A (Kind-Of) Quick Update on Brooding Chickens

SO, I men­tioned yes­ter­day that I went down to the coop and noticed that one of the chick­ens was broody. A broody hen has decided to sit on her eggs with the pur­pose of hatch­ing them. That would be great if we wanted chicks and had a bunch of fer­tile eggs to hatch, but in this case the hen was just intent on sit­ting on her nest no mat­ter what. Brood­i­ness can be a prob­lem because often broody hens who have no chance of hatch­ing any eggs will sit on their nests until they starve and dehy­drate to death, and often it’s brought on by long days (I have a bad feel­ing that the heat lamp I put into the coop to keep them warm on freez­ing Feb­ru­ary nights might be to blame). We had been try­ing to remove her from the nest and take the eggs out from under her, but she was being stub­born, and a cou­ple times I caught her sit­ting on noth­ing (and once an egg shaped piece of hard chicken poop). This morn­ing I went down to the coop and found this:

It’s hard to tell what’s going on here, but there’s four chick­ens in that lay­ing box. The first hen was still refus­ing to budge and another had joined her (brood­i­ness can be con­ta­gious). Two other chick­ens were attempt­ing to mus­cle their way in to lay some eggs and they were all get­ting pretty angry and peck­ing each other. 

So I did a lit­tle research and found that some­times it’s pos­si­ble to dis­suade a broody hen by sim­ply block­ing off the lay­ing boxes and get­ting her away from the nest. So we put all the chick­ens out­side and blocked off the boxes. 

It didn’t work…an hour later they had man­aged to squeeze inside and there were four of them stuffed in behind the wood! Some­one had laid an egg and some­one else had bro­ken it and now they were all eat­ing it. Insan­ity. 

I tight­ened the gaps between the boards on the boxes, but the two hens just ended up set­tling down on the floor all puffed up and broody look­ing. A bunch of the sources I found online said that the best way to break brood­i­ness is to remove the chick­ens entirely and put them some­where totally unlike a nest­ing box. Ide­ally, this means a wire-bottomed cage off the floor with nowhere to bed down and a lit­tle cold air cir­cu­la­tion under­neath their bot­toms (cur­ing brood­i­ness is all about cool­ing off the chicken’s bot­tom). I tried to brain­storm some options — the green­house, an empty horse stall, a dog crate — but none of them seemed right. Then I remem­bered the old empty rab­bit hutches that are sit­ting in the barn. 

And so I packed them up in a cat car­ry­ing case and brought them upstairs. The first broody hen is totally in blissed-out-dreaming-of-motherhood-mode (I can sym­pa­thize, I get the same way when I start think­ing about my new birth­day puppy, Angus, that I’m get­ting in March) and doesn’t even seem to care what I do with her. The sec­ond hen put up a lit­tle fight, but I’m stronger than a chicken. 

There they are! I gave them some food and water and put down some hay on the floor in an attempt to con­trol the mess. Here’s hop­ing their bums cool off soon!

Cleaning Out the Greenhouse

Tango Let­tuce and baby Swiss Chard
Arugula gone wild
Tough lit­tle let­tuce plants


All cleaned out ready for new Spring seedlings!
We saved a few plants that were doing well. Let­tuce in front, with kale behind and more let­tuce plants and swiss chard under the plastic

