the hawk until the hawk did not pose a direct threat.  For the hawk’s part, it just kept flying east towards easier prey I guess.

It was a moment when a little smile comes to your face, because you have witnessed something special.  Having seen the lazy dog that morning and the fer coadee (Scottish for protector) this afternoon was definitely a contrast personified. 

Buy Local: Its safe, fresh, healthy food and your money stay’s local

 

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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...."

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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.

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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?

 
 

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.

 

 
 
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