Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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Next to Love

Work on a small farm primarily consists of manual labor and is a grueling proposition.  James Carville stated, “Next to Love, the greatest gift someone can give is their labor”.  Never has such a statement hit closer to home then what we experienced during strawberry season. 

We were close to getting into a major retailer, but we had to have our “Good Agricultural Practice,” GAP certificate.  We did not get it in time so the berries destined for the store sent us hustling to find buyers.  Before that, we had to harvest the strawberries.  I was on Agrication last week and was picking strawberries everyday.  I can tell you, first hand that harvesting strawberries six hours a day is back breaking work, eight to ten is down right unfair.  Yet there are migrant workers that do just that.

By Tuesday evening, I was whining like a tired two year old.  My wife being the sympathetic person she is, told me to suck it up and get back out there.  Okay, maybe she did not say it like that, but I know what she meant.  By the end of the day, my feet, ankles and lower back were killing me.  Sleeping did not bring much relief, every time I moved some part of body reminded me of the days work.  I would get up the next morning gingerly putting on my clothes and work my muscles loose.

Then unexpectedly we get a call from a local woman that home schools her kids.  She wanted to know if she and her kids could volunteer to pick strawberries for us.  She is big into the local movement and had seen other organic strawberry growers go under.  She wanted to make sure to help in order to keep us afloat.  Then the Carville statement came to my mind.  Thanks, Kate, the intrinsic rewards we felt and gratitude was overwhelming.  

I have said this before growing and raising food is a humbling experience I just did not know in how many ways it could happen.  The mom and her four kinds came out on two separate days and helped pick over fifty pounds each time.  It was incredible to meet her and talk to her kids.  I cannot help myself I am a natural born teacher, so I took the opportunity to ask them questions.  Like “What is a good bug versus a bad bug?” and others questions about nature.  I have to show them the new layers that were on grass and the meat birds we are raising.

As the week progressed, it was not looking good for sales.  We had about one hundred and twenty pounds in the refrigerator and my wife was contacting every restaurant in town and any other potential bulk buyers.  Being a small farm, you are all things and when there are just three of you, things fall behind quickly.  However, we managed to get them into the Orchard in Frederick City and sales increased on the farm.

Then a group of three adults and four kids came up to pick.  They were repeat customers but I did not recognize them and I asked, “How did you find us,” of course the reply was “We were here last year,” so I made a joke about my mental capacity and took them out to the berries.  They came back with fifty-six pounds of strawberries.  We made a game out of weighing all the different baskets and flats with people guessing the weights before the total displayed.  One family picked 6.66 pounds of strawberries, the display was facing away from me and when I heard them say that I quickly picked up one of their berries and ate.  “Thanks," was their response.  Strawberry season is over for us, but there is still work to do with them.  They produce fruit for about three weeks, then you must renovate, weed, feed, keep them healthy, cover for winter, uncover in the spring.  Then whine like a baby in June of the next year.

It is people like Kate and everyone else that came out to pick that give us hope, finding kindred spirits and people willing to help knowing you are trying to make a difference in an indifferent world and they see that an get to be part of that.

 

Buy Local: Find a grower by you and give it a try.  Now is the best time.

 

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Farm Love

Farm Love Is... 

  The anticipation of working the soil after a long hard winter.

Feeling the excitement and hope that spring brings with the change of season.

When you lose chickens and you feel pangs of guilt, stomach upset and heartbreak.

Knowing what you do makes an impact on people that purchase your product and the generations that will benefit from our sustainable practices.

 

Teaching kids about chickens, let them harvest eggs, wash, weigh, label and package them for sale.  Even though the broken egg count rises by 75 percent.

You find a wounded chicken, clean its wounds and place her in the hospital pen.  Watching and cleaning her wounds, then she recovers and starts laying eggs.

  The flock of layers spot you and start to run towards you, knowing they are about to get food, water or just some attention.

A one hundred degree day so you decide to take it easy, and only weed for three hours.

  Seeing the mothers bringing their kids to the fields to pick organic strawberries and witnessing the joy the family has.

You get a call from a total stranger to praise your efforts after tasting our eggs.

Something that less then one percent of our population gets to experience.  However, more people are joining the local movement in larger numbers.

What keeps us going and looking for that niche that will finally be our cash cow.

Coming home and Fer Coadee comes up to lick my face, out of pure love and joy and I let her, even though I know she has eaten chicken poo.

 

Buy Local: Your effort and dollars support more then you know

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It is nice to be important

Growing food is a humbling experience; it is also, physically demanding, intellectually challenging and incredibly stressful.  Above all else there needs to be an abundance of patience and perseverance.  Along with the work there is waiting, waiting to see if seeds germinate, if the weather holds or will bring much needed water.  Waiting for the right time to release beneficial bugs to attack during the detrimental insect various stages of development is a critical for our integrated pest management plan.  Waiting for signs, deviations or changes. Which creates the need for contingency planning.  And then a new, one of a kind, problem occurs, one of those once in a lifetime events like when farms were first invaded  by Japanese beetles, ours is BMSB.

The brown marmarated stinkbugs die with insecticidal soap as long as they are in the first four stages (instars) of life.  We have to get the trap crops in the ground early to catch the over wintering adults as they mate and leave their larvae.  We use an early rising crop like radishes and surround that with sunflowers, which take longer to reach maturity.  At maturity, the bright yellow sunflowers attract the adult BMSB and that allows us to use a mix of Pyganic and Surround.  This is a lethal combination and can kill beneficial insects as well creating a negative environmental impact.

There is waiting for the actual fruit or vegetable to appear and then nurturing them to maturation.  You wait for the first signs of things that will reduce the yield or destroy the crop.  Growing is filled with hope, anticipation, failure and joy.  Pulling a tomato off the vine and biting it wakes up most of your senses, first you will taste, then smell the inside, see the red flesh and get the real taste of Umami, the elusive 5th taste that we as humans experience.  Those sensations go with all the fruits and vegetables you grow.

This is an incredibly hard job not just physical, emotional, intellectual and dangerous, but expensive too.  The big picture can be overwhelming that is why we have chosen to be part of a farmer-mentoring program.  The farming community is unlike any other that I have had association.  I have written a lot about calling asking for advice and visiting farms (field walks) to find out ways to do things.  The older farmers have plenty of knowledge, experience and information at their fingertips as well as generations of friends and colleagues.  Without these people and their wisdom there is so much more room for error and failure.  You could say that it is nice for these people to be so important to the rest of us.  However, passing on their knowledge to others they see it as, it is more important to be nice.

Buy Local: Support sustainable, healthy, humane farming.

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Damn learning curve

Farming for profit, has there ever been a greater oxymoron?  Okay, maybe humane slaughter is bigger.  At least from the small farmer's stand point, when more than seventy-five percent of all small farms in the nation, bring in fewer than ten-thousand dollars a year, of farm income, I ask can there be true economic sustainability in small farming. 

This year we changed our business model in that we are concentrating our selling on only high dollar produce and fruits.  We are still selling mainly on farm but have joined a market in the city.  We are hoping that by cutting back on different varieties and concentrating on a few things we can turn profitable.  Because of our size, we cannot grow, as much so consequently we do not have a large variety.  I want to be a successful grower, but we need to make a profit.  Selling only what we grow is hard because we do not have a bevy of different fruits and vegetables, so variety is not going to be our strong point.  

