Monday, March 26, 2007

Egg season

'Tis the season for . . . eggs! During January and February, the chickens pretty much shut down egg production. There will be an egg every few days, but most of the girls are on holiday. I try not to mention it around others who have chickens, because many of them will say (as if I have no idea) that I should light my hen house, so they'll keep laying. I, however, figure that if Mother Nature says they need a break, who am I to argue?

So, we are paid back in March and April when we get dozens and dozens of eggs. The girls are laying about 16 dozen a week now, have been for the past two weeks and will probably kick up production a bit more in the next week or two. Then in the summer they'll level off to about half as much. We have plenty of customers (sometime more than we need) during the summer, but during the spring, we have lots more eggs than customers. So, we eat a lot of eggs. Last night we had a creme brulee pie and brownies. Tonight we're having a quiche (also made with our own goat milk and chevre) and more brownies.

We'll be putting some eggs in the incubator soon. Last fall, I decided that we should be hatching our own replacement layers. After all, can you call yourself sustainable if you have to buy more chickens every year? I don't think so. Of course, half the chickens will be roosters, so they'll be dinner. We haven't used the incubator in a few years, but I think it holds about 40 eggs or so. That'll provide us with 20 new hens and 20 chicken dinners.

As for the rest of the birds, one of our buff geese is making a beautiful nest in the front yard. She had seven eggs in there yesterday. We couldn't check this evening because she was sitting on the nest. I doubt she's ready to start officially setting, although it is kind of late in the day to be laying an egg.

The ducks haven't started laying at all. We were just discussing their age -- they're five this year! Maybe ducks don't lay that many years? They did lay a little last year, but not as much as in previous years. One hatched two ducklings, but no one else even sat.

The turkeys haven't started laying either. It just occurred to me that if we follow their schedule, we probably won't have poults until June. I'm not sure that's a good idea for selling Thanksgiving turkeys. The turkeys won't be as big as most people want. Sounds like the family will have to have another discussion about the turkey business. Maybe we'll raise turkeys for Christmas, rather than Thanksgiving. That would give them another month to mature. As much as some people say they want to support a family farm or they want natural meat, they are spoiled by getting what they want, when they want it, even if it could not possibly be produced naturally in this part of the country at that time. Educating customers is a big part of what we do, but some people simply do not want to be educated. They just want what they want -- period.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Back to work after the flood

The flood waters subsided, and we did not get the two days of rain predicted -- thank goodness! I hope we have a few more warm days with sunshine, so all the mud will finally dry out. Walking through the yard is treacherous. It's so squishy! Mike spent hours working on the fence today, but it is finally put back together, and the solar electric is working.

Today was incredibly busy, and I spent the first half of it at church! When we got home, we ate a quick lunch of sandwiches (goat cheese and mushrooms), and then we headed outside to take advantage of the 80 degree temperature!

We planted garlic, which we did not have a chance to plant last fall. We've never planted spring garlic before, but it will supposedly grow, just not as big as it would have if we'd planted it last fall. The really good news is that when we moved back the straw that the girls had put around the peach trees, we found several garlic plants that we had missed when harvesting last fall, and they have begun to reproduce, so we will have some great garlic plants from last year's crop. Each clove should form a new bud, but again, it won't be as big as if we had separated the buds and planted the cloves separately.

We also planted a few onions, and then I came inside to put more seeds into pots -- 144 little pots, to be exact. The other seeds I've planted are mostly sprouting. I'm concerned about the pepper seeds I planted about a month ago. They're still not up, but the tomatoes that I planted two weeks ago are sprouting! I think there's a problem with those peppers.

Today I planted more serrano peppers and ancho san luis, both of which are hot peppers. For sweet peppers, I planted some California wonder purple peppers, golden summit , sunbright, and orange sun. I also planted some Copenhagen market cabbage, long purple eggplant, rosa bianca eggplant, and wayahead tomaotes. I even started some flowers: rudbeckia (prairie sun) and snapdragons.

Friday, March 23, 2007


It's hardly past 10 a.m., and we've already had quite a day on the farm. Margaret woke us up at 3 a.m. to let us know that Caboose kidded. She had triplets: two bucklings and a doeling. They're all healthy and nursing.

