Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fall approaches and we wait.

Cute picture of Claire taken on Liberty Island, NY a few weeks ago

I just wanted to put up a post for my regular readers who may be wondering why I haven't posted in so long. First of all, my book review of a Nation of Farmers is not coming along all that well. It was a great book, but I have some serious issues with some of the suggestions in the book and I'm having trouble getting the review just right. So I hope to get it worked out and up here soon.

Also, I have put my job search in high gear. I found a job I really want and I've been working on that process non-stop. including a very intensive interview process which just wrapped up this morning. I survived 5 interviews for this job, and I'm on the short list. They told me today I will hear something from them one way or the other by the end of this week. So I wait.

On the farm, we have little news. We have a ton of pumpkins out there in the patch, but suddenly all of the leaves turned yellow and the I don't know if the plants are dying or what. The pumpkins themselves look ok, but the plants are no longer green. The corn has tassled and we have little ears and they have about a month to get to full size. I've been told by some local farmers they need to be off the stalks by the third week of September. So we'll see on that. The tomatoes are not turning red yet, and the chickens are eating them green; they don't care. So I am not sure we will end up with any tomatoes at all once the chickens are through. Speaking of the chickens, they are still sick. They finished their course of antibiotics and now we just have to wait and see how they do. We did lose one chicken in all of this, our sickest one. The others seem to be doing ok, but recovery has been slow. The good news is that we have successfully prevented the turkeys from getting sick, and they are doing very well. It is amazing to us how fast the turkeys are growing. We have to find new accommodations for them quickly. Also since we could not eat the eggs of the chickens while they were medicated, we allowed two chicks to go broody and sit on the eggs and we have an incubator for the overflow. I have no idea if this will actually yield new chickens, but on this too we just have to wait and see.

I will update again on all of these wait and see things going on for us as they shake out.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Pumpkins and Chicks

Pumpkin in flower

Everything on this farm is a mixed bag. The pumpkins are doing amazingly well, the chickens are doing terribly. I suppose this is just the way it goes when you are dealing with living things. Let's start with the good news, the pumpkins. I planted 24 seedlings (sprouted from seeds that are two generations from that one Wal-Mart purchased pumpkin three years ago). They appear to really like the rain. I have now got countless pumpkins out there. Of course, not all of them will survive, but a good number of them should.
Young pumpkin

The bad news on the farm is the chickens. They are all sick. You may recall that we bought some new chickens a few weeks ago that were in very bad shape when they arrived. They were missing a lot of feathers and a number of them had their beaks clipped. Well caveat emptor was never so amply demonstrated as here. They brought some disease with them, unfortunately, now the entire flock, both chickens and ducks alike are sick. They have a respiratory infection of some kind. Their chests rattle when they breath and they all have runny noses. We are treating them with antibiotics, but it is possible that we will lose the entire flock. Thus far the Guinea Hens seem unaffected. Some chickens are worse than others, but one of our healthiest laying hens is presently one of the sickest birds. I feel sick watching her suffer. Neither of the roosters can crow with all the phlegm in their throats. The one good thing here is that the turkeys (we are now down to 11 from 15) have been kept segregated and seem unaffected. We are giving them a chick-dose of the antibiotics in an effort to protect them as the germ could easily travel to them from our hands or whatnot. We have been careful to stop handling the birds and we are washing out hands a lot. The good news, is that despite the sickness, only the very sickest birds are inactive. We have two that are laying down for most of the day, otherwise the majority of the flock is continuing their regular daily activities despite the chest and nasal congestion. It could just be a garden variety cold that they will all get over. I sure hope so. I would hate to lose all of our girls.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Farmer's Reading List

I just wanted to give you all a heads up that I'm planning to write you all a book review of the new book by Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton called A Nation of Farmers. I have been waiting for this book to be published since I read Depletion and Abundance and I'm thrilled to be reading it now. I have recently discovered two writers of whom I was previously unaware, Gene Logsdon and Vandana Shiva. I have books from each of them in my reading pile and I will report to you on them as I get to them.

I know a number of the regular readers of this blog are just becoming aware of the food issues we are facing here in the good ol' US of A. I know many, many people have read The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollen and Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Recently, someone very dear to me told me she was only halfway through The Omnivore's Dilemma and it had changed her eating habits already. I am guessing that this response to the book is quite common, but I wonder, as people begin to become more and more informed about food issues if they might actually get overwhelmed by just thinking about all of it and throw up their hands and say forget it. I know, for my part, there are days when, as I told you in the previous post, I find myself in the McDonald's drive-thru. How is that for a locavore? Not very local is it? But I think the important thing is that we start somewhere and do something, even if you can't do it everyday. In our particular case, with 5 kids and a highly fossil fuel dependent lifestyle, we do indeed find ourselves at McDonald's more than I would like. But our trips to any restaurants are vastly less frequent than they were five years ago. One of the things that I enjoy so very much about Sharon Astyk's writing is that she is all about meeting people where they are now is space and time and mindset. She knows not all of her readers are persuaded by the peak fossil fuels arguments or other environmental considerations, and yet her message manages to touch those people as well because food is something that transcends pretty much every other consideration; we all eat.