What we will have this year is strawberries, blueberries and sweet corn.  These crops sell for a premium and there is great demand.  We will be able to conserve the 12,000 gallons of collected rainwater because we will not have so many different plants to water.  Our organic chicken meat has not taken off as we hoped but this is only the third year.  We have increased our layer flock to 120 layers.  We are selling most of our eggs directly to Dawson's Market in Rockville.  Dawson's does not put them out on the shelves.  Instead, they call customers to let them know the eggs have been delivered.  We continue to expand the layers (we have 50 more day olds started) striving to get to where we deliver more dozens so we can make it onto the store's shelves.

Being a small enterprise has great disadvantages, especially, when we go up against the bigger growers and grower associations.  We did not take on this farm without knowing the physical, mental, emotional and economic sacrifice and that failure was more likely then success.  We are going back to the model that first made us money and that is by growing a few things and concentrating on value added products.   

We knew going into this that it was not going to be easy.  What we were not prepared for was all the different ways your heart breaks.  We lost another layer last night.  It was stuck under the trailer.  I had moved the house in the morning before I let the layers out.  I was tilling and I noticed the trailer looked low in the back.  I knew I did not crank the front back down after I moved the tractor away from the ball.  I saw it and made a mental note to lower the front of the trailer when I was done tilling.

Well the day got away and I did not lower the front.  Sunset comes and I go out to put the layers away for the night and that is when I found one under the backend of the trailer.  I can only surmise that it was stuck and died of a heart attack.  I took her over to the compost pile and as we have done with every other body, returned her to the earth that helped nourish her in her brief existence. 

I take it personally, you are not supposed to, you are supposed to let it roll off but I don't.  I know I am too attached at times to see the forest for the trees but that will not change.  As long as they are in my care, I will always take my mistakes hard and demand a greater awareness.  Five years we have been working with layers.  I thought I had been exposed to all the perils of layer life, yet here I am still in this damn learning curve.

BUY LOCAL: Do your family justice, find a local farm, ask questions and then support it if it feels right.  If you do not get straight answers, it is probably because they are hucksters not growers.  

 

 
 

Contrast Personified

Fer Coadee - A tale of two dogs

It was the dog days of August.  I was in the barn fixing the lawn mower and Coadee was outside sitting in the shade under the black walnut tree.  The temperature was in the high nineties with typical Maryland humidity.  I have sweat streaming down my face and into my eyes, making them sting.  The reason I had this task was that I accidentally drained the lawn mower battery.  It does not matter how the battery totally discharged, you only need to know I was involved.  I had re-charged the battery and was hooking the thing back up to test.  

I tried to turn the mower on only to hear the soothing sounds of chickens laying eggs, not the start of an engine.  The battery was not going to take a charge.  Not to worry, I have done this before so I have a spare battery.  I hooked the trickle charger up to the spare and after twenty-four hours no, that too did not work either.

So here, I am installing a newly purchased battery and out of the corner of my eye, I see a chicken where it should not be.  I am wet, my eyes burn, I am close to finishing the install and Coadee is sitting under the walnut tree.  Per routine, I scolded the chicken for being out of the pen and told it to get back and true to form, it did not listen.  No problem, I will call Coadee and she can pick her up and take her back to the pen.  

I called for Coadee.  She looked towards me acknowledging my beckoning.  I said "Coadee, chicken, get the chicken".  She does not move she just gives me that look.  If you own a dog, you know the look.  It is a look of “Yes, I hear you but no, you do not have anything close to interesting enough for me to come”.  I called again she got up on all fours.  Okay, now the chicken will learn to get back when I tell her too.  However, Coadee is still standing, so I call her again.  I watched as she took a step and turned to her right walking towards the garage bay.  I called her name with a little more force with the command to come.  Coadee continued to saunter towards the garage.  Not only am I being ignored, apparently my presence is no longer of interest. 

Okay, I need to pull out the buzzwords now, so I whistle and say, “Come Coadee lets go to work”, which usually brings her.  At that moment, she picks up her gate to a trot, rounds the corner of the garage and is gone.  To say I was stunned is understating what I had just witnessed.  I am starting to think a calculating dog just ignored me.  It looked like Coadee weighed the situation, figured it was hot enough without chasing a chicken and I was there so everything was a okay.  Is this what they mean by the dog days of summer?  Well, I picked the chicken up marched it back to the pen and placed her inside.  I fixed the mower and went about other chores. 

Later in the day, I was stowing the garden hoses we use to deliver water to our irrigation zones when I heard a ruckus by the chicken pen.  It was an unusual sound so I turned and looked to see a brown flash flying from my right to left.  My heart sank, I ran around the silo to get a better look at what flashed past my eyes.  It was what I feared, a brown tail hawk swooping down to get a chicken.  It was in flight going away from the pen.  I looked at the hawks talons and much to my relief did not see any bird.  What I heard and saw next surprised me.  I turned to see Coadee full stride running past the chickens to where the hawk had flown.  The hawk landed on a branch at the very top of a tree.  Coadee was below and barking up at the predator.  

I guess the hawk did not like the attention because it quickly flew off to the east.  Coadee gave chase.  Once the hawk was out of sight Coadee patrolled the area looking up in the sky for the danger.  At one point, the hawk was visible and heading east away from the house.  That did not stop Coadee from running after to see what the hawk was doing.  Once the hawk was far enough away, Coadee came back and stayed vigilant watching 360 degrees of sky.

It was amazing to see those farm dog instincts going to work.  She was all business and determined to keep an eye on the hawk until the hawk did not pose a direct threat.  For the hawk’s part, it just kept flying east towards easier prey I guess.

It was a moment when a little smile comes to your face, because you have witnessed something special.  Having seen the lazy dog that morning and the fer coadee (Scottish for protector) this afternoon was definitely a contrast personified. 

Buy Local: Its safe, fresh, healthy food and your money stay’s local

 

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Full time work

It is unique how we use euphemisms to describe the human condition.  Like "No good deed goes unpunished", means usually you sacrifice time by helping someone or thing and you get dumped on for your sacrifice.  There is, "Don't let the screen door hit you on the way out," meaning you are no longer welcome and cannot leave fast enough.  Another lesser-known one is "Off farm income,” that's the euphemism for “works two to four jobs in order to pay all the bills associated with small farming and living”. 

Off farm income is a category tracked by the USDA.  When you look at those numbers, in the small farm catagory, it is appallinb.  As of 2010, small farm income as a percentage of total farm-household income is projected to be a whopping 8.7 percent.  Down from the 11.1 percent it was in 2008.  That means that for every dollar of income a farm brings in, 91 cents is from "off farm income".  As in "farms and works another job to earn enough in order to sustain an existence".

Okay, so I am late to the party, but is this normal?  I mean, I know it is reality but is this normal for any industry.  Let alone an industry whose main function is to provide a basic form of human sustainability.  Maslow's paper, "A Theory of Human Motivation" points out the hierarchical needs of humans.  The paper was accepted in academia in the forties and is still being taught today.  After air and water, food is at the level that everything else in human life builds upon.   

