A long, dry, spell.

It’s been a long dry spell. This week we saw our first rain in over six weeks. The last rain corresponded with my last blog post, so it must be time to write again.

To be honest, these past few weeks without rain have been scary for me. Last year, our first year as Clueless Farmers, everything was a grand adventure, and we had no illusions of “making it” the first year, what with our little garden plots and massive capital outlays and one little farmers’ market. We didn’t even start planting until June, and our chickens were still growing when the market opened for the season. We worked like crazy, figuring stuff out as we went along, making far too many trips to the hardware and feed stores, doting on our plants and birds, and having this feeling that it was only going to get easier from there on out. This year, however, we have the intention of making it. And the real work is actually just beginning.

Here’s a little of what’s been happening at Glean Acres this year:

  • January seed tests in our basement seed starting workshop.

    Starting transplants in February, March, and April–over a thousand plants–as opposed to the six trays we started in May last year. (Don’t worry, we started them in our basement with heat mats and grow lights, not in our uninsulated, UV-blocking “sun room.”)

  • Signing up for four farmers’ markets: Our beloved Madison County market (our incubator), Archwood Green Barns in The Plains, the Market at Pen Park in Charlottesville area, and a new Wednesday afternoon roadside stand on Hwy 29 in Madison, run by the Madison Farmers’ Market (it starts in July.)
  • Our CSA logo. Not bad for a few simple farmers, huh?

    C0-founding a multi-farm CSA with several of our friends with small farms. There were organizational meetings, then a variety of marketing efforts from brochures to a facebook presence and e-newsletter, logistics such as payment collecting and processing, packing and distribution, and what to feed our members each week for 25 weeks…. We’re at 20 members so far, and two off-farm pick up sites. It is a lot of work for such a small membership, but we have faith that it will grow.

  • Arranging to grow on over an acre of land at a nearby farm. The land there has been “worked” for decades, has great tilth, lots of organic matter, and the owner serves as a mentor for us, advising us when to plant, when to fertilize, how much to grow, when to worry, plus he does the tractor work. So far, we’ve planted over 2500 row feet of crops: turnips, spinach, beets, kale, mustard, radishes, onions, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower,  and peas. Lots of peas. But growing over there takes great faith. Because there is no irrigation, and the water source is a spring-fed cattle trough about 1/4 mile down the road that requires filling up a tractor-mounted water tank that must be pumped out onto the crops a little bit at a time. That’s all fine and dandy when the weather is “normal,” with a rainy spring, weekly thunder showers throughout the summer, and only a dry spell in September. But when is the weather normal? This past month, we’ve spent an inordinate amount of time hauling 5-gallon buckets of water to the field in the back of our Subaru, dumping water into 2 gallon watering cans, and walking up and down the rows, rather pathetically metering out just enough juice for the seedlings to survive, but certainly not thrive. There were times when we felt very “Little House on the Prairie.” Noble, yes, yet inefficient for our times. So we are positively jubilant at this weekend’s persistent rain.
  • Breaking about 1 acre of new ground at Glean Acres. This one is worth several pictures:

More long rows to hoe.

Cleo and Angel have a freshly-plowed field day!

The tractor is gone. Leaving nice loamy soil and a goodly supply of hard manual labor in its wake. In other words, "Oh my dear Lord, what were we thinking!"

These pictures were taken about 2 months ago. The land looks pretty much the same now, only we’ve tilled it a few times with our rear-tine walk-behind tiller to keep the tufts of tenacious fescue in their place. We’re told the fescue won’t be going anywhere for a good long time. We’re told it would be best to plant in polyweave ground cover for the next few years if we want to have energy for anything besides weed patrol. So now, like many organic farmers, we’re learning to appreciate and celebrate decidedly environmentally unfriendly plastic. It’s a hard pill to swallow. We’re hoping to nurse our soil into weed-unfriendly health with cover crops over the next few years. Until then, we are of the mind that plastic on the ground is better than herbicides in our food.

And so, in the next few weeks, this ground at Glean Acres will be filled with eleven varieties of tomato plants, over 500 plants in all. That’s about 1500 row feet. There will also be gladiolas, and maybe even some cantaloupes and melons. The crops here will be irrigated with snazzy drip tape, with a plan unfolding to capture rain water from the roofs of our house and barn.

On this third rainy day in a row, we find many reasons to relish the rain. We get to enjoy the great indoors for a change. We get a break from hauling buckets of water. We get a respite from worrying about our well running dry when we irrigate for days on end. Our backs well-rested and pain-free, we start to feel like we just might make it after all.

Posted in Christian Agrarian, Farming, Free range chicken, New Farmers, pastured poultry, Small Farms, Uncategorized, Virginia Farms | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The secret(s) to succulent pastured chicken

It’s snowing today, we’ve got 128 peeps in the brooder–see them in their peeping glory here, we finished our spring cleaning yesterday, and I’m thinking roast chicken for dinner. (Out with the old frozen chicken, make way for the new!)

Around here, we pretty much prepare our chicken one way. And that’s Amir’s way. Why mess with the best? It turns out tender and juicy and delicious every time. Part of that is in the cooking technique, yes. But a lot has to do with our birds and how we raise them, and how we process them and store them.

Perhaps I shouldn’t give away our trade secrets. Because apparently there are some pastured poultry farmers out there who are needlessly selling tough birds, and maybe we could lure their customers over to us with our tender birds. But I don’t want pastured poultry getting a bad rap. I trust that enough of our good citizens appreciate a fine product to keep all of us in business. As President G.W. Bush once said, I believe we can “Make the pie higher!” So, in the interest of knowledge-sharing, and good food for all, I offer a few of the ways we at Glean Acres ensure our chicken is the best chicken ever to grace a dining room table.

1. We keep small, manageable flocks. We’re not going to get rich on our chickens. They’re just one part of a whole bunch of things we grow and sell to keep a roof over our head. If we focused on just chickens, having a thousand or more on our farm on any given day, moving their multiple pens mechanically, slaughtering a few hundred at a time every few days, well, not only does that sound like a non-joyful way to eek out a living, but it would dull our senses to the awesome creature our creator has entrusted to our care. We would deal with mortality on a scale that made it routine. We could shrug off accidental and preventable deaths, not be concerned about stressful conditions or situations. We would catch and hold the birds by their feet in the name of efficiency, let them sit in the rain or the hot sun, waterless, while they awaited their fate on their final day.

