Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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I wake up at six in the morning. If it is a weekday, I get up, let the chickens out, and go to the profession that pays for the ability to grow vegetables, fruits, eggs, grasses, implement soil rejuvenation techniques and integrated pest and nutrient management practices. When we get home, we put in about two and half hours on farm related activity. This ranges from hand watering to using the drip tape, weeding, assessing the environment, looking for signs of anything that is not right with the animals, vegetables and high tunnel. Then address whatever the situation, pests, weeds, watering, feeding, isolating sick chickens and then evaluating them, you get the idea. If it is the weekend, I get an hour to rest and relax before the work starts at seven.
The weekend workday starts with doing the most physical task right away before the days heat kicks in. Then the next hardest task and then the next hardest physical task, interspersed with breaks for hydration and back to the next most physical task. As you are doing the tasks, the temperature is rising and the humidity is reaching into the eighties and nineties. Your body is fighting the heat by perspiring, which leads to your eyes stinging from the salty water. You stay hydrated in order to maintain fluid levels and maintain stamina.
Because we grow mainly vegetables and fruits all work is done outdoors and during some of the hottest parts of the day. It is a grind but work takes place in order for the plants to produce. If we are not hand weeding an acre and a half of gardens, we are moving the chickens and their fences, or collecting eggs, we are tracking insects, and trying to protect what is in the ground from the flora and fauna. We are planting or watering, or cleaning out the chicken trailer and checking for lice and any indication of an anomaly, or watering and feeding the chickens, laying drip tape, setting up new irrigation, or mowing the fields and the grass, or harvesting produce, or checking on broody chickens or sick chickens. Saturdays we harvest early because we are delivering to our retail markets. We give tours so some days I have to turn the staff lose to work on their own chores while I walk groups around explaining what and why sustainable farming practices are needed and justified.
Sunday we attend the one farmers market we can make. The day starts with harvesting everything that is ready to sell and feed the chickens the ugly stuff not good enough for sale. This farmers market happens to be on asphalt and starts at twelve noon. By the time, you get there and setup the tarmac has had a couple hours to heat up so you have to take precautions with your produce, the same produce picked that morning. You are always outside and at the mercy of the weather, rain or shine, you are sweating, you need sun/rain protection and at times bug protection. You work until you no longer have the stamina or the sunlight whichever comes first. You eat, sleep and repeat.
Along with the physical aspects of growing, you have educational pursuits in order to learn what bugs are beneficial and which are detrimental, what viruses and bacteria are present and what combats them. You learn about different soil types; reading soil analysis charts for nutrient levels, familiarize yourself with the Ph levels for different fruits and vegetables grown and that nitrogen-fixers help the soil fertility. You find out about crop rotation, green manures, nematodes, and rhizomes and cover cropping. There is the learning curve that has spanned generations in farming families, but you have to pick them up in an extraordinarily short period in order to be successful. You will spend years reading and learning from every mistake you make and you will make mistakes, they will be innocent at first and may be overlooked until they take crops from you and you find there is no hope of recouping even basic expenses associated with the crop, forget profit. This year it was using “Winter Rye” as a cover crop for our corn. We found out why Winter Rye is such a good green manure too. Winter Rye when it gets to a certain stage sends out particles that stop the germination of other plants, thus helping itself propagate and survive. Another problem or benefit, depending on how you use it, is its capacity to get to water. This is great if you are trying to rid the field of weeds. It is not so great when the sweet corn you planted is not pollinating properly and you are facing drought situations. If you cannot harvest it, you are not going to be able to generate revenue.
I think the people with animals have it worse, we are still learning how to take care of chickens and we are in our fourth year. Animal husbandry is a discipline unto itself. Each animal has its own problems and although some might be the same between species, most animals have specific issues to deal with. Chickens have Coccidiosis when they are day-olds and H1:N5 (avian flu), cows have bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow) goats and sheep have Johnnie’s (pronounced Yonies), they all have some virus or bacteria that is prevalent in their species that they are susceptible to. You have to know this in order to keep everything healthy, growing and vigorous. Feeding animals is another issue that needs attention. In the chicken world layers, get a different feed than broilers (meat birds). One major difference is the calcium requirement, layers get it broilers do not. Then there is first level medical care. You need to learn how to assess the condition of the animal and what precautions or protocols to administer. Is it something a vet should address? You have to decide to cull the animal or choose to nurse the animal back to health. If you choose, the latter you will need more in depth knowledge.
