Sunday, November 21, 2010

Creative Problem Solving

As a technologist and an IT engineer at heart, I have developed a real passion for solving problems and figuring out ways to make things efficient.  Farm projects provide a lot of opportunity for this and are a great hobby for keeping these skills sharp.

So here's problem number one.  The builder of our house put the pressure tank for the well and the associated plumbing in a small shed, which we call the pump house.  I think the reason for this was to reduce the Summer humidity in the house by keeping the condensation buildup on the tank in a separate building.

Pump House
Unfortunately, this also means another space that needs to be heated in the winter, which we've done with space heaters and electric pipe warmers, an expensive and risky approach.  Last year I tried just going with the pipe warmers and in the middle of preparing Christmas Eve dinner we had a sudden drop in water pressure.  After some inside troubleshooting I trudged through two feet of snow to find the pump house flooded and water spraying everywhere from a burst pipe because of a failed warmer.  Some quick pipe sweating and dinner was back on track, but the moist warm environment ended up becoming a neon sign for Norway Rats, who proceeded to tear apart the fiberglass insulation throughout the shed.

Problem number two is that we've been pretty lax with our layer chickens and they've gone pretty much rogue.  They've scattered themselves around the property and have taken to sleeping in the trees.  They have also found alternative spots for laying eggs and I haven't been able to track them down, except for stumbling on an occasional nest, which we won't use.  At some point I'll take on capturing the birds and confining them to the portable coop to "train" them to lay in the box, but sometimes it's as easy to start with some fresh chicks.

A while back I found a clutch of eggs in the woods and threw these and a few others in the incubator.  When they hatched, the pump house got cleaned out and the brooder relocated inside.

Blue Pressure Tank & Brooder
The heat lamp needs to be on for the chicks, why not have it do double duty and eliminate the need for the other heaters in the pump house?  So far it's working great and we'll have a fresh batch of layers producing in the Spring.  I wish I had thought of this last year.

Natural Bug Spray

Here's the recipe for the spray I used in the garden and orchard this year.  I combined a few recipes off the internet and composed my own concoction on a torn up scrap of paper, so it's time to document it properly for next year before I lose it.  It seemed to work reasonably well as the bugs didn't pose much of a problem until I stopped using it.  As it was my first year raising bees I was concerned about spraying at all, but when I stopped, the bugs really picked up.

6 Cloves Garlic
1 Onion
1-3 Hot Peppers, depending on size & heat
1 Tbs Liquid Soap
1 Tbs Vinegar
1 Tbs Baking Soda

Mix the Garlic, Pepper & Onion in a food processor with enough water to make a thin slurry.  Transfer the mix to a bowl or 1 quart canning jar and let sit overnight.  The next day, pour through cheesecloth or a fine strainer into 2 gallon sprayer, fill the container to the 2 gallon mark and add the remaining ingredients.  When filling the container, run the water over the vegetable mix to capture more of the flavor.  Give it a good shake and it's ready to use.  

The best time to spray is early morning after the dew has evaporated a bit.  I also spray some in the evenings as that can be a pretty busy time for bugs.  The nice thing about this spray is it makes your garden smell like an Italian kitchen.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Downside of Farming

Most of the time I spend thinking about farming it's about the positive aspects of generating our own food and improving the land.  Things like appreciating superior food quality, the joy of watching livestock antics and the satisfaction of helping to preserve the genetic diversity of critical species.  But the farming experience is certainly filled with it's share of challenges.  It's not too hard to move on after a crappy corn season due to a drought, peas that went from seed to the compost pile from a sudden heat wave, or an epidemic season of squash bugs wiping out the majority of Cucerbits.  And then there are the real problems...

A couple weeks ago I moved the broilers out to pasture.  The hatchery was back ordered this fall, so our chicks arrived about a month after I had originally planned, which pushed the raising period into cool / cold weather. 

