Miolea Organic Farm

  (Adamstown, Maryland)
Organic Farming from a City Boy's Perspective
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That's the Paradox

We are a humane farm; our animals almost run the place. However, sometimes there is mortality.  With each loss we've had on the farm it has been hard on me and I take them all personally even though I know I shouldn't.  You don't take responsibility for the health and welfare of an animal and not take it personally when it dies.  At least I don't.   We learn and make sure if it’s controllable it doesn't happen again, we try our best to be good stewards and shepherds.  This is one thing that coming from the city actually works against me.  If I grew up on a farm my bet is I'd have a better handle on the whole mortality thing.  I have to get over this though; if we are going to succeed I am going to have to get over this hurdle.  Think and say what you will about my manliness and machismo, it’s just how I'm wired. If you are going to raise an animal organically you are going to spend a lot of time looking out for its well being.  This equates to spending a lot of time with the animal, observing them and watching for signs of illness, distress, infestation, injury and overall environmental health.

As we thought over twenty years ago death on a farm is inevitable and it is a hard burden for us to bare.  I guess that’s why it took us so long before we added chickens to the mix.  I'm ok with vegetables passing away; it seems natural to me.  This is the first time that I found growing up in the city was an impediment to what we do here.  I'm not naive I saw horrible violent things by accident living in the city.  I worked in a hospital for over ten years; I saw the grief people went through.  I saw more than one person die in front of my eyes.  Within the last two years both of my parents have passed.  I've had more loved ones than I care to count leave this earth.  I am just not good with death, as natural as it is and as much as it is part of the whole life cycle I am not good with mortality.  

I have no problem going to the local butcher and getting my meat and pork.  I see the cows, pigs and chickens in the field. I know where my meat comes from, how it is raised and processed.  I've had numerous blind taste tests with family, friends, clients and students.  More than 90 percent pick the local product, whether it is eggs, bacon, steak, hamburger, cucumbers, tomatoes or whatever.  I know that we are getting the safest, tastiest, freshest products anywhere.

Does this mean I will be vegetarian or vegan?  No, this is the paradox that is my life.  I love to cook and grow vegetables. Now, we have our potential role in providing fresh poultry to our community as part of the sustainability model.  It is one of the more profitable functions on a farm.  

Free range, organic poultry is in great demand and it is a low cost, low maintenance activity.  You get day old chicks, raise them for sixteen weeks and process them.   Raise them humanely, free of stress and in an open environment and you’ve given them the best life that can be hoped for.  Add to that we would use Rhode Island Reds because they are a recovering species and we are furthering sustainable agriculture.

Seven years we've been talking about this, 2555 days.  Seven years we've been deciding not to raise poultry for meat.  We are not making enough money to be profitable.  Five out of the seven years we have shown a loss and this is with out expensing our time as labor.   Meat chickens add a degree of stability and profitability that we have not achieved yet from vegetables, berries, jams, bread and cooking classes.  It is that simple, yet for us there has been nothing simple about the decision. As natural as death is on a farm it is still creates a paradox for me.

 Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain that advertises "Local"

 

 
 

Where else would you rather be

When we first started to talk to our family and friends about buying a farm the reactions were mixed but predominately quizzical.  Why?  As if something was wrong with us.  How come?  As if there was some force pushing us into something we weren't ready for.  Are you sure? As if we hadn't spent enough time debating and talking about the move.  Then there was the big one. What are you going to do with a farm?  As if the question didn't already have the answer in it, FARM.

We are city folks, my family is third generation urbanites.  Our friends were of the same ilk.  So it wasn't too surprising that we were met with their concerns, doubts and skepticisms.  I guess all of them thought that gardening was fine but large scale gardening was border line psychotic.  I know they liked our tomatoes, peppers and herbs but we wanted to try other things, lots of other things.

Besides, I never told anyone what my childhood dreams were.  To do that would jeopardize the possibility of achieving them.  So no one knew that I wanted land, horses, a big garden and a pool and they probably thought that it was something that we just started talking about.  But when word got around that we had placed a contract on a farm everyone weighed in with thoughtful words of caution, limited encouragement and counseling referrals.

When you come from the city, gardening on a large scale is for people established in the farming community.  In the city you're supposed to grow a couple vegetables as a hobby, you certainly don't make a living at it and you'll live in relative obscurity if you try.  They all made perfect sense- farms have been on the decline ever since we've been alive.  Farm-Aide started when we were teens, and the scenes depicted of families losing everything, having to stand by at auctions and watch their possessions sold off was heart-breaking.  It was real and it was tragic.  People don't choose to be farmers; they are born into it, at least that was the prevailing feeling we got.  You don't invest money and time in a declining industry.  Yet we were on the precipice of doing just that.

So while all the concern was being directed at us we were slowly moving towards purchasing the farm house and the property.  The house was built in 1837 on land once owned by a historic figure.  As part of the purchase we had the house inspected by a family friend.

Before he was done he took both of us aside and flat out said you don't want this house.  It would cost us more to fix it up than the structure was worth.  We'd be better off tearing it down and building from scratch.  When he was done he had over eighteen pages of notes and things wrong with the house, barn and milking shed.

We had twenty four hours to decide to back out or continue forward.  My wife and I are very deliberate logical people, fiscally and environmentally conservative and socially liberal.  We are not the fix-it-up types.  There were so many factors telling us not to buy and move on that it seemed like a no brainer to anyone looking at all the facts.

There was just something about the place, I think had we'd known we would pull 68 black snakes out of the house maybe we would have went in the opposite direction.  As it turned out we didn't and there has been something akin to a spiritual journey taking place ever since.  We are religious people, we believe in a higher calling and that we are on this earth to help make a difference no matter how insignificant it may be.

The first six months in the house were arduous and filled with snake encounters.  My wife called it luxury camping.  We added living in the house as part of our prayer routine.  During that time we had what I call our fetal position moments: we cried, we had great doubts and we had buyers' remorse.  But we kept praying not really asking for anything but the strength to continue.  One day a cat showed up at our door, I scared it away but we'd see it again and again.  We found that it was living in our barn which was fine with me but my wife wanted to bring it inside.  I resisted and gave a cogent argument as to why not.  "It's feral," I said, it turned out not to be and was already spayed.  After a two foot snow fall the barn cat was introduced to her new home.  She was aptly named BC and she was the first cat to adopt us.

The snow thawed and with spring came snakes.  Except these snakes were showing up dead.  We were finding them all over the place.  It didn't take long for us to realize that BC was the one killing the snakes.  She was the answer to our prayers.  BC could care less for mice. I saw her once watch a mouse eating out of her food bowl.  She was sitting by the woodstove and just watched as the mouse ate away.    She didn't flinch, but if it was a snake that was a different story.  We could tell when she had spotted one as she never moved but waited for her chance at the slithery creature. 

That was the start of the turn-around for us.  We are now part of something bigger than what we had expected.  There was a time when it was just meat making people sick and being recalled.  Recently, more stories of vegetables like spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and even peanut butter have been contaminated.  We are part of a greater community of people that are providing safe, fresh and tasty food to our neighbors and friends.  As bad as the past has been moving here,doing what we have been doing seems right.

Before every game legendary coach Marv Levy, of the Buffalo Bills, said to his team "At this moment in time, where else would you rather be, than right here, right now?"  I would not want it any other way. 

