Saturday, March 28, 2009

Blackbirds in the Fog

Blackbirds are flying in the fog. It is fog that I see now out of the eastern windows, as I wake, reluctantly, to my 4:59 am alarm. It’s set at that time so that I can boast of waking before 5 am. Really, there’s a routine involved, of shedding layers of warm covers, of undraping myself from my husband’s warm grasp, of dodging the cat’s paws on my wiggling toes, wiggling to take flight from this resting place, as the blackbirds have done.

There is no greater thrill for me than to wake to the sound of bird song in March. From now until the 19th of July, the birds will sing, announcing their willingness to take on familial duties. Many of us don’t feel the absence of bird song in July since fecundity is at the cusp of excess when it comes to gardens or carefully tended livestock, but the subtle changes of late summer and senescence have truly begun by then, at least here in Central Vermont.

Outside, the blackbirds are puffing up their red wing bar feathers, practicing for the return of the females, who make the journey fully three weeks later, counting on their prospective mates to set up household and procure territories that are bountiful with provisions for the summer of family rearing. When they finally do return, there is a bit of a free for all, as the birds are not monogamous, and the most flamboyant, most impressive males with the best territories are chosen first by the females.

In our hoophouses that were erected two years ago, everything is in order. Shannon has weeded the east house twice, carefully covering the crops that Kyle planted last fall with Remay. It’s a magic cover that warms the soil as much as 10 degrees more, and inside the hoophouse that can translate to 35 degrees, even when it’s 23 degrees Fahrenheit outside. There is spinach, arugula, radishes, Chinese cabbage, spring onions, and carrots all started and growing. We have been eating greens since the middle of February, and we made it through the winter buying just 6 heads of lettuce.

In the bottom picture, you can see the established greens from September in the middle. The lettuce that Shannon planted is on either side. These plants were started from seed in our heated greenhouse.

In the picture to the right, you can see the radishes planted between the rows of lettuce transplants. The carrots are planted underneath the radishes. The radishes will be harvested at about three weeks, just as the carrots begin to germinate and begin to compete for space. The lettuce will be harvested as heads become ready at about the same time as the radishes. A cherry tomato plant will be planted in some of these newly vacant spaces, about two feet apart from each other. Basil plants will flank the tomatoes, and the planting cycle will be complete. At the end of the season, the house will rest over the winter, and early the next spring, it will be used to grow just greens. We rotate the tomatoes from one house to another in an effort to cut down on pests that prey on tomatoes. Some people winter their chickens in the unheated houses to scratch up and remove the larvae that lay just under the surface of the soil. As long as there is plenty of fresh water, the chickens do well in these unheated houses. The added light from all sides will allow more productive egg laying; a chicken’s pituitary gland reacts to diminished light by decreasing their egg production.

Today it was gloriously warm- in the 60s! I put a blanket and a pillow in Bradford’s plastic sled and lay outside in the sun, listening to birdsong. Soon, the sheep will be on pasture, and wild leeks and stinging nettles will add to our table’s bounty. Tonight, we dine on mixed greens- arugula, red mustard, leaf lettuce, cress and kale shoots. The main fair is what I’m really excited about- real Boston Baked Beans from our own Bird’s Egg Beans that we harvested in the fall and Shannon and Whit have been shucking since January. Only 50 or 60 pounds left to go…

In the top picture, you can see that the aisle ways have been mulched with hay. Between the rows of lettuce heads, spring bunching onions have been planted.

Boston Baked Beans

1 small smoked ham hock, about 1 ½ pounds
2 cups dry beans, such as Navy or Pinto (or Bird’s Egg, Cranberry or Goose beans)
1 tablespoon dry mustard
1 cup dark real maple syrup, grade B or C
½ cup dark molasses
Salt and pepper to taste
4 garlic cloves, slivered

Cook the beans until tender, but not mushy. Drain and reserve the bean cooking liquid.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix all other ingredients except the ham hock together with the beans. Add enough of the reserved bean liquid to make the beans soupy. Put the ham hock in a cast iron Dutch oven or bean pot and pour the beans around it.

