Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 Seed Swap

It's that time of year again... out with the old, in with the new. I have dozens of 2009 seed packets, some still sealed, that I am going to put together into a Seed Swap package.

Here's how it works. If you are the first person to sign up, you will receive the Seed Swap package directly from me. Look through the packets, see if you find something you like. If you've always wanted to try a variety, but didn't want a whole packet, this is a great opportunity to do so. Take what you want, add a little from your stash, and then mail it on to the next person. If you don't have any to add, don't worry. These seeds would have been thrown away, so if you plant them and make a small difference, it will be worth it. This is a great opportunity to try some gardening for the price of postage (from mailing on the package). Let's spice up our gardens with some variety AND increase our food independence!

Most of my seeds are certified-organic, heirloom varieties, but a couple of Burpee packets did sneak in there. All my packets are from 2009, so germination rates should be high. Try to limit seed dates to three years old or less.

Some examples of what I have in my seed package:
Brussels Sprouts
Mesclun Salad Mix
Romaine Lettuce
Heart of Gold Melons

If you would like to participate in the Seed Swap '09 (and live in the continental US), email me at fiveacresenough at gmail dot com. If there is a lot of interest, I can try to make this a more formal thing to encourage new gardeners and not waste valuable seeds. I will mail out the packet on January 15th so try to sign up before then! Before we know it, it will be SPRING!!!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

From the Intertubz

Hi all, I hope you are having a good winter. Here's some fun reading to stimulate the mind during the "off season".

"For the first time in the world, we've proven that GMO are neither sufficiently healthy nor proper to be commercialized. [...] Each time, for all three GMOs, the kidneys and liver, which are the main organs that react to a chemical food poisoning, had problems," indicated Gilles-Eric Séralini, an expert member of the Commission for Biotechnology Reevaluation, created by the EU in 2008.

In 2006 a paper by Catherine Badgley found that, while yields from organic systems in temperate regions were typically 9% less than in non-organic systems, in. tropical regions, organic agriculture can increase yields by over 50%, with the possibility of more than doubling the production of some types of food. A report in 2006, by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), based on 114 studies in Africa, found that organic agriculture could increase yields by up to 116% – more than double.

With the purchase of Seminis in 1995, Monsanto is now estimated to control between 85-90% of the U.S. nursery market (this includes pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers). By buying up the competition and lobbying the government to make saving seeds illegal, Monsanto has slowly been taking over all of the seeds.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

What's Next? Dairy!

I've talked before about the trouble with finding ethical, sustainable and humane meat. It is, in large part, why I work so hard to have a farm. But once you open your eyes to the perils of meat, you start to feel that spidey sense tingling when looking at other food sources. And so I turned, reluctantly, to dairy.

Ahh, dairy. Milk, cheese, cream, butter. All nutritionally dense and excellent foods. And if purchased from conventional sources, filled with cruelty and disease. Pure awesome.

My journey started when I read a book at the urging of my good friend in Texas. The book is called The Untold Story of Milk and I can't recommend it unless you like horror stories or forever want to be skeeved out in the milk aisle at your local grocery store. Large scale meat production in this country is pretty scary, but dairy production is not far behind. And like meat, the poorer the animal, the poorer the resulting food, so it's not just for ethical reasons that we need to improve dairy. It's behooves us and our health as well.

Here's a fun factoid: The average grass-fed dairy cow has a lifespan of 15 years. The average confined, conventional dairy cow has a life span of 42 months. 3.5 years. An animal that is so sick as to live a quarter as long as it should is not exactly the kind of animal that I want to be producing milk for me to drink. True, a lot of those animals are culled early, the second their production drops, but majority of them are culled because of disease.

I will spare you some other, truly horrifying facts (like what those cows are fed, bacteria counts, and rampant udder infections) and skip straight to my personal quest. While I still lived in the buzzing metropolis of Austin, I found a local producer of grass-fed raw milk. I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to discover the many benefits of drinking properly-handled raw milk, and just say that my body was very thankful to have the nutritionally dense food source.

Raw milk sales are a bit of a gray market in some states, and Texas is worse than others, so I was happy to see that you can buy raw milk in the store in Maine as soon as I arrived in New England. I no longer felt like a shady criminal trying to score some milk. In my own state of New Hampshire, you can buy raw milk directly from the farmer at markets or from their farm. I found a local dairy that produces certified-organic, raw milk from heritage breeds (the Holy Grail for milk snobs such as myself) and have been a very satisfied customer.

Except there's one problem, it's hard for me to get it. Because of the location of the farm and the timing of the midweek markets, I can only score some milk about once a month. And raw milk of such delicate quality is only really good for drinking for about 10 days. After that time, it's better for cheese making or other "value-adds". So there are the times of plenty every month, and the dry times, where I look aimlessly in the fridge, jonesing for some milk. There had to be a way I could be in milk all the time...

This fall, at the local fair, I spent a lot of time in the dairy barn and got up close and personal with some beautiful cows. They are pretty amazing creatures, but quite large, and a bit too much to handle on my small land, especially since a cow would directly compete with the horses for grazing. Not to mention the learning curve of caring for such an animal and the initial expense; young cows can run a couple grand easily.

So, I thought, what is appropriately sized for small farms, produces a reasonable amount of milk per day, doesn't compete with the horses for grazing, and is easy on the eyes?

It was at that point, walking around the fair, pondering this very question, when I stumbled upon the dairy goats. And it took all of about 30 seconds for one to look me in the eyes and it was all over. I was in love.

I rushed home and did some research and settled on a breed: Nigerian Dwarf. These diminutive goats stand about 2' at the shoulder, eat little food, but produce a large amount of milk (up to 2 qts per day). Their milk has the highest butterfat percentage of any goat breed at 10% (compared to about 3% from cows). As I did more research, I uncovered that the majority of the world drinks goat milk (about 72%) and it contains more protein, vitamin A, and calcium than cow's milk.

