Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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We found that Roaster was ill this past Saturday. She is one of the first six chickens and is a prolific egg layer. My wife noticed that she was not herself. She was listless, wasn't eating and or drinking and had yellow diarrhea. We pulled her from the flock and put her in the hospital pen.
We started to give her an examination. Everything was fine except her belly area. It was inflamed and hard. We thought for sure we hade a stuck egg so we prepared to do an exam of the vent and cloaca to get the egg out. We got rubber surgical gloves and lubricant. We gently felt around and she didn't move, squawk or anything. To me this was a terrible indication that and the fact that we could not find an egg stuck or otherwise.
That night we spent most of the night tracking down her combination of symptoms. Something this difficult was hard to find on the net and at any of the university sites we had. We poured over books and eventually sent an email to a poultry professor at NC State. We explained all the symptoms and what we had felt in the cloaca.
What we got back hit us square on. It was the Monday before Thanksgiving and her prognosis was dismal. He told us that it was possible she had one of two things, ovarian cancer or e-coli poisoning. The line that sent chills and made us fold was that either way she was in severe pain. He went on to say that even though she would be in extreme pain she would not exhibit signs of distress. I understood what he meant and that we needed to consider her quality of life.
In the mean time the battery on the tractor went dead and we still had to get the newly delivered water tanks moved and up righted and the big chicken house moved. I had charged the battery only to find it did not hold a charge. I took Wednesday before Thanksgiving off so I could get a battery and keep an eye on Roaster. We had started her on anti-biotic the night before in hopes of it being sepsis and getting her well.
I was feeding her medicated water by syringe and she seemed to be drinking as much as I could give her. I had read that boiled egg was good for a chicken that was not eating. I know it sounds bad but we tried it. She wasn't eating but that was secondary to drinking. She kept drinking so we kept feeding her the anti-biotic water. The next day I went and purchased a new battery for the tractor.
I put the battery in the tractor and the tractor would not crank over. I left it to check on Roaster. When I saw her I thought she was already dead. She opened her eyes when she heard me come into the stall and started to vomit blood. It was time. I could no longer let my inadequacies continue only to let her suffer. I will spare myself the re-telling of the events that happened next but she is out of pain now and I am not.
This experience only reenforced our earlier thoughts about caring for animals on a farm. There are people like myself that have a very hard time dealing with the mortality. I've heard that there is no mercy on a farm but there is. There is just no mercy for the farmer when the hits just keep coming.
Posted by Brian
@ 09:09 AM EST
We do a lot of research in order to learn what we are doing be it right or wrong. Farming is one of the few professions that I know of that is backed by University researchers, extension services and educational knowledge resources. We do contact and communicate with subject matter experts from around the world and are currently doing some field research with a local University.
One of the things that I like about what we do is that there are many variables in determining how to handle a situation or problem. My thought is to keep an open mind and run through them as best I can. I always have in the back of my mind "what if"?
I look to the future 200, 300 or more years from now; people will still be writing books, songs, movies, plays and doing farm research. My next question is what will they be studying? What will they be writing or singing about? How will layers and broilers evolve? What will organic standards be and materials used? So I read and try to become as knowledgeable as possible on the topic at hand, but I don't constrain myself to what I've learned.
I don't mean to imply I re-invent the wheel every time we have a problem or a situation arises but I always question if there is a different way to the same outcome. The hens would be my best example of what I mean. Who's to say that we can not communicate with the birds and in turn they communicate to us?
You can find the minimum square footage of space for the bird (inside and out) roosting and nesting space, feed and water space and optimal temperatures. You can find out about bird behavior and characteristics. All that goes out the window with us, mainly because we exceed all maximums when it comes to housing, feeding, watering and foraging. We touch our hens often, picking them up, moving them, inspecting them or just stroke their backs. Some run, most once they know you are after them just kind of squat, push their wings out some and wait to be picked up.