What we love most about all this are the people that cheer you on, caringly give you their time and expertise and champion your actions. We do optimistic planning based in reality, so we plan contingencies. It seems daunting when you read all that needs accomplishing in a day, a week, a month and a year. It is doable, remember not to long ago we were an agrarian society it was not the easiest life and it still is not, then again nothing good ever came from something easy.
Buy Local: Feed yourself safely and support your community
Posted by Brian
@ 07:06 PM EDT
I do not want to offend anyone but I know I will. It is like passing the scene of an accident and you do not want to look, you know you should not look; you should be paying attention to driving the vehicle undistracted. As you creep along with traffic these thoughts go threw your head. You are not going look that is all there is to it. Then there is an instant, it is less then a second, something takes over and your head turns, and you look. You did not mean to, you intended not to, you had all the best of intentions of avoiding it but there it is, against your deepest thought, it happened.
Well someone is going to get offended so let me apologize up-front. Please remember these are just observations that I have made over the years of living in a suburban and rural environment. I officially have more years living out of the city than I do living in the city. Although my observations may be born of naïveté, they are just observations.
We talk about food and how certain foods (vegetables, fruits, nuts) whole foods, mainly, are good for your health. You can read how our meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables are grown makes a huge difference in the eco-system and on all our scarce resources. There are huge conglomerates spending millions, if not billions, on chemical, biological and physical ways to change, alter, elongate, preserve, extend, affect appearance, stop infestations; the list for what they want to do to whole foods is endless. Even though the research might show evidence of serious negative affects on the human body or the environment, it can be squelched and the product can be introduced into the industrial food chain.
Think back to GMO corn and how it was not suppose to be in our food supply. Then in the early 2000’s a woman has a seizure triggered from eating a taco shell made out of GMO corn. Is titanium dioxide here in the US or not (see GRAS and Nano-Tech)? If so, what products use that nano-technology? It has been found in Great Brittan; of course, it took an independent study to find that fact. At least the European consumers are being made aware of this additive. The IFC knows the extent of the degradation of the earth and our resources and they act to minimize or out right cover up those facts and introduce the product into the food chain anyway.
Bisphenol A, (BPA’s) Titanium Dioxide and Diactyl come to mind because these are the things we know, there have been news reports, independent scientific analysis and medical research pointing to the ills of the these two food additives and the third in plastic containers. Even with the knowledge they were still introduced in the worlds food supply
We are woefully under armed and overwhelmed from the sheer size of the other side. It is us against them and our side is slowly getting bigger. Each year consumers get a little more educated about the ills of industrial farming practices and as more recalls take place the question of food safety becomes more important to the consumer.
As a small farm we get a little bigger each year, plant a little more, add a few more chickens, and get more land certified organic. The Industrial Food Complex is not doing the present and the future any favors. Think endocrine disruptors, food alergies, e-coli outbreaks, feminized bass and castrated bull frogs..
This brings me back to insulting someone. We live on a small farm, surrounded by other small farms. Our house sits in the middle of fifty-five acres. On our left is a farm, on our right is a farm and behind us is a farm. In front of our house is a flood zone. Our smallest buffer zone is about a thousand feet from all of my conventional neighbors. National Organic Procedures call for twenty-five feet of hedgerow or buffer zone.
Our neighbors grow grains, hay and forage for their animals. Therefore, there is all this food being grown around our little two acres of fruits and vegetables. I mean hundreds of acres surrounding our vegetable and fruit gardens. Yet with all this GMO food growing for animal feed and other applications the wildlife pick our gardens to raid. Ground hogs will leave the protection of the edge of the tree line to raid the garden, raccoons, turkeys, our own chickens, rabbits and deer. We fight them all to get the food to market.
