Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Changes

We have all heard the tenants and arguments of nature versus nurture, or environment versus genetics in human psychological development.  There are also the formative years, the first ten years of a human’s life that set our core values, mores, emotional and behavioral thoughts and responses.  Whether the human condition is pre-ordained, by environment or genetics I have no idea.  With me, I know it was a combination of both.  There are genetics involved but I am also a compilation of people that have passed through my life and left an indelible mark on my heart, personality, thoughts and feelings.  I am what I have experienced and pieces of those who have touched me. 

I was reflecting on how there has been subtle changes that have taken place in me that makes me a totally different person from the one whom left the city back in 1990.  Events that individually would be innocent yet turn into something that could challenge your existing belief structure (like having to take the life of a living creature) or are mere distractions (like a chicken in the tree) or having to deal with a rat living near the chickens and feeding off their feed.  We did dispose of the rat and turned the den over frozen ground and all.  Rats and chickens make a bad combination and a recent egg recall would bare that out. 

When I step back and look at the bigger picture, I realize there has been a major shift in most facets of my life.  From my business dress (at my full-time job) to my outlook on any given situation, be it dangerous,  personal, risk, weather, infestation, bee or wasp stings, snake removal, having to put chickens down you raised from a day old, or even the physicality’s that I encounter with tasks (unloading a ton of corn gluten, one fifty-pound bag at a time).  In case you have for gotten a ton is two thousand pounds.  I am vested in today and what it may bring.  I plan for the future, but today is the only thing we really have.  How often do we look back and say “remember the good old days?” well today is that day.  The past cannot be changed and future cannot be manipulated, but today, today we can do something about.

I learned that life can take a turn and you find yourself navigating the curvature barely able to control, when grip loses out to inertia and you think for a split second the worst.  Yet, you find miraculously you navigate and stay the course in order to react to what comes next.  Three years into our stay on the farm, my wife almost lost her life.

It was not farm related but the strenuous work did not help her either.  I learned in Psych 101 that it takes a "significant life event" to change the behavior developed in the formative years.  Her illness qualified as one of my life changing events. 

When she got ill, nothing in my life mattered anymore.  I know it is cliché’, but it is true.  My only other concern was if the cat was fed (we did not have chickens yet), other then that I focused on what I needed to do to get my wife past this.  I just wanted to get her healthy and out of the hospital, that was my single-minded goal.  From the time she entered the hospital until the day after the operation I was at her bedside making sure she was getting the best care.  

While we were waiting for her operation, I was told of the dangers and risks associated with the surgery.  The hospital then informed me that I had to get a will, power of attorney and other forms signed and notarized in case my wife passed away during the operation.  Because I have a friend that is a lawyer, it was not as hard a task as some people would have had.  I was forty-four and I had to prepare for what might be the demise of the most important, influential, supportive and loving person in my life. 

The night before surgery we had to sign all the documents with witnesses and the notary.  While I was explaining the documents to my wife, she was signing and then I would sign then the witness and then the notary.  The hospital room was filled to capacity yet at that time I have never felt more alone and scared.  I was stead fast in my outlook and support while facing my wife.  “We are going to get through this”, I told her as the room emptied.  I ended up sleeping in her hospital bed that night.  For all I knew this might be the last time in my life I could sleep with her.  I know I dozed sometimes but when you sleep in a bed made for one you do not sleep.

It all started on a Sunday night.  Two hospitals and eight days later, after life threatening surgery, I was loading my wife gingerly into the car for the trip home.  That time and watching my wife healing has changed me.  How I look at things and react has changed.  I see that life is precious and way to short.  That being a good person matters, being a good corporate citizen matters, helping your community and giving back matters.  Not all the money in the world is going to make you feel better about yourself.  You think it will, but it does not, look at the millionaires’ and billionaires’ over the years, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Soros, Gates and all the others that have amassed huge fortunes only to give most of it back to society in the form of social philanthropies.  Why do most of them do this?  Because, giving makes you feel good.