What does all that have to do with a tender bird? Well, with small batches, we aim to minimize stress for our birds, and maximize their relaxed, content, care-free moments. They are healthier that way, less prone to injuries and illness. Less stress hormones end up in their meat. Most of the studies done on this are systematically torn apart by those with an interest in industrial chicken farming, but we think a less-stressed bird makes for a better product.

2. Our chickens are free-range AND on pasture. There is a LOT of confusion about just what free-range and pastured means. Your free-range chicken can be an industrial chicken who spends most of its time inside a large, stationary, chicken house with just a few small openings into enclosed yards that it may not ever find its way to. Or it can be what you likely envision as free-range, chickens roaming about in the open fields. But the “free-range” label alone won’t tell you what their actual conditions are. It can vary. Similarly, your pastured chicken may not benefit from all that much exercise. In fact, the original “Salatin-style” pastured poultry system which is still the most popular keeps the chickens confined. Yes, they are on fresh pasture in open-air pens that are moved around, but adherents to this system don’t open up the pens to let the birds roam around. They are still crammed in there, getting up only to eat and drink. Not expressing very much of their chickenness.

We follow a modified version closer to the “day-range” system, which consists of a mobile pen that is kept inside a fenced area. The birds are free to roam within the fenced-area during the day and are closed in the mobile pen at night to keep them safe from predators. We move the pen daily to prevent accumulation of manure and we move the portable electric poultry netting as needed to keep the birds on fresh pasture. Especially in the early morning and evenings, our birds enjoy frolicking around their protected area, chasing and scratching after bugs and grubs, munching on clover, alfalfa, and other verdant treats in our pasture.

Glean Acres Freedom Rangers in the day-range system

3. We raise Freedom Rangers, not industrial chickens. Many pastured poultry producers, in the interest of keeping costs down and maximizing profit, choose to raise the same kind of chicken you find in the supermarket, the ubiquitous Cornish Cross. It is a white chicken that has been bred to grow very very quickly, and to yield a tremendous, disproportionate amount of breast meat, the kind American consumers seem to prefer. Their breasts are so large, their legs can’t grow fast enough to support them, so many of them end up crippled, and unable to walk. They reach their market weights at a shocking 6-7 weeks. This bird also has seemingly had its wits bred out of it. It’s a depressing chicken, which many producers will testify will die of thirst rather than exert more than a modicum of effort to get water. They are not particularly good foragers. They are the chicken equivalent of couch potatoes who watch reality TV all day and wait for someone else to get up so they can say “pass the cheetos.” I’ve worked with these birds on another farm, slaughtering them feels like a mercy killing.

We raise a type of bird derived from heritage birds in Europe and the U.S. They are categorized as “slow-growers,” reaching their market weights at a relatively mature 10-12 weeks. They have retained their normal chicken proportions, which means their legs are strong and meaty, but they still have ample breast meat.  They also are more active and interested in foraging than their industrial-type counterparts. All in all, Freedom Rangers make for a life-affirming choice of meat bird, if you can follow the logic in that.

What that has to do with succulent meat is that their older age means their flavor has had more time to develop, so it tastes more like some of the old-timers remember chicken as tasting. Also, they exercise, so they get muscles. You get tender muscle meat, not the mushy-type soft meat associated with confined young chickens.

4. We put our chickens on ice after slaughtering, not into the freezer. Many producers do not know this, but rigormortis affects chickens, too. Freezing the bird directly after processing means the rigormortis chemicals are frozen right along with the meat. This is why some customers complain that their pastured poultry is tough! But it’s expensive keeping birds on ice for a day or two, not to mention inconvenient if you have to run to the store for ice. We invested a considerable sum in an ice machine so that we can ensure we never sell a tough bird. So if you buy your bird fresh from the farm on processing day, wait a day or two before freezing it! Keep it nicely chilled but not frozen so it can “rest,” and the rigormortis chemicals can break down a bit. No need to brine!

5. “Sear” your whole chicken in a hot oven for the first few minutes of cooking. Whether it’s a 3.5lb bird, or a big 6lb roaster, you can seal in the juices by slathering a good-quality oil or butter all around, along with some herbs and maybe lemon, and sticking it into a HOT oven for 15-25 minutes or so, depending on the size of the chicken. Then, cut the heat down to moderate for the remainder of cooking time. Finally, just like other roasts, LET THE CHICKEN REST for 10 minutes before carving it up. This lets the hot juices absorb back into the meat.

Need a recipe? By popular request, we’ve decided to go public with Amir’s favorite way to prepare our chicken. We eat a whole leg apiece the first night, make chicken salad (serves at least 4 with generous portions!) or a stir-fry or pasta dish out of the breasts the next night, and cook down the carcass for stock or soup base.  So no more excuses about why you “don’t have time” to prepare a whole broiler chicken. With about 30 minutes total “active time,” you’ve got the basis of three good meals.

Our very first Chicken, June 2011.

Recipe: Amir’s famous, buttery, lemony, garlicky, herby, roasted, free-range, pastured, whole chicken

1 whole Glean Acres (or other local) free-range, pastured chicken, approx. 4.5 lbs

1 stick (4 oz) good quality butter

2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed

1 lemon

1 tsp EACH dried thyme, tarragon, and sage

1/4 tsp cayenne powder

A few sprigs fresh thyme

Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 450°F. Bring butter to room temperature. Put chicken in large roasting pan. Mix half the garlic and all the dried herbs with the butter. Smear the herbed butter with your hands all over the chicken. Season to taste with salt and pepper (be generous) and squeeze the lemon over it all. Put the remaining garlic, sprigs of thyme, and squeezed out lemon halves inside the cavity.

Roast the chicken in the oven for 15-20 minutes, until skin is crisp and golden. Then, turn oven temperature down to 375°F and continue cooking, basting occasionally, 35-50 additional minutes, or until thermometer inserted into thigh reads 165°. Let chicken rest 15 minutesbefore carving.

Dinner is served. Look at those thighs!