Food, water and air are what sustain human life.  Would not small farmers producing food for human consumption be allowed to focus all their energies on producing that food in an environmentally sustainable way, be healthier then forcing them to use practices that are detrimental to the environment and humans because it saves time?  Should not the person growing your food be able to spend the time learning new technology and methods in order to use and preserve scarce resources like soil and water?  Why did we compromise the small family farm?  What dove tails with the demise of the small family farm is manufacturing.  As consumers, why have we left ourselves so vulnerable to other countries.  We buy American as much as we can, it is almost as hard as growing.  Try it, see for yourself.    

You can very easily be mired in the economics of this argument but my point is to explain yet another hurdle that small farms face as part of being a sustainable, safe and eco-friendly operation.  Small farms, as defined by the USDA, are those farms with net-income of $1,000 to $250,000 in gross sales.  Small farms represent about ninety percent of all farms in the United States but make up only twenty percent of all gross farm sales.  

Within the small farm category, there are two sub-categories, those that make fewer than 10,000 dollars and those making 10,000 to 250,000 dollars in gross sales.  Sixty plus percent of small farms makes less than 10,000 dollars in gross annual sales.  Thirty percent of small farms fall into the other category of gross sales over 10,000 dollars.

I am not saying that farming is the only profession in which people have to work two jobs in order to maintain some standard of living.  The term “standard of living” is very subjective when it comes to the individual consumer.  Economic compensation has always been disproportionate when you look at the value added to society from a particular profession.  Teaching comes to mind, for instance.  We put the weight of the world on our future generations but the people that are there to teach and prepare them for that burden are grossly under-paid.   

The men and women that risk their lives whether in the military, law enforcement or other hazardous jobs face the same inequities.  On the other side are those people that can put together complex derivatives and manipulate hedge funds such that they topple the economic stability of an entire country and they are valued economically at grossly astounding figures.  Money does not feed a nation food does. 

There is no wonder small farming is so incredibly hard when you see those numbers.  The deck is stacked against you from the start; it is an uphill battle that most people would not think of taking on.  As I tell our staff, “you all are very unique people, first off very few people choose to work such a physically demanding job and of those that try most cannot do it".  We have a great staff of hardworking conscientious people.  They never cease to amaze me with their eagerness to learn, there ability to understand, ask deeper questions and how they carry themselves. 

We also have a business plan, one portion is strategic the other dynamic.  Our long-term goals quite simply are to be sustainable both environmentally and economically.  Our dynamic goals are geared more towards revenue generation and expenditure controls.  The two are symbiotic but it is the strategic plan that we have the greater concerns about.  Without the ability to be totally, sustainable we are not going to be in business long.  At least ninety percent of small farms face this dilemma.  When you find out that only nine cents out of every dollar is earned from farm activities you start to question the sanity of why anyone would get into a business like this (see Who in Their Right Mind).

We work full-time and I can attest to those numbers about outside income.  We are a small farm and the total income from farm related activities, in a given year, has not been enough to cover just farm expenses, let alone what living expenses there are.  Yet we persist, because each year we do a fraction better in terms of revenue, knowledge, our customer base, our reputation and our ability to expand yet keep the food safe and tasty.  For us, it is important to do the right thing, to not shy away from hard work or impossible tasks and to help those that need help because that was instilled in me when I grew up.  Growing safe, fresh food is as much a part of me as “off farm income”.

Buy Local:  From a farmer that grows it not hucksters claiming they do

 

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What is Organic?

We are often asked to explain the difference between organic and non-organic fruits and vegetables.  It is hard to sum up, such that the person that inquired does not regret asking the question. 

It is such a basic question yet, the answer can go from the scientific to the metaphysical and everything in between.  Sometimes, I will give a one-word answer, TASTE, then there are the studies that point to the twenty-five percent increase in vitamins and minerals when compared to their conventional counterparts (see University of California-Davis study).  Nevertheless, you will find counter arguments to those studies and then cost comparisons are tossed into the discussion.  "Why is organic so much more expensive and is it worth it?”  Depending on the view, you get different answers but CNN answered the question succinctly.

Not everything was right in the article, especially about the start of Organics.  The father of modern day organic techniques comes from a man named J.I. Rodale and the Rodale Institute that was founded in Kutztown Pennsylvania in 1947.  Most people look at organic as the result but it is just one variable in the whole sustainability model. 

We have been saying we are beyond organics for a while, because organics speaks to how vegetables, fruits and poultry are grown and handled.  It does not address all aspects of sustainability on a farm.  When we first started growing professionally, I looked at sustainability as making enough money to be able to live and produce in the next year.  Until you start to make money, you cannot support the operation unless you have capital or some sort of financial backing, which is why 90+ percent of all small farms have income from off farm activities, i.e. another job.  This is from the 2002 USDA census.  However, large or small, money is not the only variable, the other parts not to ignore is environmental which entails water, soil quality and treatment of animals.  The whole sustainability model as professed and proven by Joel Salatin of "Polyface Farm." in Swoop, Virginia looks at the farm as a whole with intricate parts woven together in concert mimicking what Mother Nature does on her own.  

Because of farm practices that emphasize environmental consciousness, soil and nutrient replenishments, water resource conservation and protection of scarce resources the sustainable model re-enforces what is right and wrong with today's farming practices.  In Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivores Dilemma," Joel Salatin points out the difference between a farm that does one thing only, like growing corn or just beef and that of a farm that uses the sustainable model.  Paraphrasing Joel, he said look at a cornfield and look at a field that has been left alone to Mother Nature.  What do you see in a conventional cornfield?  You will find one species of plant life, the corn and maybe an insect if it was away when the insecticide was sprayed.  Looking at the other field you see Mother Nature’s diversity, you will see thousands of insects and plant varieties in that field and that is what the sustainable model is designed to accomplish.  How do these plants in the field get nutrition from year to year as opposed to the cornfield that is sprayed with fertilizer and insecticides?

Simplistically stated, plants, trees, insects and animals get nutrients through a complex dance of decay, rejuvenation and replacement  Much like rotating and resting fields planted with green manure and nitrogen rich grasses and legumes, then letting your animals graze on those grasses to keep it down.  You do not let the animals eat the grasses until the grass cannot replenish itself, you let them eat enough to maintain the stability of the soil in the field and then you move them to the next grazing ground.  Management intensive grazing is a sustainable practice that uses the grass but not enough to abuse the grass.  An example would be to bring cows onto land, let them eat some and move them off to the next section of field.  Next, you would move chickens in the grass that the cows have left behind.  Cows like higher grass heights while chickens prefer short grass.  When all is said and done what is left behind is incorporated into the composition of the field replenishing nutrients and minerals naturally, you get to see the complete cycle of life in this field.  Grass is eaten, the cow gets nutrients and gains weight, it leaves behind manure, enough to attract bugs, which lay eggs and then the chickens, get a crack at the grass and bugs that helps them lay eggs high in Omega-3's.  

The chickens through pecking and scratching have aerated the soil leaving enough manure behind to feed the flora and fauna.  This dance takes place such that a cow and chicken are never on a previous field until that field has fully become reestablished (usually in 8-12 months).  Our production gardens are rested and fertilized this way.  Although we do not have, cows we keep moving the chickens from space to space in order to evenly fertilize the whole garden. 

What is organic?  It is a way to protect our environment for future generations.   

Buy Local:  Become part of the sustainability model.