Behavior is another thing, we know there is a pecking order and we try to discourage pecking. We don't de-beak so it takes extra attention to make sure all are calm. If there is no compition for resources they usually don't have a reason to enforce the pecking order. Happy is a human emotion that at the begining we never associated with our hens. We just thought there was healthy and unhealthy. But we have learned that the hens are indeed happy. We talk to our chickens and they respond.
Just by walking towards the pen the flock comes to us and it is one of the funniest things I've seen. All of a sudden one bird will see us and come running, wings flapping dust flying, and then another and another until you got the flock running flopping wings and all. Some get about two feet off the ground others kind of skip and fly. It always brings a grin to whomever is watching. It is not just us either; I've noticed customers walking over to one of the flocks to watch. They can be at the other end of the pen but when they see someone they dash to inspect the voyeur. The Pavlovian crowd will say it is a learned response because of us bringing food and water. Maybe, but we go there more often empty handed getting eggs than we do with food and water.
We replenish stores every other day, however there is enough water and food for four days (in case of emergency like we get caught at work). Can the hens associate food with us even though they have a constant supply? I don't know the answer, all I know is we can call them and they come. We talk to them and they calm down, even during the most stressed of times. When we had the dog attack we had two badly wounded hens and we had to clean and dress the wounds, frequently. There was some agitation as would be expected but we kept shushing them and they would calm down. I could feel it as their body relaxed and hear it when the squaking stopped.
Then there are the times that a hen will go to far and loose her way back to the hen house. At dusk it is in their instinct to get to the highest point and roost there, much like wild turkeys. When the hen count doesn't add up we'll start to walk the grounds and talk. Inevitably the hen will respond back with a low gurgling clucking. We'll keep talking until we find what tree and what branch she occupies. We'll then just pluck her off the branch, she'll squawk but when we say shish, in that soothing tone and cadance, she calms down and goes along for the ride. Once back at the house we place her inside and close the door. Of all the research that I've done I haven't come across all the behavior we observe with our flocks.
But, we talk to our hens from day one. You spend a lot of time with them at the beginning making sure their food and water supply is clean and they are warm. I keep from anthropomorphizing but by observation I know they have decision making capacity and can tell the difference in voice, tone and timber. Broody decided to stay with flock one, cognitively or not she made a choice to stay instead of going back to the barn and being alone or going to her own flock which was stressful. She apparently was less stressed with a new flock than she was with her own and went there.
As I've written before we are a humane farm and that philosophy transfers to the animals themselves. Fights are not allowed and are mostly stopped by me yelling. The tone, timber and reflection in the voice are enough to break their attention which in turn settles them down (see: My Neighbors Must Think ...). Most of the time that works, then there are times that I need to just get in between them. I've actually taken to placing the most aggressive, of the birds outside of the pen and let them forage. This in turn has helped a lot on flock behavior.
For the most part there is harmony among the flocks and they are healthy, energetic specimens. But, the time is coming for the first six. They will stop laying and we will have to process them in order to cut costs in an attempt to be profitable. Yes, profit, we are making a decision based on the profit motive. But, it is not at the expense or safety of our customer’s health.
As has been written on these pages before this is a very personal, agonizing decision for us. We keep putting the decision off because the birds keep laying two to three eggs a day. There will be decisions made that monetarily and emotionally will be hard but not now, that is still in the future.
Buy Local - From a local farmer not a chain hard selling the word.
Posted by Brian
@ 07:41 AM EST
There were hundreds of little experiences with my grandparents, parents. aunts, uncles and in-laws, that when taken as a whole, have led me to where I am today. My father liked to grow tomatoes and camp. On those camping trips we somehow always ended up at a farm. One of my earliest recollections was with my father stopping to buy eggs, I remember him talking about the freshness of the eggs coming right from the farm. He would buy fresh corn, tomatoes and whatever else they had. That night my mom would make dinner with what was purchased.
My grandfather owned a restuarant for awhile and then sold fruits and vegetables in the city. I can remember the smells the fast driving as he was picking up or delivering cases of fruits, vegetables and herbs. Then there was my father-in-law who put a garden in every year and every year it seemed to get a little bigger. He had perfect rows and would tend them daily often imparting bits of wisdom. I love to cook but at the time I was still in college and didn't have a thought of growing anything. But I loved his daughter and I wanted him to like me, so I helped and listened to him all the same.
