Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Delaware Project update

If you have followed this blog for a while, you probably know that I have been almost obsessed with Delaware chickens for quite a while. Delawares are a critically endangered domestic breed chicken that was the most popular fowl in America for a while in the 1940's.

Being critically endangered means that there are 5 or fewer breeding flocks (or 500 breeding birds worldwide) being managed and that the fowl is in danger of being lost. Same as with species in the wild...extinction of domestic livestock is something that many people don't ever think about. I think that losing these breeds loses some of our history and, as with our comittment to preservation of historical heirloom food plants, I am determined to do my part for this chicken breed.

Back in April, after searching nationwide for a source to obtain some of these chickens, luck smiled upon me and I contacted someone in my own backyard who had some. I guess my passion for this project (I want to establish a breeding flock of Delawares) must have touched him because after a few conversations, he offered to sell me his entire flock from adult birds to
day old hatched chicks (he had them in the incubator at the time) so I jumped at the chance. Needless to say, I was thrilled because I had called all the way to Montana to try to find these
rare birds in quantity and then they just fell into my lap.

The original group consisted of 14 mature hens, 5 roosters (I only took 2...they are HUGE) and about 80 chicks ranging in age from 3-4 weeks down to the day olds that hatched the morning of the day when I picked them up. The chicks were the progeny of these 14 hens and the roosters so it really is a big ole family. (We have other chicken breeds, too but not quite as many as the Dels.)

That was back in April and now the chicks that survived are almost as big as their parents. Of the 80, we lost about 10 to predatation and accidents. All of the original adults survive. There are just about the same number of roosters as there are hens now. The young hens are almost at the proper age to start laying themselves. At the present time, the chickens have total free range of the entire farm, if they want it, but stay pretty close to the henhouse, where they are housed at night to keep predators from them and where they are .

While predation of your livestock is usually not funny, there are situations than can be. We have a couple of Cooper's Hawks that live in our area. These are the true chicken hawks, not the Red Tail Hawk, which is commonly thought to be the culprit. Cooper's are bird predators, while Red Tails are rat/mouse predators. Anyway, these chickens are so big that the Coop's just sit in the trees and scream down at them because they know they are way too big for them to even try to prey on and so the chickens just turn their heads and look up at them and don't even try to get under any cover. Our game chickens run for the hills when anything crosses the sky, even a plane, but the Delawares just kinda of get an attitude like, "Yeah, right..... ".

Some of our hens probably weigh in at about 6 lbs and the two mature roosters, Spartacus and Hercules, go about 8-9 lbs. each. And they are gentle giants. No squabbling among them like some of the other chicken breeds we have. The roosters actually seem to cooperate to keep the hens safe and satisfied. Of course, they have about 100 ladies to share between the two of them and they take their responsibilities very seriously. Some of the young roosters are getting a little "cocky" and they are quickly dispatched but the hens, not the roosters. Totally funny!!

I hope to have Delaware chicks and pullets for sale by next year but for now, I am keeping all of them safe and healthy, which is very satisfying for me. After this post, there are some pictures of the gang, so take a look if you are interested!
Hercules and some of his "girls", chilling in the shade.
Doofus, one of the young Delawares. Hope he grows into those feet.
Spartacus showing me his good side...
Taking in some barnyard sunshine.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Twice a year, once in spring and once again in the fall, our weather in this area just can't seem to decide which season it wants to be in. Last week and again this week, we are seeing evidence of that with the wild temperature fluctuations. It was 82 degrees one day and less than 36 hours we had a low of 34, which is a 48 degree difference.

There are not too many places that have such roller coaster rides for weather as this one. It wreaks havoc on trying to get crops like we grow to settle into one season or the other. We have many, many things planted right now. They grow like mad for a while, then slow to a crawl, so it is hard sometimes to get Fall actually started, especially when summer like temps tease us one day and frost licks at our heels the next.

The late summer varieties are lasting way longer than normal. Eggplant, peppers, basil and other herbs are humming along like nothing is happening, although we did water them down the other day when there was a frost warning for our community. The Fall varieties are coming along but taking a little longer because of the warmer temps. Not so great if you are getting tired of the summer stuff but great in the long run because the Fall stuff will peak and last longer into the cooler season and so take us thru the end of our CSA, provided nothing else weird happens with the weather. Once we get into late November and early December, then the chances of a cold snap come into play.

We have 8 weeks left and CSA will be done for the year. If members take away nothing else from this season with CSA, they should have a greater grasp of what a small farmer faces when trying to bring in a seasons crops. Factory farms that plant only one thing and do everything mechanically and chemically don't have to fret over much. Diversity require faith, patience, expertise, finesse and a whole lot of good luck to produce the end result. This is the main reason that the US is down to about 80 varieties. If you go into a grocer in Modesto, California and buy a head of lettuce, it is exactly the same variety you would purchase here....keeping it boring and simply is key to factory farming.

We originally took up focusing on heirlooms because we wanted to preserve and enjoy the same foods that our great- and grandparents lived on. Tastes much better too, because we grow things for flavor, nutrition, beauty and interest, not whether or not it can be packed into a train car and shipped 3000 miles or if it will last 3-4 weeks on the grocer shelf (think shipping tomatoes...and where does the nutrition go?).

Things have gone much better this year than last year during the drought and we are well pleased with it all. Of course, the gas price hikes and shortages were not so much fun, were they? We still have stations here in Mooresville that don't have premium petrol, only regular, but the price is $3.09 instead of $4.09.