 

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AGRICATION

Agrication - [Ag-ri-kay-shun];  1. Verb;  The act of educating people about their food source and why the industrial food complex is doing the exact opposite.  2. Noun; One who takes a weeks vacation from their full time, off farm income job, to work full-time on the farm.

Iowa recently passed a law called the "Ag-Gag".  This law makes it illegal to go into large animal farms and slaughterhouses, undercover, to document animal and environmental abuses.  Seems the big concentrated animal farms are tired of being exposed for the deplorable conditions and actions employees take at their corporations.  Other states have tried to pass similar legislation and thankfully, have not succeeded.  This legislation was conceived and sponsored by ALEC.  ALEC stands for the American Legislative Exchange Council and is funded by some major fortune 500 companies.  What does ALEC do?  Basically it writes legislative briefs or whitepapers and lobbies for causes that benefit its sponsors. Their sole reason for existence is to influence politicos. 

All you need to know is the two middle words of their name.  Legislative Exchange, broken down; legislative stands for laws, exchange stands for what the corporations get from those changes in the law.  Okay, maybe I am the only one that sees the correlation between the former and the latter but it is too rich not to draw the conclusion or collusion if you will.  ALEC by the way was the chief architect of the “Stand Your Ground” laws. 

We have always been big into Agrication.  Besides being an environmentally sustainable operation our mission includes education.  We hold educational tours, seminars, speaking engagements and hands on classes.  More and more I am talking to people that get it and are asking informed questions.  Ten years ago conversations with customers centered on the type of vegetables and how they tasted.  Today people are more likely to talk about sourcing their food and sustainability.  I get plenty of questions about chemicals, general gardening, insects, native plants, humane farming, poly-cultures, colony collapses and other aspects of fruit and vegetable growing.  Agrication forms the backbone of helping people understand why industrial farming is harming our environment, making people ill and affecting the ecology negatively.  Our intent is to inform, if people decide to support their local farmers then in a big way the surrounding community has benefited.

We are in a major shift in our society’s way of viewing food and sustenance.  Books covering topics such as living off local food and sourcing your food have been great sellers and continue to be referenced. This has to happen if our future generations are to live in an environment that will not harm them because they breathe, eat or drink water. 

We all owe due diligence for our future generations, we cannot be so shortsighted and profit driven that we rape the very earth that will sustain our future family.  We learned from the dust bowl, why cannot we learn from castrated bullfrogs, feminized bass, upper-respiratory issues, food-borne allergies, illnesses, anti-biotic resistant bacteria and sometimes death.  What will it take?

Buy Local: There is too much at stake not to.

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Anger Management

We are a humane farm, which means we treat our animals with kindness, care and respect.  This philosophy extends to the chickens own community.  We think there should be peace and harmony in our chicken flocks.  They all grew up together; they are in the same pasture together and roost in the same houses together.  We have them living in plenty of space, more than four square feet per bird when housed and much greater than that when out doors.  We do keep them in moveable fencing to keep predators out and them safe.  Sometimes it works; unfortunately, we have learned that sometimes it does not.  Our chickens have plenty of access to food and water and we provide shade and fans during the hottest parts of the season.

If a chicken pulls up lame, everything we have read points to management as the problem.  Like excessive pecking is caused by competition for resources such as food, water or space.  Soft egg shells indicates there is a calcium deficiency in the food source, which correlates to us not getting the feed mix right; and too cold or too hot and egg production drops and so on.  Fortunately, the problems we do create we find quickly and fix, but what we read was right.  Most problems we have had with chickens could be traced back to our management or lack of attention.  You look for consistency in all facets of their existence.  If anything is inconsistent, it usually is an indication of the start of a problem.

Every so often, a fight breaks out or one chicken will start pecking another, which is their nature.  There is a pecking order but we discourage this behavior from the time they are chicks.  We only have about two hundred birds at any one time.  We do not de-beak because that is cruel and it works against the chicken and the goals of raising chicks.  A de-beaked bird will spend more energy eating and wasting food than a bird with a full beak, and that energy could be going toward laying eggs or gaining weight.  We do not clip their wings either; we let them fly as much as they can.  Once they get to a certain weight, their wings cannot sustain them in flight but they try to fly just the same and it is a fun thing to watch when they all get going.

How we deal with pecking and rough housing is to yell.  This startles all of them but it is directed at the antagonist, which usually gets her attention, and given the attention span of a chicken is long enough for the tormented one to get away.  Seldom is there a prolonged problem.  I yell" HEY," usually followed by "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" with a loud voice, deep timber and baratone measure.  They hear the volume, timber, tone and that gets their attention.  The combatants, stop briefly enough, look towards the sound and forget what they were doing.  They do have chicken brains so, once distracted they go on to something else. 

My neighbors on the other hand just hear me yelling.  Not knowing what I am yelling at or why but, they too hear the volume and tone.  It does not help that we are on the top of knoll and there is an echo.  I have never been asked by a neighbor but, I cannot help but speculate that my neighbors must be thinking, "man, they need anger management classes.”

Buy Local: When you do, you help your community and what are we without community?  

 

 
 

Planting Seeds

We started planting the spring garden, growing lettuces, kale, and chard and of course, the strawberries.  We have been doing research for the past year to determine if anyone in the state of Maryland opened an organic pick your own strawberry patch.  We know of organic pick your own vegetables, but we have not found strawberry in particular.  We checked with the Maryland Department of Agriculture, well-established organic farmers in the state and news articles from the past two decades.  We have not found any, so I believe we are going to be the first in the state to do so.    

We are using landscape fabric this year even though I viewed a webinar on yield differences between fabric and cover cropping for weed suppression.  It turns out cover cropping increases the yield of corn, tomatoes and other vegetables.  The scientist went on to explain the chemical reaction that takes place causing the increase.  We had already committed to landscape fabric so we will store that knowledge for the future.      

After the planting comes weeding, watering and watching, the three w's of organic growing and producing.  Weeding is broken into the three H's: hoeing, hands, heat and spraying.  Okay spraying does not fit but we do control weeds by spraying concentrated vinegar, lemon juice, clove oil and lecithin.  The spray has a pleasant fragrance that I like but is not for everyone.  You can only use the spray if it is above seventy-five degrees and it is not going to rain for awhile nor should it have rained for awhile, which doesn't make it the most ideal weed control but we use it when we can.

My most favorite way to weed is heat.  The heat is easier than the other methods but it does have its drawbacks, I may have gotten a reputation for starting fires but it is not on purpose and I am very careful despite what my wife says.  I did set an old abandoned concrete silo on fire once, by mistake.  Let me explain before you determine my culpability.

The silo was made of concrete block, had no roof, and was loaded with old wood from the previous owners.  My weeding tool is a propane tank with a hose and torch attached.  You turn it on, rub the flint for a spark and you have about 25,000 BTU to kill weeds.  I had been using the torch for over a year before the day the silo caught fire and I was pretty successful not burning things down, with the except of weeds and maybe carrots.  I knew the silo was loaded with wood and in essence, it was a tinderbox, so I was careful whenever I was around it with the flame. 