I wasn't able to fall back asleep because the sound of rain on the roof always worries me. Before heading off to bed, Margaret wisely advised me to either go to sleep or go outside and do something. Well, what can you do in the dark? But I understood her point. Staring at the ceiling or the insides of my eyelids isn't helpful at all. Finally after 6, I fell back asleep. It didn't seem like I was asleep for long when Mike got up, and I heard him mutter an expletive from the bathroom. "What's wrong?" I mumbled. "This is the worst I've ever seen it." I knew what he was talking about -- the rain had caused another flood. Without opening my eyes, I said, "Those hundred-year flood maps are bullshit," and I recalled the five or six other floods we'd had in five years and told myself to fall back asleep, knowing I couldn't stop the creek from rising.

It didn't seem like very long before the phone woke me up. Katherine said Mike was outside, so I got up and looked out my bedroom window to the east. The creek had risen a lot. Then I went to our bathroom and looked out the window to the south. The entire pasture behind the pond had become a lake. I ran to my daughters' bedroom and looked out the window to the west. Behind the chicken house, the lower pastures were filled with water, and the road past the walnut grove was flooded.

A few minutes later, Mike came inside to tell us that Merlot, the horse, was stranded behind the hayfield. He was in water almost up to his chest. Since the forecast is calling for rain for the next few days, we knew we had to get him out of there, or he would likely drown. Mike and Katherine volunteered. They took his halter and a lead rope. They walked as closely as possible to him without getting in the water, and Katherine called him. He started towards her, but as soon as the water hit his chest, he jumped back and started walking in circles. They had assumed that Mike would have to go after him, but they figured it was worth a shot to call him first.

Mike slowly walked into the water. He didn't think it was too bad, even when he was waist-deep in flood water. Then he was up to his neck in water, gasping and swimming. Apparently there was a drop off in the pasture. He went back to the higher ground, searching for another route that would allow him to walk through the water. On his third attempt, he finally found a path. When Mike made it to Merlot, he put the halter on him and tried to lead him through the water. As soon as the water would hit Merlot's chest, he would pull back. With some sweet talking, Mike finally persuaded the horse that he wasn't trying to lead him to his death, and Merlot came through the water. Katherine took Merlot to the barn, and Mike headed for the house.

When Mike walked in the door, soaking wet, I knew the only reason he didn't have blue lips with chattering teeth was due to the adrenaline that was pumping through his body, and that as soon as it dropped, he'd be freezing if we didn't have him in warm water and drinking warm liquids. It's one of those things you learn after your son falls through the ice on the pond and your daughters swim across a flooded creek to rescue goats. Adrenaline is amazing, but it's short acting.

Now we sit in the house watching the rain fall, watching the pastures turn into larger lakes, watching the water creep around the bottoms of more trees. At times like these, when things look so dreadful that I have an urge to let a string of expletives fly from my mouth, I think about the farmers who lived 100 years ago. They were even more helpless than we are today. At least we have a sump pump that keeps the basement from flooding. I guess that's about it, but it's something. We have no more power to control the creek than they did 100 years ago. The forecast calls for two more days of rain.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Motivated by fear or love?

The past week has been my spring break from graduate school. A break would imply some sort of vacation -- a break, right? The past week has hardly been a break. I've been very busy on the farm, but I am learning where my loyalties lie, and it's not in grad school.

I have been attending the adult discussion group at church for the past three weeks. We have been discussing the book, Awareness, by DeMello. The title is self explanatory. Yes, one can really write an entire book about awareness. Today we discussed a passage that claimed everything is motivated by either fear or love. When one hears something so definitive and limiting, it's tempting to instantly say, "No way!" However, I started running down all the decisions I've made, and ultimately they do boil down to fear or love. I started going through decisions made by other people, such as farmers who use implants in their cattle to make them grow faster and farmers who use genetically modified seeds. While some are probably motivated by greed (love of money), others are undoubtedly motivated by fear -- "I may not make enough money to provide for my family if I don't use these products."

It was my love of animals that led me to buy eggs fresh from a local farm when we lived in the suburbs, and it was that same love that led me to want my own flock of chickens. I came to a point in my life six years ago when I could no longer purchase eggs that came from chickens that had, in my mind, been tortured by having their beaks cut off, being stuffed into tiny cages, and being forced to lay eggs at an unnatural rate. I love looking out the window watching my chickens strut across the yard pecking at the grass, eating bugs and going wherever the mood takes them.

