Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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I gave a presentation to the Organic BMSB workgroup on how our growing year faired and what we did to rectify last year’s infestation. We improved marginally, however I look at improvement as a great step, no matter the measurement. Improvement equates to moving forward in our fight to grow fruits and vegetables organically against a devastating adversary.
I was finally able to put faces to the voices I have heard on all the conference calls. As usual, I learned more from everyone else then I was able to impart but that is why I wanted to be in the group to begin with. I could not stand by having suffered the losses from 2010 without trying to do something, education, as with most things, is the first step. At least this year I had much less anxiety presenting to such a distinguished group. I am still in awe of the work they do and the dedication they show. I am a babe in the woods filled with entomology experts, seasoned practitioners and other heavy hitters in the organic growing community. I met Jeff Moyer from the Rodale Institute and Dr. Russ Mizell from Florida State University. We followed Dr. Mizell's 2008 native stinkbug study to establish a trap crop solution for this year. During the two-day event, I found I was still writing jargon down, for later research, but the longer I listened the more things started to fall into place.
Entomologist from around the country showed up to participate. It was truly fascinating to sit and listen to the work that they have been doing this past year and years past. They have been studying this bug for sometime. It was not until the last few years that BMSB started to show their true capacity for fruit and vegetable damage. If left unchecked many small organic farms will suffer and more than likely go out of business. The Washington Post recently had an article about a peach grower, in the area, that decided to stop instead of continuing to suffer monetary loses due to the bug.
Orchards around Maryland and Pennsylvania are suffering great losses. The bug continues to hitchhike across the United States with no indication of abatement. Once in a place they multiply consuming the most desirable and costly flora. They are not only destructive they are dumb. They fly but they do not know how to land. They land by hitting something first. Then they either grasp on to the surface in order to stay put or bounce off to fall to the ground. Most times, they bounce off. If it is a hard surface, you hear them hit the surface and another thump when they hit hard ground.
Besides trap cropping we will try native parasitoids this year. Parasitoids lay eggs on their host and the larvae feed off the host in order to mature. As the larvae grow, the host dies. Like the Trichogramma wasp laying eggs on the green tomato hornworm. We will try different species and wasps that are predacious.
We are fortunate that we can participate in the group and learn as we go. I do feel better about growing but we are not out of trouble. This season’s grow area has hedgerows and tree lines surrounding the land. Both places are over-winter habitation areas for the BMSB. We will also plant near the barn, another highly concentrated area for over-wintering bugs. We have our planning cut out for us, we will need to come up with a perimeter defense that takes into account both ground and air assault. Adult BMSB are high in the trees and glide down to earth. Planting a trap crop too close to the trees will not stop them from making it into the cash crop area.
We will put up trap crops, physical barriers and try repellant plants on the interior. The idea of the repellant plant is if the bug gets through the trap crop the next thing they get to is an undesirable plant, which may turn them back around to the trap crop for food. We will have to see; what I do know is the more we learn the better able to educate others. If we are able to further that cause then it fits within our own mission. Without education, we are all lost.
Buy Local: Go out and meet your local farmer, they are waiting for you
Posted by Brian
@ 07:59 PM EST
I do not mean to be so negative when describing the difference in lifestyles growing up in a metropolis versus trying to live a life sustainably. There are stark differences when the environments are compared and contrasted. There is a ton written about the minutia of growing, most everything, from seeds to harvest have been studied and documented. Then there is the whole animal side, once again well researched and published. What we found lacking in all that we read was the casual need for euthanasia.
Yes, if you are involved with animals euthanasia is naturally part of the farm cycle. When I say naturally, in the best of production, you will have to deal with mortality and or the decision to end the animal’s life for health reasons or for processing. That is what we thought going into the vegetable side, if you had no animals you do not have to end the life of God’s creatures. That you would not have to kill, anything other than vegetation was law as far as we were aware.
Truth is, if you are on a farm you cannot get away with not killing something. Inevitably, you will someday have to take the life of something, even if it is mice eating your seeds. When you lay poison down you have stepped over the line and become something that you said you would not. Mice are but one in many instances where taking the life out of something fixes your problem. Have all the romantic fantasies you can conjure about living in a rural environment on a farm. Growing up in the city, we were led to believe in the farm where Lassie grew up. Sure Timmy was locked in a fiery barn, but Lassie was able to run and get help.
Why didn't they run an episode where Lassie kills a groundhog because the groundhog is undermining the foundation of the milking shed? At least it would have evened out the perspective of farming. Then there was Oliver Wendell Douglas, they could have shown him chopping the head off a snake he found in his kitchen. Having to take my phone outside and connect to a box on the telephone pole did not phase me in the least. That was because of the legacy of Green Acres. I do not mean to imply that our view of farming was predicated on television broadcasts; but I would be lying if I said they had no influence on our perceptions.
I am a very cautious person, I go into a decision only if I feel I have exhausted what is known and understood about the expected outcomes. We did not buy this farm and go into growing on a whim. We spent thirteen years reading and playing in our small garden before we even started looking for a farm.
In all that time, euthanasia was never brought into the discussion. That is unless animals were discussed. We were vegetable people, not vegetarians; we ate meats from local butchers and purchased fruits and vegetables from Knill's, our local farm. We just settled on growing vegetables instead of animals to get away from our own squeamishness.
We got a rude awakening within the first five days of living on the farm. Nevertheless, if you are thinking about farming and you are like us, do not think you can farm without having to someday take out an animal or reptile. I wish it was not the case but at some point in time, it will happen. Just be aware when planning, you will have to kill. If you have a hard time with it like us, I wish you all the strength in the world.
Buy Local: Help preserve the environment for future generations
Posted by Brian
@ 07:38 PM EST
I was fired recently as the official spokesperson for the farm. Seems that the last interview I did turned out to be perceived as negative. Now I have heard that publicity, good or bad, is still publicity and perception is in the eye of the beholder. The article centered on the organic research of the brown marmarated stinkbug, the damage that it caused and the potential for damage to organic crops. We have had a hard time fighting this bug and we have lost entire crops. Just because we are, a small farm does not mean that the losses were small.
Going into a growing season you have certain expectations, profit is one of them. You dream, plan and then you contingency plan. In Maryland, you need pre-approval for any amendment used in the coming growing season. Amendment means anything applied to the crop or land. This is a growing trend among organic certifiers.
For the grower this puts extra emphasis on contingency planning. You need to know what you may face from an environmental standpoint. That was a lot easier to do before 2010. As a part of growing, you learn what bugs, viruses, bacteria and weather conditions are like in your region. Armed with that information the amount of variables you face begin to dwindle. It is not as daunting as it seems. That is until you face an unknown enemy with no known organic amendment available.
Some of the older farmers around here talk about when Japanese beetles first invaded and the similarities. Nevertheless, they are talking about a different world and time when the scientist developed a quick chemical response. The uses of those chemicals are band today, for good reason, but conventional farmers did get relief relatively quick.
Organic growers on the other hand do not get quick relief. The normal process for allowing new amendments takes time. The amendment needs vetting for organic properties, it needs a review period in which growers and others can comment, then it goes to the National Organic Standards Board for discussion and vote and if it makes it there, it goes to the Secretary of the USDA for approval in the NOP. Recently, the EPA came out with a few rulings allowing the limited use of certain chemicals. This was great news for the conventional folks but it had little impact on the organic folks. The EPA went as far as approving some banned organic materials for use.
The problem is, as I understand the regulations, EPA does not have final say over what is and what is not allowed in the NOP. Using any of these EPA approved organic amendments could very likely result in the decertification of the land where the amendment was applied. The complete pre-approval process, mentioned above, is designed to prevent that decertification from happening. Once you get the certifiers approval, you have in essence obtained the right to use the amendment accordingly. However, you must still conform to the NOP, IPM, Nutrient Management and other environmental guidelines. There is no quick fix in organics and that is what makes growing tenuous when facing an invasive species with no natural predators or is impervious to existing organic amendments.
When Dr. Nielson, from Michigan State University, gave the reporter our name it was so the reporter could get a growers perspective on the bug and what we face being organic. Having lost what we lost and living with the bugs over wintering in our house peaked the reporter’s interest. A year before, the local ABC affiliate was doing a story on Congressman Bartlett running for office and some of the story looked at his effort to get funding for research of the BMSB. The local ABC channel interviewed him, his opponent and us. The last thing my wife said before she left was that the house was off limits and I was not "under any circumstance" allowed to let the reporter in the house. Therefore, they took video of the piles of stinkbugs in the barn.
Apparently, that warning was meant for all eternity, because I was still not suppose to say anything about the house. Now the writer did not get every detail correct in the article, I did not teach Coadee to eat stinkbugs; she just does that on her own and we do not have thousands of stinkbugs crawling on our floor. Anyone that has encountered the bug knows the adults fly and the instars walk. We had adults in the house just like everyone around us. Our house sits in the middle of fifty acres of farmland. Harvesting the soybeans chased the bugs from the field to the closest structures, which in this case, was the barn and the house.
