Monday, October 25, 2010

Chicken's Well-Deserved Vacation

September 23, 2010- this day, as close as I can tell contained 12 hours of daylight, 12 hours of night. The Equinox. Chickens require 15 hours of daylight, on average, to produce an egg. Since the Equinox, our egg production has dropped a little and we are having trouble meeting our egg orders because of it. To paraphrase an old saying, "The chicken farmer's kids have no eggs."
We worked our hens really hard this year to meet the demand. With veiled threats every morning - "If any among you shall not work, neither let him eat." to not-so-veiled threats " I need 2 more eggs by noon or you are going in the pot!"; with motivational speeches (I stopped short of hanging motivational posters in the coop) we generally met all of our customer requests.
There is a way to insure consistent egg production throughout the short days of fall and winter. It requires keeping in-bred hens that have been selected to produce an egg everyday, rigging up an electric timer to turn on a light bulb in the coop at 3 AM, keeping them locked up in this light, and selling off any inconsistent layers. We struggle with this every winter.
We raise heritage breeds chickens and want them to experience the "chicken-ness" of the chicken, its life-style, its freedom, in its natural habitat, with natural habits. Regardless of where one falls on the creation/evolution debate, it is obvious that the chicken, in its most natural state, starts to shut down egg production in the short days of the fall and winter. The question we face every year is this. Do we do unnatural things to our chickens in order to fill egg orders from our very valued customers and friends-or do we let natural reign on our farm. Every year we arrive at the same decision. We let natural reign.
All of that being said, Shamrock and Thistle Farm will not be selling eggs this fall and winter to insure Patt has enough of our naturally harvested eggs to include in her baked goods, and I get a couple of eggs for breakfast every morning. It is time for our chickens to enjoy a hard earned vacation. So till next spring eggs will be a little scarce.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fall Garden Update

The Large Garden sign on the front gate...An aerial view of the garden... Asparagus that we should be able to harvest starting next spring

We've had good luck with fall tomatoes in the past. If the frost holds out for another couple of weeks this should be our best year yet. Fall tomatoes require patience, late summer watering, and a heavy layer of hay or straw mulch. The key is to harvest all of the tomatoes at the end of "tomato season" and then keep the vines alive through August and September. They return in all their glory, putting out new growth, blossoms, and eventually, slow-ripened fruit.

3 pumpkin plants, started in late July, have set upwards of 14 pie pumpkins. I built simple boxes with a fragment of screen (all salvaged from our burned home) to hold the pumpkins as they grow. This keeps air circulating around the entire fruit and keeps moisture away from it. Pumpkins will tend to rot if left on damp ground too long.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Hey Grandpa! What 's For Dinner?

Hey Grandpa! What's For Dinner!?!
Roast chicken stuffed with home grown onions, seasoned with Thyme, Rosemary, and Sage, Rattlesnake Beans, and Red. White. and Blue potatoes smothered in chicken broth gravy, and for dessert, brandied Arkansas Black Apples! Yum! Yum!

Progress on the Cottage

It is difficult to really see the impact of a little color on the walls, mostly because it is difficult to get a good picture whilst standing in a 396 square foot room. But this is the living area. The fan is drying some of the paint on an opposite wall. This winter a small wood stove will be placed about where the TV is located. The TV, not a major factor in our life, will be moved around on a shelf from time to time to make space for other things. This is a shot of the corner in which our bedroom is located. As you can see we have tried to use as much vertical space as we can to store things. Above the bed room is a small loft to hold out-of-season clothes, and of course along the wall is our battery of hat and coat hooks. The bedroom is about 70 square feet. The "college dorm room" style book case along the wall under the window will eventually be replaced by hand built wooded book cases, painted, and better tailored to the space. Before the big house burned in February we had rooms fool of books. Now, by necessity, we have trimmed our collection to our favorites which we like to read over and again. This excercise was painful, but good for us. You can just see me in the lower right of the picture reading one of those books, "Twenty Years After" by Alexandre Dumas, a much ignored and under-rated sequel to the "Three Musketeers". This was a difficult shot and doesn't really do it justice. This is our bathroom. All 56 square feet of it! Painted some color - I do not know what - it looks nothing like its description and happens to be the color we chose for the kitchen cabinets. Not really liking it on the cabinets we tried it on the walls and it looks pretty good.

Pray For Rain

The latest addition of the Petit Jean Country Headlight announced the institution of water use restrictions for Perryville and Perry County areas serviced by the city water supply. Provisions of the restrictions ban the use of water for car washing, driveway cleaning, swimming pools, and the watering of gardens. Yes the watering of gardens. I have two questions.

