Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Humane Farming and the Neighbor's Dog

Are you still considered a humane farm if you shoot your neighbors’ dog for eating your layers?  We lost two of our newest layers on Christmas Day and two from the second youngest group, two days later.  It seems that the attacks are from a dog and because we live in a relatively populated area, our thought is that it is a neighbor's dog.

Once again, the hens that stayed inside the pens were not hurt.  We had one layer from the newest group that would fly out of the pen but would not fly back in at sundown.  When we got home from our real job, I would walk out in her direction and this hen would start walking towards me.  When we met up, she would just hunker down I would scoop her up and put her in the crook of my arm.  She would just be cooing away as I walked back to the pen and house.  She was content to have the ride and body warmth.  Once in the pen she would then go into the house and I would close the door.  I no longer have to look out for her; she is one of the missing.

We have already gone through a dog attack and nursed four injured birds back to health and laying eggs.  We had to take them out of "organic" status but it still made us feel good that we could nurse them back to health.  That time when I saw the dog, I got my gun and had the dog in the cross hairs of my scope.  I just could not pull the trigger and when I did, I aimed in front to scare the dog.

I shot so that dirt would kick up and startle the dog off.  We knew who the owner was but we had not really met these people.  I went and stopped by their house to talk to them.  I introduced our farm and myself and told them how I had seen their dog with one of our chickens.  They were very apologetic and offered to pay for the chickens.  Problem was I did not really know how much we spent on the bird and what revenue loss it represented. I had the statistics just not the costs.  If I focus on cost  much, it gets discouraging.  Therefore, I did not know how much we were out, so I told them that it would not be necessary but that I only ask that they keep their dog on their property.

I explained that County law allowed me to protect my livestock and that I had had a chance to shoot the dog but chose not to, “this time”.  We as humans exhibit micro-expressions.  These are our true feelings coming out as expressions on our face before our brain takes over and governs how we are to react in any given situation.  Nevertheless, there is that split second where you can see the persons’ true feelings, if you are looking.  My statement had the effect I wanted it to have, mainly fear.  Then anger took over and the husband started to get aggressive.   

Remaining calm was my secondary objective; my primary objective was to make them aware and understand the possible consequences.  I wanted them to know that there was a possibility that if they let their dog out, to roam free, it might not come back.  I explained that we are a humane farm and shooting an animal was the last thing we wanted to do, especially knowing it could be a family pet.  As an aside, I said “Each hen lays about eight-hundred eggs in a life time and that we sell a dozen for five-fifty each.  That does not count the cost of feed and care associated with the hen," I added.

This situation was one of those that we had not planned for or thought of way back when we talked about farming.  Like so many other aspects, you just do not know until the situation presents itself.  I flashed back, to a time when I was living in the city.  I remember one Thanksgiving Day, I was sixteen and someone knocked at our front door.  The person turned out to be the owner of a car that had hit my dog.  He had stopped his car, after he hit the dog, to render aid.  He saw the address on his collar realized he was close, came to the house, and told us.  My dog, which was still a puppy, was lying on the lawn five or six houses down.  I went to retrieve him, picked up his soft lifeless body and brought him to the back yard.  I got my dad’s shovel and started digging.  Tears streaming down my face, I lost track of what I was doing because after some time my father came out.  He asked if I was okay.  He knew I was not but seeing what I was doing, he asked if the hole I was digging was deep enough.  At the time I guess my thought was, as long as I kept digging then Chevy would still be with me.  He was under my care and his death was squarely on my shoulders.  He had gotten out underneath the fence where the rainwater culvert was.  I wrapped him in a blanket he used to sleep on and gently put him in the ground.  I carefully put one handful of dirt at a time over top of his small body.  He ended up being the last dog I ever owned.  I did not tell my neighbors this. I just wanted them to think there was the possibility that their dog would be shot if he was caught poaching our chickens.  We have not seen the dog since. 