There is this paradox with what we do. It is incredibly hard physically, mentally, emotionally and fiscally. by the end of the growing season we are drained in every aspect of being. Yet each year as winter turns to spring I start to get anxious. I can't wait to hook the tiller up to the tractor and turn that years production garden under. I'll hook up the water tanks to collect the spring rains and torture some poor plant by planting it early and trying to keep it warm in the frigid air. Always testing ways to get things planted earlier then planned.
I'll dream of the corn and tomatoes to come while testing the soil temperature and waiting for the slightest change in weather. But there are the long, hot, humid, sweaty days that will come with all this anticipation and the back breaking labor of planting, weeding and re-weeding. I'll look back at what we earned last year, what pains we went through, how much time we spent and logically tell myself it just is not worth it.
Then a small voice inside will say, "This is the year. This year will be the year that we really make a profit. Our name will get out and people will come to the farm and purchase". I think of all the little simple acts that have taken place in my life and I know I'm where I'm supposed to be doing the things we do. Besides who is to say, maybe this will be the year.
Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain hard selling the word.
Posted by Brian
@ 08:35 PM EST
"Organic food is too expensive, there is no difference in the vitamins and minerals when compared to conventionally grown food and conventionally grown food looks better than its organic counter-part. Conventional food is unblemished, big, colorful and robust. You can't feed all the people in the world using organic and sustainable practices it is just not feasible. Huge monolithic conventional farms must continue to flourish if we as a civilization will be fed."
These are the arguments that the Industrial Food Complex (IFC) and their huge propaganda machine would have you believe. What scares me the most is that there is a large segment of our population that actually believes it. What is wrong here is that we are being bombarded with tainted studies and while I'm at it, tainted food. But who do we think we are, as consumers, to ask for a safe, fresh, chemical residue free, non-genetically modified food supply? Whatever were we thinking, who cares what resources are left for future generations as long as the IFC were able to profit from the environment's very demise today? What if we now have feminized striped bass in our water-ways? The fish is still good to eat, be it male or female, right?
We have what is called concentrated animal farm operations (CAFO's), where the living conditions of the animals are so deplorable they have to pump the animals full of hormones, antibiotics and other synthetic substances on a regular basis just to keep them eating. Then there is the waste from all these animals. Waste that contains the antibiotics and hormones that they've been fed. Where does the waste go from a CAFO? Let's say they are ninety-nine percent efficient at capturing all waste generated. It’s probably less, but I don't know for sure, so to be on the generous side let's say one percent gets out and pollutes the water table. One percent and our striped bass are being feminized.
I swear I have a vein popping out on my forehead as I read this stuff. Sometimes I see why Lewis Black's whole body is trembling as he talks to his audience about the illogical. There is a misconception that sustainable and organic practices aren't feasible and practical. It seems that perception is based on profit capability, not the benefit to the environment and our future generations. How much profit is enough and to what peril?
But I digress; I want to parse the first paragraph in order to give the other side of the argument. Organic food is too expensive. Studies suggest that when you look at the true cost of conventional production and shipping (the carbon footprint, labor, overhead, seed cost, transportation), unsustainable practices and the cost of fixing the environment from CAFO's and other huge conventional farm practices, organic food is cheaper. We ask customers where they live so we can tell them of local farms in their area so they don't have to drive as far.
It is important to note that local food grown conventionally is going to have far less chemicals and is healthier to eat. When was the last time you heard of a local vegetable recall or contamination compared to that of IFC's. Look at the decision making criteria of the two; a local farmer has his or her family to feed and bases their decision making with that in mind. For their food the local farmer eats what they produce. An executive in the IFC has his or her family to feed too. If they don't make a profit, they will not have a job in which to pay for the food their family needs (at least that’s how it used to be. It seems now you can lose billions and get paid millions.) An example of profit driven management decision making would be the peanut butter recall. The company had tests done years before that showed contamination. What did management do? I don't really know, what is known is that they didn't get rid of the problem and all of this was exposed because consumers got sick. Do you think those managers ate any of their own product knowing they had already identified contamination?
