First, Do No Harm: The Hippocratic Oath for Farmers

I think I can safely say it’s spring now. Why, it hasn’t snowed in over a week!

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The parsley, along with every one else, was ready for spring in mid-March. But winter had other plans.

We FINALLY tilled up 18,000 square feet of gardens yesterday, and planted the first of the peas and carrots. It’s all rather overwhelming, especially when you contemplate the vastness of the newly tilled fields, and the smallness of the rake, hoe, and wagon, which will be your only tools to maintain it for the next 8 months.

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Don’t mind the pokeweed and pigweed remnants in the foreground. I try to think of them as cover crops in the fall. We need all the organic matter in the soil we can get!

We’re just a couple of steps away from having a fully operational hoop house, and only a few steps more than that to having a fence around the gardens that will at the very least slow down the myriad critters who have taken a strong liking to our crops.

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Good thing OSHA wasn’t on site when we erected this thing!

We’ve got a flock of 130 chickens on the field, and another 125 in the brooder. About 90% of the 750+ chickens we will be raising this year are already spoken for by customers. Our transplants are happily sprouting and leafing out in the heated greenhouses at Windmill Heights Garden Center, and the mower deck on our garden tractor will be repaired this week. (Repairing the mowing deck or some aspect of it is pretty much a regular occurrence here, due to my propensity for discovering boulders and forgotten pieces of lumber or hose in the tall grass while attempting to bushhog with our garden tractor.)

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Shhh! They’re sleeping! We call this mass of fuzzy softness a “Chick Puddle.” Don’t step in it, though!

And then there’s this. A pile of what looks similar to pea gravel, and is in fact leftovers from a local quarry, sometimes known as “rock dust.” (It’s not a street drug, so please you crazy gen Y or Z kids or whatever, don’t snort this at home.)

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Mini Thoroughfare Mountain just sprouted on our property.

I know. What in tarnation am I thinking getting gravel dumped on my garden? Or, as my neighbor put it when he saw me with my wheelbarrow at the pile, “I never know what kind of crazy you have going on over there.” See, he had just witnessed me spending the greater part of the winter–one time even in a snow storm–extracting rocks OUT of my gardens.

But if you think about it, you’ll realize it is actually a pile of cheap minerals which will activate the soil ecology. After all, what is rock but a whole lot of minerals waiting to be unleashed and taken up by the living things that need it for their very survival? And frugal farmers like my Uncle have been hitting up quarries for their leftover dust for darn near centuries. Mind you, he was more of a gardener than a farmer, and got the rock dust by the bucketful, which he put in the trunk of his Buick sedan. Me, I had a dumptruck deliver two tons of it. Yep, two tons. Now all that remains is to toss it around my fields, a bucket at a time.

Now, it’s not just me that’s throwing these minerals around around Madison County. A bunch of us ecologically-minded farmers attended a weekend workshop back in February put on by one of the founders of the Bionutrient Food Association. These people are drawing down on a plethora of soil science expertise in an attempt to get the word out about how to build the soil to get the nutrients back into our food supply.

Plants, and our bodies, need more than ratios of Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphate. While plants can survive on these elements (along with water and sunshine)–just like people can survive on french fries and soda pop, they won’t really be at their best. Far from it.

And did you know in the last 50 years, the amount of nutrition–that is vitamins and minerals–in our vegetables and fruits has actually been declining? As a 2011 article in Scientific American put it, “Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before.”

In fact, our very brains are at risk. Is it just me, or did people used to be smarter? For a truly frightening and getting-ever-more-realistic scenario of our future if we don’t start eating (and living) right, and some laughs (and wincing for those who don’t appreciate swear words and off-color innuendo), I highly recommend the films “Idiocracy” and “Wall-E.” Prophetic visions galore. Shudder.

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In a not-too-distant future scenario depicted in WALL-E, humans don’t even bother getting off their mobile loungers and are fed a steady diet of milkshakes and interactive media.

So a burgeoning group of us have this vision to get Madison County, Virginia on the map by making it a source of incredibly nutritious food. Food grown using techniques that build the soil, encourage beneficial microorganisms and insects, and don’t endanger human or soil health. We’re quietly spreading gravel-like substances into our fields, and getting ready to watch the plants thrive, and the pests go off and pester someone else’s weaker crop. We’re getting ready to watch the crop growth overtake the weed growth and make our life easier. We’re getting tools to measure the density of nutrients in our crops, and waiting for whiter teeth and fresher breath. Maybe one day we’ll even get a little bit smarter–and quit farming and move to the tropics.

In any case, I’m feeling enlightened from the workshop, giddy with the spring chore frenzy, and more dedicated than ever to being a steward of the soil and heck, even our community’s health. It got me thinking there should be some sort of Hippocratic oath for farmers. So I looked up the original for doctors, and amended it. The question is, whom shall we name it after?