Posted in Free range chicken, pastured poultry, Small Farms, Virginia Farms | Tagged , | 7 Comments

The stuff dreams are made of

You might not usually think of winter as the exciting season on a farm, but that’s probably  because the sight of a very large truck driving across your back four acres billowing 9.1 tons worth of clouds of a powdery grey substance isn’t something that makes you giddy.

Lime! The stuff farm dreams are made of!

That’s right, We Got Lime, and without it, our little farm dream might be more than a little longer in being realized. Land needs lime. As our soil test came back a scary 5.3–that’s “sour ” in farmspeak, our land needed “sweetening”–that is raising the pH in farmspeak. Not only do virtually all vegetables appreciate growing in a soil pH that hovers around neutral (that’s 7, for those of you who forgot your high school chemistry), but the most hateful weeds–the kind with abundant seeds or sharp hard thorns or both, the kind that cattle and goats won’t eat–thrive in sour soils. Less pernicious pasture grasses have a better chance to establish themselves in a sweeter soil. Making life harder for spiny pigweed is a definite bonus of liming our fields.

As for me, I was giddy enough to stand around in the field gawking and snapping pictures and swelling just a wee bit with pride. After all, only real farmers get their fields limed by enormous trucks. No more sprinkling handfuls of the stuff on garden beds for us!

Cole Slaw, anyone? With a hint of lime?

And real farmers would have harvested their cabbages long before the truck started its criss-crossing of the fields. Me, I scurried about with a wheelbarrow in the limey clouds conducting an ECH. That’s Emergency Cabbage Harvest.  I wasn’t about to let the last crop standing go to waste! Which is how I got limed, too.  What’s good for the farm is good for the farmer, right? Ah, sweet lime! Rain on me!

As if that wasn’t exciting enough, just look what’s been arriving in the mail!

Some girls pour over catalogs of designer linens, shoes, or casual wear that announces your ability to fit in with people who have second homes in the country with people to look after their horses. Me, I drool over catalogs of heritage chickens, improved waterers, heirloom zucchini, and pvc pipes. Not that I wouldn't like an Eddie Bauer Ladies Barn Coat, size 12 T....

That’s right, seed and farm equipment catalogs. Just the thing to jumpstart spring fever. This time last year, in a fit of optimism, I ordered about 40 seed packs from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, and a handful of exotics from other seed companies. I say optimistic because we were living in an apartment at the time, and hadn’t even made an offer on any piece of property yet. I was sure we’d be breaking ground by April, though! And so it was.

We planted about 1/10 of them and stored the rest in our sauna of a sunroom (Clueless Farmer Blunders of Season One numbers 9 and 4, respectively). Which is why we started thinking maybe we needed some sort of a growing plan for 2012. But where to begin? Luckily, we did not have to start from scratch. Other people have written books on it! And we were lucky enough to find THE book, the one we wished we would have had from the start.

Quite possibly the first book you need to read when starting a small organic farm.

The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook is proving to be an essential planning tool for us. It is in this book that we first saw comprehensive charts and spreadsheets for growing our business, season to season. For planning what to grow where, and how much of it and when. And all according to an actual financial goal that the book guided us to set, one that allows us to meet the bigger goal of how we want to live our life according to our values.

Of course, the book is borrowed from a fellow Madison Farmer, in this case,  Susan Vidal of Brightwood Vineyard and Farm. The Hutchesons of Sunrise Gardens were also kind enough to share their planting plan Excel file, painstakingly cultivated over the years with the knowledge born of experience. Dreams need helpful, friendly, generous mentors. More on that in another blog post to come.

Almost every surface of our living space is covered in catalogs and print-outs of planting guides and drafts of growing plans. My bedtime reading is the latest edition of “Acres USA,” the subscription a Christmas gift from my sister. This month’s issue is all about poultry. After reading an article on choosing the best layers for a backyard flock, I felt confident in placing an order for our new egg-laying chicks.

You see, while we’re getting a good supply of eggs for ourselves from our broiler-birds-cum-laying flock, our newest pardoned bird, Scruffy (see #7 from Top Ten Clueless Farmer Blunders), started crowing last month. That’s right, Scruffy is a rooster. As Dottie, Marilyn, Cleo, Red, Angel, and Flo are already overwhelmed by the affections of Roo and Buddy, we don’t want to add Scruffy’s budding affections on them. Because my sewing isn’t up to the task of making more chicken aprons. So Scruffy will have to get his own hen harem, and we’ll have eggs galore. In a couple of weeks, we’ll welcome 8 peeping pullets, a full assortment of Hamburghs and Kraienkoppes, plus an Indian Red Jungle Fowl, the closest thing to the ancestor of the modern domestic chicken we could find. We decided against the Birchen Bantam, as it might scare Scruffy Bird. Heck, it might scare us.

Run for your lives! It's a velociraptor! Actually, it looks a little like someone I know...

It might make a good Livestock Guardian Chicken, however. Maybe next year.

Meanwhile, down in the basement, Amir is trialing our sauna-ed seed to see which ones might still be fit for planting. The peas, favas, molokhiya, and lettuces are ready to go!

Professor Amir's seed tests in the high-tech laboratory of Glean Acres.

The 60+ degree sunny days in February have us a little worried. Could spring be right around the corner? Say it isn’t so! Even dreams need some down time. But that Excel Sheet is a cruel taskmaster. To me, anyway. To Engineer Amir, it’s a fun pastime. I have my blog. He has his Excel. Together, we dream up a farm in winter.


Posted in Christian Agrarian, Farming, Free range chicken, New Farmers, Organic, pastured poultry, Small Farms, Uncategorized, Virginia Farms | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Twelve Days of Christmas at Glean Acres

I must admit, December 25th came and went in our home without much hullaballoo. In fact, I just finished wrapping presents today. With our parents in other countries and other relatives in other states, and without a T.V. and trips through cities and malls, we find ourselves blessedly removed from holiday madness. That, and because the Orthodox church celebrates the nativity of Christ on January 7th, so we’re still looking forward to our holy day. That  usually involves a midnight mass the night before, followed by a day with family and rich food, maybe a few small gifts. Nevertheless, on December 25th, Amir and I exchanged cards and cookies and what not with our neighbors and friends, and set up a little Christmas display and gave each other token presents lest we be accused of being scrooge-like.

