Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Organic Pick Your Own Strawberries

Spring has come and gone, which for us means strawberries season ended.  We have over one-thousand plants in the ground and they produced fruit.  Last year we had four hundred plants in the ground and opened up an organic pick your own strawberry patch.  We did not advertise because this was our first time.  We needed to get our feet wet to figure out what we were doing right and wrong.  As is the only constant on the farm, we were doing more wrong then right, but we knew that might happen.  We wanted a soft open so we would not disappoint too many people and get past our learning curve.

In order to have strawberries for a couple of weeks, we planted two-hundred early and two hundred late season varieties.  We have been having weird weather, last year, was hotter than normal, and both types of strawberries came in at the same time, which turned out to be good because demand was overwhelming.  Turnout was from word of mouth and our email list but we quickly learned we did not have enough to meet demand.  That is why we planted another six-hundred bring this years total to one thousand plus. 

We did a lot of research to find out if Maryland ever had a strawberry organic pick your own.  We talked to the people at the Department of Agriculture, some of the older organic farmers and scoured news articles.  It seemed that we were going to be the first farm in the state to do that.  Most of our colleagues said that we should sell them for a premium and not as a pick your own.  My thought was as the people make their way out to the berries they would see the chickens and other things growing and come back for them. 

Sounded like a good idea but it did not really materialize.  Probably because we opened and before we knew it, we had to turn people away.  It was the classic mistake of under estimating demand and consumers not being happy with being mislead.  Although that was not our intention, as I said we did not even advertise but word spread. 

We have worked the kinks out and once again tried a limited pick your own, while at the same time selling berries at the farmers market.  We love strawberries and have grown them every year since we moved in.  Strawberries are one of those future plants, like asparagus or grapes, apples or any fruit tree for that matter.  Which means you put all this labor upfront but you do not get anything until the mature plant is capable of producing its fruit. 

For our grapes, it is seven years and counting.  I know some of you are reading this and turning a skeptical eye.  I would question it too, however, I live it and I can tell you the plant struggles to maintain existence and if you have as steep of a learning curve as we tend to have it might even be extended still.  I think our first bunch of edible grapes came in the sixth year, by that time we had experimented with every organic fungicide and insecticide there was.  We still do not produce a sell-able amount but I do get a few every time I mow the land around them.  Grapes are very temperamental; we picked the ones best suited for our area and climate.  We missed the part about virus and bacterial resistance but that has now become a lessoned learned.

As for the other long-term fruits and vegetables, they are slowly filling in and growing.  Weeding is always a problem but we use and reuse landscape fabric and straw.  Problem is sometimes the straw itself is not put down thick enough and its seeds grow.  Talk about adding insult to injury.  As I have heard thousands of times, “nothing good ever came from something easy” however, it sure would be nice just occasionally.

Buy Local: Monsanto may have the upper hand but you have the choice!

 

 
 

You know it is good when......

Strawberries have come in fast and heavy and as quickly come to a halt in less then three weeks.  However, the work and care done the other 49 weeks is what makes those three weeks possible.  People do not see the toil and hard labor that it takes to bring organic berries to the market.  However, when you find people that really get it their appreciation is humbling and empowering.

I do not always talk about the human interaction that goes on at the farm and farmers markets.  Most all of it is positive; I still do not like the whole haggle thing, mainly because there is no haggling on an organic farm.  You follow the tenets, you do not haggle on whether you do or do not meet minimum space requirements for birds, you give them more then they need.  You do not cut corners, or fudge when growing fruits and vegetables organically.  The guidelines are mostly clear, but if you follow how farmers grew before WWII chances are you are organic.  If you mimic Mother Nature, you will be successful in growing.  I wish I could point to the road of riches in the industry, but we have yet to find it ourselves.  Nevertheless, what I experienced this weekend at the market was magical, heart warming and intrinsically gratifying. 

A mom stopped by with her two-year-old daughter, we had strawberries and serviceberries for sale and the mom let her two year old eat a serviceberry then a strawberry.  The look on that child’s face enjoying the berries was pure delight with an emotion that was honest and pristine, one that only the purity of adolescences brings.  Her smile was large and she was not stopping at just eating one.  Her mom quickly bought some strawberries to let her eat them.  Her daughter was having none of that; she was going back to where she knew the berries were good. 