What matters to me now is that each day I get another day to spend with my wife and show her how much I love her.  That I give back, whether it is taking our spent layers to soup kitchens or to grow the freshest and safest food we can grow, or to simply educate people about the perils of the industrial food complex.  We get to show how sustainable farming is going to protect us today and into the future.  In the mean time, we all should enjoy today.

BUY LOCAL:   Support the poor judgment, of those of us, who toil to grow you safe, fresh, healthy foods.

 
 

Inordinate Expectations

In an attempt to reach out to our community, and get help for the farm, I called the local high school and talked to the student-advisor of the “Future Farmers of America" club.  I explained that we were a local organic farm and wanted to know if any of the students would want to work on the farm.  We would pay for their labor and they would be able to satisfy school requirements.  At the end of the conversation, the instructor said she would announce the opportunity.  "But", she said, "you know how kids are today,” Yes, I knew what she meant; the majority of our youth spend too much time with electronics and social networking and little time experiencing their environment.  I also knew that most of the kids that want to be farmers today see themselves in air-conditioned cabs on large tractors and combines.  I do not have a problem with that, as long as they still want to farm.  We of course do not work in air-conditioned anything.  So, as it turned out, no one from the high school called.  That year we hired people from off the street.   

 

Not to be deterred, during the winter,  I researched the offerings of our local community college.  They did not have agronomy or animal husbandry but they did have a culinary arts program.  One of my thoughts was, "wouldn't it look good on a new chefs' resume that they worked on an organic farm".  So I called the community college, spoke to the head of the program, and sold my idea of an intership.  She then passed me to the head Chef.  

 

I talked to the head Chef and set up a time to come in and address his class. He agreed to setup an internship and I agreed to make sure they (the perspective students) met the requirements.  I had a twenty-minute presentation that ended with a technical look at eggs.  Specifically, the difference between store bought and free-range, organic eggs.  I made arraignments with Chef to have eggs available.  The last part of the presentation was going to be "show and tell".  I had brought a dozen eggs and had planned to open their egg and my egg and let them see the difference.  Then they could take the rest of the eggs and compare the tastes of both.  I talked about the difference of both on a fat, vitamin, cholesterol, omega three's and mineral level.  Then I opened an egg from the school onto a plate.  I then took my egg, opened it up and poured it out of the shell onto the other plate.   

 

There was an audible gasp from the students when they saw the color of the two yolks.  Then I started getting questions about if there was a difference when cooking with the egg.  I thought, "I got them" and I explained how the free range organic egg would give more lift because of the protein and how they would need to adjust bread recipes because of the fat or lack there of.  I also explained how hard fresh eggs are to peel once they are hard-boiled.  I taught them about the bloom and why an egg can stay fresh for three months without refrigeration.  Then I hit them with this line, "As a new Chef, whose resume would look better, one that has an internship on an organic farm or one without?”  

 

I thanked them for their time and left.  I felt good; my expectation was that I was going to get help for the coming growing season.  I had left our email address and phone number.  It was just a matter of time before I had help.  They earn college credits, money and experience with growing organic food in a sustainable environment.  The requirements were two days a week for three months.  Therefore, I felt good that night and waited for the calls to come.  Oh hell, you know where this is going so I will beat to the chase.  Let us just say I had inordinate expectations.

 

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Nutrient Management or Manure 101

 We are in class to learn how to fertilize a field, with the correct amount of nutrients.  Given the fields’ history of fertilization, soil analysis, manure analysis, animal type and amount of time that has passed, I can tell you how much Nitrogen-N, Phosphate-P, Potash-K (N-P-K), lime and other trace minerals you may need.  It is known as Maryland's Nutrient Management (NM) Regulations.  Because we live in Maryland, we must submit a NM plan that outlines our use and applications of fertilizer and manures for the coming year based on the yield goals we have for a particular crop.