I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my plants, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to any plant, nor suggest any such counsel; and in like manner, I will not invest in plants that cannot produce viable seed. With purity and with holiness I will pass my life and practice my Art. Into whatever fields I enter, I will go into them for the benefit of the plants, and will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption, and further, from the seduction of pesticides or herbicides, of excessive tillage and monocropping.

In regards to soil and plant health, the Farmer must be able to tell the antecedents, know the present, and foretell the future – must mediate these things, and have two special objects in view with regard to malingering plants, namely, to do good or to do no harm. The art consists of three things: The soil, the plant, and the farmer. The farmer is the servant of the art, and the plant must work with the soil ecology along with the farmer.

This, I solemnly vow.

 

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Are you about to be a Clueless Farmer?

I know it’s been a while since I shared anything about how clueless a farmer I am. Would it help if I let you know I just sowed some collards and mustard seeds in my garden yesterday? In mid-October? In Virginia? Hoping they will grow? And that I planted 3- year-old corn seed and wondered why it didn’t come up? How about if I told you I lost over 2/3 of my tomato crop this year because a: I didn’t stake them, and b: I didn’t fence out the groundhogs. The combination of no staking and no fencing made an all-you-can-eat tomato buffet designed just for groundhogs and rabbits! What about the weeks when I had nothing to harvest except edible weeds? Which I did harvest, and sold at the market? (!!!) Then there was last week, when I boldly strode right up to our varmint trap, hoping to see the groundhog culprit of our sheared off lettuce bed. Hey, that’s no groundhog, that’s a skunk! AAAHHH! Our house still smells. Now that would have made good T.V.

Speaking of T.V., I got a call the other day from a casting director up in New York City. She’s looking for clueless farmers and lifestyle refugees like me, only ones who are more camera-friendly and are just starting their journey. Like in the about-to-quit-their-job and buy land stage of cluelessness. They are to star in a new “non-scripted” TV show. That’s fancy talk for “reality show,” I think.

Interested in sharing your journey with the viewing public?  Talk to Erica, the casting agent or some such. She’s really nice and not New Yorkerish at all, and very excited about this project.  But the one New Yorkerish thing is that she’s on a tight deadline. They want to have this thing “casted” within 2-3 weeks from NOW. Yesterday would be preferable, actually.

So if you want to be a star, act now and get a picture and a blurb out to her now! Here’s her blurb about the show and what they’re looking for.

Major Lifestyle Network is Casting Families and Couples who are planning to move, or have recently moved to follow their dreams!
Do you have a dream and are willing to move just about anywhere to make it happen? Will a change of location mean a change of lifestyle for you or your family? Are you ready for a new start and relocating to make it all possible? Loud TV wants to hear from you! We are currently seeking families and couples who are planning on moving to turn their dreams into reality. Whether you are looking to buy a farm to leave the chaos of big city living behind or if you long to leave the suburbs for a beach front resort, we want to hear from you! For consideration please email your contact information, a recent photo and your relocation plans to erica.magaril@loudtelevision.com

She even sent a fancy casting call flyer! This is for real folks. Get your head shots together!

BUYING THE DREAM CASTING CALLShare widely. Though we Virginia folk are pushing for it to happen here in our beautiful Shenandoah neck of the woods.

Posted in Farming, New Farmers, Small Farms, Virginia Farms | Tagged | 3 Comments

The Three “Rs” of Farming: Weeding, Writing, and Relationships*

*Reprinted with permission from Homestead.org, with the title Learning Curves on Rural Roads: Three Lessons for Every Homesteader.

Way back in 2011, when my husband and I ditched our rat-race city lives to lead a “simple” life in the country making a living off the land, the pictures on milk containers were about all we knew about farming.   We bought five acres in the country, and now grow vegetables in about an acre of it and run pastured chickens (“meat birds”) on the other four.   Though our bodies were past their primes, we felt as though the endorphins of newlywed life could carry us through any physical challenges.   And because we didn’t have a tractor, or for that matter, any idea exactly what tractors did, there would be plenty of physical challenges.

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Weeding should have been a given.   I mean, everyone knows that to grow a successful crop, you have to keep the weeds down, right?  We choose to grow organically, so herbicides aren’t really an option.    Who knew you had to have a license for that stuff, anyway?  We studied books with pretty pictures of tidy raised beds with even tidier straw-filled pathways.  Mind you, these were gardening books.  For serious and tidy type-A gardeners who had as much time as they had money.  They made it look easy.

So that first year, we tried our best to create some raised beds and sunken walkways.  We filled the walkways with hardwood mulch.   Within a couple of weeks, the plantain and burdock and dandelions were breaking through the mulch.  Then came the wiregrass on top, underneath, and all around.   We had failed to put down a ground cover beneath the mulch.   Because the dirt had looked so clean and weed-free when the mulch went down, and we put the mulch down so thickly!  By the second season, we had all but abandoned our raised bed approach.