The first sentence in the article started this way “Brian Biggins’ life stinks.” and it went down hill from there or so I am told. After my wife read the article, she was horrified that I had spoken about the house. “Who is going to want to buy any of our jams or jelly’s?” she asked. Never mind the fact that it was made in August when the bugs were outside. "Would you go to a farm like that?” We are an organic farm; of course we are going to have bugs people expect that. She is entitled to her opinion as well as her privacy and I violated that, for which, I am truly sorry.
I told her “Look, this will go the way every other bit of publicity we have had goes,” which is nowhere. We were on the radio in Baltimore for an hour, I got one email, and we have been on local television a couple of times. We received no comment what so ever, not even someone saying they saw us. A local newspaper covered our cooking class three years ago. One person asked if we were the farm in the paper. We have been in the local paper multiple times, we even took out an advertisement, paid two hundred dollars, to run one day (in the food section) and we got one reply. “Let’s face it,” I said, “our track record for getting sales out of our publicity has not exactly been stellar.” Nothing seemed to change her mind to her the damage was done. “You cannot un-ring a bell”.
She is right, you cannot un-ring a bell, but it is not like we are the only ones with bugs in the house, everyone around us faces the same problem. She is getting better about it but I am still no longer the official spokesperson for the farm. I am just hoping she has forgotten the password to Local Harvest, I am sure this piece would not go over so well with her either.
Buy Local: help build community and preserve those who persevere
Posted by Brian
@ 06:38 PM EST
Growing up in the city, I saw and heard some horrific incidents. From car accidents, a friend’s brother touches a live wire on top of a train; a body lays in pieces after a motorcycle accident, to burying my puppy after being struck by a car. All of which make me cringe at the thought of blood shed at my own hands. I have written about this theme often, because it is something that has caused great anguish and emotional pain, which I had hoped by exposing, would allow me to move forward.
I guess in a way I was right, if it was most things, I would like being right. This is not one of them and I have lost more then I bargained for, at least in the end. I do have perspective; I have talked to my nephews who have both served on the frontlines in Afghanistan and Iraq. The things we have talked about and how they conducted themselves while transitioning back into society has been inspiring and made me feel foolish at my own inadequacies.
We have exhausted every possible angle for selling our chickens, legally, without us processing. In the state of Maryland, if you do not process your own chickens, legally, you cannot sell them off the farm, let alone retail. If you want to expand your market to restaurants, wholesale or even farmer’s markets, you need a license. Therefore, I have taken the next step in getting our state certified poultry processor license. First step was taking the processing class and passing the test with at least an 80. We have accomplished the aforementioned.
Since then, I have completed the twenty some page application. The next step is to mail it in and wait for the evaluation of our production, sanitation, safety measures, hazard mitigation, waste disposal and chilling process. After examination, comes the letter announcing the results of our plan. If we succeed in meeting all sanitation, safety and disposal procedures, we move to the inspections phase. We then wait for the inspector to call and setup the inspection of our processing.
This has all come with little cost but a lot of emotional angst. However, I took a step that I thought I would never take, nor did I have confidence that I could ever bring myself to take. It has been years in the making but I have crossed over into the realm of grim reaper. I did not lose my breakfast, lunch or dinner as I thought I would, but I lost something worse. To a certain extent, I lost a piece of something, that I had fought a lifetime trying to keep safe. The idea of me ending the life of an animal, that I had raised and cared for, was not fathomable. I have written here, that it was something I was not able or willing to face.
I feel no sense of accomplishment, there is not a speck of satisfaction or any positive feeling having faced one of the hardest tests of my life when I stepped up for the sake of the farm. I am not relieved, if anything I am saddened that I have had to take this step after so many years of fighting against our raising and processing of animals.
Temple Grandin said that constant processing of animals makes people sadistic. I can see why and I have only done it twice. I think it is a defense mechanism used to reconcile what you are doing on a daily basis. I am not saying it is right, it is not, there is no justification for the mistreatment of animals no matter the situation. However, there are emotions involved, we are humans and emotions come with the package. Some of us are better able to handle situational emotions then others and I am trying.
Humane slaughter is an oxymoron but as Temple and Joel Salatin illustrate the end of an animal's life, although permanent, should and can be done with the least stress possible to the animal. I know our birds are raised in the most humane, comfortable and invigorating environment possible, that they lived free and outside with plenty of room and were protected from predatory ills. I try to joke that they live better then I do, what with their organic diet, freedom, fresh grass and a stress-less environment.
However, it does not lessen the fact that my attempt to be a successful vegetable grower is in great peril. It is a bitter pill to swallow given what we now must do in order to keep the operation viable. This is just the beginning, eventually I will need to process one weekend every month. Michael Pollan in "Ominvores Dilemma" pointed out, how far removed people are from their food source. This makes it harder for consumers to see what small farms go through in order to survive and provide safe, fresh food. That is why education is important, the more people learn the more they understand the earnest effort that small sustainable farmers put fourth for their health and the environments.
On a farm, you face difficulties frequently and you do what is warranted within guidelines, humane treatment, regulations, and social mores, ethical and sustainable practices and sometimes by doing so, you just find yourself over the edge and there is no chance of return.
Buy Local: Become part of a greater good, help build your local community food chain.
Posted by Brian
@ 05:00 PM EST
When we talk about nutrient management for us, it has deeper meaning then how much fertilizer to use. Our land contains part of a tributary, water that runs through our land and down on the line to the Chesapeake Bay. What we do on our land has a direct impact on the Bay. We have the potential to hurt or help the Bay, just as millions of us have. In the city, they started painting the words "Chesapeake Bay" on the storm drains. It was part of the City's effort to help educate citizens by letting them know what went in the storm drain ended up in the bay. We all have a responsibility to help protect our environment, from farmers to homeowners.
Whenever the topic of nutrient management comes up, in the farming community sometimes tempers flair. I understand why, if you look at the farmland and compare that to all home and business land, farms are a minority in total land mass. This is not just local to Maryland; it is all across the United States. Yet, farms get the bulk of the attention and focus, but the math on farm acres versus the rest of the land mass does not add up. Everyone needs to realize his or her own role in helping protect our environment for future generations, from lawns to dish and clothes soap, we can all protect watersheds.
What we do on our land, the notion and responsibility for nutrient management is highly regarded. By growing up in Baltimore, the Bay and crabs were as much a part of my heritage as was Italian cooking. Like every other state, Marylander's celebrate their heritage through festivals and activities that are indigenous to the State. Ours is the celebration of all that is good with the Chesapeake Bay.
Here is an article, from the Baltimore Sun, on the annual seafood festival and the crab picking champion, we like all things crabs. I have never entered the competition nor could I. I cannot pick a crab without eating it. Before this Champ, there was a sister duo, who held the title for a bunch of years. The one sister would have the title for some years, then the other would, this went on for a long period if I recall. The sisters, featured on Chef John Shield’s cooking show, were excellent pickers.
This is how we as Marylanders, celebrate the bounty that the environment provides us. I know all over the States there are similar festivals; the first to come to my mind is the Gilroy Garlic festival. I am Italian after all. We as a nation celebrate food of all kinds and types. However, we have split personalities when it comes to growing and selling food. If we have so much reverence for foods, why doesn't that translate into a demanding consumer, stringent safety standards and food purity? Standards that include lower trace amounts of carcinogenic chemicals and label GMO-food products as such.
I think the reason there is so much fighting by the IFC against labeling food pertaining GMO products, is because the majority of us would not consume the foods. My greatest fear about GMO is the anti-biotic spliced into the DNA helix. Then there are the other problems. Ask yourself, why is the IFC fighting so hard against the labeling of modified foods?
Just like there are farms in Maryland that violate the nutrient management policies, people will do what they have to do to make money. Growing is incredibly hard, doing it right, growing sustainable, with integrity and environmental sensitivity are some of the tenants of why the local movement is gaining in popularity, not just with people buying from local farms but also the wonderful people that do take the leap and decide actually to grow. By focusing on proper techniques, fertilizer management and green manures, we actually help the Bay.
Many of the people we meet are people that "get it". They want to eat healthier but they are concerned that spinach, peanut butter, hamburgers, tomatoes, lettuces, or whatever they eat from the IFC can harm them. We do play Russian roulette when we do not take the time to prepare foods properly. In the hospitality industry, they have a process of educating the food side safety. You must pass and receive your "Sanitation Certification,”. You learn all the food borne illnesses, how to clean and prepare food, cross contamination and so fourth. The test is hard to pass and does involve significant knowledge of temperatures, bacterial and viral outbreaks, prevention and of course, safe food handling.
Most of my friends and many of the people I know have basic rudimentary knowledge of cross contamination and proper cooking temperatures. Nevertheless, food safety and handling has become more complex and rudimentary knowledge has turned out to give us all a false sense of security. Who knew you had to wash the outside of a melon before you ate the thing. More people do now, but it was at a cost that no one family should ever have to pay. Not because all you wanted was a fruit, vegetable or meat product.
Buy Local: You keep your money local, so the local economy grows.
Posted by Brian
@ 05:56 PM EST
I am jaded, as much as I am open minded, pragmatic as much as I am principled, disappointed as much as energized. Because of my years of mistakes and foibles, I have learned a great many things. The one lesson that stands out is of a plethora of people who have helped me throughout my life that added to who I am and what I have become. Then again some are shaking there heads and still cringing at their association with me. There are always two sides to any story!
