We are raising meat birds for our first time this year. We’ve started with 52 Freedom Rangers (the two extra chicks that were sent made it, yay!). We chose the Freedom Ranger variety over the standard white Cornish Cross because they are said to be better at grazing and foraging. They grow at a slower rate, but seem like the healthier choice. We haven’t experienced it first hand, but have read that the Cornish Cross chickens often have leg problems by the time they are 8 weeks old as their bodies grow so quickly. Since we will not be slaughtering our Freedom Rangers until they are 11 or 12 weeks old, we will probably be spending more on grain because of the extra time, even though they are getting some of their diet from the pasture.
The chicks started off in a brooder in the garage made from 4 windows screwed together with L brackets, and a hanging heat lamp. It worked nicely as a brooder. We could peak through the garage window and see right through the glass to check and make sure everybody was still moving and at the right temperature. Our dog Willow really enjoyed watching her “chick flicks”.
The adolescents when they moved onto pasture (they are much bigger now, it has taken me a while to post these pics)
We chose to make a moveable structure that enclosed the chickens at night for safety, but opened during the day so the chickens have plenty of room to roam within an electric polynet fence
We are excited that this structure is light enough to actually be moved by one person for short distances, two people for the long haul. That was the intention with our laying hen structure, but it is way too heavy! This one is much lighter because it is a wooden base with plastic hoops. The hoops are covered with chicken wire, then tarp. We chose to enclose the floor with hardware cloth as we have had trouble moving chickens in open bottomed structures before. They don’t seem to be smart enough to move when they should and can get their feet caught. Keeping the bedding cleaned out may prove to be the trickiest part of the structure, but at least we can safely move the structure with the chickens in it to new ground.
To make the structure easier to move we made this 2×4 “axle with wheels that slides under the back of the structure when we want to move it. We then have the leverage to pull from the front. It works pretty well, so far.
The Freedom Rangers are being fed organic grain, veggies and sprouts from the farm, and whatever they find to eat as they roam around during the day. We still have a few chickens available. They will be slaughtered in October. Contact us if you’d like to reserve some birds. We are selling them at $5/lb.
When we first moved to our property 4 1/2 years ago the lawn had been mowed regularly, and edges trimmed. Walking around the first spring we found a few wild black raspberry plants that yielded a taste or two, but not much. This year we have been picking black raspberries 6 quarts at a time every couple of days from wild patches. So, what happened in between? A little bit of “nurturing” and a lot of neglect. Basically I assert that by keeping some “wild” edges and un-mowed spaces near the house we’ve created some prime habitat for one of my favorite edible crops that requires no work, expect for harvest. In some of the patches the nurturing has involved a little more than that. We have cleared around some berry patches to allow them to grow and helped keep them upright with fencing. One particularly large fruiting plant was found growing out of the side of a honeysuckle bush by chance. The fruit is the size of a domesticated raspberry, much bigger than your average black raspberry. So, we cut down the honeysuckle which takes over the wild edges around here and is not edible. In order to try to prevent the honeysuckle from suckering we covered it with thick cardboard, then piled a bunch of logs and wood pieces that were laying around on top. The big fruited plant had bent over and rooted where it touched the ground in several places, so we were able to cut them and make more plants in a supported row.
When I look at all of the wild berry bushes that have grown and flourished, this common theme of a pile of logs or an old stump nearby prevails. Berries seem to love rotting wood and the moisture and fungal associates that is brings.
So, we have done a little nurturing to our most productive bushes in the forms of tying up, adding some manure, and wood piles. There are a couple of spots that we have done nothing to except not kill them, and they are doing great too. I think this is the key to developing an edible landscape working with what comes naturally in the landscape.
Some areas in our fields have patches of wild blueberries. We have done nothing to these except, let them grow. We thought they probably indicated a good spot to plant domesticated blueberries and have planted around them. Generally they are too tedious to pick lots of, but they are good for a nibble.
There are many other useful plants in our hedge rows and infrequently mowed fields. The Choke Cherries and Hawthorns flourish more each year, and plentiful blooms of Yarrow, St. Johnswort, Valerian and Clover support local pollinators and offer medicine for the picking. Nature is plentiful! Let’s hear it for the messy yard.
swale digging tools of the trade
We are now into our 5th growing season at Peace of Earth Farm. In the beginning there were many trees to clear and garden beds to create. Our initial strategy was to start building gardens close to the house and in areas where the least amount of clearing needed to happen. This strategy led us to the creation of a lot of gardens on hills and slopes. On the steepest slopes we did use terracing to prevent erosion and build soil (by utilizing lots of woody debris from all the clearing we had done). We did not necessarily build those terraces on contour though. Many of the garden beds we have built on slopes show evidence of some degree of erosion and unequal water distribution. The importance of planting along a contour line has become more clear as we observe our beds over time. A contour line is basically a level line across a slope. At this point any new beds we create we are forming on contour, and may end up reshaping beds we have already created over time.
This past winter when doing the farm planning and mapping we decided we needed more space and hence some new beds. Winter squash is the crop we often use to break in new beds as they are large plants that are good at spreading and smothering weeds. So we decided to create some new beds on contour on a slope. Looking at the pictures below you might ask why we did not utilize the lovely flattish field it is next to instead of the slope that was recently populated by pine trees. The answer is that the lovely flattish field gets flooded seasonally and we are only grazing animals on it until we have established other flood control measures (more on that in the future).