All good things, but what about the taste? Every time I mention goat milk to people, they curl their nose and talk about the "goat musk". One closer inspection, most people have never tried it. I recently tried raw goat milk from a local farm and found it did not have any musky taste at all. Goat milk will absorb a musky flavor and smell if the does are housed with the bucks. Handling is also important. It is best to chill the milk as soon as possible.

So having made up my mind that goats were the New "In" Thang for 2010, I found a breeder in Maine and arranged a visit. Now let me forewarn all you readers who might think that buying a goat is a good idea. If you visit a breeder with 60 or so does and a dozen kids, you WILL buy goats. Because they are so darn cute. I am not joking. Consider yourself warned.

My goats "helping" to mulch the asparagus.

My first visit to the breeder, I bought two does for, let's just say, mid three figures. Not cheap animals by any stretch of the imagination. These are not $25 Craigslist goaties. I wanted a quality, proven milker and healthy stock and this breeder delivered. And, she had all the great qualities I look for in a mentor: understood livestock, not just pets, was obsessive about the details, obviously had good stock, and brutally honest.

Not too sure about that first snow fall...

I bought a 8' x 10' shed with a cute dutch door and brought the goats home. They've been with me since October 18 and we're already very bonded. The older goat, Jolene, is almost 3 years old and VERY pregnant. She is due to deliver March 7th and from the looks of her, I am expected triplets at least. Amy is 7 months old and not old enough to be bred. She's a little whipper snapper and tons of fun and she zooms around.

Once Jolene delivers and her kids are established at about 2 weeks, I will start sharing the milk with them. Jolene was previously leased to a goat dairy, so she is an old pro and a proven producer. Once her kids are fully weaned, I can expect up to 2 quarts of milk a day from her. In preparation, I have already started making my own cheese from our raw cow's milk. I hope to eventually get enough does to produce all our dairy needs.

What an adventure, but definitely the highlight of 2009.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Garden Lowlights

Without question, the least exciting aspect of the 2009 farm is the garden. I put approximately 1600 SF into production, which means I tilled it and prepped it. Because of improper timing of sowing some seeds and general lousy weather, some crops didn't sprout at all, like Melons, so I lost about 200 SF to just dead space.

The main problem with the garden was lack of sunlight. Mother Nature did not always provide enough light, with 80% cloud cover in June and July, and then what did come from the sky was filtered by a giant, 100 year old Oak tree which perfectly shadowed the garden for four hours a day. The result is that the garden received early morning light and late afternoon light, which is less intense. The growing season here is 145 days, so losing 60 days to cloud cover was a big blow I could not recover from with such shady conditions.

During Phase 1 of the logging last May, I opted not to cut down the Oak and see how the garden fared through the year. My (conventional) garden neighbor insisted the lack of light was not the problem and that I should expect 50% loss just because I refused to use pesticides and supplemental irrigation. He also said my peas and other veggies were stunted and unhappy. I listened to what this wise old man said very carefully and became depressed with my garden.

As the year wore on, the garden produced very little. For example, we got a single pumpkin, about the size of a softball. Tasty, but sad. The melons failed to sprout, the corn withered and died at 24" tall. It was an abject failure, punctuated with amazing success. For example, even though I harvested my potatoes a month early to head off the voles and blight, I yielded 1 lb per row foot, which is just about right. The heritage beans produced amazing quantities of beans, even though the poles were way too short, from July until the first frost in October. We couldn't eat enough so we canned the rest. And the greenhouse tomatoes, at 10' tall, produced 35 lbs of tomatoes before also succumbing to the late blight, losing half the harvest.

And those poor stunted peas? Delicious. And, I learned when researching 2010 crops, I had purchased dwarf peas. So they were doing just fine at 2' tall, thankyouverymuch.

Overall, between the organically fed eggs, our meat birds, and the produce, we grew $1730 worth of food, the majority coming from eggs. Our inputs, including seed, soil for the greenhouse, fertilizer, and feed for the animals came to $1230. Capital costs, such as the greenhouse and the tractor were not factored in, since I really am doing this as a hobby (and I would have the tractor for the horses anyway).

So a dismal year, but still not as grim as it could have been. The first year is all about learning, so in that respect it was an overwhelming success. Prior to 2009, I had never grown a single vegetable in my life. I also moved from Texas where I developed an instinct for the seasons to New England where everything is totally different. Last frost here is JUNE!! It's already 105 F in Austin at that point. To say I was drinking from the firehouse is an understatement.

I have made some improvements looking to 2010. I cut down that old oak as part of the pasture logging in November. I mulched and bedded down my garden with a year's worth of compost, instead of tilling up the grass in April and expecting something to grow. Sod gardens are always weak. I have formulated a more efficient layout to the garden and expanded the growing areas. Squashes will be moved out to their own patch to allow for more beans, peas, and potatoes. I plan to double the row length of just about everything with the space vacated by the squash. Corn is going to be moved to a 100% sun location and more of it. I will not plant my Brussels Sprouts too early, acknowledging they are happiest to be maturing in October/November.

But the biggest lesson is that I should not doubt myself so much. My doom-and-gloom neighbor who mocked my poor dwarf peas lost his entire garden when the rains came. The lack of earthworms from his exuberant spraying left his soil heavy and his plants drowned. I mentioned the worms to him and he went looking but couldn't find any. As a last ditch effort, he came to me to use my bean seeds since my beans were thriving. He looked incredulously at the "Organic, Heirloom" label but planted them anyway. They failed to thrive in his garden, dying at 10" tall.

Talking to other farmers, the year was not great all around. So my little patch of the earth did about average. The blight hurt a lot of people this year.