My first official part-time job title was "Porter," while working in a hospital kitchen. I was sixteen at the time. A year or two into the job there was a blizzard and I worked sixteen-hour days for eight days. My parent’s house was two blocks from the hospital, which made it fortuitist given transportation conditions in a blizzard. Because of that effort the Director of Food Services took it upon herself to help guide me into my future. It was not until a major calamity but it happened nonetheless. It was an innocent joke that went south when someone else followed suit.
The hospital was run by the Catholic order of the Daughters of Charity, who had thirteen hospitals up and down the east coast. As a porter, I worked in the kitchen in the lowest of jobs. Cleaning mainly and delivering food carts to the different floors for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then retrieving them to be unloaded and steam cleaned. I scrubbed pots, cleaned floors, walls, doors, shelves, ovens, fryers, grills, warmers, refrigerators, if it was in the kitchen I had to clean it.
The grill that the public and hospital staff saw had a pegboard sign advertising specials for the day. A pegboard sign is one of those things that you put letters on to spell different words. Like "Fresh Eggs," or "Bacon and Sausage," and then a price. Well one night I thought it would be funny to change the letters around to say something else. Being eighteen at the time, my hormonal inclination was to put up "Fresh Ass to Go,” I figured the morning crew would come in, see it for what it was, have a laugh and change the sign. I did not think I would have a copycat add something else.
The next time I came into work there was a big up roar about the sign being changed and an investigation was conducted. I thought what is that about, I simply changed the words a little. At the same time Willy, the manager of the dish sanitation section, asked of one of the complaintents, "How can she say anything about "fresh," when she is 75 years old?" that was his quote not mine.
Well the inquisition was on; Mrs. Andersen, the Director of Food Services, interviewed everyone. When my time came, I sat in front of her and she proceeded to tell me what this was about and asked if I had anything to do with it. I am honest to a fault and I admitted that yes, I did do it. Her immediate question was "What kind of sick mind puts something like that up in a Catholic hospital?”
I was stunned and blurted out, "All it was was Fresh Ass to Go, how bad could that be"? "What about the other thing?" she asked. "What other thing?” I asked in return. She looked me dead in the eyes and said, "Fresh P***y". My jaw dropped, and I immediately went into denial. "I will take responsibility for what I have done, but I will not take responsibility for that". I was emphatic. I was not going to take the blame for someone else’s mischief. I might have caused it but, I did not do it, nor encourage it.
I guess I convinced her because she said, "Okay," she then talked about my work ethic, my value to the organization and being there when needed. Then she asked, "What do you want to do with your life?” I was eighteen at the time but still knew the answer. "I want to work with computers, I want to sell mainframes,” I said. The thought of growing was not a thought. She said okay and told me I could leave.
I use to deliver the "Morning Sun" newspaper in the hospital and sold papers from floor to floor six days a week. This started before my first year of high school and lasted until I was a sophomore in college. So being there every day, I was able to look at job postings frequently. Some time later on the "Jobs" board was advertising for a computer operator position. It was the midnight to eight shifts on Friday and Saturday nights. I applied and used Mrs. Andersen as a reference. I was about to become a social pariah at the age of eighteen. I worked weekend nights, holidays and went to school during the week. These were the first steps that helped lead me into adulthood.
I cannot help but feel a sense of returning the favors, to give for what I have received. I have given and will continue to give, not out of obligation but from a sense of commitment. You see what we do here by treating the earth, air, animals and water correctly is just part of our whole make up. To give back does wonders for the human psyche. I know I should give of free will and I do. However, a lot of my motivation comes from the looks on people’s faces. I have been there and I know what they feel. I also know that I need nothing in return from whom we help. I would like if they pay it forward but there are no strings when we give.
I volunteered at our local soup kitchen for a year. Talk about a humbling experience and helping the poorest of the poor. I still felt good after the kitchen and dinning hall gleamed from my cleaning. Now we drop off excess vegetables and our spent layers for soup so that others are nourished.
This is a little window into why we have the motivation, drive, fortitude and stamina to keep taking the hits and getting back up. We are part of something bigger, from working on the USDA Organic BMSB workgroup to giving extra vegetables at the stand or to the soup kitchen. We are but just one piece in a huge puzzle that depicts all growers. Give willingly and you shall receive. You do not know what you will receive but I assure you that whatever it is it will be for the benefit of the greater good. Treating people, our land, water and animals with dignity, kindness and reverence is what drives us and makes all of us give thanks, It is what matters most.
Buy Local: Now is the time. If not now, then when?
Posted by Brian
@ 07:06 AM EST
Coadee is now eight months old. The dog eats stink bugs, at least we witnessed her eat four of them. The last one she regurgitated. We purchased a large kennel to keep her in during the day/night as needed. She has proven to be quite the escape artist, she is out more times then she is in, despite our efforts to reinforce incarceration of the animal. To stop her fleeing, I need to tie down every link at the bottom of the fence. She just keeps pushing at the links until she can separate them. For as big as she is, the escape whole is amazingly small.
Her training is continuing at Carol's and on the farm with us. We are at a stage, in training, where we do not have to tell her that chickens are out. She senses they are out and goes and gets them. Sometimes we see them other times we follow Coadee's gate.
The chickens have learned when she comes out it is time to start heading back to the pen or face Coadee's unwanted attention. We have not gotten the whole process down yet, but we are getting there. We would like Coadee to chase the chickens back into the pen. She has most of that process down, but we are still missing the “how to get the chickens in the pen,” part. If I am there, I take the bird, say speak to Coadee, so she barks, and toss the chicken over the fence. The chicken takes flight and I tell Coadee what a good girl she is. She has also learned however, that it is easier to pick the chicken up and bring it to the pen instead of chasing it around wildly until the chicken decides to head to the pen. This has led to some heart stopping moments.
Like the time I came around the corner of the barn to see Coadee with a chicken, head in her mouth, walking back to the pen. My heart sank, the chicken had to be dead, and it looked limp in her mouth. I yelled for her to sit which she did. I was walking to her, I told her to drop the chicken, she does not really know drop yet but she released the chicken, looking up at me with those big brown eyes. The chicken starting flapping her wings, shook her head, neck feathers bristling somewhat stunned. I expected the neck to be broken given what I saw. How she survived is beyond me.
Coadee gently holds things between her jaws, but at the same time, I have had to repair the corner of a wooden step that she chewed away. She still nips rather hard, but that is her herding instinct coming out, something that my wife has felt. When she is at Carol's there are plenty of young ducks, chickens, geese, rabbits, kittens, turkey’s her farm is a menagerie of heritage breeds, so Coadee has learned to control her jaws. She has learned to come when called, fetch, sit, lay, almost knows left versus right paw, drop things from her mouth, stays, speaks, hush (sometimes), help move the chickens, heard or corral them, protect, warn and generally tries to help with what you are doing.
I could be pulling on the chicken pen and she will come put her mouth on the rope and try to pull. Usually it is opposite of how I am pulling but it is a learning process. If I happen to be brining in an extension cord, or water hose she has the thing in her mouth going in the opposite direction. Weeding is one of those helping things too. She has at least stopped biting my hand when pulling weeds, now she just nestles in next to me and starts digging the dirt with as much gusto as she can muster. She has the basic concept just not the subtly of what we are doing. Sometimes she actually gets weeds, more often it is the plant. We still have work to do on identifying plants from weeds.
It is getting harder and harder to drop her off at Carol’s but it is the best for her. She is turning into the asset my wife said she would. She also brings a certain amount of joy, surprise, frustration, amazement and education to the farm. We are learning as she is, sometimes she is smarter other times we are. For ego reasons I am not going to give the percentage breakdown on that last statement.
Coadee is at least working in the rain now, something she was not doing before. I think she likes being toweled off and has figured out getting wet leads to being dried. This is a game in itself. I cover her with a towel and she tries to get the towel to lie on and chew. She is bigger and stronger so the process takes on the look of a wrestling match more then a drying session.
However, it is an exercise that both of us seem to relish. She tries to get the towel while I dry her paws, legs, tail, head and body. Her tail wags, the whole time, as she competes for towel space. This is her at three months
Coadee has become one of the good things about farming. It is just another one of those links in a long chain forged by events, time, people and stubborn determination.
Buy Local: Stay local, support your community farm.
Posted by Brian
@ 04:00 PM EST
During the hard times on the farm, I sometimes look back and question how I got here and why didn’t someone in the mental health profession intervene? I grew up in Baltimore City, the thought of trying to make a living by growing a truck garden was not on the radar. I knew what I wanted, at an early age, but it was materialistic. When I finally reached certain life goals, I understood how wrong I had been by chasing goals, which at their base, were shallow.
Don't get me wrong, I worked hard and made sacrifices that other people my age did not. Nevertheless, when I reflect upon my youthful goals to that of today’s youth, I was superficial and frivolous in my pursuits and ideals. Some of today's youth are more altruistic and look upon our society’s thirst for wealth as perversion itself. Think "Occupy Wall Street,". There is no moral high ground anymore. It is not expected or delivered from our political leaders, corporate leaders or others. The bankers are more like Mr. Potter, then George Bailey in "It’s a Wonderful Life". Greed is not good, honesty is rare and public service has turned into ugly words. Today's youth are looking at themselves as anti-materialistic, as if existence in and of itself is all that is needed. I understand that minimalist attitude.