Planning for Vegetables and Pictures of Chickens

The seeds are arriv­ing and slowly pil­ing up in the cor­ner of my room. Mean­while, I’ve been try­ing to fig­ure out what to do with them. In order to orga­nize the infor­ma­tion about each plant and get ready to make a full plant­ing sched­ule I’ve been putting together spread­sheets. I have a page for each veg­etable and then I list all the vari­eties sep­a­rately. Then, using the Johnny’s cat­a­log, the Cor­nell Coop­er­a­tive Exten­sion web­site and Coleman’s The New Organic Grower, as well as a cou­ple of other sources, I’ve been com­pil­ing impor­tant grow­ing information. 
First of all, I have to fig­ure out what veg­eta­bles I’m going to start inside and then trans­plant, and what veg­eta­bles I’m going to seed directly into the gar­den. Some veg­etable plants really have to be started inside, like the bras­si­cas (cau­li­flower, broc­coli, brus­sel sprouts and cab­bage) and night­shades (toma­toes, egg­plants, pep­pers). Luck­ily, the woman who owned Dave’s par­ents house before them had a cut flower busi­ness, and so she built a small green­house off the garage. 
The green­house, the wind­mill and the sun this morning
The green­house really warms up dur­ing the day. Even in the mid­dle of the win­ter I often have to open a win­dow to stop the tem­per­a­ture inside from sky­rock­et­ing past 90 degrees F
So far I’ve just been grow­ing let­tuce, kale, swiss chard and bak choy in the green­house. Dave built me some tables and boxes, about 6″ deep and of var­i­ous sizes, and I was able to grow a fair amount of small, yet deli­cious, greens over the win­ter. This week how­ever, I’m going to be pulling all the soil and the boxes out of there so we can start fresh with our new pot­ting soil and trans­plants for the Spring. 
Next, I have to deter­mine whether or not I’m going to be suc­ces­sion seed­ing the veg­eta­bles and, if so, how many times. For exam­ple, I’m grow­ing 100′ (one row) of a vari­ety of car­rots called Scar­let Nantes. These car­rots will grow from May 1st to July 15th, which is about 12 weeks. Dur­ing those 12 weeks I’m going to want to be plant­ing new seeds directly into the gar­den (car­rots are dif­fi­cult to trans­plant on account of their roots becom­ing irreg­u­lar, plus they grow pretty quickly) every 3 weeks to ensure that I have a con­sis­tent sup­ply of new growth. This means that I’m going to be doing at least 4 plant­i­ngs, and so there­fore each plant­ing will involve seed­ing 25′ of the garden. 
This is all get­ting bor­ing so I’ll just show an example. 
Each veg­etable has it’s own sheet. After I’m done with the sheets I’m going to lay it all out on a MASTER cal­en­dar so I know exactly when I’m going to be plant­ing every­thing, and how. Pretty excit­ing, right?
Mean­while, there are a lot of other things to think about. Right now, I’m wor­ried because we keep hear­ing more and more about how wet the land we’re plan­ning on plant­ing on is. We haven’t really looked at it crit­i­cally with­out the snow and so we’re not sure what to expect. The mois­ture could be an issue because we have to wait for the area to dry off in the Spring before we can even till the land, and with all the snow out­side right now it doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to be dry. All this prob­a­bly means that we’re going to get a late start this year, and are going to have to rely heav­ily on transplants.
Right past those trees and under all that snow is the site of our future veg­etable garden
Alright, enough about the gar­den. Here’s some pic­tures of chickens!
This is the chicken coop for layers
Their yard. I put down some hay so they can come out and walk around on the snow which they seem to love until they get too cold
And here they are!
Lay­ing boxes
Right now we have 9 lay­ing hens and we’re plan­ning on bump­ing up the num­ber to 30 this Spring, which is about as many as we can fit in this chicken coop while still mak­ing sure they all have enough space. That’s going to involve build­ing a cou­ple more lay­ing boxes, although right now they all insist on using the box all the way to the right, and have kicked all the hay out of the other two. 
The hen in the lay­ing box in this pic­ture appears to have gone broody in the last cou­ple of days, which means that she’s become intent on sit­ting on her eggs day in and day out, even if it means that she doesn’t eat or drink. This is also a prob­lem because our deli­cious eggs are going bad under­neath her. I’ve been read­ing about sev­eral ways to cure brood­i­ness, every­thing from dip­ping their stom­ach in cold water (I don’t think that’s a good idea in the mid­dle of Win­ter) to putting them in a cage by them­selves up off the ground and away from the nest. I’ll report back later on how this prob­lem pro­gresses and how we man­age to solve it. If any­one has any ideas, let me know.

More Detailed Vegetable Garden Plans…Hooray!

Now, I’m sure that the pigs and our new flocks of chick­ens are going to present plenty of prob­lems in the near future, but right now the biggest chal­lenge for me is design­ing the half acre veg­etable gar­den. In this post I’m going to describe my plan for the gar­den, as well as the thought process behind it. As I said before, my mom (Hasso) is really col­lab­o­rat­ing closely with me, espe­cially when it comes to mak­ing deci­sions about the gar­den, so when I say “my plan” what I really mean is “our plan”. Together, over the last cou­ple of weeks, we’ve been try­ing to gather as much infor­ma­tion as pos­si­ble from farm­ers and expe­ri­enced gar­den­ers in the area. Luck­ily, every­one we’ve talked to has been unbe­liev­ably help­ful. We also attended a NOFA (North­east Organic Farm­ing Asso­ci­a­tion: MA Chap­ter) sem­i­nar on Sys­tem­atiz­ing a Diverse Veg­etable Oper­a­tion, which also pro­vided a lot of great infor­ma­tion (a lot of which went right over my head). 