First, Perry County is covered in gardens. Most of which supply food to the growers. In some cases, like ours, they provide additional or the sole source of income for the gardeners. We have been told by our leaders in Perry County that it is now against the law to water our gardens. The sherrif and his deputies have been given the authority to turn off our water if we are caught in the heinous act of watering the gardens that supply our food. In addition, if caught, fines of $500.00 per instance may be levied against the criminal. Is it possible that this is just one step towards marginalizing and criminalizing one segment of our society simply because of our life style choice- that of self sufficient food production? (Of course, if I had my three wells equipped and running I wouldn't have to use city water for irrigation - how stupid am I?)

Secondly, in 2005 Perry County experienced drought like conditions and extreme water shortages much like we are entering into this summer and fall. Money was set aside, if I recall correctly, to improve the water system (expanding the Cedar Lake which is our source of water, and other improvements) In 2005 Perryville decided to run pipe from the Fourche River to Cedar Lake to refill the lake if it got too low. It was deemed unsafe for consumers, by the board of health, if this was done. Now in 2010, this money having gone somewhere else, Cedar Lake improvements not being made, no additional supply created or provided for, we are now under restrictions again and the solution? Once again they are talking about pipe being run from the Fourche River to Cedar Lake. Do we not need leaders that will take care of the basic things for Perry County residents like water rather than unneeded things like the annual Fourche River Days Biker Rally? I have nothing against bikers or biker rallies in general. But I do like to eat, I like having a reliable water source, and I don't like being criminalized if I water my garden.

I am reminded of a friend's catch-all advice when she feels hopeless. Maybe all we can do is pray...

"Oh God, heavenly Father, who by thy Son Jesus Christ hast promised to all those who seek thy kingdom and the righteousness thereof, all things necessary to their bodily sustenance; Send us, we beseech thee, in this our necessity, such moderate rain and showers, that we may receive the fruits of the earth to our comfort, and to thy honour; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

"O God, heavenly Fahter, whose gift it is that the rain doth fall, and the earth bring forth her increase; Behold, we beseech thee, the afflictions of thy people; increase the fruits of the earth by thy heavenly benediction; and grant that the scarcity and dearth, which we now most justly suffer for our sins, may, through thy goodness, be mercifully turned into plenty; for the love of Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost, be all honour and glory, now and forever. Amen."

From the 1928 Common Book of Prayer, The Church of England

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Case Against Tyson

This post is not about nutrition. There will be no science; no expert testimony; no film footage; no first hand experience. This post is about philosophy. Its major point is to demonstrate, philosophically, how one may find fault, at the very least suspicion, in the conglomerate food producer. Its secondary point is to demonstrate how, simply using the tool of philosophy one can decide what to do about a particular subject when facts are not easily come by.

Have you had your Tyson today? The pastoral scenes painted on the sides of large refridgerated trucks; the smiling children on a picnic with the perfect smiling family; the big red barns and flowing green fields. The images are attractive; the tag line "Have you had your Tyson today?" says volumes when coupled with these images. Tyson claims to have natural chicken, beef, and pork. Furthermore, they claim that the nutrition packed into their hunks of meat are necessary if you want your lawn to be well manicured. One commercial implies that there is no way a homeowner can keep his property pristine without a daily dose of "his" Tyson.

And just as I have offered no nutritional values or science to debunk Tyson's claim to providing nutritious products; Tyson has not provided the science or nutritional information to back up their claim (the nutritional information on their packaging notwithstanding).

But Tyson is not the only mega-conglomerate appealing to our "idea" of natural foods and what they should be. One company provides 100% organic syrup at a well known national whole foods chain. Look at the bottle of syrup on the shelf amidst the dozens of others and you see in big artsy letters "Maple Tree Farms" (or some such appellation) emblazoned above a quaint picture of a big red New England style barn atop a rolling hill of green pasture. Below the picture one sees in large type: "100% Organic". We picked up the bottle and contrary to our normal routine did NOT look at the ingredients on the back of the label. These ingredients, by the way, are in sub-8 font and barely legible. Before heading down the aisle to our next stop, we remembered our oath to read labels, picked the bottle of what we believed was 100% Organic Maple Syrup from Maple Tree Farms, and read the lable: two ingredients - 100% Organic CORN SYRUP, Maple Flavoring. See how they play on our senses, our inattention, our imagination? Our brains, in this case, said "We need Maple Syrup." Our eyes saw "MAPLE Tree Farms and 100% Organic". Our brains said "We've got other things to get here so let's move on." Our bodies put the pseudo-Maple Syrup in the cart. Not fair is it?