Once I finished with my education, I usually worked two jobs. By the time, I got a very demanding job I was the typical workaholic yuppie. I worked six-day weeks, ten to twelve hour days, all for those goals I had set so long ago. I justified all my actions because I had to achieve. Materialistic as those goals were, I did not think or know it until I was in my forties. What free time I did have I spent cooking and growing vegetables in a small garden.
What I did not realize was early on there were other forces at work pushing me in the direction of growing. With all the years that my wife and I dated added to the years that we were married, my father and father in-law always had gardens going. My in-laws also raised layers for eggs and broilers. Each year it seemed my father-in-law would make his garden bigger. Once he retired, the garden looked huge. During my mid-twenties and some of my thirties, growing a truck garden was still the furthest from my mind. Summer after summer when we visited my in-laws, my wife’s father was always in the garden. He always looked content, no matter the time of day, temperature or humidity. There just seemed to be this Zen-like peace in the man. More than a couple of times, as the house expanded with grandkids and great-grand kids he was in the garden. I came to see this as his oasis in the middle of all the chaos and cacophony.
My wife and I got to a point in our lives when we needed to change our diet toward healthier foods. We started eating healthy and part of that was learning what was beneficial. The more we learned about trace amounts of carcinogenic chemicals in our fruits and vegetables the more we started growing our own food with organic methods, buying from local butchers and farms. We learned that the IFC was importing fruits and vegetables that had trace amounts of chemicals that were banned for use in the US. Growing small eventually led to thirteen years of discussing and planning growing on a larger scale.
With the passing of my wife's father, came cleaning out his library. He was a very stoic man; he could have played poker for a living if he wanted, his behavior and expression rarely changing. He laughed and enjoyed humor but for the most part, he was a quiet, reserved individual. When we obtained organic certification, he was the most animated I had ever seen. I thought it uncharacteristic but there was a lot I did not know about the man at that time.
Going through his library we got all the books, papers, articles, magazines and any other literature dealing with organic growing. He had original books from J.R. Rodale and some of the first extension articles from the University of Maryland on growing organically. The material dated back to the sixties, fifties and in some cases the forties. It was not until then that I realized how truly proud he was of our certified status. We had achieved what he had studied for years and we were doing it professionally.
I can still see his face when he came into the house and we had our "Certified Organic" sign hanging up on the wall. We were proud of it, but he took a sense of pride that escaped us all. That is until we found his organic material and realized just how knowledgeable he was. In talking to him over the years, since we purchased the farm, it always struck me how in-depth his questions were about growing. Not a year went by without my father-in-law coming up during the growing season, taking a tour of the garden and checking on the progress of our free-range organic layers. He would have loved the fact that we started raising organic broilers. We would walk the entire garden, the vegetables, the fruits and the resting areas the whole time discussing our land use practices, infestations, viral and bacterial problems and weeding. He was one of the biggest proponents of fire weeding. He hated weeds with a passion and I admired that greatly in him.
I must have spent about twenty-five summers watching this man tend his garden. I was able to make some very fresh salsa and other dishes from that garden. I remember mostly the look of satisfaction and contentedness on his face as he made his way back to the house, soaked in sweat and covered in dirt, carrying whatever tool it was he had used or the largess he harvested.
Without really knowing I think all those years watching him toil but loving every minute of what he was doing had a profound affect on me. I still question my sanity and skills but with every bad thing that comes along something good usually follows. God never closes a door without opening a window. We knew it was going to be hard, that failure was more likely than success but there is something about what we do that makes us continue, for now. Perhaps it is in our heredity.
Buy Local: Have you ever heard of a vegetable, fruit or meat recall for your local farmer or butcher?
P.S. Please help http://www.savenicksorganicfarm.org/
Posted by Brian
@ 06:34 PM EDT
Growing really is a rollercoaster ride, except prolonged, the thrills are unexpected and exhilarating, but the twists and turns visible and unavoidable. The end of the ride might be in years instead of minutes or seconds but there is an end. By the end of the seventies, farm foreclosures were commonplace. I saw a PBS documentary about the desolation of a generational family farm. The patriarch, whose family owned the farm for a century, was turning the operation over to his son. At the same time however, the son was realizing how these huge mono-farms subsidized by the federal government, because of the size of the factory farm acreage, had surpassed his ability to get what was needed to stay afloat. His wife worked at an office job to bring home income. Off farm income if that rings a bell.
Corporate farms are what is ruining the ecology and making consumers sick. Story after story of fruit, vegetable and animal product recalls are as commonplace today as never before in the history of food. Okay, early homosapien might have had more recalls but the record keeping back then is sketchy. Corporations are the future of the United States and the one percent of the population that holds the greatest amount of wealth is associated with those corporations. Who do you think owns Monsanto, Haliburton, Wal-Mart, IBM, Cargill, ADM the list goes and goes. But, the constant is the one percent, sure you and I might have stock in a company, therefore we are owners but not like the large stockholders, the board of directors, the CEO’s and VP’s and all the other titles that generate seven and eight figure incomes, we are not included in that one percent.
I was giving a tour this past weekend during which, I talk about how the cost of ecological sustainability is in our prices and that the prices you pay for food from the industrial food complex (IFC) does not. You do however subsidize the IFC because ultimately the taxpayer picks up the tab for policing and cleaning up the ecological ills caused by the IFC. We had ambled over to the layers and I pointed to Amazing and told the crowd of her story, how she survived a bear attack to live out in the woods for three weeks before Coadee found her.
Whenever we go over to where the layer pen is, most of them come running. Rhode Island Reds are a very curious group. When Amazing got near I reached over the fence and she hunkered down for me to pick her up, I then went on to explain to the group how to tell the color of egg by the chickens ear. I put Amazing back in the pen and continued to talk about soil resting and rejuvenation when out of no where Amazing jumps up and flies onto my shoulder. She steadied herself and perched on my shoulder. “Well we do call her Amazing,” I told the group. Thinking back, I was not even startled, on my periphery I could see she was getting ready to jump, when she did and landed on my shoulder I stretched my arm out so she would get a better purchase and I continued to talk. Everyone’s eyes were popping at the sight, of what this chicken just did.
When it was time to move away I leaned over the fence, dipped my shoulder down and she flew off into the pen. I had never experienced anything like that. One of our staff saw what had happened and mentioned it at quitting time. To me it was a sign that points to the benefits of our work and unknown simple pleasures. The look on people’s faces when that happened was electrifying. It was crazy, unpredictable and simply amazing from everyone’s perspective. The first question was “How did you train her to do that?” well I wish I could say I did, but this is the first time this happened. That made it significantly special for the group because it was not staged as originally thought. Talk of humane farming and proper treatment of animals creates an environment where something this odd has the potential to happen. It also enabled me to talk about the difference between humane farms and those of CAFO’s.
That night I was telling the story to my wife, she was skeptical at first then realized I was not joking. She asked what I did. how did it feel? Moreover, did it scare me? “I stood there and helped her get a purchase,” I said, I saw that she was getting ready to jump I just thought it was going to be out of the pen. It was one of those ah ha moments, when you seem connected to nature more than you really are but still connected. It was a good feeling and affirmation that humane farming does make a difference. It was as bizarre as unexpected, yet thrilling all in one. When she landed on my shoulder and settled in, my first thought was “do not look at her, she will peck your eye out,” and was followed by oh I hope she does not relieve herself on my back. None of which happened, "So how did it feel?" my wife asked again. The only thought I had was its like popcorn exploding inside me.
Buy Local and help save nick's organic farm. Go to http://www.savenicksorganicfarm.org/ to help.
Posted by Brian
@ 07:53 PM EDT
The Great Frederick County Fair is winding down today. I am proud to say that our strawberries and concord grapes were not only delicious but when made into jam they garnered the coveted prize of blue ribbon.
That is correct my wife won blue ribbons for her strawberry, Concord grape and blackberry jams. I could not be prouder or in awe as much as I am.
It is little things, like blue ribbons, that give us the motivation and determination to be successful. My wife is a formidable opponent when she sets her mind to something. Sometimes I really hate that about her (especially when I do not get my way) but most times, it is her words that help even out the failures and pitfalls that I write about here.
So here is to you, I could not be prouder or buoyed more by your success and determination. These are but some of a million reasons that I can point to, as to, why I love her. Blue Ribbons it does not get any better then that.
Posted by Brian
@ 05:32 PM EDT
I stare at a white empty background and I think what pearl of wisdom can I impart to help those that are beginning the journey, in which, we have vested seven years of our life? We are ending our seventh season and it does not look good from a financial standpoint. We might break even this year, we did not purchase any high dollar items but we did incur startup costs for the broilers.
The broilers are another issue that will be dealt with, and my suspicion is that we are not going to be raising organic broilers next year. We are looking into contracting out our grow services because we can sell live chickens. We just cannot sell chickens processed by a USDA inspected exempt facility. For some odd reason we need to be part of the slaughter or it does not count. I know each step of the way I have fought the raising and processing of animals, so this might be one of those signs. Like when you smell propane gas when you should not be smelling propane.