It was love and fear that motivated me to want to raise heritage breeds of livestock. I have always loved animals, but when, in 1998, I learned that many breeds of livestock were in danger of extinction because the factory farms only raise one breed (their modern mutants that have the best feed-to-meat conversion ratio), fear led me to want to move to the country, so I could help preserve these beautiful animals for future generations. It's an odd conundrum that the way to save a breed of livestock is to eat it, but that's the way it works. No one is going to raise hundreds of slate turkeys just because they're beautiful. They raise them because people want to buy them for Thanksgiving dinner.

I'm sure it sounds even stranger to some people that I would be willing to kill an animal that I love, but if you've ever raised turkeys or chickens, you know that a male is not happy unless he has about 20 females in his harem. Who cares if he's not happy? Well, when there are too many males, nature takes its course, which is survival of the fittest. The biggest and strongest and most aggressive (most testosterone=most likely to succeed in perpetuating the species) eliminates the competition. In other words, they kill each other. I will never forget sitting at my computer several years ago when suddenly a tom turkey covered with blood slammed into the window. I screamed. It was like a scene from Hitchcock's The Birds. I had to put him in a horse stall all by himself for the last couple weeks of his life before Thanksgiving, because the other turkeys would have killed him if I'd left him out there. At that time, we didn't have the nerve to actually butcher a bird ourselves, but that's what we'd do today because quality of life for my birds is important to me, and there is no quality when one's choices are to live in confinement or be pecked to death.

It was ultimately the chickens who taught us that the ways of nature are not kind. Initially we let chickens set and hatch eggs, which meant we'd have 50/50 males and females. Within a couple of years, we had so many roosters that all the hens had bald backs from being mated constantly, and then the roosters started killing each other. Finally we realized that we were going to wind up with only a few roosters -- either on their schedule or ours. We decided to set the schedule, and we took more than 20 roosters to the processor in Arthur. I knew I had made the right decision when all the feathers started to grow again on the hens' backs.

There is so much I love about being out here. I love what I see and hear (nature), as well as what I don't see and hear (cars and sirens). I love walking in the woods. I love working in the garden. I love watching baby goats play. I love planning the garden. I love tasting new foods, such as different heirloom tomatoes and turnips. I love seeing my turkey gobbler strut around the yard showing off his gorgeous feathers. I love it when the chickens come up to us, looking for a hand-out of fresh earth worms or grubs, when we're working in the garden. The only fear that motivates me out here is fear of death, but I try to keep it from controlling me. I use dewormers for the goats because I know that parasites can kill them. It was a fear that I acquired after a couple of goats died from parasites. It's that same fear that causes some people to deworm their goats every month. I try to stay sane about it and only use the dewormers when there is a genuine need.

Being away from school this week, I realized there is not much I love about it. I don't miss it when I'm home. I wish I didn't have to go back this week, but since I have an assistantship, I have to finish teaching my two classes this semester. I am excited about the 11 goats that are due within the next month, and I hope I don't miss many births. I am excited about all the seeds I've started (216 more) this week for the garden. Only eight weeks to go, and then I'll be home every day.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Modern meat and moral decisions

In yesterday's mail, there was an animal supply catalog. We are on many mailing lists for these things, but I hadn't seen this one before, so I thought I'd give it a once-over before tossing it. Since we do almost all of our own veterinary work, we buy our medications from these catalogs, as well as simpler things like feed pans, collars, and mineral supplements. Seeing that it was a general livestock catalog, I checked the index for goat supplies and turned straight to the first page of that section. After a few minutes of perusing the supplies, I flipped to the page where the goat supplies ended and "implants" started.

Implants? I read the description of the first implants: "Recommended for increased rate of weight gain in suckling and pastured growing steers; improved feed efficiency and increased rate of weight gain in confined steers and heifers." It goes on to tell you exactly what hormones are included in each implant, how much, and how long it lasts. Most of the implants say almost exactly the same thing, but one went on to give us a little more information about exactly how it works:
...which stimulates the pituitary gland to produce increased amounts of somatotropin, the natural chemical substance in cattle that regulates and promotes body growth. Increases average daily gain for greater productivity and shorter time to market. Provides optimal dose for steers fed in confinement for slaughter.
My first response was disgust. Then the left side of my brain wondered why I didn't see this in more livestock supply catalogs. Most farmers -- even small family farms -- think they have to use "modern" practices to make as much money as possible. Of course, those implants do what they promise -- increase profits -- so farmers keep using them. That's why the small farmers also use the patented, genetically modified seeds. I just lo-o-ove the advertisements for modern agricultural products. They all start with, "You're losing profits if you don't use ..."