In addi­tion, we’ve both been read­ing Eliot Coleman’s book, The New Organic Grower which has been pretty indis­pens­able. Eliot Cole­man, who has a farm in Brooksville, Maine, is one of the kings of small-scale organic farm­ing and his book has been a great entry level text­book for us. 

How­ever, one of the lessons I’ve learned pretty quickly is that no one is going to tell you exactly how to farm veg­eta­bles, instead you’re just going to end up with a bunch of sug­ges­tions. It seems as though grow­ing is such a per­sonal thing, that instead of depend­ing wholly on one text, or one after­noon of advice, it’s impor­tant to pick and choose what makes sense to you. Each piece of land is dif­fer­ent, and each style of grow­ing is dif­fer­ent, and farm­ing is about devel­op­ing a close enough rela­tion­ship with your land to under­stand what it needs to be suc­cess­ful, and what you need to be suc­cess­ful along with it. Over the last cou­ple of weeks I’ve heard sev­eral times that “farm­ing is as much an art as it is a sci­ence”. I’m a sucker for phrases like that. I can already tell that I’m going to be repeat­ing that phrase to peo­ple for the rest of my life. 

So, back to my (our) gar­den. 

The first step was to take a soil text to deter­mine what our soil’s like. We dug down through the snow and pick-axed some earth from the frozen ground to send into the lab. We’re still wait­ing for the results, so I’ll post more infor­ma­tion later. 

Next, I got a map of the prop­erty and we laid out exactly where we thought the gar­den should be (see pre­vi­ous post). It was impor­tant to keep the plot about 15′ out from under­neath the tree-line, to make sure the plants will have enough sun, and to keep the rows away from Black Brook, which runs between the veg­etable gar­den and the horse ring sea­son­ally. Ide­ally, the area would be flat, how­ever, our gar­den has a slight slope to the East. Luck­ily, it’s slight enough so that appar­ently it’s not going to be a big deal. 

We were ready to plan the plot. Cole­man rec­om­mends divid­ing your land into 5′ rows that are each 100′ long, and then plant­ing 4′ and leav­ing 1′ for a path. We were advised by many peo­ple that 4′ was a lit­tle too wide of a plant­ing row for us and that 1′ was a lit­tle bit nar­row of a path. Since we’re plan­ning on doing the plant­ing, weed­ing and har­vest­ing by hand, it’s impor­tant that we can eas­ily move up and down and around in the paths and reach into the cen­ter of the rows. There­fore, we decided to make 3′ rows and 2′ paths. 

We also learned that it was very help­ful to be able to drive a truck right into the mid­dle of the gar­den. This option will help us to bring sup­plies into the cen­ter of our veg­etable patch, and move har­vested pro­duce eas­ily and effec­tively out. With these stip­u­la­tions in mind we made the fol­low­ing plan:

I had to decide how to fill up all these rows. Enter: seed cat­a­logs. Seed cat­a­logs are so much fun; they are also so over­whelm­ing (some­day ask me about my bit­ter­sweet one-week love-affair with seed cat­a­logs). I got most of my seeds from High Mow­ing Organic Seeds, because they’re local (out of Ver­mont), but I also got a fair amount from Johnny’s Seeds, which has every­thing, and Seed Savers Exchange, which sells pri­mar­ily heir­looms. I went through veg­etable by veg­etable and used infor­ma­tion from the cat­a­logs as well as infor­ma­tion from Coleman’s book and off the web to fig­ure out what vari­eties I wanted to grow, approx­i­mately how much of each veg­etable I wanted, how many plants I needed, how many rows of each veg­etable I wanted to plant, and, there­fore, how many seeds I needed. Then I placed the order. This all took me about a week, and still it felt like mostly guess-work. 

This year I’m going to attempt to grow: beans, beets, brus­sel sprouts, cau­li­flower, cab­bage, car­rots, cel­ery, chard, corn, cucum­ber, egg­plant, fen­nel, all kinds of greens, kale, leeks, peas, pep­pers, parsnips, radishes, squashes, toma­toes, herbs and flow­ers. I got a bunch of dif­fer­ent vari­eties of each veg­etable, so I can really find out what I like and what works best in our cli­mate and soil. 

Now I’m in the process of decid­ing what goes where, and attempt­ing to lay out a plant­ing sched­ule. I have to deter­mine when each seed needs to be planted, and whether it will be planted inside and then trans­planted into the gar­den or seeded directly into the ground. A lot of the veg­eta­bles need to be suc­ces­sion planted as well, that is to say that I will need to be plant­ing them through­out the sea­son to guar­an­tee a con­stant and con­sis­tent har­vest (aka let­tuce, beets, car­rots etc). All of this needs to be care­fully and clearly planned and orga­nized as well. So far being a farmer means mak­ing a lot of charts. 