Why?  Because a nice man with a tractor and a plow had opened up a whole acre of our land for us to plant, and given us an acre of his third-generation worked land down the road as well.   Rows!  We could plant in big, long rows, just like the big boys!  And as for weeds, well, the tractor would take care of that with some sort of cultivator attachment on the satellite farm, and we could just ride our mower up the wide walkways on our land!

It was all well and good in April, May, and June.  A little hoe-ing here, a little tractor cultivation there, a drive by with the mower, and our little seedlings were well on their way to dominating the fields.  Then July hit, along with the weed load.  The crops were too big for the tractor to navigate through.  And too unwieldy for the mower to drive through without mowing the tomatoes down with the weeds.  We ended up wading into a waist-high thicket of wiregrass, pokeweed, lambs quarters, and curly dock to find our pepper plants.  And tomatoes.   And corn. And cucumbers.  We tried to make a game of “find the watermelon,” but it was just too depressing to realize that 250 watermelon plants yielded about 100 watermelons due to our failure to make time for weeding in our grand farming plan.  More often than not, we found them by tripping on them.  Seriously.Limas

So I learned one of the basics of farming:  Weeding should not be an afterthought.  Weed control is a critical part of an effective farm plan.

Speaking of farm planning, that’s where the record-keeping comes in.   All my years in a desk job, I somehow managed to avoid having more than a passing acquaintance with Microsoft Excel.    But this humble farmer now appreciates the value of a good spreadsheet.    At least on paper, I get to see my crops in neat straight rows.   Like President Eisenhower said, “Farming looks mighty easy when your plow is a pencil and you’re a thousand miles from the corn field.”   Make that a computer and a few hundred feet and that’s me in January, abuzz with plans.business

But that’s not where it ends.   There are email lists to build, emails to send out to loyal and potential customers.   Flashy email newsletter programs to navigate and master.   Websites to design and write.   Facebook pages to create and update, listings on Find-a-farm websites to secure and update.

And of-course, records to keep.   Receipts must be categorized and entered for every purchase and every sale.  The sales tax must be paid monthly at first, and then quarterly.   Schedule F (F for farming?) must be filled in and filed with the IRS each year.   (Did I have any proceeds from crop insurance?  Agricultural subsidy income?  Lessee.   Nope.)  Let’s not even talk about the threatening letter from the USDA Census bureau, which must have crossed in the mail with my completed 40+page agricultural census.  It seems everyone with a stick of ground and a shovel was required to participate in that one.

In sum, I had to find an awful lot of time for “paperwork.” And thank God for that, because it involved sitting down inside without feeling guilty.  But it was all part of the job.  Being a small farmer in the 21st century with a chance at “making it,” requires a high degree of literacy, computer and internet proficiency, and organizational skills.

The one thing I came in knowing was that I needed to make friends quickly.    Farming friends.    People who knew things about growing and selling things in our little county in central Virginia.  I approached this task with forthrightness.   I “got low,” with nary a high horse in sight, and admitted to everyone I encountered that I didn’t have a clue, and welcomed their suggestions and help.   As it turns out, the cream always rises to the top.  And the best people are the ones who appreciate the opportunity to help.   Which is how we ended up befriending the best people in the county.

Our first stop, before we even purchased land, was the county extension agent, despite their reputation in some circles.  It ended up being his advice that laid the foundation for what we consider our success.   It was Brad Jarvis who told us we should do broiler chickens at the market, and it was Brad Jarvis who steered us away from purchasing 25 acres and a run-down single-wide trailer and towards five acres and a solid, well-maintained home.

“I see a lot of people get excited about owning a lot of land.  Then they have it and they think they have to do something with it.  So they overextend themselves, and soon they’re in over their heads, and they don’t have the time or money to manage what they started and it’s a big mess….  At the end of a long, hard day, where you don’t know if you’re gonna make any money or not that year, you want to come home to a place that won’t rattle when the wind blows,” he finished.   Boy, was he ever right.  We like our stick-frame house with its full, finished basement.   And five acres is more than enough.

Our very own Madison County Extension Agent, Brad Jarvis, has public speaking down to a science, along with crop rotation.

Our very own Madison County Extension Agent, Brad Jarvis, has public speaking down to a science, along with crop rotation.

Brad made sure we got on the mailing list for every training event or workshop he knew of, and it was at one of these events that I landed my first off-season job.   At a field day put on by various government agencies at a small, diversified, organic farm near us, I overheard the owner say she was looking for part-time, dependable farming help for the winter.   I strode on over and raised my hand, “I’ll do it!”  My husband ended up helping out there too that winter.  So both of us ended up with off-farm jobs as farmhands that first winter at Brightwood Vineyard and Farm.   We tended to chickens, dogs, donkeys, goats, sheep and a cow first thing.  Then we harvested salad and greens.   Afternoons found us packing and washing produce, and other sundry tasks, such as helping to build a rustic outdoor hot tub out of bales of hay, moving stuff around with a tractor, preparing seed beds and starting transplants.  We learned a lot.  And stayed in shape for season two.