Before we purchased the flame weeder, as with most things, I did my homework to find out the positive and negatives associated with the decision. Later on, I was at a graduation party and happened to be talking to an occupational safety researcher. She is a MD, doing research for the University of Maryland Medical School.
Knowing my background she asked what kind of mosquitoes lived in Maryland, "I do not know, but I can find out and get back to you," I replied. Then I asked her why, "I want to buy lore and trap because they are so bad at my house". I had already purchased my own mosquito catcher and it used a propane tank with lore. Her reply was a wake up call. "There is no way I am getting anything using propane. It is just too dangerous and I'm not taking the risk".
Mind you, I had already bought the flame weeder and backpack in which to carry the tank, "Backpack," being the proximity of the propane tank to my body. We went on to talk about other things and I told her I would find out about the mosquito and send her an email. Her words bothered me given her occupation and extensive knowledge of work place injuries. Once again, one of those signs that makes you pay attention and rethink your original opinion and facts.
I renewed my research of propane but focused mainly on explosions and deaths. I know it sounds morbid but "fore warned, is fore armed,” if we had not tamed fire where would we be today? I found websites (.edu, .org, .net and .com) that actually tracks instances of propane deaths caused by explosions. What I found was that you need three things for an explosion to occur. One is a leak from the propane apparatus, two is confined or un-ventilated space and three is a spark or flame. When those things occur simultaneously, you get an explosion. Okay, I felt a little less anxious because I knew the formula.
Before each use of the flame weeder, I smell the connections to make sure there is no leak. There is a regulator between the tank and the flame wand, if a leak would occur it would be around there or in the hose itself. The tank is always in the on position, I know I should turn it off, in between uses, but I do not. I am lazy, I use to turn it off each time when put away, and then by the time I lifted the fifty-pound pack onto my back to use it I would find out I had not turned it on. After a couple of times doing this instead of making sure to turn it on before I lifted it, I just left it on. Strike one for safely staying alive.
The tank is stored in the dairy barn so a leak would dissipate into the upper floors and the rest of the barn area. If there were a leak, as soon as you opened a door, you would smell the propane. Because of the cavernous area of barn space, the propane would not be so concentrated that a spark could set a leak off. Saturday, I went into the barn to get the weeder, smelled it, put it on and started to weed around the gardens. Every so often I would get a whiff of propane, I thought maybe what I was smelling was excess gas that did not ignite as it came out of the flame end. Strike two for safely staying alive.
Only by the grace of God, am I here to write this brief tome. I had the volume of gas output high because I was killing substantial weed stands. As I was weeding, I noticed a chicken had gotten out of its pen; I turned the weeder flame off, and walked to the garage to get Coadee. As I took the backpack off I got the nasty smell of propane, I did not need to get close to the regulator, it was hissing and the smell was overwhelming. The first thing I did was to turn the tank off by the valve. Second, I gently picked everything up so that I would not hit metal to metal or create any kind of spark or static charge. I took the tank out and away from the house, placed on the ground and went to get Coadee to corral the arrant chicken.
As we were going to get the chicken I started to feel nauseated, my knees were knocking, my muscles felt like rubber and I just became exhausted. I realized how I had just cheated death and my mind was reeling. Coadee got the chicken and I put her back in the pen. Regulators go bad for lots of reasons and I do not know why this one did. I had to replace the regulator before because I dropped it and it broke. When I replaced the first regulator, I purchased three regulators. My train of thought is if it broke once, chances are it is going to break again. Therefore, I was able to replace the regulator and fix the leak. I did not use it again that day but I will be used again.
So today’s pearl is peril, attention to detail, stick with what you have learned and do not rationalize for the sake of laziness or time. There are only so many times you can get away with stupid mistakes before you pay the ultimate price in the blink of an eye.
The Cause continues, if you have not already; please go to http://www.savenicksorganicfarm.org/ to help save Nick's organic farm. You do not have to give money if you can't, but just spend a little time to make your voice heard. You don't have to live in Maryland to be concerned about losing another farm, let alone a thirty year old plot of organic land. No Farms, No Food.
Posted by Brian
@ 09:00 AM EDT
I know that we are not alone but, I do not know why it is everything we do seems easy until put into practice only to find it to be incredibly hard? Take our latest foray into meat birds. We went to a State sponsored poultry and rabbit processing class. We took the test, passed and made sure the processing facility we would use was USDA inspected. We then submitted our registration along with the fee.
While doing further research on the regulations we found that although our Department of Agriculture would allow us to sell our birds to retailers and restaurants our Health Department does not allow us to do so. We have already gotten our feet wet with two flocks and sold most of them to a retailer. I had to call the vendor and tell them until we got clarification from the State that I could not sell him any more birds.
We have one hundred more broilers in the pipeline and we are having problems selling the last of the third flock. We can sell them from the farm; we just do not have the foot traffic to sell all of them. We have canceled our peep order and will be getting no more for the season. We did not expect to be an over-night sensation. We did however over-estimate how quickly we could get rid of the birds on the farm.
At first, we priced them to cover our expenses. The first two batches were somewhat of a disaster (see Learning Curves). Therefore, cost per bird was high and we still lost money. No matter were you are reading this, chances are you know the heat wave that is engulfing most of the country. It is not fit for man, beast or vegetation right now. We learned from the previous mistake and purchased shade tents (that lasted one day).
We are still loosing birds to the heat despite reducing the number of birds per pen; we have fifteen in an eighty square foot pen. Salatin recommended fifty, but we kept knocking that number down until we felt there was plenty of space and no competition. It is just heartbreaking to walk out there after work and find ten birds expired. The heat index hit one-hundred and twelve. We were able to revive three of the injured but ended up having to put one of those down because he was to far gone and we could not let it suffer more than he already had. That process did not go as planned either. I will spare you the details but suffice it to say it was not a clean, pain free experience for the bird or I.
As I have said before when anything goes wrong with a chicken most times it can be traced back to management and I cannot help but feel the suffering they must have gone through before their demise. It was my fault and my guilt that has put a heavy burden on me. Am I humane when I loose as many birds as I have? I cannot even beat industry averages, and that kills me the most. I know I am better then that and it is frustrating to see otherwise.
In this field, you cannot dodge the responsibility and blame others as we see all around us at the State and Federal governance levels. We cannot sit back and say well it was your fault for not telling us in time or bring up some other lame excuse to deflect our culpability. You take it on the chin, pick yourself up, learn as best you can to not make the same mistake twice and move on. Yet the measures we have taken have failed. The tents blew away twisting the cheap metals that bore the structure. We got replacement parts from the manufacturer replaced them and put the tents up again to only last one day. Yes, they were the least expensive and yes, I did get what I paid for.
We are exceeding the national average for percentage of birds lost and that fact alone does the most damage to the evaluation of my animal husbandry skills. It is not for a lack of trying we purchased shade tents, as mentioned, and fans for cooling. The tents sit in rumpled heaps because they were in fact cheap pieces of animal fertilizer. We are making ten by ten-square frames for the roof and creating lean-to for shade. As with most everything, this is taking time that we do not have and adding work we do not need.
The fans help the most. Once they were installed things changed drastically. However, these are indoor fans not outdoors. If we are home and it starts raining, we can get the fans to protect them. If we are at work and it rains well, I am not an electrician but my guess would be they are not going to make it. It is a temporary risk until we can purchase outdoor fans.
So far, the week before processing has been the worst week for losses. It has happened this way for the first three flocks. Yes, that is a clue to when our vigilance should be most acute with this next batch and we will take heed. Nevertheless, it also shows you that we have sunk the most cost you can into raising a bird before processing. They have been eating feed, drinking water and consuming labor for most of their brief stay on earth. To lose them at this critical time is adding insult to injury.
I have read about the perils of heat and made allowances, such as, reducing the numbers of birds per pen, keeping them in the shade and close to shade as much as possible and providing plenty of access to water. We exceed all requirements for feeding, watering and space. We are now looking into outdoor fans. That will be an additional cost but we hope to keep more birds alive so that we can recoup those costs. It is all a money game and that is why we fail. To us it is a matter of comfort and doing what is right for the animal not the bottom line. Do not get me wrong, I graduated with an undergraduate and graduate degree in business, so I know the bottom line, I know profit and I know sustainability. They are not mutually exclusive but I wonder if they are achievable given our history. I just wonder at times like these..
Buy Local: Do it now before you lose the chance, not all of us are able to do it without you.
Posted by Brian
@ 07:51 PM EDT
It seems we have had too many injuries in too short a period. If it is I getting hurt, it is usually scrapes, sprains, strains, cuts, superficial concussions and the like. However, staff is turning up with bruised knees, cuts, scrapes and various small injuries. We decided that it was time to have another chat about safety. We sat everybody down first thing in the morning and went over safety protocols, procedures and policies.
Staff training on farm equipment, situational and personal safety are areas we cover. When using motorized equipment on the farm, staff is trained specifically on that piece of equipment and all of the potential dangers. It is rare but the ones that are trained have proven to be good decision makers and cautious people. Then they have to pass safety tests on whatever object they are using. If it is the mower, the ATV or the tractor, training takes longer and every safety feature is covered. In order to use the mower, you must be able to tell me the degree or angle of slope that will tip the mower over. Without the right tools I could not tell you if the angle or slope is past the fifteen degrees, but from driving it, I can tell you it is safe. I have popped wheelies on the slopes and dumber stuff with the mower but the staff was not shown those.