Things to fig­ure out:

Till­ing sched­ule: when the ground unfreezes we’ll need to till the plot before we can plant it. This is com­pli­cated and involves a lot of machines and trac­tors and knowl­edge. There is also a school that argues that till­ing is not nec­es­sary. More on this later. 
Fenc­ing: we need to fig­ure out how to keep all the rodents, wood­chucks and deer out. This is also dif­fi­cult, and involves deep thought, spend­ing money and pos­si­bly var­i­ous fence erect­ing equip­ment. I’ve been warned that deer can eat your entire crop of her­itage french filet beans in one night. Chill­ing. 
Cover crops: once we fig­ure out what’s wrong with our soil we can deter­mine what kind of none-edible cover crops we should plant in areas that are fal­low (aka. unplanted) in order to add nutri­ents and enrich. 

…and much, much more. 

I hope all this is inter­est­ing to you guys. If you have any ques­tions let me know!


Here’s a pic­ture of the prop­erty with our gen­eral plans. The out­line of the veg­etable gar­den is just approx­i­mate, but in real­ity is going to be about 200 ft by 100 ft (the white area next to the gar­den is a horse ring). 

I’ll include more details about the veg­etable gar­den tonight!

The Beginning

It’s Feb­ru­ary, the ground out­side is cov­ered with 3 feet of snow, and I’m inside sit­ting next to the fire try­ing to pic­ture what tomato plants grow­ing in the mid­dle of Sum­mer will look like. This isn’t the first time I’ve spent a Win­ter after­noon star­ing out the win­dow and dream­ing about warm evenings and tank tops, but it is the first time that the sea­sons and their changes have been so impor­tant to me. It’s the first time I’ve ever sat down with a cal­en­dar and fig­ured out when the last frost is sup­posed to be, and when the ground will be dry. It’s also the first time I’ve thought so much about soil, about nutri­ents and how many earth­worms there are in a square foot of earth. I’ve only been seri­ously plan­ning this small farm­ing enter­prise for a month, and already I feel as if I’m so much more aware of the land around me, even hid­den as it is under­neath all this snow.
The idea of hav­ing a small farm has appealed to me for a long time, but it wasn’t until a cou­ple of months ago that I began to seri­ously con­sider mak­ing this dream a real­ity. It all started when my boyfriend David Erick­son and I moved up from Brook­lyn to his parent’s horse farm in Carlisle, Mass­a­chu­setts at the begin­ning of last Sep­tem­ber. Both of us felt like we needed a change, but we weren’t sure exactly what that change was, and so we decided to take a lit­tle time out and try some new things: a new place, new inter­ests. We spent last fall busy with var­i­ous projects. Dave got a wood shop up and run­ning, we suc­cess­fully roasted a 60 lb pig and I learned a lit­tle about butcher­ing and about grow­ing let­tuce and kale in a green­house. When the new year came, both of us real­ized that we weren’t ready to leave yet, we had become too excited about the prospect of really invest­ing our­selves in the farm. And so, in the sec­ond week of Jan­u­ary 2011, Black Brook Farm Grow­ers was born.
Here we are in Feb­ru­ary. Dave’s gone to New York to work as a set light­ing tech­ni­cian on Board­walk Empire for the next cou­ple of months, in order to make enough money to buy piglets and fenc­ing. Mean­while, I’m liv­ing in Mass­a­chu­setts, where we both grew up, spend­ing my days with seed cat­a­logs. Luck­ily, sur­rounded by both our fam­i­lies, I have no short­age of help and sup­port. My mom, Hasso Ewing, who has worked as a grower and land­scape designer for years (and who has always wanted to farm) is very involved in this project, my dad, Bob Han­nan, is excit­edly design­ing our logo, and Dave’s par­ents, Tom and Tammy Erick­son, have been gen­er­ous enough to give us free reign to use any horse-free fields their prop­erty has to offer, and have really made this all pos­si­ble. We’re going to plant about a half acre of veg­eta­bles, get a cou­ple pigs, increase our flock of lay­ing hens from 9 to 30 and build a mobile chicken trailer for a new flock of pasture-raised meat birds. The plan is to sell veg­eta­bles, eggs and hope­fully some meat weekly at a cou­ple farm­ers mar­kets and see how we like the farm­ing life, and if we’re any good at it.
Enough blog­ging, it’s time to get back to plan­ning about tomato plants in front of the fire.Farming is fun!