Moving Chicks to Pasture
About 10% of the flock died from the cold the first two nights outdoors, but the rest adapted well and really started to put on some weight.  That's a pretty big loss ratio for us, but it's recoverable.  About two weeks later, I went to the coop for morning feeding and all but three birds had been killed by a predator.  By the nature of the kill, my estimation is that one or more weasels dug through the coop and went on a killing spree.  A weasel will go after young poultry and basically kill everything in sight.  They bite the head off a chick, lick the blood pumping out and move on to the next one.  The really disturbing part is they don't eat much and leave the carcasses behind - a total waste.  I'd much rather have a fox in the hen house.   A fox will grab a couple birds and drag them away, but at least they eat what they kill like a respectful hunter.

So that's the end of our fall chicken project.  We're close to finishing the meat we've been keeping from our summer broilers and the next batch won't be ready until May or June, so it's probably back to grocery chicken for a while.  At least I'll get a chance to appreciate what I'm missing in the meantime.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Vegetable Garden Journal - First Entry

I promised myself when I started the garden this year that I would keep a journal to keep track of what works and doesn't work for us.  Of course that didn't happen as I'd hoped now that it's mid October I'm just sitting down to my first entry.  Hopefully I can remember enough to apply a lot of what we learned this year to next year.  I hate repeating mistakes.  In this entry I'll focus on the infrastructure of the garden.

Bed Preparation
Last Fall I rotated the pigs and goats into the garden area and a number of chickens moved in with them of their own accord.  They did an amazing job of cleaning out the previous garden and the pigs tilled the entire area.  I did leave them in too long and the space ended up getting very packed, which made it hard to get a tiller very deep.  I also suspect that the worms had their work cut out for them in the spring.  After three passes with the tiller there were spots that were clumpy, but most of the garden ended up nice and fluffy.  Next year I think I'll rotate the pigs around smaller sections of the garden more frequently so they aren't in one spot too long to pack down the dirt.

We also had the pigs till up a patch of lawn to extend the garden size and then fenced in the entire area (Thanks Jim).  It's really amazing to see them go to work.  This about doubled the garden size and the fencing did a good job keeping the chickens out during the year.   One issue with the new area is that the grass came back with a vengeance and made for some difficult weeding throughout the year.   Hopefully this will be easier to manage next year. 

New Garden Thanks to the Pigs
Garden Zones & Companion Planting
I'm a big fan of companion planting - in theory.  This is the practice of grouping plants together to create complementary growth characteristics from a physical or biological perspective.  For example, growing corn, squash and beans together is a powerful combination because the corn provides a stalk for the beans to grow on, the beans free up minerals in the soil for the corn and squash to use and the squash blocks out the sunlight and resulting weeds.  I personally haven't had much success with this however and the close spacing of the plants ends up meaning a more difficult weeding job, which means more work and less help from the family.  I've also noticed that the squash did much better in full sunlight rather than shaded by the corn stalks.

The setup I'd like to try next year is to group the garden into zones based on management techniques.  Rather than mix the peas and turnips together or plant the pumpkins between the rows of corn, I'll setup distinct areas for each type of crop.  The basic areas would be Corn Field(s), Potatoes,  Root Vegetables, Cabbage & Greens, Tomatoes & Peppers, etc.  This approach should also allow for better management of secondary crops in certain areas, such as a second planting over the turnip area.  I can also space out the rows a bit more to make weeding easier and get a tiller through when the area is done.

Last year I got a couple truckloads full of mulch from the county and covered a good portion of the garden.  This did wonders for controlling the weeds.  In the back of my mind I had concerns about what was in the mulch, particularly after pulling out Christmas ornaments, tinsel, shredded clothing, plastic and other unknown trash (not to mention the likelihood of chemicals).  This year I skipped the mulch because I couldn't get past the garbage aspect of free mulch and didn't want to spend the money on several truckloads of commercial mulch, but ended up with a weeding nightmare. 

For next year, I've decided to make as much mulch as I possibly can from our property.  We harvest our own firewood and have been clearing out the brush in the woods, so there's plenty of material, but it is a time intensive project.  If I can figure out a more efficient system for this I'll be sure to post about it.

I started a lot of seedlings in the garage workshop this year.  As a matter of fact, the majority of the garden was planted from seed rather than starter plants from the nursery, which is a real money saver.  Many of them did well, but it turns out the cold concrete floor stunted the germination on a number of plants.  Next year I'll move back up to the sunny hallway over the breezeway, which has recently been freed up from being the homeschooling hub.