The theme of 2010 is production (and researching what I am actually planting), and so I will select from more hybrid (but still organic) varieties and see if I can figure out this gardening thing with the deck stacked my favor. For example, my heirloom broccoli did very well, but because the heads looked so small compared to the broccoli in the super market (my only experience with veggies to that point), I waited too long to harvest and lost a lot of the crop to flowering. When I looked up that variety to find out what I did wrong, I learned I did nothing wrong. That particular broccoli produces small but prolific heads. And true to form, the plants from last April in my greenhouse are STILL producing wee heads!

After I get another year of experience, I will start delving back into heirloom varieties and more sustainable crops. Once I get the skills to help them thrive.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

From the Intertubes

Many of my readers (all five of you) probably read the same blogs I do about farming, food, horses, World Domination By Apple Products. But in case you don't, in case you foolishly rely on moi to provide real information about farming and food, I thought I would pass along some content that has stirred my soul.

There are many more eloquent authors than I that seem to speak directly from my brain. I wish I had the ability to pen some of these discussions, but for now I will just nod vigorously and do my best to listen.

First up is a piece by Howling Duck Ranch that discusses the conundrum of large predators going after your product. Bears in the apple trees is not really a problem I, or most of us, will face. And that part of the discussion is not what grabbed me. Here's the salient quote:
We have developed strategies for competing with all aspects of nature, from traps (mice and rodents), to fungicides, herbicides, insecticides (molds, weeds, bugs), to windbreaks and rip-raps (erosion by wind and water). We have become so conditioned to these agricultural weapons that we no longer see them as such. We certainly don’t see weevils on par with squirrels, or squirrels on par with grizzly bears. Many bear enthusiasts would not object to a farmer spraying crops to prevent weevils from destroying it but would be horrified if the same farmer shot a bear to protect his apples. However, if you were dependent upon the apple crop for your livelihood, or to keep you from starving, you wouldn’t. The privilege of a full stomach affords us the luxury of seeing these two actions as vastly different. Today, most North Americans would tell me to go buy the apples from the store and save the bear because they are no longer engaged in direct economics and can afford to be blindly unaware of the cold hard realities of what it takes to put food on their tables.

In my own baby attempts to grasp Farming, I have already hit the cognitive disconnect between people who believe food comes from grocery stores (my entire family and neighbors) and myself. When foxes took my hens, I bought a .22 rifle, hardly a supreme act of Crazy. And because the foxes show up at random times, the rifle is parked next to my back door, loaded (but with safety on). My family recoils at the sight of this wee rifle, sitting out in plain sight! The nerve! Such an act of violence! I hope, for their delicate sensibilities, I will never have to actually use the rifle to protect my hens, but I would. You see, to them, this whole farm thing is a game. If I lose my flock to predation, I can just go to the store and buy food. It's not like I am going to starve or anything. But to so many hard-working people, it IS their livelihood and they will suffer if they lose their crop.

I'm not advocating extermination of all predators. I believe in living in balance. That fox kills my chickens, yes, but he also kills mice and (hopefully) potato-eating voles. I don't actively hunt him, or trap him, and I don't shoot them on sight. He is welcome to cross my land at will. Just stay away from the chickens and we'll get along just fine.

The most salient point, however, is the comparison between bears and weevils. Opposed to the shooting of bears? Reconsider your stance on pesticides, or mono-cropped dead zones, or CAFOs.

The next literary gem is from the great Joel Salatin, polarizer and minor deity for the small, sustainable farm movement. His piece is the forward of a book I intend to buy on the legislation of Raw Milk sales. Joel certainly has a way with words, but he is dead right.

Isn't it curious that at this juncture in our culture's evolution, we collectively believe Twinkies, Lucky Charms, and Coca-Cola are safe foods, but compost-grown tomatoes and raw milk are not?

In my small enterprise, I have considered what I would do with "excess" and I have few real choices. I can compost it, feed it back to the animals, but I cannot, ever, sell it. For my pasturing plan, it would be better to raise two lambs a year instead of one, because they need companionship. I cannot eat two lambs a year and I am loath to hold the lamb over in my freezer for an additional year. Unless of course, I can find a vacuum sealer that won't burn the meat sitting for so long. But let's assume I can't, that if I raise two lambs a year, I must consume or dispose of two.

There is no way I am going to sell that lamb to strangers. Who would buy it? I have a single lamb for sale, a no name operation. I've seen the ads on craigslist and I think they are crazy. No way would I buy a single animal from some stranger on craigslist. I could ask some farmer friend of mine to sell it as part of her products. That farmer might already have a customer base, and a brand. But she may not want to take the risk on the animal, who was raised outside of her quality control. I could possibly give it away or donate it to a charity, like hunters donate venison. There is less implied liability if the meat is free. I could make an arrangement with a friend who doesn't have land to raise this lamb for him and he incurs the risk and the butchering cost.

Most of these options are scary and some of them are illegal. I am all for food safety. We have the technology now to keep our food safer via refrigeration, etc. But we need a way for farmers to provide micro scale products without the legislative road blocks. Long time ago, New Hampshire had a state run, USDA inspected processing facility. I could bring my lamb there, pay my fee, and it was legal for me to sell the meat. No longer. And to see what has happened to the private butchering market, you only need to look to an enterprising pig farmer in Vermont.

I am small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, but it is unlikely that even if I had amazing success at this whole farming venture, that I would ever attempt to sell any of my products. Which makes it all the more important to thank the farmers who do, who play the game, get inspected, pay the overhead, deal with the hassle, to provide real food for our tables. Thank you.

Monday, December 14, 2009

A Case For Meat

One of the issues with which I struggle daily (just ask my close friends) is the sustainability of meat. Long ago, when I was in graduate school at Cornell and later Oxford, I was a vegetarian. I stopped eating meat for ethical reasons, long before Fast Food Nation hit the scene. I felt very strongly that even though humans evolved to eat meat, and much of the population did not have the luxury to turn their nose up at a food source, that we had the technology to keep people happy and healthy without slaughtering animals for food.