One thing we have held the line on in our family is eggs. We never, and I really mean never, buy eggs at the grocery store anymore. We have our laying hens, and when they don't produce enough, I have nearby farmers that sell theirs. If I can't do that, we will simply go without. The last time we purchased eggs from the grocery store was a couple of months ago and I bought organic ones; they were a huge disappointment and that day we said, "never again." Why eggs? Well, in our family, we feel strongly about cruelty to animals. We are disgusted by the descriptions we have read about factory farms, and this is one change that has actually been essentially painless for us to make. Now that it is settled our next big change is going to be beef. I am equally disgusted by what happens in cattle CAFO (confined animal feeding operations). Beef is a more difficult change for us because we are a meat and potatoes kind of family, and locally raised beef is very expensive. But we did find a solution. We have plans to buy a beef cow (a Hereford heifer) that we are going to pasture raise ourselves. We can't go without beef until then, so we are still buying grocery store meat for now. We are also still buying more than half of our chicken from the grocery store, but soon we'll begin harvesting our own chickens. I just have to get the gumption to slaughter and clean one myself.

So if you've been interested in making some changes with regards to your food sources, start out with something you can do. For some people giving up all fast food permanently might be pretty painless, or maybe you can start going to your local farmer's market, or you can start making your own bread. Just do one thing at a time and don't beat yourself up if you can't radically alter your habits all at once. Send some comments to the blog and let me know if you've changed any of your eating habits lately. I'm curious what other people are doing and eating.

Livestock headcount:
We lost another turkey so we now have 12 turkey chicks. Everything else is the same. The chickens that arrived last week all beat up with missing feathers and clipped beaks are starting to show some signs of improvement. Their feathers are growing in, albeit slowly, and they come in to roost every night now. I don't know what sort of life these poor chickens had, but from the looks of the things, we freed them from hell itself.

What we're eating now:
Watermelon in large quantities, green beans, corn on the cob, green peppers and we've been having salad almost every night. Other than herbs, which we are getting from the garden, this is all from the farmer's market.

Yesterday we took the kids to visit some friends and spend the afternoon swimming in a lake. The ride in the car was a little over an hour, so Mike picked out a movie for the ride. In his infinite 12 year old wisdom, he selected Super Size Me (for those of you unfamiliar with this movie, it is a documentary by Morgan Spurlock on the effect of McDonald's food on the health of the people who eat it.) I explained to him that although he might enjoy the movie the other kids would be bored to tears. Well it just goes to show you that with the increase in age, there is a proportionate decrease in wisdom. To Charlie's and my shock, the kids were riveted to the screen, even down to 4 year old Claire who certainly couldn't have understood a fraction of what was going on. I suppose this proves just exactly how well done the movie is. Every time Claire's attention started waning, they would cut to a fast-paced catchy song, and she would be interested again. Also there is a segment in the middle of the movie on the subject of school lunches which the kids found particularly interesting. We actually had intended (before Super Size Me was selected to be the movie) to actually go to McDonald's on the way, so it was with an incredibly laughable amount of irony that we pulled up to the drive through with that movie playing in the car. When I asked the kids what they wanted to order, for a moment there was silence, then Joseph broke the silence finally by replying "a bottle of water."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

New livestock and continued work in the garden

Photo: tall corn on the right, shorter corn to the left and pumpkins in the foreground.

I regularly read a few other blogs and recently The Crunchy Chicken had a link to this article from the New York Times on turkeys. The Bourbon Red Heritage Turkeys won the taste test for best tasting turkeys. This is fabulous news for us here at Cipolla's Gardens because it just so happens that we recently purchased 14 Bourbon Red Turkey chicks. I'm really excited to know that somewhere in the world...oh yea, in NYC, which is only about an hour away, people have been known to pay over $100 per 10+ lb. bird. Maybe we could make a living farming. Turkeys are delicate creatures. They are well known for high morbidity. We have been told to expect only half of the chicks to survive. Maybe we should order more. If you, dear reader, would like to pay me $100, I'll produce a turkey for you. It will be free range, fed on bugs and grass and a supplement of turkey feed. I cannot, however, guarantee Thanksgiving delivery. I have no earthly idea how long it will take these tiny chicks to get to 10+ lbs. As I've said before everything here is a learning experience which is what makes this place so fun.

There is a lot going on in the garden right now. The pea pods are just starting; the green beans are getting ready to be picked. We have tiny green tomatoes, and if we were one bit conscientious we would do a better job of staking the tomatoes; they are growing despite our neglect. We planted a few more seedlings (I know, I know, why even bother planting them this late? But they were started and ready to go in the ground, so in they went, if we yield nothing so be it. If we have and Indian Summer, we'll be the luckiest farmers on the planet.) The pumpkin patch is doing great! I'm thrilled with the condition of the pumpkins. They have huge hearty leaves and every plant has multiple flowers. The corn, having suffered late planting and various levels of neglect is a beautiful case study in what happens when you fail to weed the garden properly. Notice in the photos that the tallest corn has a nice layer of newspaper and hay below it. No weeds ever got a chance to take hold there and nice strong stalk grew up. Move over a few feet were the farmers ran out of energy, and you see shorter corn that was papered and hay-mulched later. Lastly see the sad little seedling looking things, this is where we still have not papered and mulched. We figure that the upside of this situation is that now we will not have all the corn maturing at once.

