Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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It's the most wonderful time of the year

When Andy Williams sung those words,he didn't have in mind what we do. This is the time of year when we start to plan this seasons' vegetable garden and decide what fruits we will add to the existing landscape.  The engines have all been tuned and oils changed.  The tiller has been cleaned and hoes, clippers and shears sharpened.  

My guess is all small farmers are starting to have this anticipation that some may say is cabin fever.  I know we are not alone in our feelings.  Tens of thousands of us are starting to go through the same steps.  We hold out hope for the coming spring; we plan for the sunny days and envision what our plants will be bearing.  We look to the interactions with our old customers and friends as well the potential for new relationships.  But for the most part we all dream of spring and summer days to come.

Vegetable people will start to plan the garden layouts with what to plant and how much to be planted.  We decide what seeds will be ordered and where everything is going to be placed then we draw the irrigation plan.  We make sure we have all the parts to keep water flowing.  There is anticipation about the coming season; each year is a chance to make better what failures we had last year, to prove to ourselves that we have learned and can overcome what we may face.  It never turns out that way but we can dream.

This is that magical time when everything before you is full of promise, much like catching the sunrise when it’s still below the horizon and violet hues brighten the under-bellies of the clouds. The beauty of it makes you think that the day's potential is limitless.  It’s that expectation of good things to come.  Our thoughts are on how plants will be positioned in the limited space and what expected yields will be.  We’ll take stock of what is in inventory and plan to purchase replenishments.   Each year is a fresh start with new possibilities and new aspects to learn and knowledge to build upon.  We look forward to the rewards that our hard labor reaps and the satisfaction we get when eating something that we’ve grown.  We belong to a larger group of people who all have these same feelings, thoughts and anticipations.

This is the most wonderful time of the year for the prospects are endless.  I can not wait to hook the tiller up to the tractor and break the season’s first piece of soil.  The smells of a fresh crisp morning air so cold it stings the lungs. As the day progresses, temperatures inch higher and the odor of fresh humus wafts from turned soils.  You get to see the nutrient rich dark chocolate soil breaking up as the cover crops and chicken fertilizer turn under to start to do their part for sustainability.  We wait out the last of the winter days testing and tracking soil temperatures and watch long term forecast eager to plant the season’s first seeds and plants.

Then there is the other side of the coin. Everyone that does this knows about it, but we might not bring ourselves to speak or even think, except for a fleeting second.  It is there and always present, it is the dark side that the regular public doesn't see but might catch in a news article.  Like the dairy farmer in New York, this winter, who catastrophically gave up.  There are heavy burdens and failure has great consequences to whole families.  You have the inevitable crop failures, then equipment failures, plant infestations and weed over-population.  Worst, not being profitable and going under and most horrific of all injury or loss of life.  We all know the dangers, failures, foibles and hard physical labor that we are about to face, but we decide to do it anyway.  We treat our job with reverence, respect and caution.  Mother Nature has her own plans and we just hope to fit in them and try to do well no matter the circumstances.

So, good luck to all my colleagues this coming season may your animals be happy, planted rows straight, weeds under control and bugs beneficial.  May the soils bring forth the bounty you so richly deserve for your sheer perseverance and determination.  Your work is not in vain.  Who else is going to help the environment, provide safe fresh food and replenish the earth’s nutrients if not for the small, sustainable farmers in the world? Which is why I think at this time even though you can't see the ground for the snow, it is the most wonderful time of the year.

 Buy Local –From a farmer you know and trust not a chain profiting off the words







What will you leave future generations?

Michael Pollan said it best in his book "The Omnivore’s Dilemma".  He said that each and every day we make a choice on what to eat and that choice has a greater environmental impact then we think.  For some there is no thought of where the food comes from just who is preparing it for consumption.  Pollan was pointing out that the "Where the food came from" question is not present in the day to day normal cognitive process of deciding what to eat.  

As a nation of eaters most of us don't realize that the food choices we make affect our environment.  We have been so far removed from the making of our food that we have no idea what goes in it.   Not only has this been perpetrated by the IFC but it was done specially to avoid the kind of scrutiny that the local farm movement is generating.