Bake the beans for four hours; checking occasionally to see that the liquid has not all evaporated (add more if needed). The beans will be done when the meat flakes off of the bone. Shred it into the beans, remove the bone, fat and cartilage and serve with fresh greens and pickled vegetables like beets or dilly beans.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

I will find the bones of buried pigs
And hang them on your clothesline.

listen to the sound of them drying.

I will become a cattle egret who perches on the
memory of cattle
and picks insects from the dark skins.
I will bury myself deep enough

goats’ milk fills in
around my shoulders. Around my neck

I will wear a string of gourds and old farm

and in the ceremony
of your work

I will put coal on my ring finger
And tell myself, wait.
I will eat your apples

Because apples are proof
and they have fallen from the trees.

- Molly Bashaw- Letters to a Farm

I love March. Red-winged blackbirds return, the males at first, their fire-engine red wing bars blaring, their cheerful song bursting life into the silent, ice world of winter. Then come the black-green grackles singing tunes that sound like bad ring-tone choices on cell phones. Killdeer and woodcocks follow soon after, and then it is upon us, spring and its swell and hopeful greetings of change. No more bitter cold winds and nights where long-sleeved shirts and four blankets are required to keep warm.

The mud is the worst it’s been in ten years. School was cancelled once already, because the scant three inches of snow on the muddy roads made it impossible for the plows to pass. The $1800 we poured into the driveway is really getting its mettle tested as nights plummet to the teens, and days caress the warm winds of the 40s and 50s. I love mud season. And I love that today marks the first day of spring, which means we have 12 hours of daylight to luxuriate in.

Shannon Duffield started her apprenticeship this week. She applied for a position at Country Animal Hospital, where I am a veterinary technician, and I immediately became intrigued by her. Her resume was spot on, and she had a boatload of charisma. Her only weakness was that she couldn’t offer any length of time past August at the animal hospital without certainty. So when I saw her name on the list of potential NOFA apprentices, I jumped at the chance to have her come meet the farm.

And she is great. She’s already cleaned out the sheep pens that we refer to as the moldy pens, and today, I came home to find the chicken coop spotless. This is good, because VPR is coming on Friday to do a book interview, complete with chicken noises.

She has no farm experience, and I hoped to let her in on the stark realities of this business slowly, but Compaya, my 21 year-old llama died the day after she started her apprenticeship. Then there were two difficult births by yearling ewes (all the lambs and moms are fine), followed by a stillbirth four days later by a young ewe not experienced in the art of licking her newborn dry.

Today takes the horrible reality award though. Petal, the beautiful, sweet, perfect calf hung herself and died today. She was not even two months old. Her poor mother, Ginger, has the rope burn scars, where the halter her calf wore razed a jagged line across her back. I can only guess that a startled Ginger rose, while Petal was lying on the other side of her, and she strangled her own baby.

Shannon bravely handed me water and tools as Kyle and I scrambled to replace the horror of this tragic accident with practicality. Here was a 300 pound milk fed calf that would be composted if we didn’t act quickly. Had we been just minutes earlier, she would have been saved, but now, we had just minutes to save her meat for consumption.

Shannon stayed back as I slit Petal’s throat to bleed her out, then skinned her feet. Kyle got the tractor, and we hung her to skin and gut. We washed her and hung her to cure, and truly, the meat is beautiful. It is perfect veal, like that you would find in any specialty store. The problem that I have in allowing it just to be perfect meat is the tragedy of her death. I wrestle in my brain with why it’s easier for me to accept the local butcher coming with his gun to shoot the grass-fed steer than to accept Petal’s absence. And then, I think that it’s just that. I had dreamed of Petal romping about pastures, raising her own beautiful calves, not dying a horrible freak death.
I am truly thankful that we were able to pull our grief together so quickly and save the meat: although I feel as though it is important to feed the soil, it would somehow have felt like a waste to me.

For Shannon, it was easier to see the carcass without the beautiful hide, the head with its brown eyes, the feet, the tail—those things that make it a real animal. I know how she feels. It may be why I worked so hard to turn the animal that I know and kissed and pet and dried when it was born, back to a carcass. I don’t know. And the starkness of this reality always confronts me as though it’s the first time that I‘ve had to think it through.

So this is my letter to the farm, although not nearly as beautiful as Molly’s. We are at the cusp of fertility, of rebirth, but always reminded of our fragility.