Eventually, the mom distracted her enough to start eating the ones she had purchased at the same time apologizing profusely about her daughter eating too many berries.  “Truth is,” I said, “I could stand here all day and watch her eat those berries”.  I looked the mom in the eyes and said, “We do what we do because of you, your daughter and her children and everyone that will come after us.  Seeing her joy is payment enough, you do not have to apologize,” I said.  The mom may not have  understood my statement but I saw why our struggles matter, defined in the simple smile of a child enjoying a piece of natural unadulterated fruit.  It was fruit that had no amendments whatsoever, no sprays, GMO’s, nothing, just raw berries at their best.

It was a heartwarming experience for me, a simple reminder of why we took on this job in the first place.  It was also a sign that we are doing something correct, that our food is tasty, healthier, safer and fresher then the industrial food complex could ever chemically engineer.  It doesn't hurt that we have gotten off to the best start in ten years, something, which we really needed from a confidence standpoint. 

Later, when I got back to the farm, I told my wife the story and she said, “Well, you know it is good when a two year old keeps going back and I could not have agreed more.

Buy Local:  Stop GMO and you will stop the poisoning of our earth and our bodies.

 

 
 

Raising Chickens

A rooster hit me the other morning.  For some that would sound like the start of a joke.  However, for me that was just the start of my morning.  It was a morning that included an exercise replete with spring fever, the drive for procreation, layers and of course roosters.  I will explain later.

When we began raising free-range organic eggs, we started slowly.  The first flock was seventeen weeks old when we got them (which knocked them out of the organic category) and there were six of them, all layers.  One of the first things we learned was that you did not need a rooster in order to get eggs from a hen.  After reading and then hearing stories about insane, violent behaviors of attacking roosters, having hens was just fine by us.  We had gotten comfortable with cover cropping, field rotation and mixing grasses and legumes for the chickens to forage.  Family and friends truly liked the taste of the eggs so we felt we were ready to expand.  

In order to sell eggs as “Certified Organic” you need to get hens when they are less then two days old.  Because we did not know any better we expected that we would get layers when we ordered fifteen one-day-old peeps.  I had seen how they sex chicks (i.e., determine male or female) and some chicks are known to be hens based on their color (they are called sexlinks).  We have Rhode Island Reds, because they are a Heritage Breed and a recovering species, and apparently, they are not as easy to sex as one thinks.

When you get day old layers, it is inevitable that you will get a male.  It has happened every time we have gotten day olds.  The number of chicks does not matter, we have gotten 15, got a rooster, got 100, ended up with four roosters that time.  We purchased 50 this last time two are roosters.  The very last purchase was for 100 and we ordered a “straight run”.  There are three categories of peeps, cockerels, straight run and layers.  Cockerels are all males and least expensive, straight run is a mix with no sexing (if you order 50 you may get 10 layers and 40 roosters), that is the chance you take with a straight run.  Then there are layers, which are the most expensive but at least 90+ percentages of all of them are layers.

I am a shining example of why city people are made fun of in rural areas.  After our first purchase of day olds, I called the farm store and asked about our recent chicken order.  "Did we get a rooster with the hens"?  I asked.  "No, probably not" was the answer then followed by "but we can't guarantee all hens at sale but probably not".  So I described the chicken that was more developed then the rest and said that it sounds like it is trying to crow.  "Yep," she said, “you got a rooster.”  Without even thinking when I heard the word rooster I blurted out a question that, as the words were forming in my mind and my lips were audiblizing the errant thought, I knew it was the dumbest question a supposed farmer could ask. 

You can do two things with a rooster on a farm.  One is to eat him.  The other is to let him fertilize the eggs.  That is it; they also protect the hens but those are the only things roosters can do on a farm.  Anybody having heard the birds and bees speech knows this.