If we don’t see that beef processing companies import beef from other countries to make our hamburgers how can we make a value judgment at purchase time.  I’ll bet you think that when you buy a hamburger, that it comes from a cow that at least lived in North America.  That is not necessarily the case as has been recently pointed out in a lawsuit against a big meat packer.

No thought is given that the beef patty sitting on the bun before us has a relationship to the raised hormone levels in the water table and estrogen levels in male bass.  But at its base that is what our choice to eat comes down to.  Every day we decide to further the cause of local sustainable agriculture or benefit the Industrial Food Complex. 

On one hand you have the small independent farmer that is trying to squeeze out a living by carefully tending the land and their animals for social, environmental, economic and human sustainability.  On the other side is the vast IFC with ever increasing ways of chemically altering food, milk and juices for the sole purpose of producing these products in the least expensive way to gain the most profit.  That in it of itself isn't bad, but it is the consistent failures resulting in illnesses, death and environmental degradation that make their practices deplorable.

That is how in the past most robber-barons made their huge fortunes. They took advantage of the less fortunate, less intelligent and in some cases just destroyed everything a person owned for their own personal gain.  The cost to and negative impact on people and the environment does not matter.  I mean the moniker says it all “robber-barons”.  Food is one of the last great resources to be raped and pillaged so a few of our elite can make their personal fortunes greater. 

You have a choice; you can make a difference globally by being just one person acting locally.  It is happening now and has been happening slowly for at least the last twenty years.  Those that are on the front lines see the progress.  A couple of years ago, California registered the first increase in agriculture land in their State; stopping a decline that lasted decades.  It is growing to such a point that the USDA is starting to take interest in the numbers.

The USDA recently sent out a mandatory census that looked at detail level data on growing and production and they are starting to offer incentives to help promote the local farm movement.  Seven years ago I never heard of financial assistance for organic growers and or vegetable growers in general.  It was usually just aimed at grains, water conservation, and nutrient management.  These past two years I've seen two programs to help local vegetable farms.

Things are changing but you the individual is needed to participate.  Barbara Kingsolver, in her book “Animal, Vegetable Miracle” wrote about the year she and her family spent eating seasonal, local foods.  In it, not only did she highlight the adjustment to seasonality of foods but also to the plight of the local farm.  

So the choice is ours to make.  Do you want an open food source where you know where your food came from and can go to the source or do you want what is going on now?  Recent news stories recounted the poisoning of a female who ate bad beef.   Now that the court case has gone public the manufacturer had to divulge that the meat that made up this ground beef came from animal parts from two different countries, neither being America.  If this isn’t an example of the IFC buying junk to put into the food supply to make a profit then I’m at a loss.

But it is us, you, me, and everyone that has a stake in this fight for healthy food.  Never before have so many people been part of the same group that has the opportunity to be part of a grass roots effort.  We All Eat.  We can really make a change to affect our future and truly make a difference in the history of man.  I am talking about the safety of food and the preservation of our ecology.  We might like different things but we all eat.   If you just chose local once a day over the IFC imagine the change we could all affect.  I’m not saying that everything consumed should be local but if a lot of our choices are for local foods then the IFC’s will take notice and act accordingly.  Of course we could have an outcome like free range chickens (see. Beware of Free Range) but I hold out hope for a better result. 

It is just one choice made multiple times each day.  As an individual you can choose whether to promote the IFC and all the damage being done to the environment (think feminized bass) or you can choose to support your local community, local families, local businesses and your local food producers.  The money you spend at the farm gets spent in the community by the farmer.  The money stays in a local bank; and is used to hire local labor be it skilled or general and used to purchase supplies from local businesses. 

It is your choice, start slowly make a resolution to eat at least one local meal a day.  We are not asking for you to be like Barbara Kingsolver, but to give serious thought about your children’s, grand-children’s and great-grandchildren’s health and the environment we will leave them. 

Choose to make sure the future generations grow up in the least toxic setting possible.  Become aware of how the IFC is poisoning us and the environment for their short term profit.  If that doesn’t get you motivated to support your local sustainable farm we will all fail our future generations.

Buy Local-From a farmer you know and trust, not a chain selling the concept





Why I should stick to growing Or

Go with your Strengths

We had started year three of our growing in a good position.  We were using crop rotation and still figuring out the irrigation system but we felt good about our knowledge.  The deer were still beating us on the blue berries but the strawberries were coming on strong and sweet.  The barn was holding up but was showing its age.  It was built in the 1950's as a dairy barn.  We didn't have the money or the experience to do anything major with it so we kept an eye on it, making it water tight and let it go until the future.