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No shucking

Did you know that you are not suppose to shuck corn at a farmers market?  It's one of those unwritten rules.  As soon as an ear is even partially opened, it begins to go to starch.  As a child I remember the Arraber coming around and he would pick the corn for you.  Depending upon where you were on his route you either got thirteen good ears of corn or a mix.  

That's another thing - whatever happened to a baker's dozen?  People seem actually surprised when we give them another ear of corn or put 13 into the bag.  That use to be standard operating procedure.  When the industrial food complex came into the picture you bought the corn pre-packaged or by the ear.  Please don't get me wrong.  We are a capitalistic society which is built around the principle of making money.  I think it's a wonderful idea but my frustration comes in when I see people cutting corners, ignoring safety, using techniques and tactics that are harmful under the guise of the bottom line.  Besides I'm also jealous that I don't make tons of money or even pounds for that matter. 

I know that when twelve people buy a dozen we lose a dozen. But we also sell by the ear and I learned long ago the smaller the quantity for sale the greater revenue.  Meaning, if 72 people each baught two ears of corn revenue would be greater because the per ear cost is higher.  So we look at it as a wash.  The goodwill it generates for our customers and then back to us surpases the pain of losing a dozen.  In the past six years we've lost more than 90 percent of each year's corn crop due to multiple factors.  So we're kind of use to losing corn.

Seven years ago we were selling at a farmers market, and we had corn that was raised organically but was not from organic seed.  It wasn't being sold as organic but it was local and it was picked hours before.  I was working with a customer when I saw an elderly lady go over to the corn and start to shuck the ears.    I looked right and saw my wife looking at her.  I kept talking to and taking care of my customer, but I noticed my wife's body language and non-verbal cues change.  She was getting agitated.

A minute goes by, I'm trying to finish with my customer but he has questions about cooking. Every so often I take a right peripheral view to see how my wife is doing.  At that time, I don't know why, I can't put my finger on it but my wife's reactions are catching my attention.  I follow her gaze and see the woman is still shucking her way through the corn. 

My customer asked about making a zuchinni recipe, we have adapted from "Chef's Illustrated," and I'm telling him about it and describing the nuances.  I feel my wife walking behind me towards the woman shucking corn.

My wife is one of the most intelligent, kindest, caring, level-headed people I've ever met.  She is the conotation of grace under fire and who you'd want to be with when trouble strikes.  But don't shuck the corn at a famer's market in front of her. 

Buy Local- from a farmer not from a chain that advertises "local"

p.s.  no one was hurt in the actual events or the retelling of events.

 

 

 
 

Corn Battles pt 2

Part 2 of 3 

At our old house I tracked sunlight to find out what little plot of land got the most sunshine and I would plant corn in that area.  I was stopped from planting in the front of the house one year, something about being tacky or something but I would have.  The first year on the farm we grew about twelve rows by fifty feet.  It was not organic seed but it was raised organic.  By all accounts it was a winner and we were off and running.

As we started to prepare for certification we learned that you could only use certified organic seed.  So the next year we went totally organic and that’s when things started to fall apart.  Year after year we failed to get corn like we had that first year.  It was not the seeds' fault as much as it was the inexperience of the gardener.   When we finally started to get things right we found we also started feeding the wildlife.

One of our sustainable practices is to save seeds from year to year and I wanted to do this with the corn.  In the old days this was standard practice, farmers would keep seed from one year to the next in order to plant.  That’s when we learned the difference between hybrids and open pollinated.  A hybrid is a mix of characteristics between two different types of plants in the same species.  

A hybrid corn seed example could be a mix of a corn plant that has large kernels and a corn plant that is very sweet.  The child seed of those two would have both characteristics a large kernel that is very sweet.   You plant the hybrid seed and get corn that has very large sweet kernels on the cob.  If you were to save the seeds from the hybrid and planted them the next year there isno  telling what dominant characteristic will show up.  What is known is that you will not get both traits; you will get one or the other. 

So you could have a plant that has large kernels or is very sweet but not both. Open pollinated plants on the other hand are consistent from year to year.  If you have a plant that is open pollinated then you can harvest the seeds and use them the next year.  Not only will you get consistent results but you will be able to save on seed costs.  Don't confuse hybrids with genetically modified organisms (GMO).  GMO's are genetically modified on a DNA level, not just mixing traits of the same species.  For greater understanding of GMO and the potential dangers in our food supply go to WWW.HULU.COM  and search for "Future of Food,”

We've tried all kinds of planting techniques, transplanting, planting early and covering them with row covers and planting corn with the lowest number of days to germination.  It is all in an attempt to be the first one on the block with sweet corn.  My true motivation is to get sweet corn for myself and my family.  We do not eat corn from any other source.  We eat what we grow, freezing much to get through the winter.  Besides there is no meal better than fried tomatoes and corn on the cob; add steamed Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and you have raised the meal to mythic standards. 

The earlier you get corn the higher the price justification at the market (the law of supply and demand) which is the other incentive to growing early.  However, these practices are not without peril.  Corn needs soil and ambient temperatures to be no lower than fifty degrees Fahrenheit.  You get a frost and your whole first planting can be wiped out.  It’s a gamble that if you know about going into it you are prepared when a late frost hits.  Being prepared doesn't mean you are out of the woods, it just means you have a chance at saving the first planting.

This year was no exception when it came to planting early with one notable change.  The corn was planted in our very first garden plot.  The plot of land was completely encased with chicken wire.  I had buried it one foot deep with five feet sticking out of the ground.  I also used metal posts to keep the wire up.  Without knowing I added a degree of protection from the groundhogs and raccoons.  If they tried to climb the fence it would collapse backwards from their weight, stopping them from getting in.  If the raccoons ever get their act together one will climb and bring the fence down letting his buddies get in.  We'll have to keep an eye on that.  In the mean time the corn battles rage on.

Buy Local - from a farmer not from a national advertising "local"

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Corn Battles pt 1

Corn Battles part 1 of 3 

 

I love eating sweet corn.  A dinner of fried red tomatoes and corn on the cob is what I dream about during the winter months when snow is on the ground or I’m out chopping wood.  So too do our raccoons, in February they sit in their dens with listening devices waiting for us to discuss corn placement during our planning sessions.  I know once we finalize our plans they start on theirs.  We are brighter than the raccoons but they win more times then they loose.

The first time we ever grew sweet corn was in a little plot in our kitchen garden at our old house.  We lived on four acres with 3.9 of it being woods.   It was four rows by six plants; it didn't get enough sun and wasn't pollinated very well. We got one ear of corn out of the entire crop.  But that one ear changed my view of fresh sweet corn for ever.  We did harvest it and I cut it in half for my wife and me to share.  Off the stalk and in the water it was our introduction to really fresh corn.  From that point on it was puppy love.

By 2007 we were getting better at growing corn but we had more to learn about keeping critters out of it long enough for us to harvest.  One thought I had was to plant as much as we could, the rational being the wildlife would eat some and we'd get the rest.  At least at the time it seemed like a reasonable plan.  We planted eighty rows by sixty feet. As it grew we strung over ten thousand feet of electric fencing around it.  I babied it, it was fertilized with 9-0-0, watered, weeded, mounded, I did everything but sleep with it.  