What can I say? I was young and full of principles. I focused on the face of the beautiful cow that should not become my supper and ignored the reality of the thousand faceless animals killed in the growing of my squash due to deforestation, pesticide runoff, habitat destruction, maiming from farm equipment, etc. Life, it seems, is never that simple.

But until I could guarantee the end of suffering for the meat animal itself, I could not pay into the system which caused such cruelty. So I went without meat. This was actually quite easy to do. Mad Cow had paralyzed the UK and so even McDonald's offered a veggie burger. The years ticked by and although I missed the taste of meat, I was happy for the token effort I was making to Make The World A Better Place.

Then I got sick, very sick, and I began to lose eyesight in my right eye. Back in the States, and working at my first professional job, I had access to MRIs, specialists, tests. They found nothing, no brain tumor, no retina detachment, no Glaucoma. Doing research on my own, I found I had a severe Vitamin A deficiency which is derived from eating too many tubers. Yep, starch can suck the vitamins right out of you. I started eating meat again and my eyesight improved. My doctors were incredulous, after all, American doctors never consider diet and nutrition when treating an ailment, right? Many people can live quite happily on a vegetarian diet. I could not.

I decided I needed to eat meat, but was saddened at the lack of choice. Picking up a steak at the grocery story made me sad for the creature that had sacrificed so much. (Again, this was before much of the publicity around the fecal contamination in butchered meat, so I was not concerned about cleanliness). Until I did some more research and found a grass farmer in the Texas Panhandle that would ship meat to my door. Clean, ethically raised meat that never stepped foot in a feedlot and was humanely killed instantly. No misses, no suffering. I became that farmer's biggest fan and as he expanded his offerings from beef to chicken to lamb to goat, he became my sole meat provider. I had entered a world of Food Consciousness.

The years ticked by and I become vaguely away of some of the other issues with our meat supply: the contamination from fecal material, the treatment of workers, the ridiculous amounts of fossil fuel required to grow a pound of corn-fed beef and deliver it, packaged in wrap, to the grocery store. My dream of a farm starts to take shape in my mind. Yes, it would be great to grow some veggies, but really, I wanted to secure a sustainable meat source.

And here I am. With only five acres, I am not about to run a herd of beefers on my land, but there are wonderful, low impact solutions for people just like me. I've covered the chickens I raise on the farm in a previous post. I know they are treated well and they are humanely processed, because I do the work myself. Every chicken is appreciated and they are never forgotten or faceless. Animals, especially those that sacrifice their lives for us to eat, should always be treated with dignity.

Chicken is great, but what about other meat sources? This fall, we logged the back three acres which will open up about 4 acres of pasture in the next three years. It takes time to build pasture, and I intend to do it right, so there will be no grazing through 2010 and then select, high intensity, rotational grazing from then on. But more about that in another post. With 4 acres in high production, I can rotate through 2-4 horses (with Brego muzzled to lessen his impact, of course), a lamb and a pig. And then there are also the goats, but more on them in a later post as well.

I estimate that my small family can live quite happily on chickens, a pig and a small lamb a year, using all the parts from tail to snout. These animals will live in fresh pasture and treated with dignity, this I can guarantee. Once the pastures and animals are running smoothly, I will no longer buy beef, even from a local farmer. Many, many people raise cows sustainably and with beneficial impact, but I will be able to provide my families' meat on farm without it.

In the meantime, the pastures are still a year or more off. So I bought a pig from a local farmer. I purchased the live pig and then paid the farmer to take him to butcher. I was able to see the pig alive, in his field, wallowing in mud. I was able to follow his progress and even help move him from field to field. When the time came, I was able to specify the cuts to the butcher. He was my pig, in a very real sense, even though he did not set a trotter on my soil. I will have more details about the pig in the coming days.

So in many ways, I have reversed my opinion on many things. I used to abhor the slaughtering of animals for meat, and it still weighs heavily upon my mind. But now I either perform the act myself or I am a willing and eager participant. Not out of blood lust, mind you, it is never a fun job. But because it is the only way I can continue to eat meat, with eyes wide open, to the Real Cost of the food on my table (lest we forget the Meat Fail). I firmly believe that if you eat meat, you are complicit in the death of an animal. The sooner we all acknowledge this fact, the sooner the atrocities in our food supply will stop because people will not stand for it.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Farm Raised Chicken

I shall begin the recap with highlights from the year. At the end of September, we processed the 21 Rangers we purchased as meat birds. After processing a few of our young layer roosters, which dressed to 2.5 lbs, I was hoping for a much larger, meatier bird. I was targeting the 3-5 lb range for each dressed bird.

The chicks were purchased online and mailed to me. They were raised inside for two or so weeks and then were moved out into a chicken tractor so they could enjoy the grass, the sun, the bugs and just be chickens. I did not withhold feed for 12 hours a day which is common with the Cornish Cross variety of meat bird. I cannot say that these birds never ran out of feed, because their appetite was voracious, but if they did, it was unintentional and soon remedied.

We processed the birds at 10.5 weeks. We butchered 20 of the 21, leaving a pretty hen to join our layers and see what would happen. It took two people 5 hours to process all the birds, but we did all the scalding and plucking by hand. Never again! Next year, I will rent a barrel plucker.

Our smallest chicken at 4.25 lb on a standard dinner plate.

Nice color, nice thighs, nice breast... but not overstuffed.

Overall, we fed the chickens 575 lbs of organic feed (8 bags of chick mash, 2.5 bags of grower pellets, and 1 bag of scratch). The smallest bird dressed out to 4.25 lb, way over my target low range of 3 lb. The biggest bird was 6 lb! The average weight was 5.18 lb and overall we got 103.75 lb total.