Livestock headcount

1 cow
13 Turkey chicks
27 Chickens in various stages of maturity
6 ducks
7 guinea hens
1 puppy
2 cats

Wish list

We have a Hereford heifer that is set to be delivered sometime this month, perhaps next week. We are getting her from the same person who sold us Josie. Herefords are a meat breed, so we are going to make every effort not to get attached to her. Josie, however, will probably be another story. She will probably very much enjoy having another young girl to hang out with and chew her cud with. Our plan is to breed this cow one time let her raise the calf then, eek! send her to the meat packer.

Charlie would still like some Tamworth hogs. As of now, these are not on the agenda, once we get a hog the farm will be pretty much complete. We made the decision earlier not to get goats or sheep.

What we're eating:

Lots of peaches, plums, corn and a few early tomatoes. I bought some haricot verts at the farmers market last week that we have not eaten yet, and the green beans in the garden are almost ready for harvesting. We have harvested several pounds of blackberries but we are on a small canning hiatus right now, it just makes the kitchen so hot to do all of that boiling.

Monday, July 27, 2009

A new puppy!

Last week was an exciting week for us. We drove down to Virginia to pick up our new puppy from the breeder. He is totally adorable (as you can see in the picture above that his breeder sent us before we picked him up). He is a Slovak Cuvac named Bo, and he is just 2 months old. This little guy is an unusual dog. You can read about his breed here. What attracted us to him was that he shares our Slovak background (Charlie and I both have Slovak mothers). His breed originated right in the area where my grandmother was born. Slovak Cuvacs are known for protecting livestock, particularly birds and cattle. Because he is a guard dog (but not an attack dog bred for vicious behavior), his kind was nearly wiped out during WWII, because invading armies in Slovakia killed the guard dogs as part of the invasion. Slovak Cuvacs are known to be very brave; they are one of few dogs that will stand up to bears and wolves. Since there are very few wolves anymore, no one really needs that kind of firepower in a dog anymore. Also they like to guard groups of children so this is really the perfect dog for us.

So we have our work cut our for us. We have to figure out how to train this little guy to do several things. The first priority is to teach him to do his business outside. Thank god we have no carpets. Actually he makes it outside about 85% of the time, but he has maybe one or two accidents per day. Next we have to teach him to respond to our commands so we can get him off leash at home. Right now the only command he responds to properly is sit. When I can teach him to come to me when I call, then I can start letting him off leash. Lastly, I need to teach him to guard the animals, and this is going to be the hard part. Right now he is afraid of Josie, the cow, and he wants to chase the birds. And since he is teething and chewing on everything in sight, I don't dare let him near the birds. He also fights with the cats. Since Bo and the cats are presently indoors I figure that will come to an end shortly when they simply get used to each other. The cats are afraid of him and they freak our when he drinks their water (which he is fond of doing even though he has his own.) Eventually Bo will spend more and more time outside and that will lessen the conflict with the cats as well.

We realized yesterday that wild blackberries and wild raspberries are in season and we started the picking and canning yesterday. I canned four small jars of raspberry jam. I have about 3 or 4 lbs of wild blackberries in the fridge that we picked last night and I'm going to can today. I visited my sister who lives up in God's Country, PA (it really is God's country because she lives in a town called Corry near a fairly large Old Order Amish settlement.) While I was there we did a lot of shopping the in Amish general stores and I finally got myself a food mill. I was able to remove, not all, but most, of the seeds from my raspberry jam with that tool yesterday.

Unfortunately, when Charlie woke up this morning, he was all swollen with some sort of allergic reaction. He looks like Rocky in the 13th round against Apollo Creed. He walked around all morning saying "Cut me Mick! Cut me!" We have no idea if he was bitten by something while we were out in the field yesterday or what. This situation retooled our plans for the day, because grass cutting was out of the question.
The weeds are threatening to totally overwhelm us. We are fighting the good fight. We spent a good portion of Saturday weeding and in addition to back ache and sore hands, I got a ferocious sunburn on a the sliver of my back where my shirt did not properly reach my jeans. Lovely eh? Well it hurts like hell. I'm sure any real farmer would be laughing his or her ass off at what a ridiculous thing it is that we let the weeds get so out of control in the first place and then to add insult to injury we did all of the weeding in one day and it was a hot one at that. Live and learn, that is what we're on this farm for anyway, right?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Photo: Marianne, Joseph, Mike, Claire, Ally, Christopher, Ryan, and Matt
This morning was just about as close to perfect as possible. I woke up early, put all the animals out, and gave everyone fresh water, made coffee and then sat outside with Josie. I read my book and drank my coffee; she chewed her cud. It was amazingly relaxing, just me and my cow.

We have had Josie for almost a week now, and she is settling down pretty well, but I still get frightened when she runs and bucks (which she is doing less, but still doing). The Guinea hens still startle her when they do their yakking, and their spastic movements don't sit well with her either. She seems to enjoy the company of the ducks and chickens however, and she really enjoys when the people come outside with her and just hang out. For a while she was mooing discontentedly every time anyone of the human variety walked away from her. It is clear she doesn't like being alone. Being a herd animal, it is logical that she would feel very insecure by herself. Before you even complete the thought, the kids have already suggested getting another cow for her to herd with. I'm convinced it is a good idea, but we had enough trouble finding Josie, I have no idea where I'd find another one like her.