With signs advertising certified organic we sit at the farmers market with our offerings and people will pass us by to go to the huckster to buy vegetables. The Maryland Department of Agriculture defines hucksters as those people that buy and resell fruits and vegetables. The vegetables just look better I admit that, but we know they did not grow it, they cannot tell the customer what farm it came from or what chemicals are on it. At our house the wildlife has hundreds of acres of food to choose from yet they choose to find ours and what that tells me is even wild animals know what tastes better.
Buy Local- From a farmer you know and invites you to visit the farm to learn more.
p.s. Yes, it has been a very hot summer, we are suffering a drought and a stink bug infestation that is wearing on me, if you are reading this you are already informed and knowledgeable about fresh local foods, so please don’t take offense and thank you for letting me vent. If you are not reading this then......
Posted by Brian
@ 09:00 AM EDT
This growing season has been brutal in our part of the country. Nevertheless, I knew we were in for a problem back in the winter. Over the course of my life, when inquiring about a problem, situation, function, example, question or any other unknown or known occurrence, I have heard in essence the same meaning, repeatedly, when talking to experts or professionals in their field. It is not always the same words and there are different phrases used when the person is describing their perspective or knowledge. However, the out come is always the same they are genuinely stymied and do not know the answer.
It has been phrases like, "I've never seen that before," or "This is the first time I have heard of that," or "It has never done that before," or "In all my years this is the first time (fill in the blank)," or "No, I have not come across that before,". It is not complex things, I do not deal with things of unearthly origin or advanced technological solutions. At work or at home or growing I have heard these comments in different situations.
Sometimes we joke about my ability to be in a place when something completely bizarre happens. One of my colleagues long ago tagged me as “Schleprock” a character on the Flintstone’s. I'm not saying this is always the case because, I consider my life to be very blessed and I have been able to do good things that help family and community. But, there is that other side, a small side, but it is a part firmly in place.
We had a soil professional on the property; he spent his entire life in the farming community and learning about soils. I took him to the end of the high-tunnel where we had so much trouble putting in the footers (see This is no Easy Project). I picked up a piece of the soil and gave it to him to examine. He looks at it, rubs it between his fingers and says, "Huh, I have never seen this before. It looks like it has been fired or was part of a building". You figure the odds, out of fifteen acres; I was able to select an area that may be on top of an out-building used in the 1800's or earlier.
This brings me back to my point on this summer’s drought. When the two water tanks arrived, I made sure to have them placed and hooked up for the early spring rain. The reason we got them was that in past years we would lose water after the two three thousand tanks filled but the rains kept coming. Then there was a part of me that thought, "With my luck we'll have a drought this year".
I know there is no correlation between me buying water tanks and the rain not coming, but it does not surprise me. I am use to people being surprised when I ask for explanations and they should know the answer but it is the first time they have encounter the problem or situation that I am in. I am an optimist, heavily cloaked in a thick layer of pessimism.
It came as no surprise the first time I bought water this summer that it rained the next day. It did not rain enough, but the fact that it rained at all was surprising. It was not predicted and it was a quick moving front. That was all the rain we got for the next nineteen days. That is until I bought another four thousand gallons of water. It sprinkled while the water was being pumped from the truck to the tanks but it was not enough to make the grass wet. I could not help but still see the irony however, slight.
Things are coming in slow, everyone is complaining and we are doing our best. The corn is failing and the chickens are down sixty percent in laying capacity. Each year growing has seemed to have unique characteristics or personality and this season is turning out to be just brutal.
Buy Local - From a farmer supporting your community, health and environment
Posted by Brian
@ 11:55 AM EDT
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It is Monday night at 7:30 pm we are to take our spent layers to be processed Tuesday morning. We will take the processed chicken to the soup kitchen with a big sign informing them that these birds need to be stewed in order to tenderize the meat, so that patrons can eat them.