If you calculate just the cost of feed, the birds came out to $2.50/lb. If you add the original chick cost ($2), it comes to $2.88/lb. If you add in our processing labor (2 people x $7/hr x 5 hr), it's $3.50/lb. For reference, we were paying the farmer up the road $3.50/lb for organically raised Cornish Crosses last spring. An average bird cost $14.99. The Feed-Conversion-Ration (or FCR) of the birds was 3.52 live and 5.28 dressed. So it took 3.52 lbs of feed to make 1 lb of live bird. Those FCR numbers are not great, but I think I might know what is going on.

As a bird ages, their feed intake rate stabilizes but the growth rate slows. If I processed the birds two weeks earlier, I would have not only hit my target 3-5 lb range, but would have saved about 150 lbs of feed, which would really help my numbers. Next year, I intend to process at 8 weeks.

Was it worth it? To answer that, you have to go beyond the numbers and look at the quality of the bird. This is my first batch of home-grown birds, so I don't have much to compare it to. The farmer down the road who raised free-range, organic Cornish Crosses had some pretty tasty birds. My birds blew his away. He feeds the same feed so the only thing I can attribute it to is the breed of bird. I purchased a hybrid bird derived from French meat lines and these chickens remind me of rich, savory French meals. The meat is infused with fat, to the point that it beads on the surface. I found the chicken very rich and filling. It has enough calories in it to stretch it over many meals.

Very moist roast chicken. Lots of calories there!

Recently, my family visited and we roasted a whole chicken. It fed four adults, with second and third helpings, and then went on to feed two of us over five more meals, including chicken soup, chicken and black beans, chicken enchiladas, etc. The stock is solid at refrigerator temperatures and continues to live on.

I am a big fan of this type of meat bird, but it is not very sustainable for a small farm. For one, they are hybrids which means that even if I kept a breeding pair, I would not be guaranteed to get the same results. I did keep one hen and we'll see what she produces if crossed with a layer rooster, if she lives that long. She's going strong now, but definitely waddles around. We recently weighed her at 10 lbs live, so she's pretty big. Secondly, they need a tremendous amount of food to grow them so big, so fast, and that food comes from off the farm.

The hope is to eventually create a flock of true dual purpose birds, that both lay and grow to 7 lb free ranging. I will expound on that more in a later post, however.

In the meantime, these meat hybrids will be part of the farm next year, with a plan to order two batches of 25 birds in the summer. That will give us about a chicken a week for the year and a wonderful protein source.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Is This Thing On?

*tap, tap* Can you hear me?



It goes like this. In the whirlwind final days of Autumn, with the ensuing mess on the Brego blog, I stopped visiting the Five Acres Blog. I had 50 million things to do to finish our meager harvest and prepare for winter and foxhunt twice a week and, oh yea, that full time job. Plus, I felt like our meager harvest was just that, nothing to write home about.

But time heals all wounds and now, under the first foot of snow, farm work has come to a screeching halt. We have settled into the easy rhythm of caring for the animals and dreaming of Spring. More research has revealed my meager harvest was actually pretty decent, for our location, our weather, our experience. Some things were failures and some things were startling successes. And even in mediocrity, there is much learned and much to be shared.

So I intend to spend the Winter catching up, sharing our final days of Summer, the bounty of Autumn, and the exciting plans for the Spring.

And to my readers, with their gentle prodding, I apologize for the long silence. I have disabled anonymous comments because of scam posting, not negative comments. Keep the constructive, challenging comments coming and if you are uncomfortable posting in a public way, you can email me at fiveacresenough at gmail.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Feeding the Hungry

After my ride this evening, I decided to dig up one of the potatoes that looked the most yellowed and tired. I have been hearing a lot about the Late Blight that has been hitting farmers in the North East. Although none of my potatoes look blighted, I am worried about getting them out of the ground. Too early and the potatoes are too small and underdeveloped. Too late and I risk the blight and having them rot in the ground.

The decision on when to harvest was made for me. I picked a plant at the end of a row and gently went searching for the tubers. The first tuber I pulled out of the ground was half eaten. You could very clearly see the mole teeth marks biting into the flesh. Well, there you go. I decided to harvest all the potatoes tonight, lest I lose more of them to the varmint.

Aside from being half eaten, the rest of the potatoes on that plant were of good size. A couple more weeks probably would not have made much difference, but I would have lost more to the hungry rodent. As my hands followed its little burrows around my plants, I knew I had to act now or never.

This year's harvest.

I ended up pulling 30 lbs of potatoes out of the ground. Some of the later planted potatoes were less mature, but I decided to pull them all and count myself lucky. Thirty pounds is far, far off from my goal of 100 lbs of potatoes to last a year, but it's a good first year. I did not suffer through the blight (and my tomatoes look blissfully good right now), I did not have any rot or other pests beside the mole. And the five varieties I planted all did well.

The purples yielded the largest tubers. The deep red were next. The light red were small but prolific. And the German butter potatoes I bought special online yielded nice mid- to small-sized potatoes but only a few per plant. The fingerlings were also quite prolific. So the (hand picked by virgins and rinsed in unicorn tears = $$$) special-order potatoes were the most planted and yielded the least per plant. The other varieties I bought off a farmer at the Spring farmer's market and used for food and seed did the best. There's a good lesson there.

Hardening in the nice, safe, mole-free basement.

That mole ate my purples!

All in all, I am happy with my potato production. I am going to plant twice as much next year from local stock, and try to combat the moles earlier. I am glad I decided to pull a plant to check it tonight, and I am very lucky that the plant I pulled had been eaten, or else the little critter would have gone undetected for a few more weeks until the planned September harvest.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Many Hands Make Light Work

Life on the farm is accelerating now, with more and more veggies coming into maturity. Two good friends came into town and gave us a hand on Sunday and the old say of "Many hands make light work" held true. I had a huge list of things to get done and they were all done by 2 pm!

On Saturday, after the horse show, we went blue berrying again and brought home 10 lbs of berries. We've ordered a pressure canning set online and will wait for it to arrive before we do any more canning, so this batch of berries is destined for blueberry pancakes, cobbler, or flash frozen.