I had some difficulty finding a vet that would care for Josie, but through a series of phone calls we finally found a vet that specializes in cows and he told me on the phone he likes Jerseys best of all--so from the sounds of it, we found the perfect vet. He is coming out next week to meet Josie and we will talk to him at that time about having her horns removed. Needless to say I want her anesthetized for this procedure. In case you are wondering, we have been told, and the vet agrees, that with small children around, we are better off dehorning her. Although dairy cows rarely get aggressive (in contrast to dairy bulls) we don't want to take any chances.

Josie is already not an organic cow. On the first day that we got her, the flies were biting her legs so much the poor thing was bleeding. She looked so totally uncomfortable; I ran directly to Agway to get her some relief. That relief comes in the form of noxious chemicals unfortunately. I will talk to the vet and also do some research on what we can do for her that might be less toxic, but there is no way we can choose not to address the issue of the flies; they are a constant annoyance to her, and their bites can be a health hazard to her as well if any of the bites should become infected. Of course I can't stand for one second to see the poor thing suffer, but I don't want a situation where the cure is worse than the problem. Some research is clearly in order.

We had a big treat today when my brother, his wife, and their three children came to visit. The first thing they all the kids said upon exiting the car was "we want to see that cow!" Josie seemed to like having all the people around, and the kids had a great time together. When it was time to leave the kids were not happy about having to break up fun play time with cousins. As my brother and his family were pulling out of the driveway to go home Claire said to me, "Mommy they are such a nice family. I'm going to go live with them."

Today's livestock count:

  • 1 7-month old Jersey heifer
  • 6 old chickens
  • 5 adolescent chickens
  • 6 baby chickens
  • 9 Guinea Hens
  • 6 ducks
Coming soon:
  • 1 Slovak Cuvac puppy
  • 15 turkey chicks

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Very busy week on the farm!

We started this past week by going out to a fruit orchard that still had sour cherries to pick. For anyone who may not be aware of it, all cherry pies are made with sour cherries. You can make pie with regular cherries but it won't be any good. Take my word on this one, we've done it and it was a colossal waste of ingredients. We are on the tail end of the sour cherry season, so this was our last chance to get some and I really wanted them because in my opinion the canned sour cherries in the store are all syrup and not nearly enough cherries. This way I can control the cherry to syrup ratio in my pies. All the kids helped (and it was a great way to wean them off of the wii and the tv). We got 55 lbs of sour cherries. The whole process took about 4 hours. By about hour 3 the kids were sick of climbing trees one by one they drifted over to the strawberry field and started picking there. Even though strawberry season is officially over, there were still a few good ones to be had and we ended up with about 6 lbs of strawberries.

We tried canning for the first time and oh what a task. The first thing we did was make jam out of the strawberries and I now have 12 6oz. jars of strawberry jam. This first part went off without a hitch and we thought, "wow that was easy." Next, we tried to pack the cherries is water (which the canning book claims you can do) none of them sealed properly and we have no idea why, so in to the fridge they went for immediate use. On the next batch we actually cooked the cherries before packing them, this worked much better and we now have 6 1qt jars of canned cherries. Today we are pitting and stemming the last 20 lbs of cherries and we are making jam out of them.

The other excitement of this week is that we finally found a Jersey cow. She is a baby, but she is just what we wanted. Following long-standing Danda tradition (the Dandas are Grandmom Jean's family) we named the cow Josephine, and we call her Josie. (Technically if we had followed Danda tradition to the letter, she would have been called Tina, but needless to say that was out of the question. The tradition is to name the first cow after the wife. That was not happening, so we named her after the Danda family cow. Yes, my husband's grandmother was named Josephine.) She was delivered to us last night, and we put her in the stall and attempted to calm her down and it didn't work out so well, she was anxious and scared and she was freaked out by the chickens. This morning she was still pretty mad at us for disrupting her life, but when we took her out in the field for the first time she settled right down and started eating and playing. She is a baby so she still likes to run and play, which can be frightening when the "baby" weighs 300 lbs. We were told that she needs to gradually incorporate the fresh grass into her diet, so the idea is that we don't want her gorging her self on fresh grass when she is used to a diet of dried hay. She can develop bloat if she eats too much green grass to soon. So we limited her to a short time outside earlier today and in a short while we'll take her out again and let her eat some more greens and play some more. Next time she is outside we'll clean up her stall for her too. It won't be long before she is out all day and that will make life with her so much easier.

So there are the doings at Cipolla Farm for this week. We are intending to buy a dog in two weeks. Once we actually have him I will tell you all about him and his incredibly interesting story. So there, dear reader, is something for you to look forward to in about two weeks. Other than that, no other major items are actually on the agenda.

Livestock headcount today:

  • 6 mean old hens (although they seem to have calmed down a bit)

  • 9 guinea hens who have moved themselves outside permanently, they now roost in the tree at night instead of coming inside which is a big developmental leap for them.