Brad was also instrumental in setting up the local farmers’ market, and I would have liked him just for that.  See, it was the Madison County Farmers’ Market that initially provided the fertile soil for that crazy farming idea to sprout.  We came to love Madison county by way of friends who had a home there, complete with a view of the Blue Ridge mountains.  They were very proud of the newly-established market in their little town, and if we happened to be there on a Saturday morning, it was off to the market we went.

I remember being star-struck seeing real live farmers at their booths.   I didn’t even know such reverence for folks who worked the land was in me, but out it came.  Why, there was Mrs.  Mary Ruth Kipps, with her daughter, Catherine, laying out their fine assortment of baked goods on their red-checkered tablecloths.   The Kipps had the cutest assortment of multi-colored eggs, along with jars of jam and pints of fresh berries and grapes to round out their offerings.  Their homespun booth served as a kind of “anchor store” to the market.Kipps

When we had the opportunity to set up our booth next to the Kipps, we grabbed it, thrilled at our good fortune.   Here we were, in only our second year, and we were next to the infamous Kipps!  But what really stunned us was when they asked us to be in charge of their booth for a few hours so they could attend a wedding.   We had earned the trust and favor of the icons of the community.   We imagined customers taking mental notes of how trustworthy and honorable we must be, and how our sales would flourish with our newfound status at the market.

Then there was Joel Yowell.   I remember the first day I met him.  Joel stood with his arms folded, his pick up truck behind him, his free-range, non-GMO eggs stacked neatly in coolers, his giant garlic in bins on the table.  He was the quintessential man of few words.   My bubbly friend explained to him that I had an interest in farming, and I can only imagine what was going on behind his piercing gaze as he studied me while I babbled on about wanting to make a living growing vegetables and chicken even though I had virtually no experience.   Loathing, I assume.    And yet, Joel and his wife welcomed us to the little community of vendors a few years later.  One market day, I glanced over to see my husband, also a man of few words, standing next to Joel, the two of them striking up a friendship.   I felt that old demon pride welling up.   We were “in.”

But perhaps no one screamed “Farmer!” like the old-fashioned, handlebar mustached, suspender-wearing, white-haired Max Lacy.    He was full of good jokes, big hugs, and colorful idioms.  It took me a few seasons to figure out that what he called “old-timey” onions were multiplier onions.   Max and his wife lived in the same house that once belonged to his grandfather, and farmed the same land.   His sister lived two doors down, and his cousin in the house to the rear.  I managed to get myself invited to a family gathering of sorts, and was surrounded by four generations of Lacys who seemed to have graciousness in their blood.   Even the teenagers called me ma’am and shook my hand with no prompting!Lacy

So when Max sidled up to us one day at the winter market and asked us if we wanted to use some of his good land to grow our crops next year while we got our land ready, we couldn’t have felt any more honored.  No one but a Lacy had ever worked that land so far back as anyone could remember.  To sweeten the deal, Max said he would do all the tractor work, and give us all the advice we wanted.  Our very own mentor!  I’m quite sure he regretted that decision once he saw the results of our non-existent weed management plan, but I still get the occasional hug and that’s good enough for me.

I could go on and on about the friends, neighbors, and farmers—most of the time they’re all three—who have helped cultivate our dream.  There’s the Riders of Backfield Farm Beef, who have a loyal following for their pastured beef. They took to telling their customers all about us, sending them over to see how delicious our  “Cadillac Chickens” were.  And Margaret Hutcheson, my friend, cooperative CSA business partner, vegetable farmer, canner, and all around “good neighbor” in every sense of the word deserves an article all her own.  She even coaxed her husband into sharing their spreadsheet planting plan with us, so we could get a jumpstart on making our own.   Just don’t ask them what kind of eggplant they grow.  Farmers have their secrets!

While the farming community will always have a respectable place for the loners of the world, having some relationship skills can’t hurt.  The more people who know what you’re about, what you need, and what you can do, the more likely you are to come across some wonderful opportunities.

Well, even though it’s only April, that wiregrass is sprouting, and this year, I’m on it.  Time to get to weeding.

Posted in Christian Agrarian, Farming, Free range chicken, New Farmers, Organic, Small Farms, Uncategorized, Virginia Farms | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Choose something like a farm

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Kamal Abdelmalek (right) holds his son Amir (my husband) at a blessing ceremony with his brother-in-law, a Coptic Priest.

It’s been a while since I wrote anything for this little blog. I know, the off season is when we farmers who write should have lots of time and introspective energy to tap away at our keyboards. But I was busy doing our spring cleaning, which I certainly don’t have time for in spring, as well as creating a website for our CSA, Madison Eats Local Food Club, making a nine page planting plan, and scheduling cycles of life for our batches of chickens.