We plant corn in stages, every two weeks we plant another equal size plot of corn.  That way you get corn through out the season instead of all at one time.  It was a hot summer and the corn wasn't coming in strong but it was coming in.  Pollination was a problem in the first batch so we went through shaking the stalks to help with the other plantings.  We watered every seven days but we quickly found we were running out of our rain water barrels.  We have two; each one holds 3,000 gallons of rain water collected off of the barn roof. Even though we were watering it wasn't enough.  Because there wasn't sufficient water the corn growth was stagnant.  When we got water all the corn started to sprout together.  Succession planting went out the window and all the corn started coming in at once. 

It was a Monday; I went out to look at the corn to see if it was close to picking.  I picked a dozen that we ate at dinner that night.  It was good, sweet and tender not all the kernels were full but the taste was good.  We would harvest the rest in four days for Saturday’s market.

The corn was planted in an area that we could not see from the house.  Hence, the 10,000 feet of electric wire around the perimeter. One strand was six inches off the ground; the second was fourteen inches off the ground.  We did this because of a conversation we had with a full-time farmer.

Friday night the same week we took big tubs out to harvest the corn.  There wasn't any.  I mean there wasn't any, none.  Our jaws dropped as we went from row to row and saw clean cobs on the ground.  It was one of the lowest points we've had since we started growing professionally.  We were stunned and dismayed, which then led to depression.  I don't say this lightly.  It was one of the few times we ever contemplated throwing in the towel.  It was a low point.  Not only did we lose a lot of money, we lost confidence in our selves and our ability. 

After a couple of days we regrouped and set about finding out where we failed.  We learned that it was raccoons and groundhogs that did the most severe damage not the deer that I had suspected.  We learned this because of the way the cobs looked, picked clean.  A deer will eat the corn from the top.  These cobs were pulled from the stalk and eaten clean, much like you or I would eat.  That meant it was raccoons and groundhogs.  I called Dave at Nicks Organic and asked him about it.

He asked if I had strung electric fencing like he suggested.  I had and he asked if there was a high spot.  "What's a high spot?" I asked.  He went on to tell me that the wire has to be no higher than six inches off the ground.  A high spot would be anything higher than that.  "No," I replied but I wasn't completely sure.  I inspected the perimeter all 4,800 feet.  To my dismay I found a spot where I had brought the lowest strand of wire up to meet the solar battery.  The gap was less than twelve inches but enough to let them in.

Believe it or not that made me feel better.  At least I could explain and identify were the problem was, had I not been able to do that we probably would have given up on growing corn.  Having identified the problem it renewed my spirit to at least continue next year to fight the corn battles.

Buy Local - from a farmer not a chain store advertising "local"

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 

Taste Tests

I'm good at research, currently we are participating in a study with the University of West Virginia, Graduate School on a nematode study.  But I love giving blind taste tests the best.  Get a foody in the kitchen and sit them down and give them two things to eat and ask which tastes better.

Our County has what’s called Family Fun on the Farm.  It is a two day event where the local farmers sign up and folks take tours of their farm.  It’s a way to promote farming and for the farmer to explain environmental and sustainable practices and show what he or she grows or has for sale.  Families go from farm to farm visiting and learning about milking, free range chickens, organic beef or whatever the farm does.

It is held in October when we are pretty much done with growing and have put the winter covers on all of the gardens.  We have an organic farmer down the road from us who raises chickens. beef, turkeys and feed.  We purchase our organic chicken feed from them.  One summer day we were talking about the upcoming October event and what he had been going through getting permits to sell cooked food and beverages and so fourth.

I've always been an advocate of using cherry wood instead of charcoal.  I've tried apple, maple and oak but not walnut.  DO NOT USE WALNUT; there are toxins in walnut that can remove paint from cars.  The best flavors come from cherry specifically American cherry or choke cherry wood.  I cook with the flames not the coals or smoke.  So I'm telling Nick this.  I said that his organic ground beef and cherry wood would just be terrific and went a step further and said I could prove it.

He took me up on the offer and when October rolled around I took my grill over set it up started the cherry wood and let the fire get ready.  Prior to this I had arrange to have another grill setup but this one was fired with charcoal.  We offered everyone a taste test.  They could by two burgers get 50% off the second burger to participate.  The bottom of each plate was marked with a 1 or 2.  Each person would then give us their number preference.  Everyone could participate, young and old.  This was no empirical study by any means, there was no control group, the conditions were free form and no scientific protocols were followed.

We did this for two days; each day lasted about six hours.  We sold out of beef mid-day the second day.  We kept the numbering system up and let people weigh in on what they liked and thought.

I had people come back with analysis that floored me, I'm a foody, I know other foodies but some of Nick's customers just amazed me with their palettes.  I delighted in the seriousness that some people took with this test.  Some saw this challenge the way I would have, which would have been to thoroughly analyze every aspect of the food, the taste, texture, flavor of the meet the outer smoke ring and its color.

I think people really had fun with it and were truly interested in the outcomes.  What surprised me most were the results.  Age definitely made a difference in taste preference.  Almost one hundred percent of the children preferred charcoal.  Their parents on the other hand went in the complete opposite direction.  That didn't surprise me.  I've advocated for cherry wood cooking ever since we went camping and cooked over a cherry wood fire.  We had hamburgers and chicken the first night and people raved.  They all wanted to know how we prepared both meats.

Truth was that nothing special was done but cooking on an open fire.  I admit I liked it too and could taste the flavor that they were talking about.  My thought was everything taste good when camping, you’re cooking on an open fire, you're communing with nature and the environment is different.  I wanted to see if the same was true once we got home.  I started cooking with cherry instead of charcoal.  I grilled fish, shrimp, pork, corn on the cob, squash, tomatoes just about everything I could.  

So I got to take the show on the road and for two days we had people voting on the better taste.   The meat was the same the only difference was cherry wood versus charcoal.  What I learned was a sophisticated palette gravitates to new flavors while unsophisticated tended towards the familiar.  No matter the outcome, taste tests are always fun.

 

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Growing Pains

It’s the middle of July, we've lost most of our lentils, and something is killing the squash and zucchini.  The basil has holes and does not look good enough to sell, the cucumbers are fighting off fusarium wilt even though they are supposed be a resistant variety.  The weeds grow best of all and are almost taking over.  We are down to the last 2,000 gallons in our rain water collection system and there doesn't seem to be rain in sight. The twenty-five new birds are eating about two hundred pounds of organic starter mash a month but we only purchased one hundred and fifty pounds.  This caused us to scramble and ask the farmer down the road for some to hold us until the next shipment.  We've upped the shipment to two hundred pounds which should hold them until they go on layer mash.   The Japanese Beatles are coming out and landing on the grape vines, Colorado Potato Beatles have found our German Butter Ball potatoes.  Oh yeah we are down one worker so we started looking for help and have to go through the interview process again (see “Who in Their Right Mind”...).  

So, these are the current problems.  I'm sure there are more but why dwell, we'll learn about them soon enough.  On the good side the corn looks strong and each stalk has two ears, the tomatoes are coming in and the Roma’s are starting to turn red.  The chickens look good and are laying at a rate of 80 percent.  On any given day we have about two to three not earning room and board.  We know one never lays, we think the others are joining in sympathy.  Chickens lay one egg every twenty-five hours at their peak, after about three years they start to decline.  They eventually stop laying and can live to twelve years of age.  This does cause us great concern.

 

 We say we are a humane farm.  Yes there are specific denotations of what humane farm means, to us it is keeping the animal free of negative stress.  This is where the philosophical meets the practical.  Take out all perspectives, PETA, HSUS, SPCA and others.  Animal meat is food; it is protein and essential minerals.  Can we survive without meat?   There is evidence to suggest we can.  There is evidence that the vitamins and minerals from beef, chicken and pork are beneficial to the human diet, too.