The other tweak is to adjust the timing of the starter plants.  The peppers take forever to get started, so I think I'll start them on the Holiday break.  Then would come the cold hardy plants like Kohlrabi and spinach. Late March would be the time to start the warm weather plants.  The squashes and melons were nice to get going in flats, but I didn't notice much of a difference when it came to productivity.  The plants that were sown outside caught up and did just as well as the ones started inside.

It was also a funny year timing wise as we had our last frost on May 15 and by June 15 a we had a heat wave into the 100s and a drought was settling in.  This was a double whammy with our seedling flats.  I like to have the plants out to harden by April and a surprise May freeze was enough to kill off a lot of the starter plants.  I lost more when the 100 degree days dried out the flats.  This weather swing also had a negative impact on the cabbages and lettuces which ended up bitter and unproductive.

We had the worst drought this year since we started doing the garden.  We're also on a well, which means that at the time the plants need the water the most, we need to be the most conservative with our drinking water.  Because I travel a lot I need a relatively hands off way to water the plants.  I setup a water timer and hooked it up to impact sprinklers, which was great for the early growth in the summer.  The impact sprinklers had a difficult time delivering water as time progressed because the plants grew into the way.  I also noticed that they had a tendency to shoot most of the water over a center ring, creating a bulls eye effect where the middle and edge got wet but the zone in the middle didn't get much.  I much prefer the coverage of an oscillating sprinkler, but our garden is too big to get adequate coverage without more zones on the timer.  Setting up the garden zones differently should help with targeting areas that require more intense irrigation and then I can water drought tolerant crops sporadically.  Maybe next year will be the one to try out a drip irrigation system.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On the Road

I travel quite a bit for my career, which makes tending the farm very much a shared responsibility.  I'm currently in Chicago getting ready for a client visit in the morning and in between attending conference calls, churning through emails and squeezing out a deliverables, my thoughts stray home here and there.

I was delighted to get the report back from the home front this evening that my 7 year old daughter Jayla has been diligently taking care of the animals both morning and evening.  That's a lot of feed to hand out and water to refill and she's doing it voluntarily.  I'm very proud of her.

I'm very thankful that Ayala has always been willing to take care of farm responsibilities and deal with the challenges that inevitably come up around the property.  I've lost count of the times she's had to go collect the pigs, lock up the goats, take stock of predator losses with the birds, and probably the most gruesome dealing with the burned up chicken coop.  It wouldn't be possible without that support and I would probably have given up long ago.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Slippery Jacks

The Short Stemmed Slippery Jacks (Suillus brevipes) started popping up over the last couple days.  These edible Bolete mushrooms grow at the edge of the root line of our Eastern White Pine grove, with which they have a mycorrhizal relationship.  They grow right at the edge of the roots and help the trees by providing easy access to minerals while the mushrooms get access to sugars, which is a form of symbiosis.  Note the Spongy underside on the large mushroom on the left.  The porous structure indicates a member of the Bolete family, which is generally a safe group of mushrooms.  Even a horrendous misidentification will only cause stomach upset, but there are some simple rules to avoid this as well.

Slippery Jack
Slippery Jacks are similar to the Porcini mushroom used in fine Italian cooking, but they have a more mild flavor.  The skins on the cap are bitter and should be removed before using the mushrooms.

Skin & Cleaned Mushroom on Right
Once the caps are removed they can be cooked or dried.  I prefer to dry them first because it concentrates the earthy flavor that makes these mushrooms worth harvesting.  Reconstituted, they are great in gravies, soups and pasta sauces.

Animals Should be Happy

We do our best to make sure our animals are treated right.  Beyond just being the right thing to do, it makes managing them that much easier.  Siruis Black is our new registered Berkshire boar.  He's about 25 or 30 pounds right now and he loves to get pet.  We're working on having him establish a strong relationship with people so when he's 500 pounds he's safe to be around.

Sirius Black

If you get him at the right time and the right spot, he'll sit and lie down like a dog.

Jack is our new Angora goat.  He's a sweetheart.  He jumps up to be pet and grab a snack.  I've been trying to break one of our dogs of that habit for the last year, but it's a neat habit with a goat.