Up to now I've talked about the marketing philosophy of these corporations and the grocers that supply the products. To sum up - no matter how many times they say it, or show it in pictures - they do NOT have your best interest in mind. Their only goal (or I should say primary goal) is to get your money out of your pocket and their products into your basket as cheaply as they can for them and as expensively as they can for you. That's called profit, capitalism, or the ever present "what the market will bear." But I need to move on to something a little less black and white but , I think nevertheless, just as important.

This product you are buying to feed yourself: how was it produced? Whether plant or animal or mineral - where did it come from? Did the animal suffer? What is the impact on the environment? The people that work in your mega conglomerate to bring this product to the grocers - how are they treated?

This is where the philosophical differences between the mass-producer and the local farm, in my opinion, really challenge us.

Watch almost any documentary on our food system - I think Food Inc. is the best - or read any book concerning our food like Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" or "In Defense of Food" and there is a striking contrast between the small producers and the mega-corps. The small producers are the ones opening their farms to tours; they are the ones talking to the media, writing books, publishing pictures in magazines. The Mega-Corps are silent. They refuse cameras, interviews, answer no questions, and simply go silently on with their pastoral propaganda. My guess is, the mega producers know that should the consumer see and smell the production process, it would perhaps prevent many of us from buying their products.

This is our biggest clue to what is going on all along the assembly lines in these mass food producers and, in my opinion, if they are unwilling to open their doors and let us see how they are handling the products, the animals, what they do with the waste, how they treat their employees, then we should be unwilling to buy from them.

I've never been inside a Tyson plant. I've seen footage of the assembly line in one, or another plant like it. But even those images don't tell the whole story I am sure. We made a stop for gas in Clarksville Arkansas a couple of years ago. While pulling up to the pump at the EH-HEM MART we noticed a smell that reminded us of old coffee or skunk (they do smell similar). When we got out of the truck the smell hit us like a brick wall. The air was thick with the smell of roadkill, rotting flesh. As we gagged and heaved about getting the gas in the tank we looked around desperately to see if we could tell where the odor was coming from. We had to go inside the store to pick up some things for the remainder of our trip so in we went. The entire EH-HEM MART reeked of rotting flesh. We held our breath as long as we could, breathed through our mouth when we had to, and hurried out of there. There was something else odd about that whole visit. We were the only ones, gagging, choking, wheezing, and wondering. Everyone else in the store walked and shopped, spent, and worked normally, as if nothing was wrong. I know now that they had simply adapted. It was common enough an occurrence that it was a part of life. It was normal. It was okay. We did not find out what caused the smell until we pulled back onto I40 and headed east towards home.

Next door to the EH-HEM MART was a processing plant proudly displaying a familiar reddish-orange and yellow logo.

I know there would be a lot of people out of work if Tyson shut down operations, but I firmly believe that the best thing for Arkansas, if Tyson doesn't open its doors and do things the right, humane, and clean way, would be for them to shut their doors for good...this then is topic enough for a different discussion.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Old Trailer Finally Gone

We had an old brown trailer that sat in the middle of the farm next to the garden for at least 11 years or so. Probably longer. The former owner of the place, a Heifer Project Maintenance Manager and formerly from Wisconsin, had placed it there to store stuff in. It was, he told me, an old bowling ball sales man's display trailer. Honestly. Well I finally got around to doing something with it. Now that we have a barn to store our tools and feed, etc. in, we no longer needed the trailer as storage. The wheel's didn't turn and the hitch had been badly damaged during its sojourn in our pasture.

So, I took my sawzall (the greatest invention of the modern era) and cut the bottom out of it. Attached a chain across the top to our pickup and "peeled" the top section away from the chassis.

I am now debating on whether to recycle the entire thing or repurpose the top half into a mobile chicken shelter. Hmm. I guess you'll have to stay tuned to see what we wind up with.

What do you think I should do? Scrap it and make a little money or spend a little money to make a move-able pen for our chickens?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Egg Primer