  • 4 hens approaching puberty

  • 1 rooster who is quite the handsome ladies man, but he still has some growing to do if want to boss around the old ladies--they are still not taking any of his shit

  • 6 rapidly growing baby chicks. We are certain that there is at least one rooster in this batch, which is perfect, because that way the we can have the Ameracauna chicks breed us new chicks. These are the ones that lay pale green eggs and I like the yolks on these eggs better as well.

  • 6 ducks who are messy and loud, but this includes our one handicapped duck who is doing amazingly well for what he has to deal with. He has one leg that did not develop properly and he has great difficulty walking but he somehow manages. Instead of being mean to him, the other ducks rallied around the little guy, they never scared him off the food, and when it was cold they let him get in the middle of the duck pile to keep warm.

  • 1 7 month old Jersey heifer

Indoor animals:

We still have our beloved Pounce and Echo. In a shocking turn of events, Echo has managed to not get into any death defying situations in quite some time. When I first walked in to this house I was sure he wouldn't last a week. I sometimes think that cat lays around thinking up ways he can hurt himself. But as I said, shockingly, he is alive and well and still keeping Pounce company, and keeping Joseph's feet warm.

Animals we still want:

  • The number one item on the agenda is the dog because we found one we want. We are picking him up not this week, but next I hope.

  • We would like a cow that is "in milk." That might have to wait a bit though. We had wanted a Dexter cow and we found out from the woman that sold us Josie that Dexter calves go for $3,000. We are priced out of that market for now.

  • We'd love a heritage breed hog, a tamworth or a large black maybe. We want one that will still forage. This may also have to wait a bit though.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Overalls and All That They Imply

The kids want overalls.
My oh my, what is a city girl to do?
Well I suppose this is all my own fault, what with up and moving my kids from an urban environment to a farm and all, and yet, for some reason I just can't seem to make myself buy the things.
Is this ridiculous?
The decision to wear overalls is a loaded one. A bigger deal in my opinion than the choice between Levi's or Wranglers. In this debate I know exactly where I stand. I'm a Levi's. I'm not a Wrangler. I'll never be a Wrangler. I wouldn't even try on a pair of Wranglers. Ever. Actually I'd even take this debate a step further into Z. Cavaricci and FUBU territory, because it is all about wearing clothes that can identify where you belong in the social structure, but I digress, back to the overalls.

We do live on a farm. Even though we don't earn our living on the farm, we do lots of yucky farm jobs like shoveling animal poo, mowing paddocks, digging in dirt, handling animals, cleaning things, etc... If we have our way, soon we'll be mucking out the cow stalls and the pig sty. We have a demonstrated need for overalls and for that matter Muck Boots!
Overalls are not exactly easy to come by. You have to know where to look. Sure, anything can be had online, but then you can't see the fabric or try them on. They are also, pretty expensive once you are out of the Oshkosh B'Gosh sizes.
Let be honest though. For me, the biggest issue associated with buying overalls is the stigma attached to them. I did some research on where this stigma comes from and I found this interesting piece that appeared on NPR a few years ago. I grew up in and have lived for the majority of my life in urban areas. Overalls are not part of the urban/suburban wardrobe. In the same way that Wranglers are not part of the New England wardrobe, and Levi's are not part of the Wyoming wardrobe. Overalls are supposed to be inexpensive work wear for people who work outside and have to carry tools, but they are so much more than that. When John Mellencamp donned coveralls for the Sept. 11 benefit concert, it was a political statement. What statement will I make if I clad myself and my family in overalls?
Eventually I will have to come to terms with the overalls because the kids really want them and can make a good logical case for them. I will feel as out of place in overalls as a New England college kid in a pair of Wranglers, or a rodeo roper in pair of Levi's. It will never feel right. There is just something so very out of kilter about a girl who grew up in Philly shopping online at Farm and Fleet.
I will keep you posted on whether I can overcome my tribal associations and actually bring myself to procure a pair of overalls for everyone because we actually do need them.
Livestock Headcount:
6 Ducks
6 Baby Chickens
4 Adolescent Hens
1 Teenage Rooster
6 Mean Old Hens
9 Loud Guinea Hens
We are still in the market for:
1 or 2 Dexter or Jersey Cows (in milk)
A breeding pair of Tamworth hogs
A Slovak Cuvac puppy (to guard the flock)
This week we rescued:
2 baby bunny rabbits who came very close to getting mowed with the new ride on mower.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Goings on 'round the Farm

“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it’s liberty and interests by the most lasting bands”

~Thomas Jefferson

Things are moving along at the farm. Today's big accomplishment for me was that I got 24 pumpkin seedlings in the ground that I planted in little seedling boxes a few weeks ago. Charlie's big accomplishment was mowing the lawn. I am hoping for a good crop of pumpkins because I'm going to need them for pies come fall. I have a few pumpkin pie lovers in this house that will not abide a Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie. The cool thing about our seeds for this is that they came from two pumpkins I grew last year in our garden. Those two pumpkins grew from seeds from the prior year's pumpkins which I purchased at Walmart. So that one purchase three years ago at Walmart has provided us with pumpkins in perpetuity. We planted some back in Phoenix as well so whoever might come to live in our house will be rewarded with fresh pumpkins come October if they care for the garden at all.