Jack the Angora Goat

Of course making the animals happy is sometimes easier said than done.  I'm doing some shuffling with the goats to move our pygmy buck Otis out of the pygmy herd so our new Angora Buck, Jack, can join the girls.  We're starting a line of Pygora Goats and the two bucks will be sires for different genetic lines so we can produce breeding pairs of the Pygoras.  Let's just say that Otis is not a happy Camper.  He's a rather jealous bully at this point and is insisting on escaping from whatever fencing solution I put together to keep him separated.  Hopefully he won't hold a grudge too long.

Otis, angry & waiting for a quick fence repair

Friday, October 8, 2010

Ever wonder what a hundred chickens look like?

Chicks in the Mail

Where do Chickens come from?  The US Postal Service, of course.

Our chicks arrived in the mail this morning from the hatchery.  The post office is usually anxious to move them along and gladly opens their doors early.  We got a batch of 100 Cornish Cross Cockerels from Purely Poultry, where we've had a lot of luck in the past.  Only one chick died in shipment (which is a really good shipment) and they always throw in a few extras to cover a couple losses, so we're starting off with 103 birds.

They are cute little fuzzballs when they arrive.  That warm feeling only lasts a few days and then it becomes apparent that these birds are simple eating machines.  These guys were hatched & shipped on Wednesday and arrived early Friday morning.  Just before a chick hatches is sucks up the last of the yolk and has about 72 hours of nutrition and fluid in its system, which makes ordering birds through the mail feasible.

Getting the chicks through the first three days is the real trick.  After setting them in the brooder, they get access to fresh water and chick starter feed, but there are usually a few that don't quite figure out the system at first.  We lost a couple birds in the first two hours because the crawled into the waterer and chilled themselves to death.  Did I mention that chickens aren't the brightest of animals?

Thursday, October 7, 2010


So, I've been referring to our little homestead here as a "farm" -- with quotation marks. Even when I speak it, you can hear an ironic, self-deprecating inflection in my voice. And more often than not, if I am present when John refers to our home/hobby/animals/garden as a "farm" -- I usually add a comment to undercut it.

Now that we have been raising chickens for eggs and meat for over a year; and now that we have bought registered animals for purposes of breeding [as opposed to just accumulating farm pets]; and now that we have actually canned our own food for two years [with even me rolling up my sleeves and joining in]; and now that John is actually planning to market our pigs and goats and has launched this blog... well, it is time for me to confront the quotation marks and figure out exactly why I am keeping this endeavor at arms' length, minimizing it for myself and others.

There are a couple of issues at play, I know.

a question of intention
When we moved out here, we deliberately chose a more rural life: slower, more connected to the earth and its natural rhythms. We did not, however, have an overt plan to actually farm. Ok, we had discussed maybe have a joint communal garden/orchard as a hobby with friends/neighbors. But not ourselves alone. So I am not sure how we ended up with all this. Yes, I was the one that came home from a country drive to tell John that a farm over the bridge was selling pygmies and could we please, maybe, go look at them? But this was merely whim, to have as pets. (When I traveled in Africa in my early 20s I became enamored of the little goats I saw everywhere and I always fantasized about having some. Same with the guinea hens. And when the house we ended up buying already had a fenced yard for goats with a goat house, well it just seemed natural...) I don't know what mental process John went through, but I certainly never said to myself, "Hey, let's have a farm." We just seemed to end up at this point where the pets and domesticated animals outnumber the people by more than 4 to 1 -- and where our lawns have been converted to animal pens and vegetable garden, and goose poop covers our drive. Surely you don't end up being farmers by accident?

a question of effort and priority
This is a biggie. I'm 43 years old and I'm big and brave enough to face some truths about myself. And one of 'em is that I do NOT like physical labor. Heck, I don't like exercise at all. I will work very hard -- and enjoy it -- on things I feel passionately about, but most of the effort is usually mental or creative or things you can do around a table or desk. (I do enjoy giving a kitchen or bathroom or floor a good occasional scrub down -- but unfortunately not often enough to keep up with the reality of a household of six humans and 4 critters.) Not only that, but I left my "type A"/workaholic tendencies behind over a decade ago. Knowingly and willfully. I have learned that I am at my best when my life has plenty of down-time: to reflect, to be spontaneous, to be creative, or just plain putter. I am pretty sure the above description is pretty much the antithesis of the personality traits one would ascribe to someone one would call a farmer. Yes, I love the animals and the fresh veggies but I wouldn't say I've made the commitment to the effort they require.