The first beans of the year were sampled by my friends and we harvested the first tomato in the greenhouse. Things are just getting warmed up, we should have more in the coming weeks.

We also dismantled the wee chicklin pen since the flocks have been integrated in the main coop. Not everyone is with the new program and I have to round up errant chickens each night and place them in the coop by hand. Hopefully, they will wise up soon. The wees are still a month or so away from laying, but they look full-sized. We are getting just 6 eggs a day right now, so I can't wait for more pullets to come online and start laying.

We also got a tree down, cleaned up some branches, did more work on the compost piles, weed wacked, and generally got things in order.

Starting next week, I will be out of state for training for my new job. I will spend four weeks away from home, although I get to come home on the weekends.

I am trying to get as much done as I can to ease the burden on my SO in my absence, but it will be most welcome to just be home for the fall. Foxhunting season starts in two weeks. Fall harvest will start soon as well: potatoes, perhaps some corn, squashes, beans, peppers, and eggplants.

Happy times.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Three Weeks

Happy Birthday, Meatballs! They are three weeks old today. And boy, are they growing and decidedly fugly. They are growing well and I am keeping careful records of amount of feed consumed, start to finish, so I can calculate my per pound costs. I am hoping to get a 4.5 lb to 5 lb dressed bird at 10-12 weeks.

So ugly, they are cute? Or maybe just ugly.

Check out the godzilla thick legs, these guys are built to GROW!

Growing so fast, their feathers can't keep up.

New Rooster #1: Parrot

A young Wyandotte pullet.

New Rooster #2: Darthy

In other news, we went to a You Pick Blueberry farm and picked about 10 lbs of blueberries. We flash froze most and canned some. The canning was not very successful, but we learned a lot. We are going back this weekend to get more to freeze and can. We need to perfect canning before those tomatoes are due. Speaking of, those plants have now reached the top of the greenhouse. I have never seen anything like it!

We've also been enjoying our French Heirloom Zucchini, Ronde de Nice. They are so tender and delicate, you could never find them at a conventional market due to losses in shipping. Hobbit the Hamster eats the tops with gusto, but she won't touch the zucchini we get from the local farmer's market. I consider that high praise indeed!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cross-Post From the Brego Blog

A big life change.

Lower carbon footprint is a big deal for me. Getting more time to tend the garden, and lower stress in general is also important.

Of course, this also means that with both adults telecommuting, we are no longer tethered to a commutable distance to a major tech hub. This could spell bigger and better things in the future. But for now the plan is to sit tight, love this farm, and live each day.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Berry Season

It's berry season in this here parts. Or it would be, if the deluge of rain had not suffocated the blueberries up the hill and killed the crop. However, other farms in the area have had better success. I am considering going to a Pick-Your-Own farm, buying a bunch of produce and canning/freezing some for the winter. You can't get more local harvest than that.

To that end, I ran across this website:

If you run across a good farm in your area and preserve something, please report back. I love to hear success stores.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Farm Meals and a Visitor

The last two nights have been graced with farm meals. Last night, we cooked our late rooster for some out-of-town friends that were staying with us. I was concerned that he would be too tough to eat because I had a lot of trouble processing him. He was a tough old bird.

However, the master chef in the house worked her magic and found a recipe for coq au vin online. With slight modifications, we were treated to our first "flavorful" chicken. And boy, I had no idea what I had been missing all this time.

As the rooster was quartered, prior to cooking in wine, I noticed that his "dark" meat was as full colored as goat or dark pork. I was told that as a chicken exercises, their meat turns darks. The young industrialized chickens at the grocery store with white meat legs have never seen an exercise yard. Our rooster, who had free-ranged his entire life, was dark. The finished product tasted a lot like well-cooked goat as well, in both consistency and flavor. Not tough, but textured. He was very, very tasty and I would have been surprised to learn that this was chicken, if I didn't know any better. There was so much FLAVOR.

My friends and I discussed that it was amazing how our mental image of chicken is completely dominated by caged, seven-week-old cornish crosses: mushy and bland.

After the meal, we cooked down the remaining chicken for stock. The wonderful smell of cooking filled the house for over a day.

Tonight, we had a vegetarian meal. I harvested more fingerling potatoes today. We also had peas, broccoli and three large turnips I had long given up on. The potatoes were out of this world, and I believe that this is the first time I have eaten potatoes straight out of the ground. Usually, they are hardened for storage.

As if eating an old rooster was not strange enough for this former-suburbanite...

Three nights ago, I went to do night check on the horses at 9 pm. As I walked in front of the garage, I noticed a little tan body scurrying against the closed garage door. We have mice in the barn, but this was larger and had a very tiny tail. It was a hamster!! I gave chase, calling out "A hamster! Someone's hamster! We have to save it!" There was no way a hamster would survive the night around here.

The little hamster ran under a parked car and after much scraping of knees and feats of agility I didn't know I could muster, it was safely in a pail. We brought it in and determined it was an older female and she was tame, although thin and hungry. We put her in a five gallon bucket with bedding for the night, complete with oats, barley, sunflower seeds, etc. She devoured everything.

The next day I bought her a proper hamster cage and introduced her to fresh produce from the garden. She loves peas and broccoli, carrots and salad greens. She also likes a bit of cheese and milk. Overall, she's slowly getting acclimated and more social, although she sleeps a lot. I did some research and hamsters can travel up to 3 km a night, so I have no idea where she could be from or how she ended up on my five acres, surrounded as it is by dense, predator-rich forest. Her journey is fairly miraculous.

I have named her Hobbit.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Food Comes From My Farm

Today we got a break in the rain (yes, already twice the normal amount for July...) to process the additional 7 cockerels from the April 15th order. We also took the opportunity to bid a fond fair well to Odie. Our late rooster had developed a habit of harassing the hens and running away at the first sign of trouble, causing two hens to get taken by a fox instead of himself. On this farm, the purpose of the rooster is to be a look out for hens and, if necessary, allow himself to get taken first by a predator. At the very least, he should be nice to the hens. Odie was none of these things. So he will be one more thing: coq au vin.