Oh, and spending five weeks in Egypt bonding with my husband’s family during which time my husband’s beloved, gentle, father passed away. If ever the angels and saints rejoice at the arrival of a soul to heaven, surely they are rejoicing now at the presence of this humble servant among them.

 

 

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Cairo rooftops, as seen from my friend’s balcony near Tahrir Square.

Life in tumultuous Cairo, an urban environment evocative of scenes from Blade Runner, rounded out by donkey-drawn vendor carts on its dusty, bumper-to-bumper streets, and home delivery EVERYTHING, made me appreciate even more my life in rural Madison County, Virginia.

Of course, it’s easy to wax romantic about the joys of the farming life when you’re sleeping in until 9am every day and someone else is preparing elaborate meals from scratch for you every day. (Thanks, Mama Amani!) And often, those meals involved actual fresh chicken procured by Amir’s 94-year old grandmother, who lives in an old part of town where they still can buy live chickens at the poultry shop and have them processed on site. And a snowstorm is far more picturesque when you aren’t the one without power for four days.

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Glean Acres in the snow, from Saturn storm, March 2013.

While in Cairo, I benefited from living two blocks away from our Church, making almost daily pilgrimages to the place where I was married and where my husband’s father’s funeral was held. I appreciated the warmth and eagerness to help of so many of the city’s people, who retain some semblance of the hospitality and, well, purity, of their not-so-distant rural roots in the villages spread out along the Nile.

Domed ceiling of the Church of St. Gawargious & Ava Antonious Church in Heliopolis, Cairo.

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Welcome, 2013 Chicks of Glean Acres!

I’ve been back at Glean Acres for less than a week, and feel like I hit the ground running. Upon entering our kitchen, I saw boxes of seed potatoes on the counter, along with boxes of onion sets and bareroot strawberries. I found ants in the pantry and mice in the brooder  shed. The plantain and burdock are emerging with a vengeance in my garden plots. Our shipment of day-old chicks arrived yesterday morning–all 154 of them. I had ordered 125. I guess the hatchery was feeling generous! And our friendly neighborhood UPS driver just dropped of my newest hope for a labor-saving device, the Mantis Tiller.

And though I struggle with my new nemesis, the smart phone, with its insidious attempts to drag me into the world of connected zombies and far far away from the simple life to which I aspire, it is obvious God has dealt generously with me.

Today as I ate my breakfast of fresh pastured eggs from our little flock of chickens and rye toast I made earlier this week, a poem came to mind. Actually, a play on a poem by Robert Frost, the title of which has always stuck with me. My poet father passed on his love of word-play to me, and so I hope he, and you, will forgive this little diddy:

O Farm (the nearest one in sight)

We grant your dirtiness the right

To some obscurity of ground –

It will not do to say of blight

Since strife is what brings out your might

Some mystery becomes the mound

But to be wholly infertile

In your reserve is not allowed

Say something to us we can learn

By heart and when alone repeat

Say something! And it says “I worm.”

But say with what degree of heat.

Talk Farenheit, talk Centigrade.

Use language we can comprehend.

Tell us what elements you blend.

It gives us strangely little aid.

But does tell something in the end.

And steadfast as a wheel hoe

Not even straying from its veer

It asks a little of us here

It asks us of a certain low,

So when at times the mob is swayed

To carry praise or blame too far

We may choose something like a farm

To stay our minds on and be staid.

What was that? Oh my smart phone just dinged me. My husband just sent me a picture from the memorial service for his father, held today at our church in Cairo. I think I know who might be behind all these recent blessings in our life. Thank you, Papa Kamal, and may God bless you as abundantly as you blessed all who knew you.

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A Day in the Life of a Microfarmer

ImageThat photo on the left is me after digging potatoes during a heatwave in June. But this year, when hasn’t there been a heatwave? And yet there is work to do outside, even when the radio blares advisories to stay indoors.

What I’ve learned is that there is a very big difference between having a garden and trying to earn a living from a very small farm. What they have in common is the contentment that comes from getting to eat amazingly fresh, nutritious food that you tended with your own hands, and getting to feed your neighbors and friends with it. Then there is the feeling of satisfaction and peace that comes with digging in the dirt and getting something “real” done. The edge that microfarming for a living has over gardening is the added satisfaction of being your own boss, setting your own timetable, with your daily commute involving walking out the back door and through the tall grass.

But microfarming also has some drawbacks that gardening lacks. Such as the impetus to keep digging, planting, and harvesting day after day regardless of the weather or your mood. The need to keep records, not just the fun garden journal kind, but the financial kind. Every receipt must be categorized and recorded, every revenue entered, the sales tax paid in a timely manner. Then there’s the marketing. Coolers must be cleaned, crates stored, and everything washed and packed in an orderly fashion so they can be loaded into the car and driven to market. And again a few days later. But wait. Instead of explaining, I’ll just share my day with you, as it happened, yesterday:

6:30am. Feed and water broiler chickens on field. Move two coops to fresh pasture. Feed and water layer hens. Feed and water chicks in brooder.