 It is all part of cleaning and protecting the Chesapeake Bay.  The Chesapeake is a body of water that has some of the best blue crabs, oysters and rockfish (striped bass) you will ever eat.  That would also include a crab cake, made using the back fin or lump portion of the crab.  .  A  crab cake is a seasonal delicacy that has no equal in the culinary world, the soft sweet taste of meat with just a touch of spice and a binder to keep it all together.  I am a born and bred Baltimorean, so I was born with blue crab genes.  Eating crabs was a summer treat for us growing up and it was always a big party with lots of people.  It was a “Right of Passage” when you got old enough to drink beer with the crabs.  You really do not get the full taste of crabs until you have a cold beer to wash down the salty, fiery seasoning that is used when steaming the crab.

In Baltimore, you grow up with crabs.  First, you are fed crabmeat because you are too young to pick the crab.  Then you get to an age where if you do not learn to pick crabs you do not eat crabmeat.  Then you learn how to go “crabbin Hun”!  Crabbing is the act of harvesting crabs from the bay and its tributaries.  This activity comes in many forms, tie a chicken leg on a string and hang it off a pier, throw a trap into the water with beef lips or run a five hundred foot line with meat tied at six-foot intervals.  

With the string, you wait to feel a tug, which is an indication that a crab is on the line.  You slowly raise the chicken leg until you can just barely see the crab.  If you are skilled enough, you have a wire net in the water ready to scoop the delicacy off the line. If not, someone else does the net for you.  With the trap, you just wait a bunch of hours, go back, pull it up, and take the crabs out.  The preferred method for us is the trout-line setup.  If you do trout-line or string the start time is always the same.  You are up at four in the morning and out the door to get things setup in the water. 

When we asked why so early it was always the same answer, "The crabs cannot see you if it is dark out.  If they do not see you on the surface, you have a better chance of catching the crab".  Even back then, I questioned "If the crab could not see us what made them think we would see the crab".  It did not matter who you went with either.  Friends, family or charter; it was always the same time, get up at four o’clock in the morning and head out to the water.  Add to that crabbing is not without its perils.  Crabs do have claws, with pinchers and survival instincts, which means at some point you may be obliged to  give blood to the harvest. 

At the end of the day, the smell of "Old Bay" seasoning mixed with beer and apple cider vinegar steaming the crabs’ makes it all worth it.  It is that smell, the taste and knowing you have caught the crabs that makes it special.    

Given our history and taste for crab, you start to see this class and certification have greater meaning for us than just meeting a State requirement.  It fits within our ecological practices and allows us to apply proper amounts of fertilizer to our fields thus saving money and maximizing yields.  The only problem is we have to pass the exam in order to receive certification.

So we must learn how to tell how much manure is in a field, given the type of animal (cow, pig, chicken etc), the average weight of the animal, how many hours, if any, they are indoors and what bedding was used, versus outdoors and how long they have been on a particular piece of land.    We will never use this information because of how we currently use our chickens.  They are outside all day and are moved to new clean areas frequently.  You need soil and manure analyses, historical data on previous fertilizing, and past nutrient analysis in order to determine how much N-P-K are currently available in your soil and how much of each you may need to meet yield goals. Suffice it to say, I feel like I am back in school and the old test anxieties are rearing their ugly heads. 

We will learn how to write a complete nutrient management plan, calculating how much N-P-K is needed on our soil for next year’s growing season.  We have learned the proper techniques for getting soil and manure samples and how to submit them for analysis along with what type of analysis protocol is warranted.   We have homework, homework!  

As complicated, as this stuff seems, it is an integral part in saving scarce resources and ultimately the farmer really benefits from not over-spending on nutrients.  Therefore, we are putting our noses to the grindstone to become a Maryland Certified Operator.  This means we can write our own nutrient management plan and not have to pay to have it done.  Therefore, if you ever want to know how much animal manure you have out in your field, I know the formula to tell you how to calculate the amount.  Household pets excluded.