Let's talk about eggs. The picture above speaks volumes on the difference between a store bought egg and a free range egg. Unfortunately the only way to tell is to crack one open. Supermarkets probably would not take kindly to your "opening" an egg before you buy it determine its quality.
Here's the scoop. A confined chicken laying eggs for the supermarket are low in ohmega-3 fatty acids, protein, and calcium. And high in ohmega-6 fatty acids and fat. The color of the yolk is just your second indication of the quality and healthiness of your egg. The first is the shell. When you crack open an eggshell does it break easily; is it paper thin; do little chunks fly off into your frying pan or cake batter? Store bought, confined chicken egg. Free range eggs have a thicker shell, harder to crack, fewer or no bits falling into your skillet or cake batter. Higher calcium content accounts for this. Documentation to this effect can be found from several reliable sources on the internet or in books like Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma.
Here's the rub. Since the USDA has gotten into the regulation of the organic foods industry the word "organic" has lost some of its umph! Now, to qualify as a free-range egg the chickens must have "access" to open air and day light. This is accomplished by mega-farms only after shutting the chickens up for around 6 weeks in a coop. Then a door is opened allowing the hens, if they want to, to roam around a small yard attached to the outside of the coop. The problem with this is; a chicken is, as are many of the people you know, creatures of habit with very little brains, and little to no capacity for abstract thought. The chicken quickly settles into a routine, during its six week confinement, of not going outside. It thinks (I use this term loosely) going outside is abnormal and remains confined of its own free will. But still qualifies as a "free range chicken".
What does one do to insure one is getting the healthiest egg and chicken possible from happy chickens practicing their chicken-ness?
One buys eggs from a local farmer that one trusts. A farmer that welcomes visitors who want to see where their food comes from and how the farmer treats the animals. This is the only way, short of opening an egg in the grocery store to see if you are getting what you need in the way of protein, calcium, and the ohmega-3 fatty acids you need to balance the body and control the weight.
Just Say No to Storebought Eggs!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Fall Garden Taking Shape

For the first time ever - we're getting a Fall Garden planted. I've added some pictures. It's now time for me to start generating as much income as Patt does on the bakery side. I am hoping that I can maintain a garden through the winter when most other market gardeners have shut it down for the year. Kale, Turnips and turnip greens, radishes, pie pumpkins, sweet potatoes, swiss chard, and peas are all in and doing well or will be planted starting Monday October 4th. Will also start some head-lettuces in flats in the barn for transplanting later if the frost holds out for a little while.

Next Spring, God willing, we will have asparagus to offer as well.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Best Hen in the Whole World

Chickens were created, yes created, to have a natural instinct to insure the survival of their species by periodically going "broody". This broodiness manifests itself in rather moody, cantankerous, and generally ill-natured behavior. They will refuse to get up from the nest when they lay an egg. They will peck at you and make some interesting grouchy noises. They will pluck the feathers from their breast area to allow the eggs to come into contact with their skin and to insulate the nest. Their body temperature will rise from normal to around 101 degrees farenheit (they essentially get a fever) which last throughout the 21 days it takes for a chicken egg to incubate and hatch. They will not get up from the nest except for about 5 or 10 minutes a day to eat, drink, and um...crap(?). Once the eggs hatch she will keep her chicks close by and will ferociously attack anyone or anything that comes near.

Sadly, a byproduct of the industrial agriculture age is that chickens have been bred and cross bred for selection to yield consistent sized eggs, an egg every day, to live in confined quarters, and to process industrial chicken feeds which commonly contain the remains of other chickens. This broody trait has been all but bred out of most of the chickens you find today because when a hen goes broody she is essentially out of commission of three weeks during the gestation and up to six weeks while she is raising her new chicks. A broody chicken is undesireable to the mass-producing egg farmer. What then? how does the mass-producing egg farmer replenish his laying hens who have squirted out the same old egg every day for the last 5 years. Well, when the hen stops producing enough eggs, they are sold to a butcher which you may buy at the grocers or it is put into dog food, or into other animal feeds. The mass-producing egg farmer then buys another chicken to lock in a 2ft by 2ft cage with 5 other chickens to be force fed into producing an egg everyday. The chicken never sees sunlight, never eats a blade of grass, never gets to act like a chicken.

But, what if...what if you were to buy your eggs from a local farmer who raises chickens, in what I like to call, "The Right Way"?

Introducing the Mother of All Hens. This heritage breed of chicken (Black Brahma) originated in Asia and because it has been bred to BE a black brahma for people like us who raise heritage breeds it has retained many of its natural instincts. Sadly, it is rare even for heritage breeds to go broody now days.

This hen has now hatched out her third batch of chicks since February and we are hoping for more. This one hen has raised 21 chicks for us-naturally, in the sunlight, eating mostly grass and bugs and worms (these are things chickens like to eat!). The only time she has been in a pen without access to the wide open pasture of our farm is when we have a varmint predator killing chickens on the loose or when she goes broody. We put her in a pen during her "setting" to protect her and her newborn chicks. We let the chicken BE a chicken.

So the next time we run out of eggs, please don't get frustrated. It's natural and to be expected. The next time you stand at the grocery to buy a dozen perfectly shaped, monchromatic, thin-shelled assembly line eggs, just say no! Just Say No To Mass Produced Eggs! If you can't buy from Shamrock and Thistle Farm, buy from a local farmer that is raising chickens the Right Way. Shop your farmer's markets online or downtown. The eggs are healthier, more natural, raised by someone you can get to know and trust, they are fresher, and, well, you will be helping to insure the biodiversity our planet is known for, supporting your local economy, and helping chickens be happy chickens!