7:15am. Have coffee, daily devotional.

8:15am-10am. Harvest 10 pints of currant tomatoes.

10:00am. Time for breakfast! This time of year, that’s grated yellow squash topped with poached eggs served on whole wheat bread with cheese and liverwurst.

10:30am. Clean crates and coolers, clamshell containers. Pack currant tomatoes into 1/2 pint clamshell containers. Sort through stored Roma tomatoes in quart containers, throw out questionable ones, repack into containers.

11:30am. Harvest30 pounds of cucumbers. 20 pounds of zucchini. 15 pounds of heirloom tomatoes.

12:30pm. Wash and pack vegetables into crates.

1:00pm. Make Amir’s favorite snack. (chocolate chip blondies.) Put in oven.

1:15pm. Time to load the car for the Wednesday CSA pick up and Madison Roadside Market. Place cooler in car. Get chicken from freezer in basement. Bring upstairs in bag, load into cooler in car. Get ice packs from other freezer, place in cooler. Load beef from basement freezer into another cooler, bring upstairs and load in car.  Arrange car to accommodate five crates of vegetables, 2 coolers, 2 tables, a chair, a signboard, a canopy, all manner of baskets and display materials. Bring up crate of tomatoes from basement. Load rest of vegetables from washing station into car.

2:00pm. Head to CSA partner’s home down the road about 10 minutes away, pack all CSA veggies into individual share bags. Enter items distributed for CSA on spreadsheet. Load car with CSA shares, drive to market. Gratefully accept a piece of carrot cake with cream cheese frosting from partner, as you realize you skipped lunch and will not be home until after 7pm. (Thanks, Margaret! You’re the bestest!)

3:00pm. Arrive at market. Set up canopy and tables, arrange display. Stay hydrated and cool in 100% humidity and 92 degree weather. Distribute shares, sell produce and chicken.

5:00pm. A CSA member approaches. I’m resting in my chair. “Hey there,” I say, with a smile. She looks toward the display with the CSA shares. “Yeah, yours is over there,” I say easing up out of my chair. She laughs, “A little slow to get up there, huh? I can just get it myself I guess.” Chagrined, I hurry over and pull out her bag, and make a point to show her each of the goodies inside. Being a market grower is as much about customer relationship as it is about growing great food.

7:00pm. Take down market display. Thankfully, husband has joined at this point and does most of the take down work and re-loading of car. He has also picked up dinner for us to have at home, since I haven’t had a chance to prepare anything. Arby’s roast beef sandwiches it is, then.

7:30pm. Unload car. Put away meat back in freezer. Put unsold veggies in market refrigerator. Gobble down a couple of Arby’s sandwiches.

8:00pm. Check on eggplant transplants, put in ground the previous day. Realize they need water. Arrange irrigation line on that row, turn on. Discover fountain-worthy leaks in other irrigation line. Try to tie them off, to no avail. Get soaked in process. Make a mental note to put repair on to-do list. All this while husband is wading through waist-level weeds–but even higher corn–in our corn field,  diligently doing pest control on our 5 rows of organic sweet corn, which is just about ready.

9:00pm. Close the broiler chickens on the field in their coop for the night. Catch rogue hen from layer flock and put her back with her flock. Close in layers for the night. Check chicks in brooder, refresh water and food.

9:30pm. Shower, put on jammies. Watch 2 episodes of Frasier sitcom. Endure a couple of sudden leg cramps. Eat a chocolate chip blondie.

10:30pm. Take two ibuprofen and go to bed.

So that’s a typical day in the life of a microfarmer, sunup to sundown. It’s the market days that get you! Tomorrow, it’s harvest the first of the organic sweet corn and some more watermelons, along with Roma beans, eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, cucumbers, and tomatoes, and pack it all up for market. Maybe one day I’ll get some weeding done. Maybe do a little canning from all the abundance. I’m definitely cooking dinner tonight though, just as soon as I get those 114 chicks moved from the brooder to the field, dig up all the onions, and string the tomato supports on rows 7-10.  It won’t be Arby’s again, darn it! Not with all we’ve got growing! I tell you, gardening was never this demanding.

Posted in Christian Agrarian, Farming, Free range chicken, New Farmers, pastured poultry, Small Farms, Uncategorized, Virginia Farms | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Chicken Tender

Way back when we were beginning farmers in 2011, we rarely rose with the chickens. We took to shutting the windows at night so we wouldn’t hear our roosters crow at dawn, and even strategically placed the coop away from our bedroom for the same reason. The chickens were lucky to start their foraging by 8am, past prime time for grubs and whatnot.

Amir really digs the chicks.