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Roaming Eggs

 

Of the plethora of problems we face with our chickens, one is that the biggest group of layers tends to be too "free-range".  I know that might sound counter-intuitive, but any situation that invariably leads to, or creates problems is not good.  The layers are supposed to be in a concentrated area so we can maximize their fertilizer potential.  Flock three thinks that free-range means they can go wherever they want.  We have seen some chickens at least a tenth of a mile from their house.  I have read (from multiple sources) that when layers roam they tend to hang around their shelter or within the immediate area.   

Flock three, apparently remembered last year when they were by the barn and must think that the grass tastes better or something.  We moved them to newly certified land behind the barn.  They were on fresh winter rye and hairy-vetch.  The trailer is at least seven hundred feet away from the barn and down a hill.  They cannot see the barn but, they fly over the electric fence and walk up the hill to the barn.  The barn is but one of many stops they will make in the day, they walk around the barn, then past the barn to the house, they walk around the house, then head down the hill in front of the house and into the old abandoned railway.  I found this little fact out quite by accident.  I was driving up to the house from the street and I see this lump in the middle of what we call the “causeway,”   My first thought is terror in that it looks like a small dog.  We have already had one dog attack and it was not pretty or easy to deal with.

The causeway is an old railway bed that separated one side of the property from the other.  As I got close and had a better look, it was three chickens, probably the three stooges, but I did not check, come to think of it, we never did go after them.  Sometimes you get into a routine and the unusual goes forgotten.  Nothing happened to them and they did find their way back.  When we close the layers up for the night, a head count takes place and the numbers were correct.  Predation is a major issue for free-range farmers as is when hens start laying outside the nest.  When that takes place, you have an old-fashioned egg hunt on your hands.  We learned it was vital to get them into the routine of laying eggs inside a nest before letting them really roam.  With flock three, the first year of their life, they stayed inside the electric fence without a hint of flying the coop.  Today, they epitomize the term free range like none other we have raised.  They roam everywhere, as long as they are near the woods, they are relatively safe from hawks, other hazards not so much.

I see things from the layers sometimes that make me think they have memories, decision-making capacities however slight and some have their own personalities.  No, I am not anthropomorphizing, as much as pointing out that some of them act different from the others and they remember where they have been.  Then sometimes their behavior just has me shaking my head and mumbling to myself.  There are now twenty-one hens in the trailer with the rooster and ten nesting boxes.  The rule of thumb is two to four hens to a nest.  You would think that there would be no waiting when it comes to nesting boxes but for some strange reason one layer will always pick a nest already occupied.

There would be nine other empty nests, but the best nest was the one with the hen inside.  When that happens, they start to cluck at each other.  I am standing there watching the one hen outside the nest clucking, while the one inside waits until the first one is quiet, then responds with her own.  This goes on for a bit until the one on the outside goes to another nest or the one on the inside lays her egg and leaves.  Sometimes, one will just go into the nest box even though another hen is there.  This is especially true when you have a broody hen; the other hens sense it and lay eggs in her nest.  I do not know this to be a rule but when a hen gets broody, we often find most of the day’s eggs are under her.

Memory is another thing.  Periodically, we have had to place birds in quarunteen or the hospital pen.  It is a stall inside the barn with a window, food, water, nest and roost.  I've written about the three stooges and their penchant for staying inside the hospital pen.  We have had to have the doors closed at all times this summer because these things just refuse to stay out.  Henrietta, as she is called, has some magical gift of hearing.  She will be no ware in sight, as soon as I open the front barn door, she appears.  That would be fine, but she insists on getting up on my work bench, kicking most of the light stuff off and lays her egg on the wood shaving by the mitter saw.  She has also become territorial, she believes her place is in the hospital pen and she is determined to lay claim.

She did spend time in there when we were trying to get her to stop flying out of the fenced area. But that was over ten months ago and she still thinks that is her home.

We do have a very social and inquisitive group of hens, which is great when kids visit, not so great when a worker is here and the bird gets in the van to check things out.  We have gotten into the routine of asking people to check their vehicles before they leave the farm.  It saves them an unwarranted re-visit just in case.  

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