It was late in a long day of work and I wanted to get the weeding done; I started around the silo then went around the barn and to the grape vines.  From the grape vines, I went to the production garden and started doing the perimeter.  Out of the corner of my eye, I see my wife running towards the silo.  I knew immediately why she was running; I turned to see flames licking out of the top of the silo.  When I got closer, I could hear popping sounds and then clinks on the tin roof of the barn.  The cement covering from inside the silo was heating up and exploding out hitting the roof.  I took everything off and went to the barn to get the water pump.  I pulled the pump out hooked up the hoses to the water tank and pulled to start the pump engine.  Of course, it does not start.  After three pulls, it coughs to life and water starts to come out.  Once the water was flowing, I was able to cool the fire down and eventually put the fire out.  It took about eight-hundred gallons of rainwater to accomplish that feat but we did get it out.    

My wife was standing there eyes wide open, heart pounding and shell shocked.  What could I say, I had a torch, the silo caught fire and I was in the area, there was no wiggle room, none.  I think we were both in shock at the time so we put the pump and hoses back, and we stopped for the day.  I look back and see how lucky we were, how things fell into place, the pump worked and we actually had water in the collection tank.  Any one of those things not happening and we might have lost the barn.  I still weed with heat but my wife prefers the hoe and hand method best.  I can laugh about it, my wife is to the point were she can grin and shake her head but not quite laugh.   

 Buy Local: But, make sure your farmer is actually growing what they are selling

 

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Fer Coadee 8 months........

Coadee is now eight months old.  The dog eats stink bugs, at least we witnessed her eat four of them.  The last one she regurgitated.  We purchased a large kennel to keep her in during the day/night as needed.  She has proven to be quite the escape artist, she is out more times then she is in, despite our efforts to reinforce incarceration of the animal.  To stop her fleeing, I need to tie down every link at the bottom of the fence.  She just keeps pushing at the links until she can separate them.  For as big as she is, the escape whole is amazingly small. 

Her training is continuing at Carol's and on the farm with us.  We are at a stage, in training, where we do not have to tell her that chickens are out.  She senses they are out and goes and gets them.  Sometimes we see them other times we follow Coadee's gate.

The chickens have learned when she comes out it is time to start heading back to the pen or face Coadee's unwanted attention.  We have not gotten the whole process down yet, but we are getting there.  We would like Coadee to chase the chickens back into the pen.  She has most of that process down, but we are still missing the “how to get the chickens in the pen,” part.  If I am there, I take the bird, say speak to Coadee, so she barks,  and toss the chicken over the fence.  The chicken takes flight and I tell Coadee what a good girl she is.  She has also learned however, that it is easier to pick the chicken up and bring it to the pen instead of chasing it around wildly until the chicken decides to head to the pen.  This has led to some heart stopping moments.

Like the time I came around the corner of the barn to see Coadee with a chicken, head in her mouth, walking back to the pen.  My heart sank, the chicken had to be dead, and it looked limp in her mouth.  I yelled for her to sit which she did.  I was walking to her, I told her to drop the chicken, she does not really know drop yet but she released the chicken, looking up at me with those big brown eyes.  The chicken starting flapping her wings, shook her head, neck feathers bristling somewhat stunned.  I expected the neck to be broken given what I saw.  How she survived is beyond me.

Coadee gently holds things between her jaws, but at the same time, I have had to repair the corner of a wooden step that she chewed away.  She still nips rather hard, but that is her herding instinct coming out, something that my wife has felt.  When she is at Carol's there are plenty of young ducks, chickens, geese, rabbits, kittens, turkey’s her farm is a menagerie of heritage breeds, so Coadee has learned to control her jaws.  She has learned to come when called, fetch, sit, lay, almost knows left versus right paw, drop things from her mouth, stays, speaks, hush (sometimes), help move the chickens, heard or corral them, protect, warn and generally tries to help with what you are doing.

I could be pulling on the chicken pen and she will come put her mouth on the rope and try to pull.  Usually it is opposite of how I am pulling but it is a learning process.  If I happen to be brining in an extension cord, or water hose she has the thing in her mouth going in the opposite direction.  Weeding is one of those helping things too.  She has at least stopped biting my hand when pulling weeds, now she just nestles in next to me and starts digging the dirt with as much gusto as she can muster.  She has the basic concept just not the subtly of what we are doing.  Sometimes she actually gets weeds, more often it is the plant.  We still have work to do on identifying plants from weeds. 

It is getting harder and harder to drop her off at Carol’s but it is the best for her.  She is turning into the asset my wife said she would.  She also brings a certain amount of joy, surprise, frustration, amazement and education to the farm.  We are learning as she is, sometimes she is smarter other times we are.  For ego reasons I am not going to give the percentage breakdown on that last statement.

Coadee is at least working in the rain now, something she was not doing before.  I think she likes being toweled off and has figured out getting wet leads to being dried.  This is a game in itself.  I cover her with a towel and she tries to get the towel to lie on and chew.  She is bigger and stronger so the process takes on the look of a wrestling match more then a drying session.    

However, it is an exercise that both of us seem to relish.  She tries to get the towel while I dry her paws, legs, tail, head and body.  Her tail wags, the whole time, as she competes for towel space.  This is her at three months

Coadee has become one of the good things about farming.  It is just another one of those links in a long chain forged by events, time, people and stubborn determination.

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You can never have enough

It seems we have had too many injuries in too short a period.  If it is I getting hurt, it is usually scrapes, sprains, strains, cuts, superficial concussions and the like.  However, staff is turning up with bruised knees, cuts, scrapes and various small injuries.  We decided that it was time to have another chat about safety.  We sat everybody down first thing in the morning and went over safety protocols, procedures and policies.   

 Staff training on farm equipment, situational and personal safety are areas we cover.  When using motorized equipment on the farm, staff is trained specifically on that piece of equipment and all of the potential dangers.  It is rare but the ones that are trained have proven to be good decision makers and cautious people.  Then they have to pass safety tests on whatever object they are using.  If it is the mower, the ATV or the tractor, training takes longer and every safety feature is covered.  In order to use the mower, you must be able to tell me the degree or angle of slope that will tip the mower over.  Without the right tools I could not tell you if the angle or slope is past the fifteen degrees, but from driving it, I can tell you it is safe.  I have popped wheelies on the slopes and dumber stuff with the mower but the staff was  not shown those. 

 I will make sure that they look where they drive.  It sounds simple but so far, all of them have backed up without looking.  I cover small things like never mow with the outlet pointed towards buildings, people or solid objects.  The last thing I tell them, every time they get on or use a device, is that THEY are responsible for everyone’s safety.  THEY have to be aware of 360 degrees of space and who, if any, are in their circle. 

 We have always told the staff that if someone gets hurt what we are doing here does not matter.  It is not worth someone getting hurt.  We can be as ecologically sensitive, use all best practices, be as profitable as we can imagine but if someone gets hurt, it is just not worth it.  We make a point of making everyone look out for everyone else.  It is not a new concept but I remind them safety is the most important aspect of being on the property. 