Our tomatoes are finally looking good and hearty. The few days of sun are doing them a world of good. I did finally get three lima bean seedlings, but I think we just planted them too deeply in the soil because we planted four rows and only three seedlings came up. So now I planted 6 in seedling boxes, if they come up, I'll put those out and see how they do. I have cucumber seedlings and lettuce seedlings which I'm working on now as well. I just have the tiniest sprouts but, as soon as they are a bit bigger, I'll harden them off and put them in the soil.

The peas and green beans (picture above) look good, and the corn is coming up nicely. I'm concerned that we planted it so late we may not get any actual corn until October!

Our weed control efforts continue to overwhelm us. You will notice in the picture above that we have straw mulch between the plants. Under that mulch is a layer of newspaper. I got this idea from the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. When Barbara Kingsolver went away for vacation, she laid newspaper down and covered the paper with straw to keep the weeds down. We are not on vacation, but we're doing it anyway. I don't know what kind of straw she used, but we are using used animal bedding so it is covered in chicken poo and pee, all of which will eventually break down into the soil. So the carbon is being provided by the newspaper and the nitrogen is being provided by the poo and pee on the bedding. I figure this is a complete meal for our plants.

Speaking of our flock, we are now getting 2-3 eggs a day from the big girls. As soon as the young chicks start laying those old bittys are going right on the dinner table!

Today's livestock headcount:

  • 6 2-year old hens that are laying and cranky
  • 4 4-month old hens that are not laying yet
  • 1 6-month old rooster who is just old enough to get sweet with the ladies
  • 6 baby chickens who are just big enough to now look like chickens
  • 6 ducks of indeterminate gender
  • 9 guinea hens of mixed gender and wow are they LOUD.

Livestock Wish list:
  • A breeding pair of Mangalitsa or Tamworth hogs or another heritage breed of hog (my preference is the Tamworth)
  • A bred Dexter or Jersey heifer (my preference is for the Dexter) or the same breeds but in milk
  • A working farm dog that we can train to scare rabbits out of the garden and scare predators away from the bird flock.
  • I would also like to get a Black Angus steer which we can fatten for slaughter.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I have fantasized about living on a farm for as long as I can remember. Obviously, what I was picturing as a child was what most of us picture: a family farm with animals and fields of vegetables. I never imagined a farm to mean a monoculture of genetically modified soybeans as far as the eye could see harvested with a combine bigger than a tractor trailer and crops put in a grain silo which is automatically emptied into a passing train that has tracks right through the property. In fact, the language has caught up with the times. We don't even call the latter a farm. We call it an agribusiness.

Back in the late '80s when I moved to Vermont, there were picturesque dairy farms all around. Family farming in those days was considered a dying industry. I knew one dairy farmer fairly well. She and her family had been dairy farmers for generations, and to hear her tell the story it was the path to perdition (or at least poverty). The dairy farmers could not make a living on the prices they were able to get for milk. It was this very situation, in part, that brought us recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) which when administered to cows makes them produce more milk and according to many pediatricians this is also the cause of early onset puberty in girls (which is apparently on the rise). The issue of labeling your milk as rBGH-free is flat out illegal in some states and is an embittered battle in others. Now, instead of the Vermont-style family dairy farm that was dying in my early adulthood, we have concentrated animal feeding operations that lock the cows in place and milk them by machine. This is not to say that the farmers in Vermont did not milk by machine, they did, but their cows were put out to pasture every single day in decent weather. The new agribusiness model does not put cows out to pasture each day. The Tess of the d'Urberville's Talbothy dairy with its milkmaids is now a relic of the distant past.

There is a resurgence now of another kind of farming that is sustainable, organic, local market farming. This is the kind of farming being done by some of my neighbors. But now that I actually DO live on a farm. I know that the term "organic" is a suspicious one. The resurgence in local eating is something I heartily support. I, for one am disgusted by the idea of all those chemicals being poured on the soil, not to mention the idea of genetically modified "frankenfoods." But you would be shocked at how extremely difficult it is even for a person who is informed and well read on these issues to avoid these foods.

One common genetic modification is to make a plant pest resistant by encoding pesticides right into the cellular structure of the plant. This modification makes the plant pest resistant by killing any pest that eats the fruit. As Jane Goodall says so well in her book Harvest for Hope, with traditional pesticides at least we had the psychological comfort of washing and peeling. But when the pesticides are added at the cellular level and pesticides exist in every cell of a plant, you can not rid the item of its pesticides. It is discomforting to know that for certain foods there is essentially no escape. You may say to yourself, "so I won't eat GM foods." Not so fast. The number one most commonly modified crop is corn. Anyone who read Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma can tell you that the one food we consume is vast quantities, in most cases without even realizing it, is corn. There is corn syrup is almost every processed food, not to mention corn starch, and other corn derived additives corn syrup solids and what have you. There are also corn chips, corn tortillas, popcorn and plain old buttered and salted corn on the cob. Lastly, the diets of almost all factory farmed livestock, yes all the beef, chicken and pork you see in the grocery store, is fattened for slaughter on corn. All the eggs you buy at the grocery are from chickens with a diet of almost all corn. The milk you buy was produced by cows on a diet of corn. You can try, buy you cannot escape Frankencorn.