The processing went smoothly. We have a pretty decent system, working on a pallet strung between sawhorses under a tree. We fastened two kill cones to the tree, a turkey fryer filled with water (heated by propane) for scalding, and a water hose for cleaning. We plucked the birds by hand. It took us about 2 hours to do the 8 roosters, but we took breaks.

Overall, the wee cockerels dressed to about 2.5 lbs at 15 weeks. For reference, I am expecting 5 lbs dressed at 10 weeks from the Ranger meat birds. Odie was 4.5 lbs dressed. So all in all, we got 22 lbs of chicken which does not include the livers, hearts, gizzards and necks which we kept for the dogs or for stock.

The meat birds are growing like crazy and are all very healthy. They are so different from the layer chicks, with full, distended bellies and an insatiable hunger. They will stay in the brooder for another week and then will get moved out to the tractor where they will eat grass and bugs and feel the sun on their backs.

The garden is limping along. Thank goodness our garden area is considered "well-drained". The copious amounts of rain has threatened not only hay and crops, but water quality as well. Double and triple amounts of rain are washing fertilizers and other contaminants into brooks and streams. New Hampshire has closed several lakes, in the height of tourist season, because of the toxic algae growth that favors the nutrient-rich runoff. Despite our relatively low performance of our garden, I am more encouraged than ever to "do no harm". No pesticides, toxic fertilizers, frankenfood will be used on this farm. Good old fashioned compost and biodiverse growing principals will win out, I believe.

Beans, happy beans.

Beans on the way

Wee pumpkin

No shortage of worms here. This guy moved like a snake!

My uphill neighbor is a pharmer and although he has NO weeds (which looks a bit bizarre to my jungle-acclimated eye), his plants have drowned in his heavy soil. No worms to break it up and give the water a way to drain. No additional life to soak up the moisture. It's tough all over for farmers, but my little garden is holding its own. We're still getting yummy peas and broccoli (thanks to unusually cool temps), and the potatoes will be rockin' if they don't rot in the ground first. We may not get any corn at all, but we're already getting zucchini starting, some pumpkins, the first fingerling potatoes and the eggplants in the greenhouse are starting to flower.

Greenhouse broccoli just keeps going and going. We get wee heads and leaves to eat.

The haul from a single, small fingerling potato plant. Good eats!

Eggplant in the greenhouse

Peppers in the greenhouse

Oh and tomatoes...

Come to me, my precious...

A whole different variety of yummy...

There is one thing I do really well and that's grow the tallest tomato plants, crowning when they hit the top of the greenhouse at over 7 feet. I've had to string twine the entire length of the greenhouse to hold the giant plants back since they have long outgrown their 3' cages. These plants are super happy, putting out hundreds of yellow blossoms, and I am all too happy to come along and play the role of the bee. Only a couple more weeks now and I will hopefully have plenty of tomatoes.

They've taken over the entire right side of the greenhouse

Looking UP at tomatoes!

Tomato flowers everywhere

Salad trying to grow under the shadow of tomatoes

Friday, July 24, 2009

Local Harvest - Seafood?

Last night we had fresh flounder, caught that morning, by a local fisherman. It was the most amazingly delicious fish I had ever eaten. Of course, I thought immediately of the recent articles on Honest Meat entitled Surf and Turf (Part 1 and Part 2). I have not decided to not buy fish, since we do eat it rarely (maybe once a month), but I am getting close.

Of course, seafood IS a local harvest for this area, and the local fishermen are suffering. So what's more evil: Steak from the midwest or fish from the Gulf of Maine?

Since we don't really eat much beef, a better question might be: Local pork or local seafood? We all know that grass-fed meats are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, but are they as good for you as fresh white fish or other seafoods?

I definitely need to do more research on this. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Friday, July 17, 2009

More Chickens

Wandering around my farm right now, you would run across three different sets of chickens. The adult layers, recently minus two hens, the not-so-wee chicklins (pullets and two cockerels) in their pen, and a tractor for the wee cockerels. You would think I had enough chickens.

But you would be wrong.

Today, the 20 Rangers day-old chicks arrived via mail. They will grace this farm for 10 short weeks before they are processed to grace our table. I opted not to take on the much maligned Cornish X this time around, but to opt for a chicken that acts more... chicken-like.

Day-Old Ranger Chicks from Eventing Percheron on Vimeo.

I will be tracking their progress here, including food consumed and eventual processed weight. It's important to understand all that goes into the production of a single pound of meat, to really understand the impact that factory farms have on the environment. Chickens are easy. Pork is much, much harder.

These little guys are eating non-medicated organic chick mash at $22/50 lb. It's quite expensive, but it is organic and made relatively locally, over the border in Vermont. It's also made with real grains, not byproducts or waste.

Considering the poor performance of the wee cockerels we processed at 10 weeks (a little over 2 lbs dressed), I am excited to see how these chicks turn out in the same amount of time. I am hoping for 5 lbs dressed. It will be a grand experiment!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Enemy of My Enemy

Farm life is a constant struggle between Good and Evil. Actually, that's not true. I was just being dramatic. Life around a farm is filled with various critters just doing what they do without malicious intent. Like the mighty earthworm who helps my garden, and my nefarious strawberry-eating chickens who do not.

Because I strive for a non-toxic, sustainable farm, I am loath to employ chemicals to extinguish the "bad" animals. I am not entirely sure they don't harm myself or the "good" animals or the water supply or this planet. So I have to make strange allies where ever I can. Please meet my latest recruits:

Any guesses? These are praying mantis pods. Each one holds about a hundred little praying mantises. When distributed around the garden, they will be voracious predators, eating grubs, beetles, all sorts of nasties. Of course, they are nasty themselves, not in a "I want to squash them" kind of way, but in a "I don't want to cross them, please forgive me, hivemind overlords" kind of way.