John, one the other hand, thrives when faced with a good amount of rigorous and productive physical work. John willingly and regularly takes on more projects than I feel up to. John enjoys chopping the wood and tending the garden, and feeding the animals. [Okay, I really like feeding the animals too, and have offered to take that morning chore off his plate for some time, but he likes starting the day with his farmer hat on.] After a busy day at work and then with the kids, he doesn't seem to mind staying up until 2 am to can the tomatoes. He finds it gratifying. So, John has the temperament and [yes, I'll admit it] work-ethic one associates with the responsibilities of farming. The issue there is that he works 50+ hours a week away from the farm. Out in corporate America. Making our living.

which brings us to:

a question of humility
We have under 8 acres -- most of it wooded. We have a little gardening shed, a tool shed, and a ride-on mower. We live in an area that is mile after mile of pasture and field and that has been primarily agricultural since it was settled over 200 years ago. An area where people farmed not as a hobby but as their livelihood. An area now known for horse farms and vineyards, and where new small farms are being established every year, and where there is a vibrant local agricultural economy with farm markets and CSAs. Where people are committed to farming and trying to make money at it. Where people have acreage and serious farming infrastructure like barns and tractors. In contrast to that, I am a kid dressed for Halloween in overalls and straw hat, holding a pitchfork and singing, "E-I-E-I-O." I told myself we are dilettants, playing at this. Who are we to call this a "farm?"

And yet, my husband does.

I looked up the definition of "farm" when I sat down to write this post.
Farm (noun)
1. a tract of land, usually with a house, barn, silo, etc., on which crops and often livestock are raised for livelihood.
2. land or water devoted to the raising of animals, fish, plants, etc.: a pig farm; an oyster farm; a tree farm.
I don't know whether we are doing this for "livelihood." I do know that increasingly I buy less produce and meat and eggs because we are eating what we grow. I do know that we now plan to breed the pigs and goats to sell to others as breeding stock [and yes, for meat too]. I do know that we have devoted much of our land to raising animals and vegetables.

I do know that my husband thinks of this as a farm.

So I will too. At least I'll try.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


Growing up I was never a big fan of pork. However they were prepared, pork chops usually came out with a bland flavor and texture similar to cardboard. The Holiday ham was good to look at, but once I got past the salt and cloves there wasn't much flavor that jumped out. Every once in a while a dish would stand out, like the smoked, dry cured Virginia Bacon I picked up in Williamsburg, but in general I've passed over the pork section of supermarket for most of my life. At some point I realized I was missing out on something.

A few years ago I started reading about heritage pigs and began to consider raising our own. Our farm is mostly wooded and there is little space for grazing animals, so pigs make a lot of sense for our landscape. I found an opportunity to have a wonderful pork loin from a Berkshire / Tamworth cross when I was on a business trip and that made up my mind. It was like nothing I had tasted before. It was juicy, filled with sweet balanced flavor and had the texture of a tender steak. I was hooked and set on a path to recapture the lost flavor of pork.

Currently, we are building two herds of heritage pigs and are in the process of establishing quality breeding lines for Berkshire and Ossabaw Island pigs. We will be selling piglets and meat once the herds are established and producing.

Learning at home

A benefit of homeschooling on a farm is the ready availability of hands-on learning experiences in biology. We've been studying human anatomy - starting with the circulatory system. I remembered that we probably had a heart or two in the freezer. A quick check and voila! Pig's heart! One google search later and I found a basic lab procedure for pig heart dissection.

I will spare you the photos but our seven year old daughter cannot wait until John gets off his work conference call so that she can take him on a tour of the now dissected heart and identify the basic anatomical structures.

Our 11 year old son watched from arms' length and then -- complaining of a headache -- retired to his room. I don't think he has a future in medicine.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Autumn Mushrooms

The drought this year has been a real challenge for me as a mushroom enthusiast. Luckily, recent rains have kicked off the Fall mushroom season which is one of the best times for mushroom foraging.