I am now raising my own farm animals. I would like very much to get off this all-Frankencorn-all-the-time diet. My first efforts have to start with getting the animals off the stuff. It is very difficult to get any animal feeds that are not corn based or are made with heritage varieties (not genetically modified). If I could find it, it would probably be cost prohibitive. The next possible option is to grow my own. Try as you will, even this is no guarantee. If you neighbors are growing modified corn and your corn is pollinated by it, there you go, now your corn is genetically modified too, even if you planted a heritage breed. Unbelievably, you can be sued if the Monsantos of the world find one of their patented varieties growing in your field, even if you didn't plant it and don't want it.

Which brings me to the organic label. If it is this incredibly difficult to avoid the genetically modified food, how on earth can anything actually be "organic?" I know for a fact that somewhere in the life of that $15/lb organic white sharp cheddar cheese made from unpasteurized organic cow's milk, there was Roundup, genetically modified corn and God only knows what else. My assessment is that the label guarantees nothing. Even if you grow you own corn, and milk your own cow, you cannot completely rid yourself of all things synthetic, and this is very sad for us all.

Today's livestock count:
  • 11 chickens (our new 6 month old Amercauna rooster appears in the picture above)
  • 9 guinea hens
  • 6 ducks

Tonight's menu:

Creamed chipped beef on toast. The toast was a homemade buttermilk whole wheat bread that was delicious but too soft to hold up to the slicer. Served with the last of my blueberries.

I attempted to pick some wild strawberries for breakfast tomorrow. I got about 12 berries--something beat me to it! At least we had some of them.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Life comes to the farm

For the first time on this farm, today both Charlie and I were up before 8am. It just doesn't feel like life on a farm when you sleep in. The reason we forced ourselves up was that we had a date with the septic repair company. We have never lived with a septic tank before. My brother Mike has one and I spent a portion of father's day yesterday grilling him and my nephew Dennis about the life with a septic tank and how you know if it is actually working. Unless it literally backs up into the house you pretty much have no idea if its working smoothly or not. Things were not that bad, but with all of the rain and the water pooling all over the property, it occured to me yesterday as my feet squished through the grass, that maybe that swampy smell was the septic tank backing up. So I did some reading on line and in fact, pooling water on the property is a sign that the land is not draining properly (which will cause your septic system to overload and send water backward through the system). So they septic repair people came this morning and sure enough, the septic system is backing up. He told us as he pumped it, water was flowing in to the system from the leech field, and apparantly, even with a lot of rain, that is not supposed to happen. The landlord said he will keep it pumped out, every six months if necessary. I'm just repeating my relaxation mantra--"it's only a rental."

After the septic people left, it was still heavily overcast and we walked out to the garden with our coffees to see if there was anything sprouting where we had planted seeds. Nada. No corn, no lima beans, and the tomatoes were looking as sad as can be. I walked away from that garden disgusted. (Even though the green beans, peas, peppers, celery and basil appear to be doing ok.)

Later in the day Charlie went out to pick up a few more chickens we had ordered from a local lady who sells chickens (live ones), and miracle of all miracles, the sun came out. It shined hot and bright for a few hours. Right as my roast was finishing for dinner, Charlie came in and said, "come with me, I want to show you something." Unbelivably, the corn was poking through the soil and we found one, yes one, sprouted lima bean with a nice strong stalk poking up through the soil as well. We are certain that lima bean sprout was not there this morning. It is amazing what a few hours of sun will do.

As I type, by candelight, (it attracts less bugs) the kids are all outside chasing and catching lightening bugs, something that speaks of summer to all children in the Eastern half of the United States. When they come inside, maybe I'll serve everyone a water ice and it will be a complete summer day, New Jersey style.

Today's Livestock Headcount:
10 chickens (7 Americaunas and 3 buff Orpingtons)
9 Guinea hens
6 ducks

Today's Dinner Menu:
Tenderloin Roast
Cheddar/Pepper buttermilk buscuits
Green beans
Tossed salad with local salad greens from the farmer's market

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Year Without a Summer

I am beginning to think summer will never come. Today I was literally in layered clothing starting with a longsleeved t-shirt, then a thin wool sweater and topped with a fleece jacket. I was in the house and outside today, but the jacket stayed on regardless. I have yet to wear a pair of shorts here and it is mid June on my calendar. I keep telling the kids that it gets hot here. They don't believe me. I am getting afraid my tomatoes will fail to thrive in this weather. I can count on two hands the number of hours I have seen the sun since we arrived. My allergies are still going full tilt; you have to love the bonus of having lived the late winter in Arizona where the allergies crop up about mid January, and then moving to New Jersey so they can last through July. I have now spent 6+ months battling allergies.

We had a dry day late last week so we planted the corn in the garden--finally. It hasn't come up yet and with all of the rain (it has rained almost every day since we've arrived) it may rot right there in the soil. The good news, however, is that the peas and the green beans are coming up nicely. I was never so happy to see sprouts in all my live long days. Surprisingly though, we have seen neither hide nor hair of the lima beans, not a single sprout is up. We had no trouble growing these in Arizona, but with the climate being so different here, it is like learning to garden all over again. I have no idea actually, what sort of conditions they need. They grew like weeds in the garden back in Phoenix. I'll be sure to keep you posted. We also have a variety of bell peppers planted, celery, and basil. We have a lot left to plant, especially the pumpkins which need to go in very soon. I'll be praying for an Indian Summer this year, that is if we ever get the first summer.