I will make sure that they look where they drive. It sounds simple but so far, all of them have backed up without looking. I cover small things like never mow with the outlet pointed towards buildings, people or solid objects. The last thing I tell them, every time they get on or use a device, is that THEY are responsible for everyone’s safety. THEY have to be aware of 360 degrees of space and who, if any, are in their circle.
We have always told the staff that if someone gets hurt what we are doing here does not matter. It is not worth someone getting hurt. We can be as ecologically sensitive, use all best practices, be as profitable as we can imagine but if someone gets hurt, it is just not worth it. We make a point of making everyone look out for everyone else. It is not a new concept but I remind them safety is the most important aspect of being on the property.
I lead by example, I hate suntan lotion but one of the causes of death on farms is from melanoma. We have some folks like me, but we go through the ritual every morning. Everyone sprays sun tan lotion on before heading out. I am the first one so that they see I am not exempt. We had the day’s task list made up and I sent everyone out into the field. I wanted to clear Tree of Heavens on the side of the driveway, so I went for the chainsaw. It does not matter to me how skilled our staff is I am the only one allowed to use the chain saw. Because we just had the safety talk, I decided to suit up in chain saw chaps, ear, and eye and head protection along with steel-toed shoes. I went to the front of the house and started cutting scrub trees and clearing the left side of the driveway. I have used a chain saw for over twenty years. I have never come close to an accident with the chain saw. Trees falling, well that is a different story. That one tool has my complete and total respect. I sharpen my own chains so the saw does the work; I just guide it, keep it from hitting the ground or having the chain kicking back towards me.
Two weekends ago, I broke the chain saw out and went into the causeway to clear downed trees and big brush. It took about two hours. I always wear eye and hearing protection I do not always wear chaps. I am extremely careful when handling a saw and that extends to anyone with me. They can stand a good two hundred feet away and that depends on what is being cut up or cut down.
Part of chain saw safety entails sure footing, knowing your path to get out of harms way, and not to have other bodies around. You do not need someone in front of you as you are carrying a chain saw or just merely sprinting for your life. Their true job is to observe and be the emergency communications if needed.
I was up front just getting started. I went through a few scrub trees, brought them down and moved further down the driveway. I had some branches that would hit cars so I wanted to cut them off the tree. Once I got them all, I brought the spinning chain, from the top of my right shoulder, across my body, down and onto my left leg above the kneecap. I immediately felt the tug and looked down with stunned disbelief, to see the chain cut through the chaps and was hung up on the fiber, as designed. I would have cut my leg badly had I not been wearing the chaps. I stopped to contemplate the amputation of my leg and the sheer stupidity of my action. I still cannot believe that I did that.
I was awake and attentive now, I obviously was not before. I continued with a more cautious approach, as I worked into the brush cutting the bigger Tree of Heavens. Tree of Heaven's are an invasive species. They were brought to America by the timber industry, as a way to replenish the wood supply. They were fast growing and have pervasive expansion capabilities. However, as far as wood goes they did not turn out to be the best for construction.
I was dealing with small to medium size stalks and came across one that was a foot thick. I was in the thick of brushes when I cut it down and it fell on top of me. I was able to hold it, but I could not get it off me. I had to get down on my hands and knees and slowly make my way out of the brush and to the driveway. Here I am, dressed in orange with an orange chainsaw crawling through the thicket to the clearing. At the same time, some customers had stopped and were walking towards me. I am on my knees coming out of thick brush chainsaw first then me. I moved the chainsaw forward then I moved forward until I got to the driveway and could stand up. I figured God had given me enough signs, so I stopped to take care of the couple instead of sending them up to my wife.
Times like this cement my true belief system. God looks out for children and fools. I am clearly a life member of the latter. The more I learn the more I understand how much more I need to learn. Let me leave it at this, safety, safety, safety. You can never have enough.
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Posted by Brian
@ 04:39 PM EDT
If you own a farm or land, this story is inevitable, it happens thousands of times to farmers on every part of the globe. In farm classes and books, they talk about getting along with your neighbors. They also talk about trespassers, poachers, trail bike riders and other uninvited guests. When we purchased the land, we knew that there was the specter of having to enforce our boundaries. We posted “No Trespassing” signs as instructed in numerous classes we attended.
Early on, in our tenure on the farm, a developer who owned the parcel to the left of us decided to clear an acre of our land, thinking, mistakenly, it was part of his. They cut down live choke cherry trees, locust trees and cleared thousands of square feet of hedgerows. This was dealt with civilly and as appropriate.
We have an old railway bed that runs the middle of the property and cuts into a small hill. It is a wonderful walk, which we encourage our customers to take, when visiting the farm. It is called the causeway, and is two-tenths of a mile of canopied green leaf trail bed. I get the most joy on a tour with young kids when we walk into what I call the pure oxygen part of the trail. For the city kids, the drop in temperature and air noticeably changes and it registers in their questions and comments. They get to see and feel the benefit of a truly dense stand of trees
It seems it is also a wonderful place to ride motor bikes. We thought that we had stopped it when we talked to our next-door neighbor. It did stop for a while. Recently, I was with a representative of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, who was vetting the farm for an educational tour for high school teachers. It is quite an impressive program. The CBF goes to different counties in the State and talks about ecological benefits and detriments to our eco-system, watersheds and tributaries as it relates to the Bay.
I heard a bike come flying up the driveway, then head into the causeway, to hit the other side of the road. She looked at me and I said, "Just another one of those things you have to deal with."
Fact was I felt embarrassed, I was embarrassed for our youth such that they do not respect the land as much as abuse it for their own selfish needs and I was embarrassed for myself for not doing a better a job of preventing the intrusion.
Well dealing with the trespassers came today. I was home and getting out of the truck when I hear motor bikes coming down the causeway. At first, I ran towards the causeway, saw two four wheelers and the kid on the bike from before head down the driveway. I ran back to get into the truck, and gave chase but, they had a good head start. I was listening for them but I did not hear the motors. I just kept heading down the road. After a bit I knew they had not traveled where I had so, I doubled back.
Low and behold, I see the three-some coming at me. I waited for them to pass then turned the truck around and followed them to their home. I was not happy when I got out of the truck and did not port myself in such a way that classified me as dignified, which probably caused the expected vulgarities that greeted me. With my city side coming out (territory was to be respected) I then used their word about a thousand times, explaining who I was and what I was doing there at that point in time. After denials by all I was told to get off the property.
"Wow," I said, "you can ride on and destroy the topsoil on my property but I cannot stand on yours?" Talk about an ah-ha moment. I think that in that simple statement they realized their culpability and my anger explanatory. I did not really know them, they knew of us from the kid next door, but they did not know us. I have always like a quote from Bill Clinton, it describes in a real subtle way not to mistake one personality trait for another, and that was "Please do not mistake kindness as a sign of weakness,". I do not like conflict, who does, but to respect others and their belongings are part of my make up, and if I have to impart that message onto someone else, I try to be as nice as possible. I thought they needed to see that and treat others, as they would like to be treated. Historically, we might have seemed nice and kind from their standpoint but, given a dose of an angry organic vegetable gardener, that spent three grueling hours cleaning the causeway up, gave them a view of the other side,
As it turned out two apologized and promised they would not ride on the property. I thanked them and I apologized for not being as civilized as I should have been. I did not handle it correctly, at first, but I wanted to end it civilly and show them a little respect. I asked the young man on the bike his name; he dropped the F-bomb and said he was not going to tell me his name. “You led me to your house,” I told him, “if I wanted, I could find your name on the internet in a couple of minutes,” You would think they would know that. I said, "Look, I am trying to end this civilly and I asked that you please not ride on our property”. To my amazement, he apologized, as I then did to him. Do not get me wrong it was not a Kum By Ya moment, but I felt better leaving the situation.
The whole time I am sizing these young men up as future employees. Who knows they might be in the right place at the right time. We always can use help. We cannot afford it, but we can always use the help.
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Posted by Brian
@ 07:41 PM EDT
A DOG’S PERSPECTIVE. Hi, my name is Coadee, actually, it is Fer Coadee, but my pompous owners mercifully just call me Coadee. My new owners recently pilfered me from my parents. Okay maybe pilfered is a little harsh, but no one asked me if I wanted to go. My new home is interesting and the humans seem nice. However, they say “NO” all the time. I do not know what they mean but they say that word constantly. "Coadee NO biting, Coadee NO chewing on the furniture. Coadee NO biting the chickens, Coadee NO eating shoes,” It just goes on and on with the NO’s. If I got a treat for every time I heard "No" or "Coadee" I would never work a day in my life. The humans do shower me with love and praise but one of them keeps kissing me on my head. What is that about?
There is plenty of room for me to run and tons of smells. There is so much to see and explore but I get too tired and end up sleeping a little. The naps are refreshing but I keep getting disturbed because the humans have feathery things that do not stay where they should. My humans wake me up and show me where these feathers are, they point and say “chickens” and I guess I am suppose to give chase. I know they want me to chase them but I am at a loss as to what they want me to do once I catch them. Therefore, I nibble on them to see what they feel like.