 

We are struggling; we've had the first flock for three years now.  The tenant was one of the first six and we decided to keep her.  Now the first six will begin to decline in laying and we need to look at production versus feed cost.  They have led a happy stress free life so far, plenty of fresh grass and different varieties planted every six months.  They have also been prolific layers.  Three of the six have names, there is Palely (AKA Broody 1), and she is the tenant and the runt of the group.  Next is Gladys Kravitz, from "Bewitched," she looks mean and is always butting in on the others’ doings.  Last is Roaster.  She is huge.  They all started out roughly the same size but Roaster out weighs them all.  She is almost too big to fit through the door.

 

 Some people may think you can't be a humane farm and kill animals.  We started out not wanting to process chickens and so far we have continued with that standing.  But, chicken meat goes for 3.50/lb in our neck of the woods.  The potential revenue stream is very viable because of pent up demand and the relatively low cost of production.  I have not eaten commercial chicken for over four years.  Thanks in part to Joel Salatin but mainly because of how confinement chickens are raised and processed. Joel just happened to write about it and had a pathogen analysis done between his chickens and store bought chickens.  Even though he processes his chickens in an open air facility his chickens had tens of thousands parts per million less bacteria than the store bought.  That’s all I'm going to say on the matter, Joel has an excellent book that goes into great detail.

So, we are considering meat birds versus layers.  Eventually layers stop laying and can live up to ten more years naturally.  They eat about two tenths of a pound of feed a day, multiple that by 365 then by 6 (for the first six).  50 pounds of organic food cost $22 a bag.  When the math is all said and done we lose money if the chickens are not processed.  Even if we take them off organic feed and feed them cheap mash we will lose money.  No one stays afloat losing money.

Our decisions are not governed by the profit motive but we do need to make money in order to meet IRS requirements.  As altruistic as we've been these past seven years now the rubber is starting to meet the road.  After buying the farm this decision is one of the most agonizing we've had to face.  No matter how you grow there are going to be pains.

Buy Local -  From a real person, not from a chain that advertises as "local" 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lay broody Lay

We have brown eggs to sell.  My wife says I spend too much time writing and not enough time selling, that I should write about our products and how good they are and what we have to sell.  So because she is my wife and intelligent and I love her and our anniversary is coming up I've decided to take her advice and sell.  So we have certified organic free range brown eggs to sell.

The chickens on the other hand don't see it that way, at least one of them doesn't we're now calling her "Broody".  When a chicken goes "broody" it means that the chicken thinks it is time to start hatching eggs.  It doesn't matter that we don't have a rooster and her eggs are not fertilized, she is still sitting on eggs in the nest (which makes it hard for us to sell them).  This happened to us last year and as with every other aspect of farm life we researched what was going on and how to deal with it and we called more experienced people to discuss our options.  There are allot of reasons that a chicken can go broody, I've read one is hormonal another is temperament and yet another is age.  Given what I've learned on the job I'd have to say hormonal is the more likely cause.  Now, I know what some of you are thinking, he's male of course he'd blame the problem on hormones, but it is not like that.

When we first noticed broody in the nest we left her for a day or two.  We did have experience from last year so we were hoping that she might just break it herself.  Last year we ended up taking the broody one out of the box and placing her in the barn, it was the only way to keep her out of the nesting box.  Our main concern was that she wasn't eating and drinking enough.  We'd get her out of the nest and leave her outside with the others and before we finished the next chore she was back in the nest. 

So this year we let the new broody sit in the nest, the weather has been cool and breezy with lots of rain but we kept an eye on her.  Every so often we'd notice that she would be outside but not long.  Then she started to go into a prolonged sitting stage and she wasn't budging from the nest and she was pecking people when they tried to harvest eggs.  I stuck my hand in underneath her to try and get her to get up and out of the box and she felt hot to me.  I went to see how hot the others felt and they all seemed relatively cool.  The heat leads me to think hormones might play a role.  Although we suspected broodiness we had to make sure there wasn't some other problem that we just weren't seeing.  This meant we had to give her a physical, check her eyes, nostrils and beak for discharges, her wings, feathers and legs for signs of mites or liaisons, the comb and waddle and the crown jewel was checking to see if she had an egg stuck.  A chicken has what is called a vent; the vent is the only outlet that a chicken has, so with out getting too graphic everything that a chicken expels goes through the vent including the egg. 

Checking for a stuck egg has to be done very carefully and with the utmost tenderness.  At best if a stuck egg breaks inside it can severely injure the chicken and at worst the chicken can die.  We prepared and drew straws; my wife got the task of holding the bird (I got to figure out how to cheat in that game next time).  At first broody was all squawk but we shushed her and she calmed down.  That’s another thing we do from day one is to pick them up and shush them to calm them down. 

This serves two purposes, one is to get them use to human contact the other is their just so cute you want to pet them.  It works on into adulthood; some will run from us, most will just squat down and let us pick them up.  All of them though will calm down and relax when we shush them, you can hear it and feel it in their bodies.  Their muscles go limp, the body slumps and they go along for the ride. 

My wife is holding Broody, we got her calmed down and I start the exam.  I did everything first, saving the vent for last.  She has no outward signs of problems, pests or injuries, I check the skin, feathers everything, her belly and between her legs to see if I feel a lump, nothing jumps out.  Last up is to feel inside the vent to see if there is a blockage.  I expose the vent, it looks pink and healthy, and I take my surgical gloved hand that is now covered with lubricant and gently insert my finger to feel around, Broody moved a little but didn't squawk.  She did squeeze her vent closed which scared the hell out of me; in an instant I 'm pulling my finger out and seeing a newspaper headline, "Local Farmer Loses Finger in Chicken Vent".  Now I'm the one squawking.  To their credit both my wife and broody are perfectly calm, I know it doesn't seem like much but it scared me, so now I got to calm down and go in for a second look.  I got collected and went in once again to gently probe for an obstruction and to our relief find nothing. 

We left her in the barn in the stall with a roost, nest, plenty of water and food.  She was there three days and on the fourth day we opened the barn door and left it open.  She didn't come out.  Day five we open the barn door again and left it open.  This time she came out found her flock and jumped into the pen with her group.  She is no longer brooding but her name will forever be "broody".  Broody started laying about a week later which was a great sign because did I mention, we have eggs to sell.

 

 

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The industrial food complex

We were selling at a Farmers Market and an elderly farmer’s wife stopped by to look at our offerings.  She looked at our "Organic" sign and said "Honey, we've been growing organic since before you were born," and if you know anything about the green revolution after World War 2 you can understand her statement.  Before the invention of ammonium nitrate for bombs, farmers relied basically on organic means to grow their vegetables.  We went from every community having a fresh food market to almost none.  Before the establishment of the industrial food complex, grocery stores and refrigeration, communities relied on their local farmer to grow a market garden for their fruits and vegetables.

They ate what was in season in their region; consumers knew the farmers and their families and purchased what was available.  They put fruits and vegetables "up" or "canned" so that they could eat them in the off season.  Then technology started to advance growing and storage techniques and all other aspects of life.  The marketing gurus during that time advanced the concept of convenience and free time.  Prepared foods, can goods and frozen foods were the rage,  Going to the local farm was phased out by stores that had everything in one place.  What marketing was selling to everyone was convenience and free time. Slowly but surely Free Time and the profit motive was the death knell for the small family farmer. 

