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.