University of California Berkley research found that organic practices raised vitamin and mineral rates twenty-five percent over conventional counterparts (see the CNN health link on our blog page). Search the net and you will find articles supporting both sides of that argument. But it seems to me that most of the articles against organics are not coming from academia but private entities. But I'm jaded. I look at things from a logical, common sense stand point. For argument sake, let’s say every thing is equal between organic and conventional vegetables, except the chemical residue on the outside and inside of the vegetables. This much is fact; research shows that there are trace amounts of chemical residue on and in vegetables. Allowable trace amounts per regulations.
Trace residues of chemicals known to be carcinogenic are found on conventional vegetables. If there is a trace doesn't that mean the existence or presence of? Take microwave popcorn. As early as 1993 policy makers knew that Diacetyl causes lung cancer. Diacetyl was one of the chemicals in the butter flavoring of microwave popcorn. So in their opinion workers in the production of microwave popcorn had to wear protective breathing gear due to the hazard. But the general public, supposedly, were not at risk. Fast forward to 2008 and they find that a man who ate two bags a day for ten years has developed lung cancer caused by Diacetyl. To me that suggests that trace amounts add up. We are human which makes us prone to mistakes. Why don't we err on the side of caution and ban trace amounts totally?
People will mention studies done by scientist as an argument for trace amounts and point to the relative safety of these trace amounts. The monetary motivations of the few often contradict the safety of the masses. Case in point the medical journals in the 1900s supported smoking for years as a way to raise their revenue. To be fair these journals no longer support nor accept advertising dollars from big tobacco. My point is with enough money you can pay for a study that promotes your cause. You have to spend money in order to make money, isn't that how the adage goes?
Conventional food looks perfect, thanks to manmade chemicals that not only protect it from other Nature but from its own natural demise. The shelf lives are longer and they can be transported further distances. But then again there are those darn trace chemicals on the outside and inside of vegetables. Let's look at safety; we know for a fact striped bass are becoming feminized and tests are pointing towards hormones in the water table. God knows what other things are going on but you can bet feminized bass are not the only thing. Has anyone gotten sick and died from organic spinach? They did from conventional spinach from the IFC.
Organic vegetables don't have trace amounts of chemicals and are safer to eat. Next up is freshness and taste of conventionally grown food. Please, it has neither. Look internally, take taste for instance. Everything else being equal, when given a blind taste test more people will chose organic over conventional. Which is better, a store bought tomato or one purchased from a local farmer? Organic vegetables struggle to get nutrients out of the ground. Nietzsche said "that which does not kill us serves to make us stronger". I believe as others have written that a vegetable that struggles to get its nutrients out of the ground, versus those just sprayed with synthetic nutrients, will taste better. Plus no trace chemicals on organic veggies. Try it for yourself - get organic or local vegetables from a local farm and some from the supermarket. Cook them identically and take a blind taste test and see for yourself.
You can't feed all the people in the world using organic/sustainable agriculture. We did back in the early 1900's before chemicals were introduced. Research has advanced organic methods even further today. My comment to that argument- People are starving to death right now. The only thing the IFC guarantees is if you have the money you can eat.
I understand the use of propaganda, misinformation and down right misleading of information and facts. That is why one of the most important jobs local farmers have is the dissemination of information. It’s educating people about the dangers and more importantly the alternatives and what consumers can do about it. People say organic is bad because the business model is not designed around profit. It is designed around the health, welfare and sustainability of human beings and the ecology. Personally I do not have a problem with that.
Buy Local - From a farmer not a chain hard selling that fact.