I am not a handyman or a “mister fix it” by any standard.  If fixing means tearing down or destroying then I’m great at it.  One of the first successes I had as a handyman came when we were able to open the barn doors in the back of the building, that the previous owner had boarded up.  The second success came when I built new doors and was able to hang and close the barn back up, mostly.  My first mistake in the project came when we closed the doors for the first time.  We had measured the opening and made the doors from plywood and wood trimming.  Once hung and closed we realized the doors weren't wide enough to cover the entire opening of the barn.  You know, I measured twice but I was not the only one doing the construction.  However, pointing fingers never moves you in the right direction so why dwell about fault.

I added wings to the doors and sure enough there was no opening to allow small critters inside.  So that success started me thinking about other small projects.  Like a moveable, self contained, floorless chicken house and pen, one large enough to hold twenty-five birds.

It has since been referred to as both the Spruce Goose and the Titanic, neither names invoking any thing other then abject failure. But I digress.  I've never been good with building things as a matter of fact I excel at the complete opposite.  I learned earlier on that destruction was my forte.  I've put holes in cinderblock walls with a sledge hammer in order to place in a doorway. I’ve torn down shacks with crow bars and sledge hammers.  I can tear things apart with the ease of an expert.  Putting things back together though I'm the kind of person that has spare parts when everything is completed.  I'm much more comfortable bringing down a dead thirty foot oak tree than I am cutting a forty-five degree angle for chair molding.  Even though I knew I was not a handyman I tried to build the moveable pen.

We started out with six birds and bought our first hen house.  It is a great little moveable house and pen.  It is completely self sufficient.  It has water, food, nesting boxes, roosts, bare floor and a small enclosed yard.  It is called a Henspa.  It was more than we wanted to spend but we bit the dust and placed the order. 

The house was small and would hold up to twelve hens though nine is more hospitable.  With green manures and winter cover cropping we had plenty of fresh grass for the hens to eat.  We could put the house in our gardens and move it every other day.  The hens got fresh grass and the garden got nutrients for the coming growing season.  For the first year this worked well but we had more orders for eggs then we had capacity.  It was nice having a waiting list but we needed to add to the hen population.

I started drawing the new, bigger portable pen a year before we started building.  It would have everything that the other house had but this would hold twenty-five birds, comfortably.  So I took the dimensions of the real house and scaled it up to handle the increase in hens. Most of you are already getting the picture.  I think the only thing I can say is that I didn't rush into things.  I drew up the plans with measurements from all sides, heights, widths, lengths, floor plans, nesting boxes and roosting poles, egg door and outside pen.  I had all my drawings (14 different views with measurements of various sections) and a materials list before purchasing a single screw.  I was on top of the project.

We cut all the pieces of wood and started assembling them.  Adding sides to other sides it started taking shape. We got the nesting box and egg door in, the second floor and roosts, wheels and pulley system and feed box.  We pulled it out of the barn to put the roof on.  I can't begin to document all the failures and in what order they took place.  All I remember is that I would fix one thing and another thing would break.  But, being one that doesn't give up easily,  I would fix the next problem only to encounter another.  So on its maiden voyage it hit ground and a support pole broke on the wheel mechanism and it sank into the ground (think Titanic).  I then heaved up the wheels and support beams that would carry the whole box.  I fortified pullys,  cables and support hooks.

On its second maiden voyage we pushed the lever down to lift the box up off the ground, and on its wheels, but we couldn't get enough clearance to move the box off the ground (think Spruce Goose).  After two years and five hundred dollars in materials (at least that is what my accountant says, and if I wasn't married to her I would've questioned her book keeping skills) I've somewhat given up on it.   When asked about it I joke that it was designed by the "Three Stooges" and built by "Fred Flinstone".

It sits out by the barn mostly built, no roof, no pen, no handles on the egg door; it just sits there and mocks me.  I may have stopped tinkering with it and often think about accidentally setting it on fire when weeding but I'm not just ready yet to give up on it.  Besides, it’s been holding up pretty well these past few years.