The indications from the four we lost recently are that of dog attacks.  The rooster had tail feathers missing (which we found on the ground) and what looked like a bite mark.  We found one dead in the pen, which we think was injured outside, but was able to get back inside before she expired.  With hawks, you usually find bunches of feathers and little else.  With a dog you usually find an injured hen or four with more missing.

When presented with the decision before, I could not kill a dog.  If I see it, I will try to catch it to find its owner.  This time I will know and accept compensation.  If I cannot catch the dog and I do not recognize it as being from around here, I will have to face that bridge when I get to it.

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Why our eggs cost so much

At first. some people flinch when they hear the price of our eggs. Even when compaired to local organic eggs the price is still high.  However, it cost us four dollars and fifty-four cents to produce one dozen eggs.  We are small and do not have the economies of scale that would help keep cost down and allow us to be price competative.  How we raise and treat our layers is not conventional but more in synergy with a balanced eco-system for soil health, pest management, fruit and vegetable production and environmental sustainability.

Organic Hairy Vetch seed, when we first started buying it in fifty-pound bags, cost twenty-eight dollars.  That was four years ago, today that same fifty-pound bag costs one hundred and twenty dollars.  Organic winter rye has gone up about forty percent.  Organic chicken feed cost fifteen dollars for fifty pounds, now it is twenty dollars for the same fifty pounds.  Diesel prices went up and never came down as well as, everything else that we need that is delivered to us, via freight or is made from petrol derivatives.

Add insurance costs, fees for certification and licenses, egg cartons, labels, boxes for bulk delivery and more.  You need a license to sell eggs; the eggs must be weighed, dated, and graded.  The scale you use to weigh the eggs needs a license and is inspected.  We need to document how many eggs are layed each day, any bird losses or gains per year and we are suffering losses again.  We think it is a neighbor's dog.  Under State and County law I am allowed to shoot the dog and still go after the owner for economic losses.  Here is one of those philisophical mores being tested against the almighty dollar. I will have to explore this one later.  

Each chicken cost about one dollar as a day old peep.  Because they will be organic, you need to spend the first three weeks of their life keeping them from getting Coccidiosis.  Until that time, their immune system is under-developed and cannot protect themselves from their own fecal matter.  This labor and all labor associated with their daily and long term maintenance is charged at eight dollars an hour.  

Next is tilling and preparing plots of land for the chickens’ new home.  This is a year round function, below is a piece of land that was used to grow corn in 2009.  We tilled and what you are seeing is hairy vetch, some winter rye and some brown leaves. 

We will move the chickens onto this field eight feet at a time.  The electric fence gets moved, then the chicken house winter set up and all goes with it.  This brings me to another cost, electricity for heating the water buckets and a heat lamp when temperatures drop below freezing.  Another interesting note is that the land that has hairy vetch and rye freezes last.  When we move the fence, each post has a spike to go into the ground.  If you are outside the perimeter of the seed mix, the ground is frozen solid and impenetrable.  A few inches into the mix and the spike goes in no problem.  Eventually even the best grass is frozen solid but until it does, we use the fence when moving the pens.

What you see below is the soil after the chickens have been on and moved off.  It looks bad to the untrained eye, but what you are seeing is some of the greatest naturally developed soil a farm could ask to have.  The layers eat the vetch, a legume, and the rye, which in turn affects the taste of the egg.  At least that is what we think our customers are talking about when they say, "These are the best eggs we've ever had".  A humbling statement that makes me blush but the fact they are repeat customers is what really confinced us to stick with this particular production model. 

The ground is fertile, devoid of weeds, most subterranean and low flying insects, good and bad are gone, and there is a natural tilth and humus.  The ground is soft and on relatively flat land.  Other parts of the farm we change the model a little bit in order to stop soil erosion.  

The layers eat all the grasses, scratch up the soil and leave nutrients behind.  At the top right of the picture is our Rooster and two-three of his companions. In the spring I will come again, surface till and lay down hairy vetch. red clover and rye.  If need be we can put chickens back on it but we have other areas that need attention too.