Knocking on wood that nothing drastic happens in the next 2 months, we should finish out the season no problem. Except for the disaster that is delivery, it was a pretty good year all 'round. Once our season is finished, we can sit back, breath a sigh of relief, take a month off and start the process all over again.

Farming organically is a year round system. I will be working on the farm plan in Dec./Jan. and the Farmer will be back in the field by February, doing soil prep. Overwintered crops will start to pop back up as soon as we have some warm days, even in February, and we will be back in full swing by the end of March or early April. CSA doesn't start until May next year unless we have a bumper early crop and start a few weeks early. Since there is still a pretty good chance of weird weather conditions until about the first week of May, we decided not to fight it next year and just wait it out.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Garden Helper coming to call

This beautiful mantis was perched outside our kitchen window this morning, stalking a meal in the azaleas. Can't tell from this pic but she is about 4 inches long. Tried to get her to turn her head so you could see her face, but she was intent on an insect that was probably her breakfast.
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That's the way things are in my universe...

I try really hard to keep adding things to this blog, but we are so very busy this time of year that it is an almost impossible task. For that reason, I have posted a quarterly, in depth entry on what happened in the previous quarter and some insight into what might be happening in the next. So, if this post seems particularly long, there was a lot going on this summer.

The Way Things Are.... October 2008

We are now rushing into the Fall season for 2008 and looking very forward to working in the cooler temps. Even cold rainy days can be exhilarating, provided you can duck inside periodically for a warm up and a cup of Chai. So far, the last 3 weeks have had nearly perfect weather, rain included.

I am loving life in that regard since this is my absolute favorite time of year, weatherwise, except for really big snows. Those are the best! They come at the time of year when we don't have to feel guilty for being in the house by the fire all day, cozied up with a good book or some videos. Even if the power goes out, we are good to go because we are just as comfortable with no electricity as we are with it. The only thing the Farmer misses is that he can't plug in his Fender but he just switched to the acoustic and it's all good. We heater our home with a wood stove for the first years we lived here, just updating to a heatpump year early last year, so we can keep warm and make dinner, even if the power goes out. And truthfully, I like that much better and being electrified. Also, if the power goes out, remember not to panic about your freezer/fridge.
If the power it out, it is usually colder outside than in the fridge anyway, so just put your milk outside. Or fill the cooler up with snow and put it in there.

But, I am getting off subject, as usual. This year has been one of ups and downs so far. The gardens have yielded a bounty of crops over the summer season and we still have some of the late summer season veggies coming off like crazy. Eggplant, peppers and okra are still making fruit, although with the first frost, there goes the end of summer. And since the average first frost date in this area is October, 14th, there isn't much time left...just a couple of weeks at most. That opens the door for the next season, which gives new meaning to the phrase "going green"!

About a month or so ago, because of the rains that came with Fay, Gustav and Ike (those storms obviously didn't hit us but certainly influenced our weather for several weeks), we were late getting much of our fall crops into the ground. We have talked to a couple of neighbors who ran into the same thing. Crazy thing about rainfall in this vicinity is that we have little pockets that get vast amounts of rain when others get almost none and so there is a misconception that when you watch the weather of the local TV station, everybody's weather is exactly the same.

Because we got plantings in late this season, we took a bit of a different turn and just basically planted every cooler weather seed we had in our inventory, which was considerable. For example, we planted arugula, collards, canola, specialty turnips, winter radishes, salad radishes, Asian greens of all types, about 30 kinds of leaf lettuce and 20 kinds of head lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, chard, kale, mustards, Chinese cabbages, broccoli raab and more. We planted over 1 1/2 acres of green stuff. Figured that overplanting would yield enough for the rest of fall and winter and also serve as a cover crop between now and next years plantings. Vegetation turned back into the fields are green manures, even if they are weeds, so it is the perfect scenario for what we are trying to accomplish in this area of the gardens.

In addition to all the planting, weeding, picking, etc. that goes on around here, there is also a lot involved CSA management. I wish more farmers would catch on to this distribution is a great thing for everyone but I can see why they are put off by the concept, especially if time management is a problem for them. To make it work, planning is crucial. What goes on in the gardens is pretty much under the watchful eye of the Farmer, so that is no problem. But when you start trying to deal with things that are totally out of your control, things are different.

In the past, we have always had our members pick up their shares at a specific location on certain days of the week. This year, I got it in my head that we were expending too much energy, etc. in our CSA by having people drive to get their weekly divvy because I was concerned about the impact we were having on the environment.

I had canvassed the members last year and was astounded that the weekly carbon footprint of our CSA was almost 1500 miles for the collective. I decided that me driving 350 miles was more environmentally friendly (which it is, but highly impractical, it turns out.) and opted to deliver shares this year. This venture (home delivery) has proven to be the most frustrating, all consuming thing we have ever done at the Farm. The slightest disruption at the farm, ripples out to the delivery schedule and creates more work for everyone involved.

I suppose if we had a person who just did delivery it would be great, but this farm runs with only the 4 hands that the Farmer and I provide and taking 2 of those hands away for 2-3 days per week has proven to be more of a burden. The wear and tear on me personally is another wrench thrown into the machine and so we have abandoned the whole idea of delivery for next year. We are going back to the old system of pick up locations. Hopefully, members can choose the location closest to them and we can reduce our impact that way. It is still local food and it is still not driving a tomato 2800 miles, so I can live with that system.

In 2009, another of our goals concerns education about organic and biodynamic farming principles and practical applications of those principles. The Farmer and I will be working on planning some on farm educational opportunities (weekend seminars, work-study programs) to help spread the good word about what we believe are some of the most important knowledge and skills a person can possess in these uncertain times we are living in today.