Posted by Brian
@ 01:38 PM EST
The first few years in the house were very trying while at the same time we were transitioning from small gardener to large gardener. We quickly learned that the experiences we had in a smaller plot of land did not particularly prepare us for large scale production. Problems are magnified on a scale that was larger than we anticipated. So, in the beginning crop failures were more frequent than successes and weeds, insects and poor nutrient management seemed to have center stage. We started small and increased slowly when we thought we had a handle on the growing aspect of a particular fruit or vegetable. At the time we were just starting to learn about field rotation, cover cropping, green manure and other soil management techniques. It took us close to three years to get comfortable with our ability to replenish the soil nutrients and minerals naturally without the need for doses of organic fertilizer. Among the volumes of research we read every book Joel Salatin wrote, we studied the Rodale Institutes literature and course offerings and talked to as many farmers as possible.
The more we learned the more we learned that chickens would be needed to augment our soil fertility practices. So we took the plunge and bought six seventeen week old Rhode Island Reds. It did take us some time to come to that decision but the type of hen we would purchase was easier. Rhode Island Reds are on the recovering species list and they are a heritage breed that is a dual bird. They are dual purpose for their meat and egg laying capabilities. Because chickens were cross bred for one purpose or the other (eggs or meat) RIR fell out of favor with farmers. When you can get a chicken to reach five pounds in ten weeks and it takes a RIR thirteen weeks the decision is made for you.
Since we've added chickens to our soil conservation effort we have been able to cut down on the amount of organic fertilizer we purchase. I should do a cost analysis on purchasing feed, chickens and time versus purchasing fertilizer. My guess is that just purchasing fertilizer might be less expensive and less time consuming but then again we wouldn't be getting those wonderful eggs.
My wife and I were sitting down to lunch when my phone buzzed. I answered it and it was the local organic market calling about our eggs. Afterward, my wife said I turned white as a sheet. I can tell you when I said hello and the voice on the other end said "Hi, this is Sheila from the Market" my appetite dropped and my mind went into a spin. It seemed like minutes as she told me why she was calling. I heard "A customer called about your eggs the other day," My mind is racing, ok I'm thinking what went wrong, what aren't they happy about"? What did they complain about did we short the count again by mistake (it has happened before)? Did we send an egg out that had started to incubate (this is impossible, we collect, wash and refrigerate the eggs on a daily basis) but that doesn't stop the thought. It couldn't be freshness, they can not get fresher eggs unless they catch them coming out of the chicken. My pessimism is running rampant as a go through each scenario.
All of this is going through my mind, as well as, possible solutions and what fix is needed. Sheila goes on to say that the customer really likes the eggs and wants to know if they can buy direct from us. Talk about a hundred and eighty degree turn, my heart beat and mind started to slow as I absorbed the meaning of the conversation. "You can give them our number and have them call us," I managed to eek out. We talked a bit more and then the conversation was over.
My wife looked at me smiling and I relayed the information. She just started laughing, "are you hungry anymore?" "No," I replied, she said she could practically see the mental gymnastics I just performed. I let out a deep breath and we both just laughed. I am an optimist covered with a heavy cloak of pessimism. We've gotten other comments on the taste of the eggs and have a following that is growing. So we have established a symbiotic relationship with our hens. We give them fresh rye and hairy vetch; they weed, eat bugs and leave naturally organic fertilizer. So far things are still heading in the right direction,
Buy Local - From a local farmer, not from a chain hard selling the fact
Posted by Brian
@ 01:00 PM EST
The first year on the farm had its perils, like the time the phone company changed our phone number, without us initiating the task or them asking us if it was okay. To top that off they wouldn't give us the new number because they said it was unlisted.
One Friday evening my mother-in-law called us on the cell-phone. "What is your new number?" "What new number" my wife asked? "I just called your house and the message said that your number has been changed to an unpublished number". There were so many new situations that we were facing that this seemed par for the course. But thinking back, when has the phone company ever changed your phone number without you asking for it and then they wouldn't give you the new number. I mean we really have had off the wall occurrences to deal with.
We had already been through the "take an analog phone out side and plug it into the telephone poll" routine. I kid you not; we had a problem with the line and called the phone company. As part of the troubleshooting they wanted us to take an analog phone out and plug it into the network interface device or NID.