This is a cyclical process; we plant vegetables, and then let the soil rest by planting nitrogen fixing grasses and winter rye that develops a deep taproot making the soil expand.  The layers are moved on, and then off to another plot of lush fresh green garden.  We then use the land that has been resting the longest to grow the season's vegetables.  While the other three pieces of land are naturally recouperaring the nutrients and minerals helps us reduce our fertilizer needs.

Then there are the costs associated with medical supplies to take care of wounds and do examinations.  It is not much but it is a cost.

After most all of the costs are added up for the month we then take the total dozen count and come up with our revenue.  Our last calculation came out to $4.54 a dozen.  When laying production drops, there are fewer eggs to sell and that cost number rises.  You still have the same amount of layers eating the same amount of food; you just have less revenue potential that makes the loss greater.  Did I mention that I graduated from business school?  I have said we are in it for the health but I even wonder if I need to get a check up from the neck up.

 

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It is a matter of time - two

We arrived at the Virginia Tech, agricultural center and headed into the building.  We signed in, went into the room and saw about one hundred  people.  We met many of the researchers that we have communicated via email, saw some conventional people like Bob Black from Catoctin Orchards, and met Eric Rice who is an organic orchardist in Western Maryland.  The meeting came to order and the head entomologist started out with all the media attention that BMSB was getting and that this was an unprecedented variance in their daily routines.  When you think about it unless you are into growing or entomology these people are relatively unknown to the world.  The work they do however has greater impact for all of us and they are truly unsung heroes.

I sat in the room feeling like an imposter; here were all these people that have dedicated their lives to understanding and documenting all that "bugs" us.  The subject matter is immense and their are specific specialties which makes it even more awe inspiring.  We were very fortunate to be part of this event.  

Dr. Leskey had said that never before has so much attention been put on a single bug and entomology.  She then showed clips from news organizations featuring accounts from cities, counties and finally farms.  Then they started to discuss updates from the previous meeting.  They were speaking in Latin for the most part but we had read ahead and could track a little.  At least we knew when they said Halyomorpha halys we knew they were talking about the BMSB.  When they referred to Pentatomidaes, they were talking about all stinkbugs and other similar insects.

Then they started to talk about the spread of the bug and pheromones that were working to attract the BMSB both male and female.  This is when my ears started cropping up and I was writing furiously spelling the words phonetically.  They talked about spray cycles and infestation patterns within orchards, under study, where the greatest concentrations of the bugs were in the orchard.  Each University presented their findings and all pointed to the different types of damage to fruits and crops and a continuing presence of these bugs.    

After the updates the farmers started addressing the groups, there  were three large conventional orchards representing 200+ acres each and two organic farms, Eric Rice’s and ours.  The conventional people were talking of the devastation and of their spray patterns and the different types of chemicals used.  It was dismal, one after another talked of the devastation.  They spoke of seemingly good-looking apples being put away only to find internal damage when taken out of storage.  We lost all of our apples, persimmons and raspberries but being so small the loss was not as great as the others’ were.  Each farmer pleaded for the groups help and stressed the importance of getting relief before next growing season.

Then I got up after the three conventional people and looked out at the large room.  I thanked Dr. Leskey for the invitation and said, Hi, I am Brian my wife and I own and operate Miolea Organic Farm.  Then I blurted out, “We are screwed”, I know it was not appropriate but after hearing what I just heard and knowing that there was no organic method to control them that is how I felt.  The audience took the statement in the jest it was meant.  There is however truth in jest..  I then went into what we faced, what we did, what we had observed and how we tried to control them.  I noted that our cherry tomatoes were untouched and other vegetables that had not been affected.  I thanked them and stressed the fact that small organic farmers were going to be the hardest hit first.  I also volunteered the farm and said We would be willing to work with anyone including being a sponsor for funding from OREI.

There is nothing like facing your fears and over-coming them.  Do not get me wrong, I was sick going to, sick before speaking but was not as sick after speaking.  What buoyed me most was meeting these people and hearing what research they are involved in and what is planned.  I left the meeting with a strong sense that from this group that it is just a matter of time.

Buy Local: Now more than ever, find a small farm to support.

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