Next up in my arsenal is the gardening chicken. My garden is surrounded by chicken wire to keep the flock out. But I do allow supervised visits by my favorite garden chicken: Darthy. Darthy has the rather lucky distinction of being one of the two roosters we have selected to run the show here next year. And, he's very sociable and useful for one endearing quality: he eats slugs. He will hunt down and eat slugs and pass over earthworms. To me, that makes him chicken gold. So when I am weeding in the garden, I have my chicken with me. He has learned to follow me and watch my hands and as I turn up goodies, he pounces and finishes them off. When he gets hot, he lays between my feet as I squat over the rows and I feel like some Roman slave, palm frond in hand, gently feeding him grapes, er, slugs. Oh, and he comes when called.

I've seen a few lady bugs in the garden, but I can augment those troops with more and I intend to. I also have befriended (i.e., not run away shrieking) a garter snake who keeps watch over the peas. Good snakey. We have a resident toad, called Macbeth, in the greenhouse, eating ants. I'd also like to get a few more (thousand) dragonflies, but since the weather has been so weird, I am not sure when to do it. It's been cold, into the 40s at night, and of course rainy.

Aside from the unlikely allies, I have a rogue ally. Normally foxes keep rodent populations in check (good), but on Thursday, what I believe was a fox took two of my adult hens while I was at work (bad). So we've finally lost a chicken to predation. This makes me very, very sad. I am now in the business of trapping and likely killing foxes, something I was loath to do until they proved that they could not keep themselves to themselves. A few weeks ago, we had a fox steal a hen in broad daylight, but she got away. Now we have two hens killed (one taken) in broad daylight again, and it will only continue.

I have weighed the option of building a run and keeping the chickens perpetually enclosed, but I do not think it is an option. The wee chicklin pen the young ones are currently in is a disgusting mess. I cannot conceive of a big enough area to allow 20 chickens to roam without denuding it and turning it into a smelly, toxic dump. Also, in general, the predator pressure is very low. Of the 40 something chickens we currently have on the property, we've lost two in one year. I am content with those odds, as long as we remove Mr. Smart Fox, who has learned where the chicken buffet is served.

It's been an interesting year so far and I have completely reversed my perspective in many ways. When I lived in the city, I would cry foul if anyone suggested killing a fox. Now that my hens have been taken, I have a much more reasoned and balanced view on the whole thing. I do not kill for sport, but nature is a constant balancing act of allies turned enemies, and we just do what we do without malicious intent.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Can You Take Charge?

This morning I read another very thoughtful piece on the individual decision we all make, to support what we believe to be the best food. The author is a constant inspiration to me: her farm is incredible and she works very hard to provide for her family for much the same reasons as myself. We made a choice to "walk swiftly" away from industrialized "pharming".

Of course, this inaugural year of me being a farmer is not even close to providing enough food for us to turn our back of Big Agribiz, but it is a bumper crop of knowledge. I think I have finally become a gardener when, in mid July, I am already looking forward to next year's garden. I have learned so much from doing (it wrong), that I wish I could start over. And the nice thing about gardening is there is always next spring.

Even though we are not in a position to grow all our own food, we do make our choice with the people that can. We attend one, sometimes two farmer's markets a week. There are some things, like milk, honey, and syrup, that I will never buy in a store. All our meat for next year will come from local farmers. We will provide the majority of chickens, we will soon take delivery of a local lamb, and we take delivery of a local, apple-finished pig in the fall. Yummy. Aside from the occasional farmer's market ground or steak, we are cutting out beef entirely. I would like everyone to appreciate the boldness of that statement, coming from a Native Texan.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Back on Track

Thursday was the Rain God's Finale. After tormenting us with 25 consecutive days of rain, the sky dropped 1.65 inches on us in a single day, overflowing the drains and swamping the sacrifice paddock. The already saturated ground did not even put up a fight and a river ran through my back yard, on the way down to my neighbor. A minor tributary flowed right through the wee chicklin pen and they took refuge on the roost to stay out of the wet.

By Sunday, after two solid days of heat and glorious sun, everything has started to dry out. My lawn has been mowed, the garden somewhat weeded, the chicklins bed down with straw, and the horses have finally returned to the pasture. It is starting to feel normal again, and with the next week's forecast showing just the usual idle threats of rain, I can start to breath easy again.

I never thought I would be so happy to see the sun.

I worked outside as much as I could all weekend, culminating in building a chicken tractor out of PVC today. We used to it separate out the roosters from our wee chicklins. We move them around the areas of the lawn that need the most help, while increasing the protein in their diet to fatten them up for the last three weeks. I intend to slaughter before they reach 16 weeks old. In the meantime, they will scratch the ground and deposit precious manure. Then when the tractor is moved to a new patch of ground, I will broadcast seed and water it in well. The lawn gets happy, the chickens bed on fresh, clean ground every day and I eventually get fed. It's a perfect system.

The first of the tomatoes have started to form in the greenhouse. I cannot wait to see which of the four varieties we planted tastes the best. Everything else is doing relatively well, considering the lack of sun, except the corn. We lost a lot of corn to rot. I cleaned out the rows and replanted a few spots, but in general, we are just going to be short on corn.

I finally got some pictures of the farm. I do realize I am woefully behind on weeding, so please excuse the jungle-like appearance of most of the garden.

Sweet peas.

Odie and gal pals on the south lawn.

Eggplant in the greenhouse.

Turnip on the way.

Two dogs oversea the chicklins in the tractor.

Chicken tractor at work on my lawn.

Second wave of asparagus coming up.

Tomato plants that are getting to be my height.

Pole Beans off to a great start.

Sad, washed out corn struggles on.

Everyone enjoying the sun.

The dogs watching chicken TV.

Pumpkins in the terrace.

Zucchini and squash.

Salad greens in the greenhouse.