We found it on the telephone poll, plugged the phone in and got a dial tone. "Ok,” the technician said "the problem is with the line in the house". They scheduled an appointment the coming week. In the mean time if there was an emergency we could take the phone outside and plug it into the NID and call 911. Does anyone remember Oliver climbing the telephone poll to make a call? What a hoot, with the phone connected to the telephone poll I couldn't help but start to call family and friends and tell them I was using a phone outside plugged into the telephone poll.
My wife hangs up with her mother and we call our home phone number. "The number you have dialed has been changed to an unlisted number." We hear the automated voice telling us. So we called the phone company. Yes the phone number was changed this afternoon. "Okay, great," I say "can you tell us what the new number is?" I'm getting ready to write the number down and I hear him say, "I'm sorry" Sorry? For what? "The number is unlisted". "Yes, that is what the message told us, but you know we are calling from our home and you can see our number, right"? It didn't matter what argument we used they weren't going to give us the new number.
We're thinking you can't make this stuff up. Being resourceful is a great trait to have when working on the farm. Things come up that you've never experienced and there is a need to deal with it or overcome it. This was just another example of a problem that we hadn't anticipated or thought of. The answer to this problem was simple. All we did was call my wife's cell phone and presto, we had our phone number. So much for paying an extra fee for an unlisted phone number.
So we got our new phone number and my wife says "Man, do you get the impression that Green Acres was a prep course for us?" I had to laugh and simply agree.
Buy Local- from a farmer not from a chain pushing the word.
Posted by Brian
@ 08:38 AM EST
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After the persons surprise that often accompanies the answer, that yes we indeed do farm, we get asked about vacations. "When do you take vacations," or "Now that summer is over what do you do?" Work never stops, in the winter we are about as busy as during the growing season. I'm just doing different work. Work that takes a back seat during the growing season. We still have it easier than the folks with big animals.
You still have to take care of the chickens. You have pre-winter activites like taking down the rain-water collection system. Winterizing the water tanks and putting everything away. You get the winter setup for the chicken houses out and ready for bitter weather and cover the strawberries with burlap. Winter is the time to work on the tractor and tune up the small engines to get them ready for next year. Fields need to be cleared of fallen trees. Dead trees need to be harvested and cut into firewood.
We will go through about four thousand pounds of firewood (two cords)and three thousand pounds of wood pellets in the house. It is all brought in a little at a time but it is almost a daily chore. We heat the upstairs with the pellet stove and the first floor with a woodstove that is in the kitchen. The wood stove sits in the original cooking fire place. The fire place hearth is eight feet wide by six feet deep, the opening of the hearth at its peak is almost five feet five inches tall. I've been told that I can not cook in it as much as I ask!
The chickens are a daily task that cannot be skipped. Some are kept in houses that have no floors so they can be moved onto new grass without having to let them out. Others are in converted horse trailers and have to be let out every day. This means they have to be closed up for the night too. Then you have to make sure the water is not freezing and more importantly the chickens are not freezing. They will eat more as a way of staying warm so restocking cycles pick up. The Rhode Island Red comes from the north (Rhode Island coincedently) so they are pretty cold tolerant but they to are suseptable to the frigid cold.
There is dragging the crusher-run driveway to smooth out the ruts and redistribute the stone bed. Next up would be fixing doors, windows and any structural repairs that crop up.
Of course winter is also when the Italian Cooking Classes really start to take off. We'll teach bread making, pasta making and tomato based sauces. We get to cook dishes we love to eat and do taste tests with the students. Usually class will start off with a homemade dish for everyone to sample. Then depending on the interest we'll go into knife safety, food borne illnesses or a range of food saftey topics. From there it is into the thick of hands on cooking.
From a vegetable/fruit growers point of view, I think vacation is a good thought but is a misnomer. Your work and responsibilities do not end they just shift and change a little.
Buy Local - From a farmer not a chain that hard sells the word
Posted by Brian
@ 08:53 AM EST