The 2011 Christmas Display at Glean Acres. That's Father Charlie Brown, with Farmer Santa, adoring Mother and Child along with the other critters from the farm.

Amir gave me a state-of-the-art compost pail for the kitchen counter. It has DOUBLE charcoal filters and is stainless steel (See I finally have a stainless steel appliance!) and EXTRA large! But I’m too frugal to part with my old standby jumbo Maxwell House coffee container. It will now serve to hold scraps for the chickens, while the refuse unworthy of the chickens, such as eggshells and coffee grounds and hot pepper seeds, will be relegated to the new pail.

Old Maxwell House composter has turned to the wall, feeling humiliated by its designer replacement. I'm just too sentimental to let it go, so will keep it around for chicken scraps.

Last year, I got a big pressure canner from my beloved, in anticipation of all the abundant produce from our yet-to-be-determined farm we would need to put up. Optimists to the end, and we did in fact put up 20 quarts of green beans and quite a few jars of jams and relish and tomatoes and even some okra! I got him a pair of heavy duty BOGS muck boots. We didn’t even know what county our farm would be in, but we knew it would probably have mud and chores.

This year I got him a bag of birdseed. You see, I figure he’s part of God’s plan in looking after the birds, who afterall, don’t hoard their food in barns.

Come cardinals, come finches, come bluebirds and sparrows!

Other than that and a few phone calls, it was just another day around the farm. Around this time of year that involves doing some of the fall chores that didn’t get done in the fall. Good thing we’re having a mild December! Still time to transplant those remaining blueberries and peonies.

Maybe the row of blueberries will straighten out once they grow.

We got the hen house winterized last week, thank goodness. Amir did his part by installing a solid wood floor, roof, and wall. It was up to me to fill in the irregularly shaped spaces. Which I did with bubble wrap. Hey, it makes for insulation, right? And it’s so stylish.

Bubble wrap walls! Let's the light in, keeps the wind out.

There is still a small problem to be solved with our chickens, however. See, we have about one too many roosters in with our hens. Two roosters to our six hens.  Well, old Roo has a bad limp and at the tender age of eight month isn’t much of a ladies man anymore. Back in his adolescent days, Roo used to have the ladies lined up for him. Now he’s enough of a gentleman to delegate the deed to six-month-old Buddy, who was only too happy to take over.  Too happy, perhaps. The problem is that Buddy has a couple of favorite ladies. Marilyn, of course, with her long legs, ample cleavage, and platinum feathers, is his number one gal. Followed by Dottie, the other blondie in the flock. It’s not easy being a beautiful chicken. Sure, you may get top pecking order, but you pay for it with a bare back from that randy rooster jumping on it all day. Poor Marilyn and Dottie are getting scratched up to the point where we have to intervene.

Marilyn shows the scars from being Buddy's favorite.

Buddy and his harem, with Roo relegated to the second fiddle in the back row.

We knew Buddy as a lovable little companion to little Angel, the runt. They never left each others’ sides for the first three months of their lives. Then Buddy discovered other hens. And Angel read “The Daring Book for Hens” and embarked on a life of independent exploring, returning to the flock only for meal times and lights out. It seems like only yesterday that they were fluffy little things.

Buddy and Angel in June of this year. They grow up so quickly!

So now we have another project on our hands, one we will have to enlist our sewing friends to help with. See, seems like our beautiful hens aren’t the only ones being worn down by randy roosters. It’s such a widespread problem that there are special products to buy to ease their suffering and let their feathers heal. They’re called Chicken Saddles. Get it?

Here's a hen with her saddle. Festively designed to resemble a cute country apron! Maybe I can make a matching one for me! Not that I'm missing any feathers or anything like that. I also saw some chicken saddles in camouflage patterns for sale online. For those times when love is war, I suppose.

But since we aim to be as self-sufficient as possible, I’m gonna see about making one, with a little help of some friends with sewing machines, that is.

When I’m done with that, I’m gonna see about clearing some vegetable beds of their summer plantings. Ahem. Like the towering forest of okra. We finally wrested them out of the ground, but they still have to be hauled away. Somewhere.

The felled okra forest awaits clean up.

And meanwhile, there are turnips to harvest. Or is it Raab? So far, the books can’t tell us for sure, nor can the seed supplier.

Is it a turnip? Is it Raab? Nevermind, it's good eating!

And arugula to enjoy fresh from the cold earth, along with carrots and cabbage.

Arugula keeps going through the freezing nights.

Little upstarty garlic! They came up before the carrots were all harvested! Time to mulch.

Then there’s the 1000 onion sets we planted a couple of weeks ago. I carefully laid down a thick layer of straw mulch, which was quickly and gleefully discovered by our free-range laying flock! They set about scratching and nesting and leaving bare patches in the straw. I pile it back together. They tear it apart. We have an understanding. I’m not sure what it is, but they seem content with the arrangement.

All that straw... The chickens must think it's a giant nest box/buffet!

We’re hoping that by the time the 12 days of Western Christmas are over, and by the time ours has just begun, we’ll have figured out all the pieces that will add up to a 2012 Glean Acres business plan. For now, we’re just trying to wrap up 2011. I wish all we needed were ribbons and shiny bows.

And hopefully, thankfully, in the midst of this life that makes it so easy to be grateful, we’ll focus on the work of Christmas, so eloquently stated by one of my father’s heroes, the theologian/activist Howard Thurman:

The Work Of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with the flocks,
then the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal those broken in spirit,
to feed the hungry,
to release the oppressed,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among all peoples,
to make a little music with the heart…
And to radiate the Light of Christ,
every day, in every way,
in all that we do and in all that we say.
Then the work of Christmas begins.

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

Top Ten Clueless Farmer Blunders from Season One

It’s December 10th. Our last market day of 2011–our first season as farmers. While we sold out of most of our goodies, we left loaded down with gifts of greens, sweets, and festive greenery from our fellow farming buddies. For the first time this year, we can glance at our “To Do” list without our stomachs knotting up. The chickens are nestled all snug in their freezers, while visions of hoop houses dance through our heads. But before we get ahead of ourselves and into the wintry days of the planning season, it’s time to reflect on the lessons learned this year.  Otherwise known as the Top Ten Blunders of the Clueless Farmer. Go ahead, learn from our mistakes!