As industrial farming took hold and these huge monolithic behemoths started turning out tons of one product the laws of mass production and economy of scales took over and the small farmer could not keep up.  The farmers grew what was called a truck garden or market garden, because he or she would take the vegetables from the garden, put them in a truck and go to the market and sell what they had picked.  What we lost with the growth of these monolithic farms was the individual family growing vegetables for their community and so too coincidently we lost taste and freshness of the fruits and vegetables.  Tomatoes picked green and shipped miles away can't ripen on the vine while in travel, nor would they ever taste like one right off the vine. 

What we gained from the loss of market gardens, freshness and taste is the game of Russian Roulette.  Illnesses and sometimes death resulting from pathogens in our industrial food supply has become common place.  Corporations have shown time and again, when faced with a decision to stop production and clean up after tests prove contamination, they have a laissez faire  additude.

Yes, we have always had to take precautions with our food, but the sheer number of recalls makes one pause.  Nothing beats local for freshness, taste and safety.  The consumer has the ability to talk to the person or persons that grow the food, be it animal, vegetable or mineral.    More and more people are supporting local farmers because they see value for their money.  It is more expensive to grow organic; consequently, it is more expensive to purchase. There is value to going to a local farm or a farmers market and buying from them. 

If you take out the carbon footprint, the freshness, the taste, the true cost of operation, if you take everything out of the equation but a base explanation you are left with human kind's last fuel source and the person that toils for it.  It's a passion, a mission and a fundamental activity that sustains life.  It’s not the profit motive but a social conscience that motivates us to provide food for others.  Yes, we all need to make money to provide and small farms do need to make a profit.  It's imperative in the sustainable model, but that doesn't mean that every decision we make is dictated by the profit motive or what effect it does to our stock price.

The profit motive, stock prices and yearly bonuses are the norm in big business.  Tell me, do you really want to leave the growing of food to the faceless people behind the industrial food complex, knowing their main concern is if they can make a profit and raise the price of their stock?  Isn't our health more important than money, and haven't our taste buds suffered enough with petroleum derivatives, synthetics and other man made food additives? 

So make the right choice, find someone that is growing vegetables for your health, talk to them, visit the farm see how it is being run. Not everyone is growing for your health and we call them hucksters.  Buy vegetables when they are in season and you're guaranteed local. Learn what vegetables are in season in your area.  If someone is selling corn in Maryland in June, it wasn't grown here.   So it is not local corn because it is not in season yet.   Ours will be in July  and we do not cater to the industrial food complex.

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Honey there is a turkey at the door

If you ever want a true juxtaposition that starkly shows the difference between city and rural life rent "Michael Clayton".  At one point they show Tom Wilkinson as Arthur Edens in the middle of Times Square, they have a 360 degree pan of him just standing there among the cacophony of noise and neon flashing lights, large screen TV's and it is just sensory overload.

In a split second the shot is of a white house with black trim and the sounds of wind blowing gusts of heavy snow.  You can hear the snow hitting surfaces.  The camera slowly pans towards a red barn, the snow coming in blankets.  The two scenes couldn't be starker, yet it’s not the scenes as much as it is the feeling I get that is generated from that contrast.  One second and its Times Square in New York City, half a second later it’s a rural setting in the mid-west.  I know it’s me but I get a visceral reaction to the two screen shots and my bet is I'm not the only one.  Allot of people have moved to rural areas for the serenity that was depicted in that second scene.  Not all have taken up the mantle of growing local and/or organic but enough are to make it a full fledge movement.  

As I said, I grew up in the city and my dream was to own land in the country.  It’s a feeling allot of us have to move to a house where we can grow and life is some what simpler.  Its not really, it is constant work and infinitely complex and there are no vacations.  You see and learn things everyday, because where you live is governed by nature, not by man as in a city.  Sometimes you can actually hear no man made sounds sort of a silence, the birds might be chirping and flying around but that’s it.  It doesn't happen often but it gives you an idea of what generations before us heard.  On Sundays we get to hear the local church bell ring calling people to service.

Its a life style choice, which is why we live with chickens, skunks, groundhogs, raccoons, deer, possums, snakes, more bugs than I'm able to identify, hundreds of bird species from cardinals to blue jays, a little yellow breasted bird that looks like a canary and of course their offspring.  We had a turkey family a couple of years ago; they hung around the front of the house and lived in the trees on the top lot.  There was a mother, father and four little ones.  We haven't seen them since 2004 because they do migrate a little.  But it is this kind of happening that reminds you that the city is pretty far away and you’re in close to a natural habitat.

Last Sunday we were getting ready to start the day and my wife heard what she thought was slight tapping at the sliding glass door. She went to investigate and found that we had a wild turkey pecking at the door.  She called me and said a turkey is knocking at our door. So I asked the only question I knew; is it dressed?  If you don't understand please read "Look Honey they have dressed rabbits" from a previous blog.

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Are we done planting yet?

We started a spring garden this year, growing lettuces, kale, and collards and, of course, the strawberries.  We've been planting ever since.  If it is not actual plants then it’s seeds, but we've planted every weekend since late March.

 

We planted the rest of the cucumbers this past weekend.  At least I think we are done planting. I'd have to check with the boss to really see, but I see no plants and I'm not looking for seeds.  Why tempt fate and I'm certainly not going to ask, as a matter of fact I'm not going to let my wife edit this particular blog.  What she doesn't know I can't plant.  So now 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 doesn't 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 really hot out 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 draw backs, 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 and you never hear the end of it.  Please let me explain before you judge me.

The silo was made of concrete block and 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 except for weeds and maybe carrots.  I knew the silo was loaded with wood and in essence was a tinder box, 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 pargeing 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 ou,t hooked up the hoses to the water tank and pulled to start the pump engine.  Of course, it doesn't start.  After three pulls it coughs to life and water starts to come out at the other end.  Once the water was flowing I was able to cool the fire down and eventually put the fire out.  It took about five hundred gallons of rain water 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, I stowed the pump and we called it a 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.  So I still weed with heat but my wife prefers the hoe and hand method best.  I can laugh about it, but my wife is to the point were she can grin and shake her head but not quite laugh.  On second thought maybe I should stick to just planting. 

 

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Are there any jobs we're not responsible for?

On a farm large or small you have to be a jack of all trades, it's not like you can call someone in to fix something when it breaks, especially if you can't afford to or have already blown your maintenance budget.  So you are left to your own devices and the help from others.

One of the jobs that lacks on our farm is marketing/advertising specialist.  We haven't figured out who that is and what all the duties are of the position - add to that sales.  Not only do you have to learn about growing vegetables, viruses, bacteria, integrated pest management, management intensive gracing techniques, nutrient management, animal husbandry (which includes first level veterinarian care), soil and water conservation, meteorology, tractor and implement maintenance, carpentry, electrical, plumbing - ahh the list is just to long to complete.  Suffice it to say farmers have always been jacks of all trades and I can't do half that stuff.

But today's vegetable farmer has it much harder than our predecessors when it comes to sales and marketing, by the mere fact that there were fewer choices for the consumer back then.  Today, the list of food retailers and purveyors are as long as the list of responsibilities a farmer has and they are backed by slick marketing campaigns, sales forces and multi-media influence.  What we have at our disposal is freshness, taste, integrity and the internet.  Our forefathers might have had ready markets but we have access to the world.  It doesn't do us any good because we don't ship our food and we don't drive our food more than ten miles from our farm, but it does give us a chance to potentially reach more people and explain who we are and what we have for sale.  