They are some dumb feathers let me tell you. I will be chasing one and it runs right into the fence getting caught up and tangled. I just lay down put a paw on the feathers and get a mouth full. That is all I am doing, okay I might be checking out other body parts of the feathers but I do not hurt them. Honestly, the feathers tickle the top of my mouth and I like that.
While this is happening though the human keeps yelling NO biting; when the human finally gets to me, they take the feathers and put it in the pen. I am learning that these feathers or chickens as the humans say are not the brightest when it comes to running and hiding. The other irritating aspect of my new home is that the humans are forever calling my name. I am starting to think that they have a limited vocabulary. NO COADEE, I hear those words in my sleep. Then the one with a deep voice keeps saying, "You are just killing me", go figure what that means. He is always shaking his head as he says it too.
How many times do they think they have to call my name? I will come back but when I am on the trail of a great scent the last thing I need is to keep hearing my name. It is irritating, especially when I need to find the source of that wonderful smell. I have a lot of work before I get the humans totally trained but they are showing signs of progress.
I saw tiny humans too. Some were smaller than I am and cannot stand up especially when I go over to smell them. One small human let out this loud noise. That hurt my ears so I turned away and saw other little humans running so I went to go run with them. Okay, I was chasing them. For some strange reason I thought they seemed to be getting to far away from all of us and I did not want that to happen. I do not know what that was about but I thought they needed to come back to the group. Well I went to go get them.
The little humans fall over easy too but, I can lick there face when they are on the ground so that works for me. There is something to the little humans they just smell great and they really like petting me. Who can argue with that?
Well I hear one of my humans calling so I will need to go. Probably some stupid chicken is out of the pen. Man, those animals are not going to be winning the Nobel Prize anytime soon. I like them but hey, I keep it real.
Buy Local: If you do not, the humans get it!
p.s. I just wonder sometimes what goes through her mind as we work and I am not explaining how to do things correctly. She stares at me and twists her head from one side to the other, as if she hears me is trying to understand but we are just not there yet.
Posted by Brian
@ 06:55 PM EDT
Fer coadee (Scottish for "protector") is sixteen weeks old. We have her three days and four nights out of the week and Carol (the breeder/trainer) keeps her four days and three nights. She is still a pup but shows great promise.
We have been working her with the chickens and she slowly understands that the chickens should stay in the pen. One night we were putting the chickens in the trailer for the night and Coadee, seeing what we were doing, decided she could help. She ended up herding the chickens into the house with nary an effort. That part was effortless. No training, no nothing she saw we were putting them in the house and she went with it.
She helps weed too. At least I am learning what dog weeding is verses human weeding. While weeding the strawberries, I will pull chickweed and Coadee goes for the green. She has bitten me on occasion while weeding but I get into a rhythm of pulling and throwing. Coadee will chase after the clump of weeds bite them and come charging back. I hope that I have gotten the next handful thrown before she does indeed get back. If not, I ball my fingers up as she comes plowing mouth first into the greenery where my hand resides. With a jerk of her head, she rips green out of the ground by the mouth full. If strawberries happened to be part of the green patch, they go as well. This is part of her instinct; she wants to help her master. The veterinarian told us to make sure we take care of her because her breed will literally work them self to death trying to please their owner.
The English Sheppard is a protector, herder and hunter by instinct. They came to the new world with Scottish and English sheepherders. The dog’s ability and intuition made them a valuable asset to animal farmers. They instinctively want to be part of the action, so she watches what you are doing and tries to help. If I get a stick and throw it, she sits and watches the wood take flight and land. She does not chase it, but if I go get it, she grabs it from me and follows along as I walk. Coadee trots along stick between her jaws teaching me how things work. I was getting water hoses out of the barn, I felt a tug so I turned to see what I was hung up on and there is Coadee, hose dangling out of her mouth going in the opposite direction. I apparently was taking them to the wrong place for her.
This past weekend the chickens started to show signs of respect. As soon as Coadee comes out of the barn, the chickens that see her start to head back to the pen. Some layers just jump back in when they see Coadee. They are in the minority but it is a start. She is still nipping at them and we yell “don’t bite or no bite”. Then at other times, she just lays her big paw on the back of a chicken until we get there to pick it up and put it back in the pen.
She gets excited still when meeting new people so we try to introduce her to people while she is outside. I took her with me, over to Nick’s when I picked up chicken feed. I knew Dave (the farm manager) would like to see the dog. I did not get her out of the truck fast enough before Dave walked over to the passenger side. True to form, she got excited and I saw that the cloth seat was now soaked. I am learning.
Coadee is in that oral stage of development as well. Everything goes in the mouth at least once. Stink bugs she learned and leaves them alone much to my dismay. Wood, rocks, bark, bottles, hoses, chickens anything that you hold, anything that you wear, anything that you use or sit on, pretty much everything is something for her to sink her teeth into. Nevertheless, she is also an asset. I will be in the barn feeding the flock of broilers, if Coadee were not standing guard at the gate, they would leave and be all over the barn. I bring her in the barn and have her sit by the gate. I then go in to feed and water the group. She has taught me that her patience is very short, especially when a group of birds approaches.
She still does not bite them but she does make the feathers fly. By the time, I get her stopped, you can hardly see due to the dust-up from frantic escapes and chases. So, I learn once more. I shake my head and think who the teacher here is? I was sitting with her in the morning watching the chickens. When a chicken approached the fence I would get up and bring Coadee over, the chicken would turn around heading in the opposite direction. This went on all morning. The ones that actually got out Coadee chased down and I tried to teach her how to herd a chicken back into the pen. This went on all morning; lunchtime I went in made a sandwich, wrapped it in a paper towel, filled a bottle of water and went outside.
In that short period a jailbreak took place with the birds heading for the grapevines. As the layers saw Coadee, they ran into the open barn. I put my sandwich down on the chair, covered it with reading material and took Coadee with me to the barn. We go in and Coadee starts after one, chasing her out of the barn and towards the pen and trailer. A couple of seconds later I am chasing one out of the barn front to the pen. I look to my left and there is Coadee sitting in the shade eating my sandwich. She is in the shade eating a freshly made sandwich and I am standing in the blazing sun chasing a chicken.
Then there was the time I was working with her and it started raining. I had my rain-gear on and kept working pulling weeds. I soon notice that I was alone, I saw Coadee heading towards the barn so I knew she was there. I thought okay, she is going in to check things out, get some water or food and she will be back. Ten, twenty, thirty minutes go by; I am still out side weeding in the rain. I stopped and walked into the barn, over on the side in a pile of straw is Coadee, sleeping.
I sighed, looking at her stretch out frame and that beautiful face of hers and thought who was the smarter of the two of us, the one working in the rain or the one sleeping inside nice and dry.
Buy Local: Local farmers toil for their families, for your family and the environment. Who would not want to support that?
Posted by Brian
@ 09:05 PM EDT
True to the goal of this blog, the following is somewhat disturbing and gruesome. However, it happened and it is part of our experience. We write so that others may learn from our mistakes, to educate and talk about the ills of the industrial food compex. I never wanted to get into the animal side of farming because I have always been squeamish about mortality. It did not matter the cause or the reason, I did not want to be part of dealing with mortality.
As I have documented here this is one of those things that growing up in rural America would have helped me. Nevertheless, I grew up in the city and it was not commonplace to process or need to dispose of an animal.
We started meat birds this year. In order for them to be organic, you must take possession of them by their second day of life. Covered in fur they are the cutest things. No feathers on them, maybe a little wing tip showing but predominately furry. Then there is all the time spent with them to get them past the Coccidiosis stage.
We decided because of last year’s BMSB losses that broilers had to be incorporated into our farm model. It was not a decision that was taken lightly and not without an amount of anguish.
We are into our ninth week of raising fifty broilers. Well we started with fifty. At my own hands, I accidentally drug the pen over top of some of the birds killing them. I cannot describe the feelings, thoughts and utter dismay that I caused. All I can say is at the point that I saw the damage; I did not have the proper perspective to feel anything other than raw emotional pain and revoltion. I got sick to my stomach, failure blares out and then guilt for what the birds went through. I know they only have two more weeks to live but at that instant, it does not matter. This is just another one of those no mercy times.
There was no mercy for the chickens and no mercy for it was at my own hands. I can live with my failures; I have made enough of them such that I am comfortable. However, these kinds of mistakes have a different affect on me then most others. This one has caused a lot of angst and anger; I am supposed to be their protector, until they are processed. Yes, they are raised to be processed I understand the paradox. It bothers me but I have to make mysef understand.
I want so very much to succeed at this, not only because I am goal driven, but I love working the soil, growing fruits and vegetables, creating a complete meal from things I have grown and knowing that what we do benefits others, future generations and the environment. I put my heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears into this place and I want to remain humane. I do not want to become desensitized to the lives of animals on our farm. You can say all you want about it being business and not taking it personal but those thoughts are not our motivations.
I put all the dead chickens in the compost pile and thanked them for being a part of our lives. I told them that we were returning them to the soil that once helped nourish them. I know it sounds utterly crazy but it was a way for me to make peace with the mistake I made and to acknowledge their sacrifice. It was a way for me to remind myself that we are humane.