This was a lovely sunroom with tiffany lamps and braided rugs. We set it up as a greenhouse, but will settle with it as the all-important mud room.

1o. A sunroom is the same as a greenhouse. Not! Sure, it may have windows all around and look quite suitable for starting seedlings. But if those windows are the energy-efficient kind that are treated to screen out UV light AND have screens, the amount of photosynthesis going on in your little darlings’ cells will be minimal. Screens block out at least 50% of the available light. And who knows about those windows. Scraggly, leggy transplants were the result of our oversight. We got them in the ground and they grew, yes, but with twisted stems, and not as vigorously as they might have. One of our winter projects is rigging up some cold-frames lined with heat mats on our southern-facing deck.

9. Storing seeds in a sauna. Since we were using the sunroom as a greenhouse, and doing all our potting there, we naturally kept the seeds handy there as well. Pretty little packets of them sitting in a basket on a table by the sunniest window. Even when July turned the room into a 100-degree sauna no matter how many windows were open. The sauna continued right through August. About that time we thought, “Hey. Aren’t we supposed to store seeds in a cool, dark location?” So we moved them to a dark cool drawer in the back room. When September came and we started some spinach, is it any surprise that we had a rather paltry 15% germination rate? We could blame the seed company, or the fickleness of spinach in general (it’s true, spinach has germination whims according to our umpteenth generation farming buddy, Max Lacy!). But I have the feeling it might have been the sauna storage scenario. Which leads us to the next blunder…

8. Starting Spinach, and all other manner of “Fall Crops” in September. Because Fall Crops are planted in the Fall, right? Granted, I came across some written advice to get Fall stuff in the ground in July, but we were in the middle of a heat wave and drought in July. I figured that advice came from folks who were farming up in Maine or something, where the season was always cool and short. The ground in our parts at that time was like asphalt covered in dust. Tilling was not an option. So the broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, and spinach went in the ground in September. And we dutifully covered the broccoli and cabbage with row covers, initially not to protect them from the frost, but to protect them from the cabbage worms. November came and went without broccoli or cabbage. But finally, this weekend, we managed to harvest a whopping SIX POUNDS of pristine, unravaged little broccoli heads from our 125 feet of broccoli beds! We’re still waiting, patiently, for our cabbage to head up. Stuff don’t grow too fast when the days are short. (Except maybe arugula.)

Enough talk about vegetables, you say, you want to hear about chicken blunders! Where to begin?

Scruffy Bird! Hen or rooster? Too early to tell.

7. Getting emotionally attached to broiler chickens.  Nursing ailing broiler chicks in our spare bedroom? Paying a vet to euthanize a broiler chick?Naming our favorite broiler chicks? Sparing deficient roosters from the chopping block because, well, they have “personality?” (The same goes for our friendly neighborhood dog, who would never ever harm one of our

Scruffy is slowly integrating into our laying flock. We hope he will be come a "Scruffilina!"

chickens, so why not feed him  raw chicken necks on processing day? Was I ever surprised to find him hovering around the flock in our pasture later that day–the pasture that contained a bird missing its head. What was I thinking there?  “Gee, this friendly dog has not yet developed a taste for chicken and is leaving our livestock alone. I will help him develop a taste for fresh, warm-blooded chicken and maybe then we’ll have something to worry about.”) You would think, even hope, we learned our lessons on being sentimental about meat birds. But see, now we have “Scruffy,” a runt from our last batch of the season who was just too small to butcher when the time came. We’re hoping Scruffy turns out to be a hen, then we’ll call her “Scruffilina” and add her to our layer flock. But we saw him raise his hackles today and do a lot of strutting about, and there is some iridescence starting on his feathers. We only have six hens in our laying flock, and they barely put up with the virile antics of the two roosters already in with them. We really hope to report that Scruffilina has joined the flock. Optimism dies hard around here.

6. Taking the rototiller to a patch of wire grass. We’re not sure what the right way is to break ground for new beds where a thatch of wire grass is entrenched, but we’re pretty sure breaking wire grass up into little pieces that reroot is not it.

5. Basing entire profitability of farming enterprise on a faulty calculation. See, to figure out how much money we were going to make on our chickens, one of the factors is how much feed they would eat on average, and how much that feed would cost. Based on my research, it looked like we were set to make enough money to pay our mortgage and then some with just a few hundred chickens! Hooray! Let’s quit our jobs and become full time farmers! But I forgot to multiply when doing the figuring. Math wasn’t my strongest subject in school. It turns out  feed costs are about 4-5 times more than that number in our draft business plan. Oopsie. But hey. At least we can pay our electric bill with the profits.

Really, we're farmers, not gardeners! Don't let the garden plot fool you!

4. Not having a vegetable growing plan. As much edumacation and planning expertise as Amir and I have, we were simply rookies when it came to growing vegetables at any kind of scale. We knew people who were making a living growing vegetables on small acreage for market, and that was enough for us. We ordered a large variety of seeds from a local organic seed company, figured we’d grow as much as we could and sell as much as we could, and we’d have thousands of dollars. With everything else we were trying to accomplish in the spring, including packing up and moving to our new farm, we ended up with about 1/20th of an acre planted to vegetables this season. Not quite the scale one needs to eek out a living as a vegetable farmer.

3. Having high expectations of the responsiveness of chefs. In the beginning of the season, I dutifully compiled a list of restaurants that might reasonably be expected to have an interest in serving local, high-quality, fresh, unique food. IHOP was not on the list. I sent emails on behalf of the farmers at the Madison Farmers Market, and myself, raising awareness of the availability of our products. When I got no responses, I followed up with phone calls. When I got no responses, I followed up with visits complete with customized brochures and a whole chicken as a sample for many of them to try out.  I followed up with emails and phone calls.  Our customers acted as our agents, infiltrating restaurants as diners, complimenting the chefs and telling them about our fabulous chicken that they really should serve at their restaurants and handing out our business cards. So far, these efforts have come to naught. It seems the only occupation that may rival farming in terms of how many things are on your plate at any one given time is Chef. But I haven’t given up. I’m cultivating perseverance!