We have livestock now: four laying hens (who are still too young to lay), 6 ducks (one with a malformed foot, but as cute as can be) and 9 guinea hens. It has been fascinating to watch the ducklings grow. Almost every morning I drink my coffee with the birds as I let them out for the day. This afternoon, however, we had a poultry crisis. A predator got one of our guinea hens. We have no idea what got it, but it left feathers and entrails all over the bird paddock and it sent the remaining 9 guinea hens into a panic and then into hiding for the remainder of the day. We searched the entire field for those hens and this is no small task as it is about 15 acres. While we out looking for the hens an interesting thing happened. I discovered that there are scores of fully ripe wild strawberries in our field. As I looked for the hens, I would bend down and scoop up the strawberries. My hands looked as though I got the guinea hen. It wasn't long before Claire came out and joined me and the two of us stuffed ourselves full of wild strawberries. They we tiny (about the size of a blueberry) but full of delicous sweet flavor. Tomorrow morning I am planning to wake up and go out in the field and collect a bunch for making wild strawberry pancakes. I'll let you know how it turns out.

After dinner tonight, Charlie finally corralled the guinea hens out of the bushes and back into the box stall. I was afraid when they finally did resurface we'd have less than 9, but the 9 were still in one piece.

I see a dog in our future.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Garden gets rain and lots of it

It has rained almost continuously since we arrived except for a very welcomed reprieve last weekend nonetheless there is progress underway on the farm. The field tilling has been stalled because the field is so drenched but, we paid a local farmer to till a small portion of the field for corn and vegetables and it is coming along well. It will be the largest garden we’ve ever had. Also two of the paddocks are ready for animals. The third paddock had a tractor accident and the broken tractor is still in the field, without its front wheel, which somehow got ripped from the machine when the guy was mowing the paddock. Who knows when the broken tractor will be removed, but there is no rush since we haven’t fully figured out where exactly to purchase farm animals yet. Lots of people sell chickens and guinea hens (which we want for sure) but since we actually have experience with poultry we know what we want and what is a fair price, and we have yet to find what we are looking for. We have been informed that there is a farm auction up in Hackettstown every Tuesday. We are planning to go up there this Tuesday and pick up at least some chickens, so our plans this weekend include getting some dowels for the chickens to roost on at night, and getting some laying boxes for the hens to put their eggs in.

The farmer who tilled the field for us has been very forthcoming with advice and information. His message though, which he never fails to convey to us every time we speak to him is, don’t bother trying to do this stuff commercially; “you’ll lose your shirt trying to farm anything these days.” He claims there is no money of any kind that can possibly be made in farming anymore, and after assessing things in NJ, we are hard pressed to argue with him. The average small scale family farmer has inherited both the land on which he farms and the equipment he uses to do the farming. Otherwise he would be completely priced out of the market here in NJ. Property values are in the obnoxious range, and taxes are off the charts. The cost of new farm equipment is so high, no one could buy these machines without sizable loans. These guys are not big enough to break into the soybean/corn military industrial complex scale agribusiness. They are also are too small to actually sell their vegetables to the grocery chains. The best they can hope for is drive by traffic at farm stands and self-sufficiency. And admittedly, these guys could grow and raise enough food to food to feed a large family on most of the parcels out here, but by and large, they can’t make a commercial enterprise out of it. Not the old way anyway.

How is it that in central NJ, a place that is equidistant between New York City and Philadelphia, two cities both noted for their prized place on the culinary map, farmers are having a tough time? This area is chock-full of high end restaurants and a sizable number of people who helped put The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle on the New York Times Bestseller’s list. If Joel Salatin can be pulling in good money in Swoope Virginia, there is no reason these guys, who are better located in New Jersey, can’t also make a good living in farming. I also can’t help but wonder how the Amish survive on their labors. The Amish still manage to keep a community alive on subsistence farming and crafting. There is a Pennsylvania Dutch Farmer’s market here in town, but it is very weak on local vegetables. I wish some of the local farmers would rent a stall there and start selling their vegetables. There is one lady, not even Amish, who sells vegetables at that market, and of a whole produce section she had one item that was grown in New Jersey, asparagus. I bought some from her on principal.

I suspect that during the course of the coming year here, we will often ponder the plight of the family farmer, because those family farmers are our neighbors now. And I wonder, what of the young person today who actually aspires to be a farmer? Surely such a young person exists. Where are all of our ag majors going? Are they all really just cogs in the agribusiness wheel? There must be some of those ag majors who actually want to be small scale producers. Where can they get land and equipment to get started? More importantly where will they get customers for what they grow?

We didn’t come here to be commercial farmers, and apparently we should be thankful for that fact, from what the locals tell us. We were looking for a place to have some animals who will live in humane conditions and a sizeable kitchen garden so we could know with some more certainty where our own food came from. We will certainly reach our modest goals, but I’ll leave off this post wondering who is making goals for the larger food supply? Is it market driven really? If so, why can’t I find the locally grown foods I’m willing to pay extra for? And lastly where have all of the agriculture majors gone?