As you read this, Whitney is on a boat to Tern Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where I spent almost four of the happiest years of my life. Reality abounded there, but so did magic. I hope that she finds the same. If you want to follow her adventures, she has a blog called It’s the Sun. I miss her terribly, and I know that she would grieve Petal as we do.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Ge Ready for Your Chicks!

Time to Get Ready for Chicks!

March 1st—get set, GO! It’s still 10 degrees Fahrenheit at night here, and I’m still wearing double layers of clothes, but it’s time to plan! This is the year you’re going to do it. You’re ready raise chicks, and you should order them now in time for delivery in the spring (I try to time it so that the chicks can go outside in three weeks, and the pen they are in still has a heat source that keeps the air warm in at least one area to about 80 degrees Fahrenheit- this translates to late April in our Vermont clime). Start out with the egg layers first, if you’re feeling squeamish about raising meatbirds. Believe me, I’ve been there.

When I was younger and braver, I worked at the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. We lived in a common house with a bunch of other 20 year-olds. We were all full of life and energy; so much that we knew we had the power to change the world, if only someone would listen.

I worked in the rehabilitation center for raptors, where we took on injured hawks and owls and occasionally rare songbirds. One of our duties was to feed the captive birds. It didn’t bother me when I had to thaw out the frozen rats- I’ve never really had a huge affinity for them, although I had a great pet rat once. We also fed the birds the chicks from local hatcheries. They were excess hatches, chicks that had not been sold and were killed by gassing them with carbon monoxide. They were an amazing source of food for hawks and owls, but it was hard for me to pick up the black plastic garbage bags full of yellow fuzzy forms and hoist them into the back of the Honda.

On the drive back to the raptor center, I usually had the radio cranked as high as it would go. Never country music, mostly stuff like Journey or REO Speedwagon; sometimes CSNY or Cowboy Junkies. On one trip back to the center, I heard a cheep from the back of the car. I pulled the Honda over, and untied the black bag. There, inside, were three live chicks that had somehow avoided being gassed to death.

I raised those birds at the raptor center until they were so fat that they could hardly follow after me. They were so tame they knew their names. The day came when they started interfering with guests at the center, vying for attention right alongside the Snowy Owl display. I was told that they had to go.

My friend graciously offered to do the slaughtering, and I acquiesced. I remember crying for hours after their demise, wondering how I would ever be able to eat them. They sat in the freezer for about three weeks before I got up the nerve to eat them. When I finally did, I realized that I hadn’t tasted chicken that good and well cared for in a very long time.

But you can start with the egglayers…

Get sexed chicks (the ones that are 98% certain to be hens) from one of the reputable hatcheries mentioned in the Resource section of The Joy of Keeping Chickens, and raise them for egg production. By the time you’ve had the birds for two years, you may be brave enough to tackle the next step… using the chicken meat. Until then, here’s a checklist to get ready for your new chicks:

Housing should be draft-free, corner free (so birds aren’t able to pile up on each other- use cardboard to round out the edges of your pen), and warm (suspending a heat lamp about 17” above the bottom of the pen should create a temperature of about 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The pen can be as fancy as a finished, insulated area in your chicken coop, or as rudimentary as a cardboard appliance container with the sides cut away and lined with newspaper for their first few days and dry wood pine shavings thereafter. Make sure domestic house cats and dogs don’t have access to the chicks. Keep young children supervised around the new chicks, as this stress can also be overwhelming to the babies.

2. Waterers should be sufficient enough so that birds don’t have to crowd around frantically to drink. For very small chicks, place marbles or pebbles in the base of the waterer so that the chicks don’t get in it and drown. A one-gallon plastic waterer per 15 to 25 chicks should be good.

Make sure that you have chick starter on hand. This feed is much higher in protein than the ration used to grow older birds. I scatter it on the ground for the first couple of days before filling feeding trays for the chicks.

Change the chick’s bedding daily if needed. Feces can be ingested by the chicks, and infestations of protozoans called Coccidia can be detrimental.

Listen to the chicks. They should be emitting cooing type sounds that sound like bee bee beep, bee bee beep. Not CHEEP CHEEP CHEEP. Baby chicks are like any other baby. They need food, water and warmth. Adjust your conditions until you hear happy chick sounds!

More later on what to do to transition your chicks to more independence.