What the note will not impart is the emotional and therefore physical and mental toll that their demise has caused us. I have no appetite or motivation. We have taken off of work this week in order to take the chickens up, celebrate two birthdays one 50 years and one 80 years.
So we have planned how we will get the birds in the cage and take them. We have selected the second flock and the rooster from flock four. We are taking eight chickens up to be processed. It has been awhile since I've had such a low point but I am emotionally drained and morally conflicted. Growing up in the city, decisions never had a life or death outcome. Who you would pick to field your side of a team was the biggest decision I had to make. Now we had to select those chickens that needed to be culled and their life ended.
I know hundreds of thousands if not millions of people process or get their chickens processed but, we have fought off this decision for six years. The anguish associated with it has been painfully documented on this forum. We are not profitable enough to keep spent layers for their natural life. As much as we tried, we are operating in the red when it comes to our layers. The business side of this is very plain, the emotional and anthropomorphized association is stronger yet intellect has to rule over emotions in this equation.
Say what you will, think what you will; we have gotten too emotionally close to these birds. We need to temper or navigate a better relationship but make sure we stay as a humane farm, and at the same time keep the hearts we had when we first started in animal husbandry.
It is 6:45 am, Tuesday morning and we are gathering strength to go out and pack the birds up. I can not take flock one. There are three left of the original six and they lay about a dozen eggs a week, but more importantly when you approach any of these chickens they kind of squat down and let you pick them up. They trust us enough to stop what they are doing and position themselves to be easily scooped up in your arms. I cannot take these birds when they show so much trust and security in us like that. I am not going to easily pick them up, put them in a cage and send them off to their demise. I just cannot do it.
I have been fighting tears, depression, and low motivation and down rite malaise. Like everything on a farm we must learn how to be stewards, humane and sustainable. Last night we discussed stopping the practice of using chickens in our nutrient and pest management practices and let the rest of the flocks run their course. We will have to see after today how that discussion plays out. For now I have to get going in order to make our appointment in Pennsylvania.
We got the birds and placed them in the carrier. The hardest one was the youngest rooster. He was chosen because he was an unknown. The current rooster is predictable, not aggressive and crows loudly so having people on the farm with a rooster that does not attack is a good thing.
The drive out was okay, I still have know appetite and I'm in this daze almost like I'm in my body but I don't have control of my body. I'm an automaton, driving a package to be delivered and I need to wait to take the package to the soup kitchen.
We get there and we do not know what to do, "take the cage around to the dock," an Amish woman in full length dress and bonnet tells us. I walk it around and there are about ten cages with various birds in them. I place our cage down and I wait. A young Amish man comes out, he's blood spattered from head to toe and he asks me about them. I can't really hear him, I just tell him we need them processed for the soup kitchen.
I think he might have asked it we wanted any of the innards. I said just the chickens please and that was it he was gone. I walked back to the truck and we placed the cooler in the front of the store. We walked outside found a shaded place to sit and started reading my bug book. As time slowly ticket by I was painfully aware of every sound coming from the back of the building. Time past and they called us, "Your cooler is very dirty, do you have bags or do you want us to put them in anyway".
We thought they would bag them for us but they didn't. Luckily I had brought bags with us that I had intended to use in order to leave them at the soup kitchen. We placed them in the bags, threw some ice on top and took the cooler out to the truck.
I'm sorry to be cliché but it was surreal, I only knew what I was suppose to say, which was either "yes, no, you have to ask my wife". Then the woman said something that woke me up. She said "all of these chickens were sick", "What do you mean sick?" I asked. "They stunk inside and their livers were diseased. There still good for soup though" she added at the end.
It was at those words that my mood, outlook responsibilities and culpability in their demise came full circle. They were sick. By divine intervention we forced ourselves to make an emotionally steeped decision to the benefit of the birds and to the people they will feed. The deed has been done and lessons have been learned.
Some farmer I make, it is what it is, you can take the boy out of the city but so far the city has not come out of the boy.
Posted by Brian
@ 01:44 PM EDT