Because we are so small and in order to save us money ,we do not harvest vegetables until they are ordered.  This cuts down on waste(if we cut 20 heads of broccoli and only sell 10, we lose or must stop working to blanch and freeze the balance).  It also shows the customer that they are getting the freshest vegetables possible.  Same with our eggs.  They are usually less than seven days old because of demand; I can tell some people the only way to get fresher eggs is to catch them as they come out.

We are proud of what we've accomplished so far and we look forward to each new season knowing that we are doing something that very few people choose to do and it does have a positive impact on the environment and on people’s health.  It's humbling when someone tells you how good a vegetable tastes or how good the eggs and bread taste.  When they keep coming back year after year you find out what all the hard work and sacrifice went towards.  We are just about to begin feeding a second generation of customers; one of our regulars has had a baby.  It makes us beam to know some of the first local vegetables this child will eat will be from our gardens and that is way cooler than anything we ever thought would come from our endeavor. 

We are helping support our community with a chemical free, environmentally sensitive and semi-sustainable agricultural enterprise.  Fresh vegetables and fruits that don’t make you sick but in fact give you more vitamins and nutrients with a much smaller carbon foot print.   Are there any jobs we are not responsible for?  Nope, and there are plenty of reasons for that!

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The tip of the iceberg

We are asked all the time to explain the difference between organic and non-organic.  It’s hard to sum up such that the person you are talking to doesn't 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 there counterparts in the conventional field (see University of California-Davis study). But, you will find counter arguments to those studies, then there are the cost comparisons, why is organic so much more expensive and is it worth it?   As I was writing this blog CNN Health came out with what I thought was a good article at   http://www.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/06/16/best.organic.produce/index.html

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.   The studies done at the Rodale Institute are the longest recorded studies on the subject,  "Our Farming Systems Trial®, the longest-running U.S. study comparing organic and conventional farming techniques, is the basis for our practical training to thousands of farmers in Africa, Asia and the Americas." Copy Right Rodale Institute.

Most people look at organic as the end result but it is just one variable in the whole sustainability model when talking about growing.  At Miolea we've been saying we are beyond organics for awhile, because organics speaks to how vegetables, poultry and meats 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 can not 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 the other part that cannot be ignored is environmental which are air, 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 a 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 corn field and look at a field that has been left alone to Mother Nature.  What do you see in a conventional corn field?  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 corn field that gets sprayed with fertilizer and insecticides?

Simplistically stated, plants, trees, insects and animals get nutrients through a complex dance of decay, replacement and rejuvenation.   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 don't let the animals eat the grasses until the grass can't replenish itself, you let them eat enough to maintain the stability of the grasses in the field and then you move them on.  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 like grass to be between two and three inches.  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, that lay eggs and then the chickens get a crack at the grass and bugs which helps them they 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 get rested and fertilized this way.  Although we don't have cows we keep moving the chickens from space to space in order to evenly fertilize the whole garden. 

What is organic? In my own mind it is the tip of the iceberg.

 

 


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How'd we miss it when it was half its size?

It’s been strawberry season and we've been trying to pick as much as we can when they are dry.  We've had a bad season this year as was mentioned before, but none the less we forge ahead and try to make the best of the situation.  Everybody was picking while I had the torch and was weeding.  At one point I stopped to check and see how it was going, when I approached the strawberry beds I noticed some nice looking strawberries.

I asked if anyone had done the row I was standing in and got a reply I didn't really like.  It was affirmative, I was informed that the row was done and on both sides.  Now I know I am somewhat of a perfectionist and we've already had the problem of leaving fruit on the ground and sap beetles so I launched into how you need to be careful and you need to look at all the angles and that strawberries are very adept at hiding themselves.  I look at correcting mistakes as an opportunity to learn and to teach if there is a point to make.  I try to make them understand the importance yet let them know that no one is perfect.  

Like the time we were growing Italian eggplants.  We had about one hundred feet of eggplants that we were growing the summer of 2007.  The weather was good most of the summer and we had little watering to do.  As the eggplants grew we would harvest and sell them or make something from them, babaganoush, fried eggplant pancakes, grilled or whatever other way suited our fancy for the night.  The summer progressed and the eggplants kept coming.  I find string beans, strawberries and some other fruit hard to harvest or easy to miss, but knowing this is one thing, taking the time to uncover them all is another.  Eggplants however are not that hard to harvest.  Eventually the size will stick out enough to catch someones attention.

Which leads us to the volleyball sized eggplant that we eventually discovered.  This thing was huge, it was at least a foot tall and had a beautiful purple cover.  I actually took it on tour showing anyone that would look; it was prominently displayed on our vegetable cart on the weekends (image below).  We had watermelon that was smaller than this thing.  We just had to laugh at how huge it was, one of my first thoughts after cutting the beast from its plant was, "How did we miss this when it was half its size,' You would of thought someone would see it when it grew to the size of grapefruit, or when it got bigger and was the size of cantaloupe, or when it grew even more into the size of a small pumpkin.  When it comes to harvesting you don't make money if you don't pick it and put it on the cart, we also learned you don't make money when you miss it and it grows bigger than your head and nobody in their right mind would buy it.  That eggplant certainly was the conversation piece and had our customers asking if it was really organic.  One of the few proud moments we had from this thing was admiting that it was indeed one hundred percent certified organic.

So your wondering, what happened to it?  Did we open it and look inside, did we cook it and taste it or did we get it stuffed and mounted?  Well truth is I put it on top of the compost pile and watched it fade away as winter took hold.

 

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My Neighbors Must Think I"m Angry

We are a humane farm, which means we treat our animals with kindness and care and that extends to their own community.  We think there should be peace and harmony in the 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 more than double that when out doors.  We do keep them in moveable fencing to keep predators out and them safe.  They have plenty of access to food and water and we provide shade during the hottest parts of the season.

 Everything we've read points to management if there is an issue, like excessive pecking can be caused by competition, due to not enough access to food, water or space; soft egg shells indicates there is a calcium deficiency in the food source, like we are 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've had with them 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 the start of a problem.

Every so often, one chicken will start pecking on another, it is their nature.  There is a pecking order but we discourage this behavior from the time they are chicks; we do not de-beak because that's cruel and it works against the chicken and the goals of raising the 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 don't clip their wings either; we let them fly as much as they can.  Once they get to a certain weight their wings can't sustain them in flight but they try to fly just the same and it’s 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’s directed at the antagonist which usually gets her attention and given the attention span of a chicken it 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 tone.  They hear the volume and tone and that gets their attention.  They stop briefly enough and look and forget what they were doing and go on to something else. 

When the latest flock was put on pasture we put up a fence to keep them in and safe.  At one point I was working near the flock on the outside of the fence, and I turned around to see that a chiken had come through the fence and was pecking at the grass.  I yelled, the bird looked up did a u-turn and went right back in through the fence.  That’s what I wanted it to do but never in my wildest thought did I expect it.  But it did.   