Buy Local - From a farmer you know and trust not a chain selling the concept



Winter Setup.

Going into the winter of our first year with the chickens, we were worried that they would freeze. Okay, my wife was, I figured they already had a down coat on, how cold could they get. Besides being on the "Recovering Species" list, Rhode Island Reds were bred in a cold northern climate.  Our research pointed us to birds raised in the northern portion of the nation. The rational was that they are use to the climate and can withstand normal to hard Maryland winters. RIR are good down to below freezing if it drops lower than that, you need to provide some kind of heat source in their house.

One of the most important keys to winter survival for the hen is housing. They need to be in a draft free house in order to maintain body heat. Of course the more birds you have the better able they all are to keep each other warm.  But you can quickly reach a space issue which causes competition, which causes pecking.

The six we had that first winter would crowd very close in order to stay warm. We had what we refer to as the winter setup for the two moveable houses. There is a second floor to the house with the floor being a wire mesh. This allows air circulation and an easy way to clean the leavings from that top part. For colder days there is a tarp that is fit to cover the wire mesh. The tarp is then covered with pine shavings.

Every other day a little more shavings are put in. As the layers of pine shavings build the bottom starts to compost and provides a small amount of heat to the second floor of the pen. We keep a nose out because once you get a slight whiff of ammonia then their environment has become toxic. For the past three years we have been lucky on that account. Their egg production slows a little but it is more a lack of light then it is being too cold for them. 

When it snows like it did this past week (we had close to twenty inches) we move into the second phase of the winter setup.  This entails covering the bottom floor of the inside and the attached outside pen with pine shavings.  We also cover the outside pen with a tarp to break the wind.  These areas too will get the sniff test.  One of the problems with confined housing is the build up of fecal matter and then the corresponding ammonia. 

This type of environment promotes respiratory ailments and other problems that can be fixed with anti-biotic.  In an organic setting, having to give a bird any drugs, hormones or synthetic substances takes it out of certified status.  So we are very careful about smells and the amount of fecal matter in and around the house in general during the winter.  They get fresh litter on the floors at least once a week or more if the house starts to smell anything other than fresh.

Another learning experience for us was the feel of the bottom of a hen’s foot.  On a RIR it is a soft, smooth, leathery feel not a hard pad like a dog or cat would have.  Because of this soft tissue they are susceptible to injury.  If the bottom of the foot gets cut, for any reason, it will usually get infected because they frequently step in fecal matter   If not caught in time this infection will eventually kill the bird and could possibly contaminate the rest of the flock.   

Keeping an eye on the birds for any type of limp helps catch the problem early.   If there is a limp (sometimes referred to as bumble-foot) take a look at the bottom of the foot.  Make sure it is clean enough to inspect the skin.  The bottom of the foot should be soft and pliable with no cuts, sores or abrasions.  If you see an open wound you will need to clean and dress it.  The bird should be confined to a hospital pen with fresh, clean pine shavings. Clean the foot and change the dressing every two days.

 Frost bite is another problem a hen can face during colder months.  I’ve read that bad frost bite is serious and needs a veterinarian to fix.  A small amount is not fatal but if nothing is done to change the environment a hen can die from the exposure.  The first part of a chicken to get frost bite is going to be their comb and waddle.  Depending on the bird if the temperature is below freezing then you want to provide heat twenty-four hours a day.  We use heat lamps and an electric outlet that senses temperature.  If ambient temperature in the hen house drops below thirty-four degrees the light and water bucket warmer come on.  When the inside temperature reaches forty-five degrees the electricity is turned off.  This seems to keep them comfortable because they are starting to have a consistent lay rate.  

We’ve had the biggest snow fall since getting chickens and this has proven to be quite overwhelming.  We knew the storm was coming so we moved all the houses into covered spaces for protection but still be able to get the tractor in and be able to clear some ground for them.  When we finally let them out, the first thing they started doing was pecking and eating snow.  This is not good for them because like you or I, eating ice has a tendency to cool our body temperature.  With a chicken it is a little more drastic but what can you do.  I told them at least don’t eat the yellow, brown or greenish brown snow!  They looked up for a second and went directly for the colored snow anyway, go figure.  



 Buy Local - From a farmer not a chain using the word to generate sales.




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