But all that’s changed now that my husband has taken on the job of Chief Chicken Tender. One of his first orders of business was to maximize free-range forage time for the birds. “I really think they like being out in the early morning and late evenings best. They are with us such a short time anyway, so we owe it to them to let them have that time,” is how he put it.

“I agree,” I responded, and proceeded to snug into the blankets when the alarm went off at 6am the next day. Amir quickly ascertained that if our chickens were truly going to live the good life, it was up to him to make it happen. And so for the past few months, he’s been arising at 5:30am to let the chickens out for prime foraging. Sometimes he returns to bed for a snooze. But to date, he has not once accepted my offer to take over that chore to give him a day or two of sleeping in.  “I actually kind of enjoy it,” he said. “Every morning, watching them rush out of the coop… I always think of the Bob Marley song, Exodus,” he laughed.

“Buh ba buh ba ba ba bah bah buh buh buh… Exodus, movement of jah chickens…” I sang in response.

Amir took it upon himself to care for those birds as God’s creatures, worthy of tenderness, respect, and compassion, up until the time they are labeled in the cooler. That means they are practically pets until then. Not just livestock. Chickens. With personalities. Hundreds of them. Which is why he took it so hard when a predator made its presence known. The predator wasn’t just messing with our livestock and livelihood, it was messing with defenseless creatures who were part of the family Amir was called upon to protect.

We had spent the morning moving that batch of chicks from the brooder out into their new digs on the field. They were 24 days old. We had a houseguest with us who had arrived in the late afternoon, and what with all the visiting, it was darker than usual when Amir headed out to close the birds in for the night. I was doing the dishes when Amir came flying in, holding a chick. “This one is hurt really bad, we need to keep it inside. There was a big bird. Maybe an owl. And at least one dead chick.”

And so we found ourselves preparing another little infirmary box in the back bedroom. The brooder had a fly problem we hadn’t yet dealt with, and the deep gashes on the back flesh of the little bird needed to be kept clean. By the time the night was through, we were dealing with a couple of dead chickens, and two in the infirmary. One of them with a severe head wound. I was sure that one was not going to make it, and wondered if it wouldn’t have been more humane to let the predator finish him off. But that chick didn’t seem to know that half of its brain was missing, and went about the business of chirping and eating and drinking and otherwise acting like a normal, healthy chick. I guess that’s where the expression bird brain comes from? Apparently they don’t need much to function.

By the time the dust settled, we had buried a couple of chickens and were nursing five wounded warriors in the back bedroom. Our house was beginning to smell like a chicken coop. Some of the birds were big enough to jump out of their box and had taken to roaming about the room, pooping on polished wood floors and down comforter covers. But Amir was vigilant with the neosporin salve and the birds all seemed to be healing.

He was also busy trying to catch a predator and transform the tarp-covered moveable pasture coop into fort knox. He called in the big guns, a friend of ours who had the title “Professional Animal Wrangler” on his resume. Jason came out and surveyed the scene, heard the gruesome details of the particular kind of damage sustained, and determined we had a raccoon on our hands. The owl had probably dropped in opportunistically when the birds were not safely in their coop that first night when darkness fell. But that raccoon? How did he get through the electric poultry netting?

When I came back from the market the next day. our elegant moveable chicken hoophouse had been secured. Concrete paving stones lined the outsides, and plywood rectangles had been attached to the chicken wire fronts and backs. There were 4 x 4s wedged into all gaps between coop and earth. And traps had been set with sardines. The birds were safely locked in their coops at the twilight’s last gleamings, complete with a light on in the coop to further deter predators, plus to aid the chickens with their non-existent night vision.

To move the coop now required a couple of hours of take down and set up, so the regular daily moves were not a viable option. But the birds still needed a clean place, so we added the task of raking up hay from our mowed fields to strew on the ground of the coop between moves. I say we, but my hay making accounts for only about 10% of what’s gone into the coops. Amir’s been diligent about this duty as well.

We mow our overgrown pasture with our little riding mower. It leaves piles of tall grass in its wake. It dries in the sun, and voila, we made hay!

After about a week, we were able to move the wounded warriors from the back bedroom ICU to a regular room in the brooder, and about a week after that, they were begging to go back out into the trenches. The pullet with the head wound had only a small scar to show off, and the rooster we thought would lose his eye for sure, didn’t. Amir wanted to be able to keep an eye on them, so we tagged them with cable ties before they rejoined their flock.

That night, Amir went out extra early to spend some time with the birds before bedtime. As they all began to make their way one by one to the safety of the coop, he knelt down to watch for the special ones with the green cable ties around their legs. One by one, they approached him, and he soon found himself surrounded by his special flock of five birds who weren’t yet quite sure where home was, but they knew where safety was. Two of them jumped up onto his lap. I’m quite sure he was talking chicken with them, letting them know they’d be safe inside with their long lost friends. It’s not a very thick line between chicken tender and chicken whisperer, you know.