 I lead by example, I hate suntan lotion but one of the causes of death on farms is from melanoma.  We have some folks like me, but we go through the ritual every morning.  Everyone sprays sun tan lotion on before heading out.  I am the first one so that they see I am not exempt.  We had the day’s task list made up and I sent everyone out into the field.  I wanted to clear Tree of Heavens on the side of the driveway, so I went for the chainsaw. It does not matter to me how skilled our staff is I am the only one allowed to use the chain saw.  Because we just had the safety talk, I decided to suit up in chain saw chaps, ear, and eye and head protection along with steel-toed shoes.  I went to the front of the house and started cutting scrub trees and clearing the left side of the driveway.  I have used a chain saw for over twenty years.  I have never come close to an accident with the chain saw.  Trees falling, well that is a different story.  That one tool has my complete and total respect.  I sharpen my own chains so the saw does the work; I just guide it, keep it from hitting the ground or having the chain kicking back towards me. 

 Two weekends ago, I broke the chain saw out and went into the causeway to clear downed trees and big brush.  It took about two hours.  I always wear eye and hearing protection I do not always wear chaps.  I am extremely careful when handling a saw and that extends to anyone with me.   They can stand a good two hundred feet away and that depends on what is being cut up or cut down. 

 Part of chain saw safety entails sure footing, knowing your path to get out of harms way, and not to have other bodies around.  You do not need someone in front of you as you are carrying a chain saw or just merely sprinting for your life.  Their true job is to observe and be the emergency communications if needed.

 I was up front just getting started.  I went through a few scrub trees, brought them down and moved further down the driveway.  I had some branches that would hit cars so I wanted to cut them off the tree.  Once I got them all, I brought the spinning chain, from the top of my right shoulder, across my body, down and onto my left leg above the kneecap.  I immediately felt the tug and looked down with stunned disbelief, to see the chain cut through the chaps and was hung up on the fiber, as designed.  I would have cut my leg badly had I not been wearing the chaps.  I stopped to contemplate the amputation of my leg and the sheer stupidity of my action.  I still cannot believe that I did that.  

 I was awake and attentive now, I obviously was not before.  I continued with a more cautious approach, as I worked into the brush cutting the bigger Tree of Heavens.  Tree of Heaven's are an invasive species.  They were brought to America by the timber industry, as a way to replenish the wood supply.  They were fast growing and have pervasive expansion capabilities.  However, as far as wood goes they did not turn out to be the best for construction.  

I was dealing with small to medium size stalks and came across one that was a foot thick.  I was in the thick of brushes when I cut it down and it fell on top of me.  I was able to hold it, but I could not get it off me.  I had to get down on my hands and knees and slowly make my way out of the brush and to the driveway.  Here I am, dressed in orange with an orange chainsaw crawling through the thicket to the clearing.  At the same time, some customers had stopped and were walking towards me.  I am on my knees coming out of thick brush chainsaw first then me.  I moved the chainsaw forward then I moved forward until I got to the driveway and could stand up.  I figured God had given me enough signs, so I stopped to take care of the couple instead of sending them up to my wife.  

Times like this cement my true belief system.  God looks out for children and fools.  I am clearly a life member of the latter.  The more I learn the more I understand how much more I need to learn.  Let me leave it at this, safety, safety, safety.  You can never have enough. 

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Point-Counter-Point:

A DOG’S PERSPECTIVE.  Hi, my name is Coadee, actually, it is Fer Coadee, but my pompous owners mercifully just call me Coadee.  My new owners recently pilfered me from my parents.  Okay maybe pilfered is a little harsh, but no one asked me if I wanted to go.  My new home is interesting and the humans seem nice.  However, they say “NO” all the time.  I do not know what they mean but they say that word constantly.  "Coadee NO biting, Coadee NO chewing on the furniture.  Coadee NO biting the chickens, Coadee NO eating shoes,” It just goes on and on with the NO’s.  If I got a treat for every time I heard "No" or "Coadee" I would never work a day in my life.  The humans do shower me with love and praise but one of them keeps kissing me on my head.  What is that about?

There is plenty of room for me to run and tons of smells.  There is so much to see and explore but I get too tired and end up sleeping a little.  The naps are refreshing but I keep getting disturbed because the humans have feathery things that do not stay where they should.  My humans wake me up and show me where these feathers are, they point and say “chickens” and I guess I am suppose to give chase.  I know they want me to chase them but I am at a loss as to what they want me to do once I catch them.  Therefore, I nibble on them to see what they feel like. 

They are some dumb feathers let me tell you.  I will be chasing one and it runs right into the fence getting caught up and tangled.  I just lay down put a paw on the feathers and get a mouth full.  That is all I am doing, okay I might be checking out other body parts of the feathers but I do not hurt them.  Honestly, the feathers tickle the top of my mouth and I like that.

While this is happening though the human keeps yelling NO biting; when the human finally gets to me, they take the feathers and put it in the pen.  I am learning that these feathers or chickens as the humans say are not the brightest when it comes to running and hiding.  The other irritating aspect of my new home is that the humans are forever calling my name.  I am starting to think that they have a limited vocabulary.  NO COADEE, I hear those words in my sleep.  Then the one with a deep voice keeps saying, "You are just killing me", go figure what that means.  He is always shaking his head as he says it too.

How many times do they think they have to call my name?  I will come back but when I am on the trail of a great scent the last thing I need is to keep hearing my name.  It is irritating, especially when I need to find the source of that wonderful smell.  I have a lot of work before I get the humans totally trained but they are showing signs of progress. 

I saw tiny humans too.  Some were smaller than I am and cannot stand up especially when I go over to smell them.  One small human let out this loud noise.  That hurt my ears so I turned away and saw other little humans running so I went to go run with them.  Okay, I was chasing them.  For some strange reason I thought they seemed to be getting to far away from all of us and I did not want that to happen.  I do not know what that was about but I thought they needed to come back to the group.  Well I went to go get them. 

The little humans fall over easy too but, I can lick there face when they are on the ground so that works for me.  There is something to the little humans they just smell great and they really like petting me.  Who can argue with that?

Well I hear one of my humans calling so I will need to go.  Probably some stupid chicken is out of the pen.  Man, those animals are not going to be winning the Nobel Prize anytime soon.  I like them but hey, I keep it real.

Buy Local:  If you do not, the humans get it!

p.s. I just wonder sometimes what goes through her mind as we work and I am not explaining how to do things correctly.  She stares at me and twists her head from one side to the other, as if she hears me is trying to understand but we are just not there yet.

 

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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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We are in it for the health not wealth

Our County promotes a weekend each fall celebrating farms and farming.  Frederick County holds Family Festival on the Farm.  Family’s, that sign up ahead of time, get a CD with a map of all the participating farms and each farm has its own unique look, activities and practices.

Be it conventional or organic, farms are open on this weekend for the education of the public.  It is government expenditures at its best.  Our local government coordinates and markets the event and helps any farm that wants to participate.  

It is an event that we have been involved in the last three years.  However, our participation is unique, we pack up and go over to Nick's Organic and cook his organic beef on a cherry wood fire.  We get to cook, promote our cooking classes, sell our other stuff and preach to the choir.  Each year the crowd grows, questions become more in-depth, the stories of backyard escapades intensify and what people are doing still surprises me.

I had one of those re-affirming moments on the second day of the event; I know my views are somewhat anti-establishment in the farming community so I am often careful as to what I say and when.  We are a humane farm and we keep our hens for four years.  Even organic practices allow hens to be processed within two years of their life, which is their peak laying time.  As I have exposed before this is a hard process for us.  I guess I am chicken when it comes to processing them. I think they should get to live at least until they stop laying completely.  Then we get them processed and take them to local soup kitchens. 