Of course, I knew this, once the words were ringing in my ears, but as I was forming the question, and the sales clerk on the other end was hearing it, I couldn't stop myself.  When she told me it was a rooster I was dumb founded "What am I going to do with a rooster," I blurted out mindlessly.  There was dead silence on the other end of the phone line or maybe muffled laughter I do not remember.  What I do remember is questioning why I had just asked such a simple question.  She composed herself enough to say that indeed we could eat it or we could you use it for its reproductive capability.  Neither of which were planned nor wanted, so I ended the conversation quickly.  So the damage was done, at least I hadn't given her my name 

We never wanted a rooster, we were not at the processing stage and we did not want to hatch chicks or deal with crazy violent birds.  With our luck if we hatched chicks we would get more males then females.  Roosters were not a thought until we started seeing and hearing the signs.  By that time it is too late, it is yours.  We tried to sell it, then offered to give it away but had no takers.  Over time, we have found a fourth function a rooster can serve on a farm and that is ambience.  We love to hear them crow as do our customers.  Our customers see a beautiful Rhode Island Red in all his plumage and in full throat.  We still keep roosters around to have a run of the yard, hens to keep them company, and protect. 

I have learned when it is spring and you open the chicken house door the last thing you want to do is be between an amorous rooster and a flock of hens.  The rooster leaped from his high perch and flew out the door way.  My head was down as I was looking at the hens and my body was in the door way.  The rest they say is history, the rooster is okay, I got scracthed a little bit.  So far their have been no signs of insanity, violent behavior, or unprovoked attacks.  Oh, and the roosters have been fine too.

Buy Local - From a farmer not from a chain hard selling the words

 

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My Mom

I took this picture on May 26th, 2013, with my wife.  It is of her rose bush, that she planted last year.  That I kinda ran over once or twice, mowed a little and let weeds over come the entire bush.  I spent some time last winter, weeding, re-staking and securing the plant. 

We were out by the berries and I saw it and called my wife over so she could see it and admire my handy work.  "You have got to take a picture of them," she said.  So, I got my phone out. took some shots and notice the rays of sun coming through the trees.  I tried to capture both rays and rose at the same time.  Below is the outcome:

   

I showed her the picture and said "My mom always loved roses, and that ray of sunshine must be her admiring them".  It was just a comment based on the beauty of the situation and the fact that I miss my departed mother. 

It was May 27, 2009 when my mom passed away, which makes the timing of the picture above and the comment all the more poignant.  After her passing I wrote the following post a few days later:

My Mom passed away Wednesday May 27th at 5:00 am, I knew this because at 6:23 the phone rang and it was my sister.  She couldn't get it out but she didn't have to, my mom suffered from breast cancer and it spread to her bones.  She was in terrible pain and in the end it was really a blessing for her, we were selfishly hoping she would be around longer but it truely wasn't fair to her.  She had given us everything she had from life lessons to cooking lessons and she was crazy about spelling and grammar.  I, unfortunately, let her down on the latter two.

She was delt a cruel hand for life but she raised three really good kids and she always had a smile, a laugh and strong shoulder.  She was a great cook and loved to entertain.  But what was endearing was her ability to laugh and look at the bright side of every cloud.  She lives on every time I cook tomatoe sauce, bread, meatloaf, pizza, well you get the picture.  Mom is with most of her family now, they are all probably sitting around playing cards and joking and laughing.  She had the ability to forgive like no other, a trait I am still trying to emulate.  We grieve and we miss her terribly but she wouldn't want us to morn, she was a partier and that is what she would have wanted.

I never stored the details of time the day she died, I could not have told you the day, the month, or the year for that matter.  My memory of the day was that she died and left that void that we all feel or will feel at some time in life.  She died and that is what remained as my memory of the event. 

This single shot of a rose with sun rays coming through the trees as a backdrop made me think of her love for them and of her .  It is sad but at the same time it is so heart warming, being one of those things that makes this hard life we live easier.  It made me go back to that post, to re-read what I had felt only to find that I was reading it on the date of the day she passed. 

From her I learned it is what we do for others and the impact we have on those around us that makes me a good person.  If you look for someone to help, you will find them.  Your reward will not be know to you but things will happen that you do not understand.  It is not the materials that we own or the clothes that we wear by which we are judged, but by the people we help and lives we touch.  Which is how my mother lived her life.

Thanks mom,   .

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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.

 

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.   

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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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