2. Nothing screams “ROOKIE” like not recognizing the difference between a tulip bulb and an onion. But in my defense, it was the tulip planting season. And the onion planting season. And because Amir was doing some work exchange with our friends at EcoTulips down the road a bit, our sunroom (which was now chilly at all times) was filled with plastic shopping bags containing an assortment of both tulips and onions ready for planting. We had “walking onions,” “multiplier onions,” “Old-timey” onions, and about 1,000 onion sets. All of them looked different. Some of them were the same size of the 100 or so various tulip bulbs we had laying about. So I grabbed some bags of bulb-y looking things and planted them out in the beds I had cleared and prepared for onions. “Hmm, these look funny. Don’t smell like onions. Must be them “Old-timey” onions,” I thought. And I buried them just beneath the surface. Wasn’t until the next day that I happened to glance inside a clearly marked bag of tulips that I realized my error. My ever supportive and slightly concerned parents were visiting when I announced my latest blunder. I’m not sure I eased their concerns about the potential success of our farming venture much. But at least I didn’t put the tulips in the stir fry.

And the number one Clueless Farmer Blunder from Season One is:

1. Thinking, at times, that we were in control. It rained when it was supposed to rain, and the irrigation was there for when it didn’t happen when we wanted it to. The sun shone almost every single day. Our neighbors came to our aid without asking and offered no end of assistance, from tools and machinery to labor, plants, sustenance, and Good Advice. People with resources to help fledgling small farmers like us came to us with offers of support to help us succeed. Our plants grew, and some of them even thrived. Same with our chickens. Our circle of friends grew, and some grew closer. At times, our home is a respite for visiting world-weary souls.  We are well fed with nourishing home-grown food and well watered with our own sweet untreated well water. Our pantry is full with much of the abundance of our summer garden, and our freezers are filled to overflowing with our own birds and wild game shared by friends. We were never too hot or too cold for comfort this year. We really can’t take credit for much of what happened this year at all.  It turns out our little blunders didn’t stop God from fulfilling His promises. We have new-found appreciation for the wisdom in Proverbs 15:16-17:

“Better a little with the fear of the LORD
than great wealth with turmoil.”

“Better a small serving of vegetables with love
than a fattened calf with hatred.”

The thing is, we actually have a lot with the fear of the Lord, and prodigious servings of vegetables with love, along with lovingly-fattened meat.  Plus some really good books on business planning for small organic farms. Blunders or no blunders, things seem to be going according to somebody’s plan.

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Who’s afraid of Big Chicken?

I'm a big chicken when it comes to Big Chicken.

Chicken has been in the news lately, and to be honest, it’s making me a little nervous. My big sister, ever looking out for me, first brought my attention to an article that came out in late July. Entitled “DC Farmer’s Markets highlight an array of food safety issues,” the three budding journalists working as fellows in a journalism program seemed bent on flexing their exposé muscles and set up a Marine-cum-farmer named Jordan to be the fall guy for local chicken. The story has been recently picked up and recirculated with expanded reporting by several other media outlets.

Ironically enough, they targeted the farmers’ market run by the USDA itself, right in its parking lot in D.C. They bought a chicken from vendor Jordan, popped it in a cooler, and then dropped it off at a lab for testing, along with a couple of other chickens they had picked up at supermarkets.

The whole thing reeked of “Big Chicken” to me. I can just imagine some Big Chicken public relations guy planting the bug of a story idea in the ear of  one of these journalism fellows. Heck, maybe they even offered to foot the bill for the lab testing.  Because even though sales are up, the image of Big Chicken continues to suffer from the exposure it receives on documentaries like Food, Inc. A little comeuppance wouldn’t be beneath them, I’m sure.

But that’s just the creeping paranoia of a clueless farmer wrangling with seemingly intentionally murky poultry regulations and the cryptic responses of USDA officials charged with explaining them. “That’s an interesting question,” one of the officials said to me repeatedly throughout the conversation I had with her last month about our chicken operation. “I’m afraid I can’t tell you for sure,” she added more than once.

Back to the story. So Jordan’s chicken turns out to have a bit of salmonella on it. Turns out so do the other two samples from the grocery store. But the spin of the story takes the tone of, “See, local food is no more safe than conventional food!” Ta-dah!

The fact that all samples are tainted is cause for concern. It’s why those “safe poultry handling” instructions are on all packages of chicken nowadays. A 2010 Consumer Reports article shared the results of lab tests on nearly 400 whole broiler chickens bought from 100 supermarkets in 22 states:  two-thirds harbored salmonella and/or campylobacter, the leading bacterial causes of foodborne disease. It hasn’t always been that way. Why now?

My bedtime reading this month has been a book called  “Spoiled: The dangerous truth about a food chain gone haywire.”  It was written over a decade ago, when the Jack-n-the-Box outbreak brought food safety to the national stage. The author spells out in great technical detail the whys and hows about bacteria in our food. Here’s the scoop on salmonella in poultry, in a nut (or shall I say egg) shell: Intensive chicken farming practices enabled the rapid spread of bacteria through thousands and tens of thousands of birds at a time. The bacteria got so cozy in this environment that it made itself at home in the very ovaries of chickens, to the point where many chicks are born infected and live quite happily unaffected by it.  It’s why we suddenly are not supposed to lick the cookie dough spoon or order our eggs sunny side up.

Regardless of where you get your chicken, make sure to cook it to 165 degrees F, and wash everything that raw poultry has been in contact with thoroughly. Picking up your chicken last at the farmer’s market, just like at the grocery store, is also a good idea.

It’s true there is no inherent reason that your local pastured poultry producer will sell you a cleaner chicken than Big Chicken. We get our chicks from a hatchery in Pennsylvania, and the owner, Kendall, told me that they place thousands of chicks a month. It stands to reason that some of those chicks are going to carry some bacteria, because it’s present in the environment, in wild birds and animals as well as those raised for consumption.