The festival was winding down the last day of the event the farm manager, Nick and some of Nick's friends were standing around the grill.  There were mostly farmers and some mechanics that had come to fix the picker on the combine,  They were hanging around and eating sausages and hamburgers.  I was out of my league; here are all these people that have spent their lives in the fields and on farms.  I have always been leery of being called a farmer because of these people.  In my eyes they are farmers, I am but a large gardener.  Well, we were all standing around and the topic turned to chickens.  Nick innocently asked me what I do with my spent layers, I thought a bit.  I knew everyone around me has processed beef, pork, goats, lamb, chickens and turkeys.  Squeamishness is not a feeling that is prevalent in the farming community.   

Do I act tough in front of these people and say something that I think everyone would expect?  Or on the other hand, should I tow the party line and admit we keep our layers for four years before we get them processed, and then take them to the soup kitchen.  So, I said just that, “We are a humane farm and we keep our chickens (at this time I can feel my face flushing) until they stop laying and then we take them up to Berry Blossom for processing and then to the soup kitchen so their last act is to feed the less fortunate”.  I expected jeering but from one to the other each passed on their admiration for that act.  Who knows they might go back and say, I just met this nut that gives away his chickens.  If so, who cares, if it inspires another person to do a similar act then great.

Either way I am glad I stayed true to our beliefs and ego be dammed.  I am sure they are scratching their heads and asking how we make money, as do we.  But in the end it us that have to live with our decisions and as I have said before we are in it for the health not the wealth.

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Nothing Good Ever Came Easy

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.

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Off Farm Income

 It is unique how we use euphemisms to describe the human condition.  Like "No good deed goes unpunished", means usually you sacrifice your good time for being dumped on and spend more time working even though you were trying to help.  There is, "Don't let the screen door hit you on the way out," meaning you cannot get out of here fast enough for my comfort.  Another lesser-known one is "Off farm income,” that's the euphemism for “works two jobs in order to pay all the bills associated with small farming and living”. 

Off farm income is a category tracked by the USDA along with tons of other data associated with agriculture.  However, when you look at the numbers in small farm income it screams anemia.  As of 2009, small farm income as a percentage of total farm-household income is projected to be a whopping 8.7 percent.  Down from the 11.1 percent it was in 2008.  That means that for every dollar of income a farm brings in, 91 cents is from "off farm income".  As in "farms and works another job to earn enough in order to sustain an existence".

Okay, so I am late to the party, but is this normal?  I mean, I know it is reality but is this normal for any industry.  Let alone an industry whose main function is to provide a basic form of human sustainability.  Maslow's paper "A Theory of Human Motivation" points out the hierarchical needs of humans.  The paper was accepted in academia in the forties and is still being taught today.  After air and water, food is at the level that everything else in human life builds upon.   

Food, water and air are what sustain human life.  Would not small farmers producing food for human consumption be allowed to focus all their energies on producing that food in an environmentally sustainable way, be healthier then forcing them to use practices that are detrimental to the environment and humans because it saves time?  Should not the person growing your food be able to spend the time learning new technology and methods in order to use and preserve scarce resources like soil and water?  If the economics of the medical profession were such that outside employment was necessary in order to pay all living expenses our society would not stand for it.  As a doctor, In order to ply your trade, you must earn ninety-one percent of your income doing something else besides the practice of medicine.  That would never fly these days.

You can very easily be mired in the economics of this argument but my point is to explain yet another hurdle that small farms face as part of being a sustainable, safe and eco-friendly operation.  Small farms, as defined by the USDA, are those farms with net-income of $1,000 to $250,000 in gross sales.  Small farms represent about ninety percent of all farms in the United States but make up only twenty percent of all gross farm sales.  

Within the small farm category, there are two sub-categories, those that make fewer than 10,000 dollars and those making 10,000 to 250,000 dollars in gross sales.  Sixty plus percent of small farms makes less than 10,000 dollars in gross annual sales.  Thirty percent of small farms fall into the other category of gross sales over 10,000 dollars.

I am not saying that farming is the only profession in which people have to work two jobs in order to maintain some standard of living.  The term “standard of living” is very subjective when it comes to the individual consumer.  Economic compensation has always been disproportionate when you look at the value added to society from a particular profession.  Teaching comes to mind, for instance.  We put the weight of the world on our future generations but the people that are there to teach and prepare them for that burden are grossly under-paid.   

The men and women that risk their lives whether in the military, law enforcement or other hazardous jobs face the same inequities.  On the other side are those people that can put together complex derivatives and manipulate hedge funds such that they topple the economic stability of an entire country and they are valued economically at grossly astounding figures.  Money does not feed a nation food does. 

There is no wonder small farming is so incredibly hard when you see those numbers.  The deck is stacked against you from the start; it is an uphill battle that most people would not think of taking on.  As I tell our staff, “you all are very unique people, first off very few people choose to work such a physically demanding job and of those that try most cannot do it".  We have a great staff of hardworking conscientious people.  They never cease to amaze me with their eagerness to learn, there ability to understand, ask deeper questions and how they carry themselves. 

We also have a business plan, one portion is strategic the other dynamic.  Our long-term goals quite simply are to be sustainable both environmentally and economically.  Our dynamic goals are geared more towards revenue generation and expenditure controls.  The two are symbiotic but it is the strategic plan that we have the greater concerns about.  Without the ability to be totally, sustainable we are not going to be in business long.  At least ninety percent of small farms face this dilemma.  When you find out that only nine cents out of every dollar is earned from farm activities you start to question the sanity of why anyone would get into a business like this (see Who in Their Right Mind).

We work full-time and I can attest to those numbers about outside income.  We are a small farm and the total income from farm related activities, in a given year, has not been enough to cover just farm expenses, let alone what living expenses there are.  Yet we persist, because each year we do a fraction better in terms of revenue, knowledge, our customer base, our reputation and our ability to expand yet keep the food safe and tasty.  For us, it is important to do the right thing, to not shy away from hard work or impossible tasks and to help those that need help because that was instilled in me when I grew up.  Growing safe, fresh food is as much a part of me as “off farm income”.

Buy Local:  From a farmer that grows it not hucksters claiming they do

 

 
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What's the etiquette on milking another man's cow?

Okay, so I grew up in the city and did not learn all the ways of farm life.  Like farm jargon, every job or career has jargon.  I was listening to my nephews who are Marines at Easter.  One is deploying while the other has already served a tour.  I stopped asking what they were saying after about five minutes.  Nothing had a name they spoke acronyms interspersed with articles and prepositions. 

Being no exception farming has its share of jargon.  So steers, bull, calf, heifer, weaning, culled, dressed etc., was jargon I’m still getting use to.  I learned farm etiquette mostly from Joel Salatin but he didn’t say anything about asking to milk a farmer’s cow.

Let me save you time, embarrassment and maybe a little anger directed towards you.  If you are on a dairy farm and the farmer asks you if you’d like to milk a cow, by all means.  Milk the cow.  If you are on a dairy farm and you ask to milk a cow you might get the treat of being able to do it.  However, with health code related reasons you might not get that chance.