That weekend I explained to the staff what had happened and what the new rules were for moving the chicken pens. In the mean time, fifty are in the barn ready to go out on pasture and fifty peeps are in the brooder.
So, we continue. I wish sometimes that the learning curve were just not so steep and emotionally draining.
BUY LOCAL: There are people out there, like us, who need your support.
Posted by Brian
@ 12:11 PM EDT
We tore down and packed up the high tunnel that collapsed this year. We are still loosing layers. Now, whatever is getting the chicken has learned to jump the electric fence to get to the birds. We have fifty broilers on pasture and another fifty more in the barn, with fifty more in the brooder.
Much to our surprise, the RIR males are coming up to weight quicker than anticipated. This means we may be able to process them in 8-10 weeks instead of the 10-12 weeks as predicted. For someone enthusiastic this is good news. I cannot help but look at them with out a certain amount of dread.
I am not use to growing something and taking care of it in such a way that it thrives and remains healthy, only to turn around and end its life prematurely. One of our returning staff is a vegan. When we decided that we needed to get into the bird business, in order to stay in business, we talked to her. We wanted to be up front with what we were doing. We did not want to lose her because she is a great worker and an even better person.
We just wanted to let her know, so if she had a problem with us raising animals for eating she could get a jump on finding another job. Much to our surprise and delight, she said she would be okay with it as long as she did not have to do any processing. Heck, we do not want to do any processing so we were on board with her.
Our other apprentice has been building “Salatin type” pens for the broilers. Each one he builds gets better than the one before. He is already thinking about adapting the pen for layers so we can protect them better than we are currently. The pens are a work of art, functional, self-contained, sturdy and most of all great protection from all predators, except maybe black bears. I think if a black bear got to one of the pens, they would have a little trouble but they would get to the broilers. Fortunately, the bears tend to stay further west than were we are located.
We are late in planting. We are losing control of the 400 strawberry plants to weeds and heat. Not the heat provided by the sun but the heat provided by yours truly. I learned a valuable lesson this year. I am old. I was flame weeding for about two hours straight when I started on the strawberries. The flame-weeder is a five-gallon propane tank strapped to a heavy-duty backpack with a torch. The whole get up weighs about forty pounds when fully loaded. We had eight rows of fifty strawberry plants before I started flame weeding. For those of you familiar with our weeding you know were this is heading. If not, see “Are We Done Planting”.
It was getting late, I was tired, and one of the straps was digging into my shoulder. I just kept pushing myself. You can actually see how tired I had become by the look of each row. They first three rows had no fried plants. The fourth row had a couple burned plants. It was not until you got to the very last row that you could see just what damage I had done. Out of fifty plants, I am embarrassed to say that we have about twenty-two alive. I should have quit earlier and done something else. I just kept pushing myself and eventually paid the price, as we all do when we make dumb decisions.
We planted the first three rows of sunflowers around the perimeter of the garden. The sunflowers, we hope, will serve as a trap crop for the stinkbugs. The trap crop area is fifteen feet wide by eight hundred feet. We are also planting about two hundred pumpkin plants in the outer ring of the sunflower perimeter.
We will plant, inside the pumpkins and sunflowers, everything that we lost last year along with some fruits and herbs. Then we will collect stinkbugs per the Michigan State Entomology protocol. The bugs will be frozen counted and reported back to Michigan State via the www.bmsb.opm.msu.edu website. If you have not registered on this site, I strongly encourage you to do so. The more information we all share about the BMSB the better chance all organic farmers will benefit.
For now, we have to get stuff in the ground if we are going to be able to generate revenue. I just wish we were not so far behind on everything. Then again, if we were not than it would not be spring.
Buy Local: Keep the momentum going, just be wary of hucksters and the industrial food complex
Posted by Brian
@ 06:53 PM EDT
We learned the other day that our "God send" has diabetes. This, in and of it self, is intimidating if you have know idea what you are up against. What is worse is having gone through caring for a diabetic cat and losing it because you gave it to much insulin.
We had a cat twelve years ago pass away from hypoglycemic shock. I know I am not really at fault but I was the one that administered the last insulin shot. The guilt is still palpable. His name was Opus and my wife, as a birthday gift, gave him to me. We had been married for a couple of months and I said I wanted a cat. She had always had dogs but never had cats before and did not really want one. But being the kind person she is, she got Opus for me as a gift.
I told her after a month with the cat, we could take a vote and I would abide by the vote. She agreed and after a month, the vote came out as I had expected, there was one for and one against. She wanted to keep it; I wanted my clothes to be cat hair free. Well life continued and at the time, my wife was working many hours and I was working at one full-time job and a part-time job. I still had weekends free and not being one to sit around and do nothing I decided that Opus was going to do tricks. We were living in a town house. We called them row houses in the city.
Opus already chased after round milk caps when thrown and would bring them back. How hard could it be to teach him other stunts? So I set about trying to teach Op some tricks. It was not long before he would lay, sit, come and give you his paw. All you hade to do was tell him a command and he would act. I showed a friend one day all of Op's tricks and she looked at me and said, "You need to get out of the house, this is not natural". What can I say he was a great cat?
Now BC has been diagnosed but we are at least more technologically advanced then we were twelve years ago. We have a Glu-cometer and a way to track her blood sugar instantly, instead of a stick that changes colors when dipped in urine. Catching a stream of urine from a cat is a feat unto itself. But the truth is the clock has started on the end of her life. This thought is what hurts the most. I know the clock started when she was born but it was never a thought. Now we hear the time clicking off. Our job is to stave off her demise for as long as humanly possible
We were living on the farm about year when BC adopted us. We were at our lowest. There were snakes all over the house and we were having buyer’s remorse or what I called our fetal position moments. Our phone service was spotty (see "Green Acres was...”), there was no cable and I was surfing the internet at 2400 baud (sorry, I am a geek). In contrast, today we surf the net at about a thousand times that rate. Then BC came into our lives and started killing snakes. We had been praying for strength, so we just figured that BC was a Godsend. Soon after her arrival, things started to turn for us. The second planting season was disastrous weed wise, but we ended the year in the black. Mostly, our outlook took a turn for the best and we settled into our routine. BC kept locating snakes and if she did not I would dispose of them.
Now snakes are beneficial but they are also territorial. For the first year, we practiced catch and release. Then the more I learned I realized all I was doing was temporarily removing them. They return to their den. We then had a dilemma on our hands. I came up with what I thought was a compromise. We have a gravel driveway that circles the house. If the snakes were inside the circle of death, they perished. The snakes in the outbuildings live. If they were outside the circle that was were they stayed. It was our own line in the sand. We ended up pulling sixty-eight snakes out of the house by the time remodeling was finished three years after moving in. They were all black snakes, except for this one that was so old it was grey. It was the biggest snake I had ever seen outside of the zoo.
Well we face BC now, but we have experience and better technology on our side. It is what it is and what we make of it. We will do what it takes but it is saddening nonetheless, because we now know that the clock has started.
Buy Local: find a small farm near you and support it! Their toil is for your benefit
Posted by Brian
@ 07:38 PM EDT
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Camping made up most of our vacations as I grew up. Living in Maryland, we had the choice of traveling west to the Cactoctin Mountain range or head east to the water. I lived in a camping family and each summer we would head west to what we, in Maryland, call mountains. I do not know what constitutes a mountain but the ones I have seen in Colorado or other states makes ours look like hills. Maryland is relatively flat when comparing sea level heights.
Camping took us out of the city and into the hills. Once there and setup our father would inevitably find a farm near by and purchase what ever they had. The larges might serve for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I remember the smells most of all, walking into a horse barn to ride horses or passing a field that was being fertilized. When I inquired, I was told it was fresh air that I was smelling.
It was a different smell than I had experienced in the City. Except when the Arabber would come by and the horse would leave fertilizer, which my father was quick to get for his own garden (see "A City Boy's Education").
Their answer about fresh air made sense to me. Having had my olfactory senses assaulted as we pass the waste disposal site on a summer day in Baltimore or passing a brewery or other manufacturing plant, you could quantify their answers. I think that because of their answer I always associated manure smells with fresh air. It is an oxymoron for most people I admit that, but there is a speckle of truth too.
Being outside and away from suburban and urban settings the air was different. Yes, I was smelling manure but at the same time, it was associated with fresh air and fun. I point to that time as the beginning of my education on manures. When fields are spread with manure I can tell you, what kind of manure it is by the smell. This skill will get me nowhere and it is not something that is discussed at cocktail parties or family gatherings. Are there cocktail parties any more?
I digress, of all the manures; horse manure is the best smelling to me. That goes back to my youth and riding horses. The worst of the worst is pig manure. I am sorry to all my swine friends but that is how I feel. When we first started looking for a small farm, we stopped at a pig operation. I still shudder at the thought of that experience.
I love pork, bacon, sausage, chops, ribs you name it, except for the more exotic stuff like feet and snout, I will eat pork. That manure smell though is polar opposites of horse or cow manure. Even chicken and turkey smells better and poultry manure has an ammonia smell.
Like I said, this skill will never amount to anything but it is a just another link in a chain that has led me here. Besides, everyone knows manure smells.
Buy local: Tens of thousands of us are growing for your health and the environment.
Posted by Brian
@ 06:15 PM EDT