But it also stands to reason that raising just a hundred–or even a few hundred–birds at a time, outdoors on fresh pasture so that they are never on the same ground for longer than a day or so, may contribute to lower infection rates. The sun is a strong disinfectant, and on our farm,  pastures renew themselves for at least six months before chickens run free on them again. We also wash down their moveable coops between flocks, and clean out their waterers and feeders frequently. We can do that because we keep our chicken operation small and manageable, which we do precisely because we want to keep our chickens safe, happy, and healthy.

Freedom Ranger chickens free-ranging at Glean Acres in the Coupe de Poop!

I was thrilled to see Jordan’s cutting response to the article on their website. As a former Polyface intern and U.S. Marine, he articulates the trials and joys of being a pastured chicken producer better than I can. For he and his wife, as well as for Amir and I, it’s not just about safety, it’s also about respect for the animals that feed us that is a driving motivation for what we do.

As our friend Margaret Hutcheson of Sunrise Gardens shared, “The chickens have a happy life and one bad day.” I don’t think the same can be said about the chickens in Big Chicken confinement houses. In the meantime, I still lick the spoon from my cookie dough. Afterall, I can see the hens that laid the eggs for it right out of the kitchen window. But then, I’m a risk taker, otherwise I wouldn’t be in this clueless farming business, right?

And Jordan, keep up the good fight. We’ve got your back, friend.

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Enough is a Feast

Mary: “It’s time for our outing in the park.
Michael: “ I don’t want an outing. I want to tidy up the nursery again.
Mary:Enough is as good as a feast. Come along, please.”

Amir and I were watching a video (yes, a video) of Mary Poppins last night.  Michael had so much fun tidying the nursery with magic that he wanted to do it again.  To which Mary Poppins, in her transcendental and infinite wisdom, replied, “Enough is as good as a feast.”

I also noticed that I somehow missed the arrogance and vanity of Mary Poppins' character when I watched it as a child....

Now why hadn’t that line jumped out at me before? It could be because I haven’t watched Mary Poppins since I was about 12, and decidedly unenlightened, all claims to the contrary aside.  But this time the line delighted me. Because with all the scrimping and saving and cutting back we’ve been doing around here, we are finding ourselves satisfied with less and less. Not just satisfied, actually, but increasingly satisfied.

Because I enjoy picking on Starbucks as much as the next person, I’ll start there.  Growing up in surrounds of Berkeley, California, we had our pick of atmospheric coffee shops serving proper coffee drinks. Peet’s Coffee, of course, being the precursor to Starbucks. I spent a couple of summers in my college years working at Ortman’s Ice Cream Parlor on Solano Avenue. The venerable, aged and spry Mr. Ortman would be there before opening every morning in the back room, making up the batch of the day and then some.  Old timers and local merchants filled the parlor for lunch, sitting on ornate wrought iron chairs around linoleum-topped tables, ordering delectables such as grilled cheese sandwiches and egg salad on rye from the equally old-timer waitstaff (with the exception of a couple of whippersnappers like me), most of them finishing off with a scoop of ice cream–butter pecan being a favorite.

Ortman’s seemed like it would be there forever. But within a few years, it was a Starbucks. And in true Starbucks fashion, it was also right across the street from their inspiration and competitor, Peet’s Coffee. This made me mad. Partly because my mom, who is Dutch, was friends with Alfred Peet, who was also Dutch. And because something old fashioned and good and true was gone. I vowed never to drink Starbuck’s.

I probably liked Simonds in Cairo for the way it reminded me of Ortman's in with its old-fashioned decor. Or maybe it was the 50-something barista who would stare at you silently with a poker face until you ordered, making you wonder if you were really welcome there at all, but then deliver the most perfect cappuccino with a little flourish on the foam with a wink as he placed it in front of you.

But that was the nineties. And before I left California for Egypt, where there was yet no Starbucks, and only one or two slightly decaying European-style coffee shops from the old days where you could get a decent cappuccino in a thick porcelain cup and saucer. I started looking forward to downtime in international airports on my trips to visit family abroad so that I could sneak a forbidden latte–from Starbucks. But I still refused to use their pretentious vernacular for cup sizes, always ordering a “medium” latte, and having the barista confirm my order with a call of “Grawn-dey.”

The Java Shack is a refreshing piece of authenticity in the middle of Clarendon. Plus there is an awesome massage therapist upstairs.

When Starbucks came to Cairo, I knew the end was near. The next year, I found myself ensconced in Northern Virginia, the home of my sister and her family, where all things were shiny and new. I quickly discovered one of the area’s few independent coffee shops and was reassured by the quirkiness of the clientele there. One guy, an ex-electrician, showed me the scar on his leg from when a few thousand bolts of electricity had shot through him. Shortly thereafter, during therapeutic art classes to heal his brain, he discovered his artist within and left his job to become an industrial artist. He also showed me a picture of an old-fashioned fighter plane that he was commissioned to paint, you know, with snarling teeth and everything, as a lawn ornament for some military establishment. Pretty cool.

So when I got married and started farming, the world of leisurely hours at quirky coffeeshops became a thing of the past. That was just not something farmers did. Besides, we were saving up to buy our farm.  That’s when the lessons in frugality began. First, it was never going out for coffee, and satisfying myself with brewing up the gourmet supermarket brands at home for $8.00/12 oz, which would last us about a week, brewing just under a pot a day. “That’s like $0.25 per cup!” I reported proudly to my husband, adding that the same money would only buy two cups at Starbucks.

Then we discovered Walmart. And that Walmart had a fair trade blend of gourmet coffee for $5.99 a pound. I was giddy with pride at my ability to save money. My husband, who had been out of work for over a year before we married, gave me a version of a supportive smile which suggested incredulity at my naivety.  And after we bought our house and both became full time farmers, we discovered Maxwell House, in jumbo plastic containers, at $12.99 for 44.5 ounces. That’s like 100 mugs of coffee for the price of 3 Starbucks! And you know what? It’s actually pretty good. I don’t have any cravings for coffeehouse coffees.

But here’s the cool thing. Now, instead of using Starbucks as a barometer for coffee savings, I’ve finally transitioned to rational thinking. It’s not what I can save by buying for less, it’s what I can have by not buying it at all.  When I don’t need to have coffee, TV, new clothes, new books, dinners out, gourmet cheeses, groomed hair, fancy phones, and luxury linens, then I can have a chance at having peace of mind.