This catalog will be filed in the recycling bin with all those seed catalogs that require the buyer to sign an affidavit swearing to not save seeds grown this year for planting next year. Of course, those are patented seeds, which have been modified in who-knows-what manner. Modern agriculture frustrates me terribly. Although I have not eaten commercially-raised meat in 18 years, I do still buy flour and sugar, but I buy organic whenever it's available. Unfortunately, now that Big Ag knows how much money they can make in the organic market, they are bringing their unethical, cut-throat practices into the organic market, so one has to research the companies to know what kind of company you are supporting. I think I've blogged about Horizon Organics before, so I won't get into that again, but I quit buying their products when I learned they were bought out by the biggest dairy company in the U.S., which then stretched the organic standards to a disgusting limit to justify their inhumane treatment of cows.

You're probably wondering how a catalog made me this upset. Well, it didn't, not really. What really caused me to lose sleep last night and to hit the computer this morning was that we watched Fast Food Nation last night. That is the most disturbing movie I have ever seen, and it was disturbing on several level. What they show with the cows isn't nearly as bad as what happens to the humans. (Of course, someone with PETA would disagree with that point.) Illegal immigrants are brought in to work in the slaughterhouse for half of what an American would demand, and they have no recourse when they are abused and sexually harassed, because they do not legally exist. They stay because they make far more money than they would make in Mexico, but no one should have to choose between sexual exploitation and extreme poverty. Before I get too carried away, I'll direct you to the Boston Globe, which has an excellent review of the movie.

Between the catalog and the movie, I'm embarrassed to admit that I have non-organic butter in the refrigerator. I wish I had a cream separator so I could make my own butter from our goat milk. I wish I had the money to start a dairy, so that we could provide at least a little more humanely-produced dairy products for the world. Although there is a surplus of dairy products in the U.S., the demand for organic dairy outstrips the supply. People frequently ask if they can buy milk or cheese from us, and I always have to say no, because we are not a certified dairy.

Although the slaughterhouse scenes are disturbing, I know that not everyone in the world is going to become a vegetarian, so the alternative is a more humane system. We take our animals to a small processor the morning they are processed, so they have happy, carefree lives up until the very end. The processor doesn't do thousands of pigs a day. In fact, our pigs are usually the only ones there, so there isn't the intense need to keep the assembly line running at all costs. Can you feed an entire nation like this? Not at our current consumption level, and not if people insist on cheap over ethical. But there are people who want to eat meat, and they will buy humanely-raised meat if it's available. So, that's where we come in.

It seems like such a tiny contribution. It doesn't thrill me, but it makes me feel a little better. When people buy meat from us or from someone else who raised it humanely, they are buying that much less from Big Ag. Hopefully they're telling their friends about it and raising their consciousness, and maybe their friends will start to look for humanely raised meat. It seems like such a tiny contribution -- like pouring a bucket of water into the ocean -- but it's a start.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Spring fever

Today I find myself wondering about the history of "spring fever." I think I might have it. I woke up with a headache today, which continued to plague me through the morning and into the afternoon. Finally, I felt like I just needed to get out! Around 3:00, I went outside, and I don't recall a single twinge of pain after taking my first deep breath of wonderful spring air.

I walked over about a fourth of our 32 acres. I visited the peach trees and started to pull back the straw from their bases, but then I decided I could come back later with a pitchfork to do it. The garden was calling my name. I looked at all the dead plants that needed to be pulled out, but before I let myself start working on that, I decided to check out the east pasture. I planned to come back and work on those peach trees and the garden after visiting the pasture and the creek. Although the ground was muddy, I loved walking through the trees and seeing the gigantic slabs of ice that had washed up on shore. In our five years here, I've never seen that before. I need to get out there and take a picture of it. Who knows when I'll see it again.

As I headed back towards the garden, it started to rain. It had threatened earlier, but I didn't take it seriously because it wasn't very cloudy. This time, however, the sky was dark, so I hurried back to the house. After being inside for a few minutes, I noticed my dreadful headache again, and I started to wonder about the origins of spring fever. It seems the best cure for this headache is fresh air and exercise. I'm hoping to get more of both tomorrow -- as long as the weather cooperates.


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