We still haven’t caught that wily raccoon, but it hasn’t messed with our chickens again, either. We did catch a groundhog in our banana-baited trap yesterday, but as it promised it was not the culprit in our chicken woes, and also not to ever ever mess with our vegetable crops, we released it.

Now the sun has set, this longest night of the year, and the chickens are happily out foraging at their second favorite time of the day.  Just this minute, as I was getting ready to wrap up this post, Amir walked in holding our pet chicken, Scruffy, the “henster.” Seems Scruffy got into a scuffle with Roo, our rooster, despite the fence between them. Scruffy’s comb was all scruffed up. Amir held Scruffy in the kitchen while I washed up the scratches and applied neosporin. It’s time for the evening chores now, just time for a quick bite of supper first. A chicken tender’s work is never done.

Posted in Christian Agrarian, Farming, Free range chicken, New Farmers, pastured poultry, Small Farms, Uncategorized, Virginia Farms | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Bye, Bye, Buddy

Now that we’re almost grown-up farmers, beginning to get some hard-won clues, we’ve learned to make some tough decisions. Like the decision to get rid of Buddy the Rooster.

Buddy in his prime, at 7 months old, with his (slightly battered) harem.

Buddy at 3 weeks, presiding over the less-than-thriving Angel, already with a bright red comb and bright yellow neck. He was already a "looker."

He was Angel’s companion when she was struggling to grow in our back bedroom chicken infirmary last year. He grew up to be a 14-pound strapping linebacker of a Rooster, with an appetite for the ladies that gave them the appearance of battered wives.

Then he started head butting us (imagine a bowling ball ramming the back of your knees). Then he started cock-fighting with Roo, our disabled Gentleman of a rooster. We awoke one morning to find blood all over the inside of the coop, both roosters bleeding badly from their combs and back of the neck. We separated them. But Buddy kept finding ways to attack Roo, even through the fence. And he wasn’t going to quit until he killed him, we were sure.

Still, we weren’t farmer enough to kill him and cook him ourselves. So we did the next best thing. We took him to the poultry auction down the road.

This is where we spent the better part of a beautiful Saturday, waiting for Buddy to come up for bid.

Real farmers go to agricultural auctions, we’re told. Buddy was the biggest rooster on the auction block, taking up the better part of a cage meant for animals like goats or German Shepherds.

I am Buddy. Hear me Crow!

Even when we were standing outside the building, we heard Buddy’s distinctive and loud crow above the din of hundreds of poultry birds. Guineas, Peacocks, Bantys, Silkies, Bunnies, Doves–all were stacked in cages ready to be taken to their new homes.

The Guinea Hens were tempting, good as they are at keeping tick populations down.

"Hey," said the peacock. "Is my tail hanging out? You don't think my tail is hanging out, do you?"

Three-high stacks of cages of birds and rabbits and ducks were the norm in the ring.

Poultry auctions are not for the faint-of-heart animal-lover types, of which we count ourselves among. We distracted ourselves with people watching, but found that was even harder on the stomach, what with all the tobacco-spitting.

We waited and waited while the auctioneer and his crew held up carton after carton of hatching eggs, then eating eggs, until they finally got to the birds at around 12:30 pm. A peacock went for upwards of $200.00. The first rooster, albeit a small one, fetched $2.00. A pair of laying hens went for $7.00. We had already spent 5 hours or so at the auction, so any amount of money Buddy could possibly bring us was not going to be worth our time, but we figured we were there for the experience more than anything. We were hoping to pick up a few cheap feeders while we were at it, but nothing there suited our needs.

Around one o’clock, we figured we might as well go on home and wait for our check in the mail. We were figuring on $5.00 for Buddy. So when we got the check in the mail today and saw that Buddy had fetched $18.00, we were mightily impressed. Of course, the auctioneer’s share left us with just $12.60, but we were told that Buddy got the highest bid of any rooster there that day.

We’re proud of him. And hope he has a good life with lots of strong, feisty hens with tough skin, or at the very least, a swift, clean death and good stew recipe.

Luckily, we have a song to remember him by. It goes like this. (Those of you who have had to endure high school musicals might recognize it.)

Bye, bye, Buddy.
I’m gonna miss you so
Bye Bye Birdie
Why’d you have to go?

No more sunshine
It’s followed you away
I’ll cry birdie
till you’re home to stay

I’ll miss the way you crow
As though it’s just for me
And each and every night
I’ll write you faithfully
(Bye Bye Birdie)

huh, Bye bye Birdie
It’s awful hard to beg
Bye bye Birdie
Guess I’ll always care

We love you Buddy
O Yes we do
We love you Buddy
And we’ll be true

I’ll miss the way you crow
As though it’s just for me
And each and every night
I’ll write you faithfully

Bye bye Birdie
It’s awful hard to beg
Bye bye Birdie

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