So while Amir and I had a good head start on living a frugal life as new farmers due to a combination of generosity from friends and family–which left us with a down-payment, plenty of furniture, a lawnmower or two, and a bunch of good clothes–and decent-paying office jobs that led to money in the bank, we have come a long way on the path to self-sufficiency that starts with frugality. And here is a list of our favorite frugal actions:

1. Minimize driving. Gas is expensive, as is car maintenance.  Make a plan for what you need and find a way to combine errands. Why, I haven’t left the farm since going to the Market on Saturday! And it’s Thursday today. That’s typical. While you’re at it, stick with your old car. It’s cheaper to insure, and cheaper to fix than getting a new one for sure! But don’t worry about fixing every little thing NOW. That exhaust system I was supposed to replace to the tune of $1000.00 last year on my 2001 Subaru according to the mechanic? Still intact.

2. Do it yourself. My husband and I had virtually no experience with tools of any sort, beyond using a hammer to bang a nail in the wall to hold up a picture. But rather than pay someone, my husband quickly learned to use a drill, skill saw, miter box, level, hammers, screwdrivers and other manly items, while I mastered chickenwire and staple guns, and we’ve built us three very decent chicken coops. And he repaired broken legs on tables, hammered in warped deck boards, and replaced the blades and changed the oil on the riding mower, and reinstalled the baffle on the mowing deck (after I ran over a 6 x 6 hidden in the tall grass, before I was banned from using the mower). Meanwhile, our neighbor is installing a hardwood floor in his home. Amir is eager to help so he can add yet one more DIY skill to his burgeoning repertoire. I’ll stick with home canning and berry winemaking.

3. Keep your thermostat high in the summer. We kept ours at 80 degrees, and believe me, it felt refreshingly cool coming in off the 100 degree fields! For the winter, we’re planning on closing off rooms, using space heaters, and keeping the thermostat down in the 60s.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for things you need. I have gotten great furniture from Freecycle, as well as books. This weekend, I hope to get a bread machine and some tomato stakes from some kind souls who posted on Freecycle.  But more important than receiving from strangers is becoming a part of a giving community. Have a spirit of service and give your time helping out and sharing with others. And if you find yourself needing something, like say, some empty plant containers, an old mower, a chipper-shredder, some accounting advice, it’s likely that someone in your circle of community will be there for you. Accept it with gratitude, the close cousin of grace. And keep giving back.

5.  High deductible health insurance. Let’s face it. Health insurance is one big racket, and a messy one at that. If you are lucky enough to be relatively healthy and eat right and stay in shape, then don’t be paranoid and  fork out hundreds of dollars every month “just in case.” Put some money aside each month for that high deductible, but pay “the man” his share just in case you shatter many bones from falling out of a tree or some genetic or chemical time bomb goes off in your system. Make sure you get your money’s worth by getting that  annual physical check up that the insurers have to pay for out of the money you gave them.

6. Pre-paid cell phone service. My husband just downgraded his phone and phone service. He now has a “dumb” phone with pre-paid service.  We don’t use our phones all that much, even though we don’t have a landline at home. Savings per year: About $500.00!

7. Bartering. How great is it to trade some produce you have an abundance of for something different your neighbor has an abundance of? Pears for beans! Chickens for heirloom onion sets! Molokhiya for eggs! Tomatoes for homemade wine! Chickens for beef! Squash for blueberries! And my favorite: Chickens for volunteer laborers on processing day.

8. Eat what you grow. And make your own bread. We haven’t paid for a vegetable since April. And we eat plenty of them every day. Fresh from our garden. With plenty left for freezing and canning to get us through winter. Why, we’ve got 18 quarts of pole beans in our pantry, and in our freezer, 6 quarts of molokhiya, 2 quarts of raspberries, 8 quarts of yellow squash, 5 quarts of pureed canteloupe, 6 quarts of romano beans, 3 quarts of sweet and hot peppers, and 8 quarts of pureed tomatoes.  All from our garden. Not to mention the 55 whole pastured chickens, all manner of livers, hearts, and necks. (We hope to sell most of those before too long, though!)We also make our own whole wheat bread, the nice artisan crusty kind that fills and nourishes. The kind that would cost about $3.99  or more in stores, but we make at a total cost of about $0.70.

9. No TV. This is actually of paramount importance.  You would not believe the FREEDOM you have when you are freed from the tyranny of TV and those incessant ads and hyped up news stories! We barely realized it was the anniversary of 9/11, or that a hurricane was passing through. Does that make us bad people? We didn’t install our digital converter box on our 12 year old TV, nor did we spring for cable or satellite or whatever it is.  In addition to the monetary savings, we have more time,  without the temptation of distraction. This means time for cooking good meals, making bread, canning produce abundance, reading books. But it’s not like we’re monks or something. Monk is our latest favorite TV show, though. Because we have Netflix. Yes, for less than $20.00 a month, we have all the movies and old TV shows we want delivered to our mailbox for our ADVERTISEMENT-FREE viewing pleasure. And so shows that used to take an hour to watch because of annoying ads, which would prompt you to rummage around for an unhealthy snack or ice pick to stab yourself with,  now can be enjoyed thoroughly with no nerve-wracking cliff-hangers before ads. And in about 40 minutes. (In our neverending quest to downsize–to give up everything and follow Jesus is how we try to look at it–Amir has broached the subject of cancelling Netflix in favor of borrowing DVDs from the local library. He’s such a radical, that one! Why I married him.)

10.  Eat less. This was going to be a “buy in bulk” tip, but that’s too obvious to be worth a mention here. I was intrigued to see this tip mentioned in an other blog, and it was an “aha” moment. Let’s face it, most of us modern Americans overeat. And then punish ourselves by trying to go without for a day or two or sweating it out at the gym.  But now that we are homesteaders, we know the real value of the food we grow and prepare, and don’t gulp it down mindlessly or needlessly. My husband has made the ultimate sacrifice and even cut down on his serving size of pasta.  (We used to go through an entire pound, just the two of us, in one meal. Now we have leftovers!)    When the body has high quality food, it is satisfied more easily with less.

Enough really is as good as a feast. Bon Appetit! (And city-dwellers: support your local independent coffeehouse!)

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