To form these beds we first found the contour of the land using an a frame level and marked it with stakes. We then dug out a trench or swale and put the dug out soil downslope to create a berm. The purpose of swales is to capture water that is running down the surface of a slope, slowing it down and allowing it to sink into the soil down at root level where plants can access it over time. Swales are used in different ways in different climates and soil types. The important difference between a swale and a ditch is that we are not directing water down slope and off site for drainage, we are trying to hold onto it and distribute it evenly. For these particular swales; we dug them, ammended them with compost, gypsum, kelp and greensand, and seeded the concave portion to white clover. We then planted the squash on the berms, laid cardboard on top (as the sod that is inside the berms is sure to grow upward eventually), and mulched with grass that was freshly scythed. Hopefully we’ll have pictures of cascading vines and ripe squash to show off in the future.
These images (above) show two other swales we dug earlier this spring before things started to green up. These were planted to hardy low maintenance bushes like Black Currants, Nanking Cherry, Beach Plum and Buffaloberry (an edible nitrogen fixing shrub). They are a bit narrower and steeper. The berm and swale has also been seeded with a mix of clovers, lupines, other annual flowers and some deep rooted radish and turnips. These hardy shrubs should be able to hold their own once established and will not need a totally mulched and maintained understory, so we will let the clover dominated ground cover establish and hand mow it periodically instead of trying to keep the whole area mulched and weeded. The bushes we planted were pretty tiny, but are establishing. I’m sure they are loving the rain that is steadily coming down outside our window.
At this time of year the battle with grass is ever waging in our garden beds. Looking around for images to capture I found myself much more satisfied with close up shots than panoramic images of weedy garden beds. Why not focus on “weeds” that we appreciate and love, and even some that we have nurtured.
There are many wild perennials and self seeding annuals that fill the early spring niche of salad and cooking greens. As we are pulling dandelions, lambs quarter, and purslane out of the garden we sometimes save some to add to salads. This year we roasted a lot of dandelion root for tea. The beauty of these plants is that they generally took no human effort to grow, they are more nutritious than the plants we do grow, and they are earlier than anything we seed into the garden. We haven’t found anything useful to do with grass though, except let other animals graze it.
Another category of early greens are patches that we have intentionally or unintentionally allowed to grow to maturity, drop their seeds, and naturalize. This gets a little complicated in annual garden beds. It works better in perennial gardens or along perennial crop rows such as asparagus. We’ve let chervil, several varieties of chicory, lettuce, amaranth, arugula, dill, parsley and orach seed into some pathways and around perennial fruits. You have to be willing to accept a little disorder in the garden, but are rewarded with a variety of salad additions that act as ground cover with very little work. If things get out of hand you can weed them or cover with mulch to thin the population. At this point these little patches are too small and irregular to be a big part of our commercial production, but they add variety and flavor to our mixes and home salads. Maybe we will be more intentional with it in the future and maintain whole areas of “perennialized” salads.
We recently decided that we could no longer keep our ox Lucky. He had come to us at the age of 5, a full grown holstein. In retrospect the combination of a very large animal and two inexperienced trainers was not a good idea, no matter how trained he was to begin with. We had high expectations of being able to work with him to haul firewood and other heavy loads around the farm. As we tried hitching him, reality soon hit. Early on there were several incidents of him running with loads. We made many mistakes along the way and he was quick to learn that he was much bigger than we are. Over the last year and a half we kept working with him twice a day leading with a halter and practicing commands. There were many ups and downs of stretches of good behavior and hope that he was improving followed by some erratic behavior like running. Over this past winter his behavior got worse and degraded to the point that he was very difficult to get a halter on. He learned how to pull his head away so that he was difficult to correct. Eventually his behavior made me feel unsafe and I dreaded working with him. We knew the prospect of hitching him and doing useful tasks on the farm were not likely, so we decided to slaughter him. It was a hard decision as we had grown to love him and had spent so much time trying to make it work.
The up-side is that we learned a lot about working with oxen in the process. We would like to try working with another single ox or team in the future, but want to take the summer off and think things over. Next time we plan on starting with a calf/calves and really establishing a relationship of respect when the animals are small.
We thank Lucky for the friendly bovine energy he brought to the farm, his good grazing work, and his big pile of manure.
We were honored to be on the Greenhorns Radio Program today for our first ever radio interview. The short conversation features musings about our long land search, farming with animal power, and notable quotes like, “You can’t eat a tractor.”
You can listen to the interview at the Greenhorns Radio Program page at the Heritage Radio Network.
If you’ve never heard of the Greenhorns you should check out their website. They do all sorts of supportive things for young farmers. Farmhack is one program spawned by the Greenhorns that collects and creates all sorts of low tech innovations and ideas related to farming. Check them out!
Things are starting to green up and push through the mulch. The garlic, rhubarb, spinach and arugula are growing. There are many seeds and transplants headed into the ground. We hope to have a nice selection of options for the June shares in a few weeks.
If you are interested in signing up for a CSA share please act fast! We’d like to know how many shares are filled, even if payment isn’t complete until the first pick up date.
We are pleased to announce a new pick up option in Hardwick. If that is more convenient for you than driving to Albany, please let us know.
Are you a summer resident or planning on going on vacation for a number of weeks? We can be flexible – don’t let that keep you from signing up for a CSA share. Simply let us know how many weeks you will be around and we can charge per week.