My neighbors on the other hand just hear me yelling, not knowing what I'm yelling at or why but they too hear the volume and tone.  It doesn't help that we are in a valley and there is an echo.  I can't help but think they must be thinking "organic farming must make you an angry person."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
  
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All in a Days Work

 In order to raise organic chickens and eggs you need to take possession of the chick by the time they are one day old.  They can be inoculated on day one but no anti-biotic after that, if they do get sick you must give them what is needed to keep them alive.  The dilemma is if the bird does truly need an anti-biotic it should get it or be culled (another one of those jargon words).  If you chose the former the Organic rules would prohibit you from then marketing the meat or eggs as organic.  If there seems to be a paradox it’s not really.   

We are a humane farm, no cages, plenty of space per bird, they feed on organic grasses, legumes and get fed organic feed, along with organic scraps we pull out of the garden, like strawberries, kale, collards, tomatoes just about everything we pull out of the garden they get some, especially the bug infested fruit. 

At first baby chicks are susceptible to Coccidiosis which they eventually develop immunity for but until that happens you are left with one choice (if you are organic) and that is to keep their bedding, food and water free of fecal matter.  Up to three weeks old they are prone to get it and if that happens you either cull it or treat it.  So far we have raised three groups of day olds and we have been lucky enough not to have to make that choice.  Being a humane farm our answer is going to be treat it and keep it in a non-certified group, we already have what I call tenants, layers that are not laying but are just living with the group.  Traditional practices would be to cull the non-layers but we haven't done that.  Actually of all the layers we've raised all but one lay.  Industry wide the percentage is seventy-five to eighty percent.  We'll have to see what the rate will be with the 25 new Rhode Island Reds.

It is not easy protecting baby chicks from themselves.  You think you got the water clean and setup so they can't perch and drop leavings, but they must be acrobats, it defies logic how they dirty their water and food and with such gusto.  Grant it, all they have to do is run around, grow out of their fur and sprout wings.  The first week all they do is eat and sleep under the light moving very little; cleaning up isn't too hard.  Then they start to get energy and eat like teenagers and the fur is starting to fly and they are finding more and more ways to go to the bathroom from higher and higher heights.  I swear they've had competions with judges and score cards voting on who can go to the bathroom from on top of the water can. Because this was the biggest flock that we have had, we built what amounted to a big cardboard box in the garage.  It was too big so we divided it in thirds and opened more up as they grew.  The water and feed were hung from two by fours spanning the width of the box, low enough for them to get to and high enough so they couldn't perch.  At least that was the plan.  The sides of the box were only a foot and a half high a design that would allow us to easily bend down and scoop out liter and the foul food.  The chicks eventually learned to use the edges of the sides as a spring board to get to the top of the water bucket. 

Our water bucket has a flat lid, with drip nipples on the bottom that I installed.  The flat lid design is not how store bought waterers are designed, but I created one from a piece of scrap plywood and jig-sawed it to fit.  It covers the bucket, the lip of the bucket is under the rim of the plywood, there is one little tiny hole were the bucket handle meets the plywood.  Suffice it to say, version two of the watering bucket will have some kind of cheese cloth or other organic stopper.   

You go out and check on them four to five times a day, clean their leavings out of the water bucket, food and bedding and you make sure the light is not to hot or they are not too cold and you listen for sounds of happy chicks enjoying the day.  Happy chicks, it wasn't a concept that was on our radar until a graduate student from the University of West Virginia said something.  We are participating in a study on nematodes with UWV and they were at the farm taking soil samples and asking about our organic and agricultural practices.  The student made the comment, "You have some happy chickens," "thank you," I said but hadn't really thought of chickens that way.  But if you look at the picture on our webpage here on Local Harvest you'll see one of the more photogenic ones, it looks like she is smiling.

So you go out and listen, this happens every day until they start to grow feathers and beaks and longer legs and bigger feet, but you still listen no matter how old they get or where they are housed, you listen for and hopefully you hear the sound of happy chickens, but thats all in a days work.

 

 

 

 
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You're going to Harvest That?

Spring is coming to a fast end and the spring crops are starting to show their wear.  Strawberries came in and we started picking, they are big, sweet and very juicy.  From what we've read you can only harvest strawberries after the morning dew has dried.  If it rains that pushes off harvesting even further, unfortunately strawberries don't know to stop ripening.  Rain or shine if it is warm enough a strawberry is going to ripen.  

 

We've love strawberries and have grown them every year since we moved in.  Strawberries are one of those two year plants, like asparagus or grapes, meaning you put all this labor upfront but you don't get anything until the second or third year.  For grapes it is even longer and if you have as steep of a learning curve as we tend to have it might even be extended still.  I think our first bunch of edible grapes came in the sixth year, by that time we had experimented with every organic fungicide and insecticide there was.  We still don't produce a sell-able amount but I do get a few every time I mow the land around them.

 

It is May 30th, we hadn't picked strawberries for close to six days now and a neighbor came up to buy a couple quarts.  So we left him in the shade and went out to pick them.  What we found in the patch was a lot of black furry berries, huge ripe bug eaten berries and the bed seemed like a total waste.  Once again the learning curve bent around to slap us silly.  We picked the best we could and gave him a good two quarts, it took longer than expected but they were good strawberries and he didn't mind the wait.  After the days work ended we said goodbye to everyone and set about learning what we did wrong with the strawberries and what was that little black bug eating all the huge ripe fruit.  The nerve of the intruder, I mean there were plenty of small ripe berries, but no they'd eat some of the biggest and go onto the next one.  I can see them, setting up little daiquiri bars, inviting their friends and family over then for the heck of it they find a bigger sweeter berries and move to that one.

 

Well it didn't take long to find out what went wrong and why, first was water, second was air, third was lack of harvesting and fourth was not harvesting everything.  Strawberries like dry beds that are airy and allow rows to dry sooner than later. We had let them grow to close to each other over the years so that had to be fixed and we didn't pick the berries that were infested or blackened by fungus, I mean they are nasty looking and when you pick them they mush in your hand.  The sensation of slime and stickiness the berries had on my hands just gave me the willies.

 

Everything we read pointed to management of the crop and letting fruit sit on the ground.  When we had a smaller garden we didn't have these problems, the small size allowed for more air which kept things dry and there was less to pick, so everything did get picked.   We found that the strawberry sap beetle was the insect that was doing the greatest damage and the population was growing bigger because of the environment.

 

As we read we came upon a few sentences that made us cringe, and that was that the sap beetle will move to corn and tomatoes after the strawberry harvest.  Being one who lives for fresh tomatoes and corn I went into panic mode.  I swore as long as I was alive those bugs would not get to my corn and tomatoes.  The deer, rabbits, raccoons and groundhogs may but I was drawing the line at the strawberry sap beetle, it was on and I was ready to put a hurting on the population.

 

My wife was reading about how to manage the infestation of insects and molds; we were going to have to mow rows through the patch to get air circulating through and pick up every last nasty berry.  Talk about fruitless work, we pulled gallons and gallons of bad berries but on the bright side the chickens got to eat strawberry sap beetles and we started to make inroads and turn the beds around.   No word on the taste of the eggs but we are waiting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Who in their right mind does this?

After five years of growing on our own we decided that we needed help in order to get done all the tasks that needed to get accomplished (that's alot of words for "we needed help weeding").   So we thought now would be a good time to hire from within the community, which fit with our whole buy local mantra.