Now if you are on a beef farm and the farmer has a milking cow and that cow happens to be from a prized blood line of Guernsey’s think twice.  Think, how much do you truly know this farmer?  Ask yourself, how much does he or she truly know me?  Have you been dealing with each other for awhile or is this a new relationship?  How often do you visit the farm and once there how long do you stay?  These are all questions you want to ask yourself before even remotely thinking of uttering the question.

There is a bond between a farmer and his dairy cow particularly if it is his only one and she happens to be pregnant.  There is a ritual that takes place at least once a day if not twice and that is milking her.  Guernsey’s are known for their golden, nutrient rich milk.  Some will say there is no better tasting milk then a Guernsey.  I can’t judge I do know it makes great ice-cream because I’ve made it.

I’d have to say Dan is one of most genial, pleasant, honest,  willing to help others and accommodating as much as possible.  But I learned that there are some things that push his buttons.  I’m comfortable with my ignorance around Dan.  He knows I am from the city so he takes his jabs now and then but he is helpful. We were out in his field and he was showing me the new baby cow his Guernsey Lexus had.  There is some jargon word for baby cow, I’ll have to look it up.

We are standing out in the field it’s a hot summer day and I hear water running.  Dan's talking and this flowing water is distracting me.  He's talking about the baby and finally I said “Dan, it sounds like you have water just gushing out from the feeder”.  He looks at me instead of where the sound was coming from.  He just grinned and said, “You ain’t seen a cow pee before have ya?”

Well, no I had not seen a cow pee before but, I didn’t really have to answer him.  The answer was in the last statement I had just made.  I shrugged my shoulders, put my arms up and said “well what can I say.”  I mean if you haven’t seen one when you do you don’t believe that; a. that much water is coming out and b. the duration is as long as it is.  I swear learning is great.

Well I got pretty comfortable with Dan and I can ask him any question and he being a farmer his whole life he gives me a straight answer.  He puts up a lot with my questions so I try not to impinge on his time and whenever he calls for help I answer.  Course him being an old farmer he doesn't call.

So last year I got it in my head that I’d like to try and milk a cow.  I’d never done it before and figured it would be part of my learning experience.  I have to admit, I didn’t take into account the man’s bond with his prized Guernsey.  We were on the phone making arrangements, I was coming over for chicken feed and I had asked how the cow and her 3 month old calf were, and if he had milked the mother.  “No,” he said. So I just threw the question out there and asked if I could milk the cow.  Dead silence on the phone.  “Oh, okay” he said followed by “I gotta go. I'll let you know”  I didn’t see Dan for about three weeks after we hung up.

When we went to pick up the layer mash, Harvey, the farm hand, was there to collect the check.  The next time I did see Dan not a word was spoken about Lexus or her milk, or her calf.   I figured I crossed the line and left it at that.  There was awkwardness between us for quite awhile.  I guess he is still afraid I might ask him if I can milk her again.  I’m not, I understand now, the non-verbal queue was not that hard to pick up. 

So before you ask a farmer if you can milk his or her cow, make sure you know how they feel about other people touching their prized possession. 

Buy Local – From some one who is treating the earth kindly while growing 

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Changes

I’ve heard people can’t change and a leopard doesn’t change his spots.  But you do change, your personality, values, prejudices, pre-conceived notions, abilities, confidence and tolerances change.  I am a very confident, self reliant  individual but I’ve been humbled in so many ways that that confidence sometimes gets second guessed.  Sustainable farm life is hard and making a profit is challenging. We haven’t seen that yet but it can be done.  I know people who do make a profit and I marvel at their tenacity. 

Having spent over twnety-five years in the city, I have what is known as street smarts.  I understand urban life.  I mean how life is lived and what it entails.  Because of friends, still there, I'm close to the pulse of the city.  They are by no means boring people, there is no shortage of things to do but I do like getting back to the farm.  Yet when I was younger I’d run from bugs, didn’t like touching worms and wasn’t into wildlife.  I thought that a garden was a sterile environment; I don’t remember my father or father in-law ever talking about pests other then the neighbor’s cat or maybe deer.   

Yet here I am today, picking bugs up and looking at them under magnification.  Researching predacious versus parasitic species and learning how to identify bug types in general. We rely on beneficial insects and nematodes as part of our integrated pest management practices.  Another metamorphous was my idea of a flower garden.  I always thought flower gardens were a waste of time on a farm.  (I said that once during a presentation that had Master Gardeners in it and you’d thought I dropped the “F” bomb.)  You have to put labor into a flower garden yet you’d never get revenue from it.  So each year I’d fight the notion of planting flowers.  We tried it a couple of times but we ended up giving more flowers away then selling so we stopped.  Then I read about an insectary and how it is supposed to help overwinter your beneficial’s.   The insectary is made up of different flowers, bushes, weeds and grass.  The beneficial’s live off of the roots and plants until both their prey and they become adults. So we’ve had a flower garden for the past four years.

I’ve met farming’s elite like Joel Salatin and Temple Grandin and heared them speak with a passion that I recognize.  The struggles we face today are different from our predecessors but they are struggles all the same.  The person I was leaving the city is not the same person today.  I still can’t process chickens but I’ve put some down due to illness.  It was the hardest thing I’ve done so far and emotionally draining but I got through it and I know I helped them escape their own suffering.  People can and do change.  I just hope more people learn about safe, fresh local foods before we can no longer afford to sustain this little mission we are on. 

 Buy Local- From a farmer near you.  Their effort is well worth yours.

 

 

 
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Anticipation

Planning the garden, is something that we really enjoy, emotions get involved, words might be said and past experiences brought up and used as salvos.  Each person pushing to have their favorite fruit or vegetable planted.  It is all done in good fun and eventually we find ways to add a vegetable here or more fruit plants there. 

We'll be using field two which the chickens are now on and tearing the grasses to shreds and dropping their fertilizer.  We've used them as weeders and feeders and will start to move them off to the next resting field.  We started out with six Rhode Island Reds that were seventeen weeks old.  They weren’t organic but they were being raised organic. 

Layers are supposed to start laying eggs when they get to about twenty one weeks of age.  So at the twenty week mark I started looking for eggs.  Each day I would go out check the egg door only to be disappointed.  This went on for fourteen straight days.  Each evening after work I’d check for an egg.  Here we are going in week twenty-two and I’m not seeing anything.

So, I thought what if I give them an inspirational speech?  Show them what they are here for and hopefully get them thinking about their true calling in life.  We had gotten carry out from the local Chinese restaurant the night before when I got this brain storm.  The next day I took my materials out to the hen house and put one object on the edge of the pen and the other at the opposite end.

The chickens were out and curious as to what was sitting on top of their pen.  So I started my speech.  I told them how we were a small farm and they were here to help and that we were helping their species by ordering and using them in our system.   Then I pointed to the left and explained to them that this was an egg carton.  I explained what they needed to do in order to fill the egg carton so we could make money to help with their costs.  Then I pointed to the right hand side and explained that the object sitting on the corner was a Chinese take out container and it could contain General Tzu’s Chicken, or Broccoli and Chicken and so on.   I gave them a choice they could fill one box or the other.  I explained that it was up to them as to what choice they made but that we needed to make money somehow.

I left both boxes there so as to continue the intimidation.  This was all in good fun but our records show that they started laying a few days after that.  I know deep down that I had nothing to do with there productivity but I love the coincidence none the less.

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

 
 
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