Here are some giant puffballs I scored outside the house. These are very common in our area in September and October and this is a group of small and very fresh specimens. The mushroom on the right is, with a high degree of certainty, a Meadow Mushroom. It's a choice edible, but I won't be eating it.

After over 20 years of mushroom foraging I've refined a set of simple rules to keep me out of trouble with the fungi. First off, with only a couple exceptions I don't bother with gilled mushrooms. There are some great ones out there and I'm good about identification, but the last thing I need is a Black Swan event at this point in my life. This first rule greatly reduces the amount of information to remember, the amount of work involved, and omits the majority of deadly mushroom varieties -- which makes it much more practical to go from field to table. From there I focus on just a handful of varieties like Morels, Boletes, Chantarelles and Polypores like the Hen of the Woods. Aside from the False Morel, which is readily identified, this is a safe group that offers some great dining.

Each mushroom variety has a unique culinary profile. The puffball has a texture like tofu and a mild nutty taste. Once cleaned up they can be sliced with a sharp knife. They are brittle and tear easily, however. Only firm white insides should be used for eating.

I find that the best way to prepare them is to dip them in egg and cover them with bread crumbs and herbs. We've also tried a variety of spices like garam masala and barbecue rubs before which are also very yummy.

My son loves the puffballs and I had a hard time cooking them fast enough for him. I did manage to grab a couple slices for myself.

Surprise in the Chicken Coop

A few days ago I was checking over the chicken tractor in anticipation of our next batch of broilers and what a surprise was waiting for me.

The Black Widow is such a pretty spider, but not one to get close up and personal with.  I finally got around to smashing it this weekend so I could start using the feed hopper again.  Luckily she hadn't reproduced yet, which I could tell by the presence of the male close by.  Part of the mating ritual of Black Widows often involves the female eating the male for extra nutrition.

he's a happy farmer

John's FB status from this evening:
MMMMM. Rotisserie chicken (yes we raised it) smoked with hickory that I split this afternoon, potatoes and onions from the garden roasted with garlic and cheese, butternut squash (garden of course) baked in butter and brown sugar and a variety of peppers sauteed in olive oil and carmelized sugar.
It is deeply satisfying to my husband when we sit down to a meal that is primarily sourced from our own land.

I readily confess that I do not share that feeling. I am glad that we are eating healthfully -- and deeply grateful that we are providing our children with foods that are minimally contaminated by the toxins, additives, "processing" etc that have flooded our nation's food supply. And I am grateful that this way of providing for ourselves is more sustainable, less cruel, and generally more aligned with our values. But I can't say that I get as much pleasure or joy from it as John does.

However, I have no doubt that if I expended as much mental and physical energy on the farming as he did -- I probably would derive a greater sense of satisfaction. Or maybe not...

Sunday, October 3, 2010

here we go

So, I received the e-mail invite this morning to join John on this new blogging venture. He wants to blog about our "farm" and we thought it would be interesting to hear both of our voices as we document/discuss/describe this aspect of our life. I am very tired this am as I am still harboring trace rogue elements of this cold and we got in late after a very fun [and long overdue] evening hanging out with our friends the McIntyre's. It is an abso-freakin-lutely gorgeous fall day -- PERFECT-- weather. So of course we are all indecisive and ambivalent about how to spend it... and now it is 12:30 and we are still basically just puttering around. Though I think I did hear the thunk ... thunk ... thunk that may be John chopping wood out back.

I've done the blogging thing many times over the last decade... different ones for different purposes. The only one that has had any real continuity is my private one at LJ. So we shall see if this one "takes." I like the idea of sharing it with John. Intriguing for several reasons. Though I don't anticipate my entries being as "farm" focused as his are. We shall see...

One thought. When I clicked over on the e-mail link to officially join this blog as an author, and I saw the design John had set up, my first thought was: "whoa, where did he steal that photo from?" It captured such a lovely pastoral feel, I was sure he ganked it from some other site. And then I realized that it was a photo of our own place, and our own drive, and our own geese. Hmmm... I don't think I fully realize how nice we have it here.