We sat down and developed our questionaire,.  My wife had questions she wanted to ask and I had come up with a couple basic ones myself.  Her questions were of the general quality, "what experience do you have?, can you work out in the heat?, have you worked on a farm?, etc".  My questions were simpler, but they struck at the heart of the matter and got down to the base of the job.  First question up was "Why in your right mind would you want this job?"  Second "Can you tell the difference between a weed and a plant?".  And lastly, "how many fingers and toes do you have and do you know how to keep them?'

I came up with the first one because that's the question I get asked most by family, friends and work collegues, it's a simple question but one that has alot of historical baggage attached.  Why do people look at farmers as having to be crazy when they try to grow food?  Is it because the work is so physically demanding, start up costs and failure rates so high, too much uncertainty with weather and governement regulations, too much information to learn, too many things that are out of your control?  Have we been brain washed into believing that only corporations are the ones capable of growing food for the consumer market or that you have to be born into a farming family in order to grow? 

 Farmers should be venerated and respected for their chosen profession, Like firemen or policemen a farm and its farmer is life supporting.  What if we relied on the industrial food complex  and concentrated animal farms for all of our food?  When they say our food source is safe do you believe them?  Should you, when every year food recalls are popping up more frequently than automobile recalls?   Why are we as consumers allowing this to happen?   There is nothing that beats freshness and food safety when it comes to local.  When is the last time you heard of a local butcher recalling products or local vegetables being recalled for e-coli contamination.  I know it can happen and chances are it will but I haven't heard of any yet and I know from our farm practices it is not.  The "buy local" movement is growing I think because of the recalls but also for freshness and taste-the taste of a ripe tomato or fresh ear of corn, or carrots so sweet and crunchy you eat them before you get home.

As I stated before we started growing becuase we followed in our fathers footsteps, except we widen the garden.  Like them it started with a single tomato plant, then pepper plants, then corn, peas, carrots, string beens, kale, lettuce, melons, blue berries, raspberries, apples and service berries and it keeps growing.  But, it started because our fathers planted and tended their own gardens.   Small as they were, the joy was the same, bringing vegetables in for the family.  That simple act had its own intrinsic reward ,the fact that you grew it made all the more significance.  At the time we were too small to realize it, but I think we are starting to get it.  I think we do but I feel that we are still missing something I don't know.

What I do know is that the people that come out to our farm respect what we are doing.   A lot of people know what we are sacrificing in order to grow organic food, baked goods, jams and eggs.  They thank us and tell us how much they love the eggs or how good our strawberries were this year.  They ask genuine questions about the operation and want to learn for their own gardens and for their own children and to get information from a trusted source.  They look at their local farmer as not only a source of fresh fruits and vegetables but as a knowledge resource for their own growing.  I love talking to our customers, I get to learn from them much more than one would think.

As for the people we hired, their answers to my questions made me see from a different perspective; not in that their answers were funny but they took the questions with a slight grin and launched into why farming wasn't that intimidating.  Yes, if we taught them they could tell the difference between weeds and plants and pretty much everyone wanted to keep all their fingers and toes.  They have turned out to be a great, eager and enlighting group to work with, they work hard, ask good questions and have been a wonderfull asset.  We couldn't have asked for better or expected anything as close.  Buy Local!!

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Look Honey they have Dressed Rabbits

We started selling vegetables professionally in 2003 at the fair grounds in our County.  In its day the farmers market was a focal point for the community, everything was there as the seasons permitted.  Butchers, bakers, and I bet candle stick makers, as well as, other crafts and household items.  Fast forward a couple hundred years and we arrived to a revitalization effort taking place, the fair ground management wanted to get the market up to the old day standards and we were happy and lucky to be on the ground floor and helping.

We had joined the Maryland Small Farm CO-OP after hearing a presentation of what the CO-OP was about and how it worked.  It was a group of farmers that tried to pull resources, and hold educational seminars that had experts in the field come in and talk about their specialty and actual farmers talked about the good and the not so good of what they do.  We learned that the CO-OP had a stall at the farmers market and they were looking for vegetable growers, They had some one selling Emu oil, hydroponics tomatoes, baked goods and dressed rabbits, but not enough variety of vegetable growers.

We jumped at the chance, you had to be set up by 9:00am and the day ended at 2:00pm on Saturdays.  Because we are so small we tended to harvest in the morning and take it for sale that day.  This meant revelry by 6:30; everything picked and loaded on the truck by 8:15 and on the road to the fair grounds by 8:25 and setup by 9:00a.m.   We did this for three years until late in 2005 growing season when my wife became ill.

For the first three years during the spring and summer we committed our time, efforts and energy towards growing vegetables, customers and our confidence in ourselves.  After hearing farmers speak about farmers markets I believe each and every one could write a book about the experiences attending these events and the people they meet.  I admit I have a ton to learn about growing, professional interaction with full-time farmers, customers and most important JARGON.

It was a hot Saturday in July a couple of years ago; we had just started selling our vegetables on a regular basis.  There were other vendors there as mentioned above.  A young mother comes by and sees the sign for dressed rabbits.  Honestly, I did not know at the time what that really meant, but I heard the mother say to her little curly headed blonde child that they were selling dressed rabbits, "Look honey they have dressed rabbits maybe we can get one in  sailor suit."  I heard the man politely tell the woman that she could buy a live rabbit but that it would not come with clothes.  Without having to ask I now realized that dressed is one of those euphemisms for "prepared" or "processed" or "ready-to-eat".  This made the innocent statement endearing, “Look honey they have dressed rabbits,"

 

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Why Growing Organic is Vital

Have you heard the institutional advertising that a major seed manufacturer is playing over the radio airwaves.  How farming uses so much water and that their hybrid seeds and geneticaly engineered seeds will use less water and yield more food and how this is gowing to help farmers world-wide.  If that is true why is this major seed manufacturer  suing farmers all over the world for patent infrigment. When pollen drift is as natural and enevitable as the sun rise.  Why did Mexico outlaw ALL GM (genetically modified) foods, especially corn?  Then only to discover that strains of GMO corn have made their  way into the corn fields of Mexican farmers from the US.  Technically the big seed company should sue Mexican farmers too.  Go to www.hulu.com and search for the "Future of Food".

It is a documentary on how genetic engineering was accomplished, how seeds are patented and then used as a big stick to force farmers into the herbicide ready club,  We are at a cross roads in our concepts of food, where you see grass root efforts like the slow food, buy local food,and support local farms movements.  We have groups like Ark of Taste which is a movement to bring back heritage breeds from pigs, cows and chickens to tomatoes and everything else that has been genetically modified to fit the needs of the profit motive not that of the taste of the consumer.  From my stand point it is not only the lack of nasty checmicals on the food, or pathogens that cause recall after recall year after year but it is also the simple fact of taste.  Taste, remember when tomatoes tasted like sweet, soft, watery spheres of nutrition.  I've learned that which does not kill you serves to make you stronger.  In an organic plant that is basically the same concept, when a plant is attacked by a predator the plant releases its own sent that attracks bugs that are predators of the bug eating its leaves.  This doesn't work with an infestation but if the plant survives it grows stronger and has a better taste then the a plant that was sprayed with synthetic fertilizers and insecticides.  This opinion is derrived from reading and my own observation not a result from an imperical study. 

I trust my taste buds, I know what is on my plants, I know that the more we allow large corporations to genetically modify food the greater suseptubility we all face for unknow genetic mutation and greater risk of bacterial out breaks caused by a lack of stronger antbiotics.  That is why more than ever supporting local farmers and growing organic is vital.

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