Free Range

Alright, as usu­al these days I don’t have a lot of time, so I’m going to jump right in…

With the addi­tion of a new back­yard dog fence, we’ve final­ly been able to let our lay­er hens real­ly free range. We’ve been putting the dogs away mid after­noon every day and our chick­ens have been wan­der­ing around as they please.
free chick­en!
Our dark cor­nish chicks are get­ting real­ly big and are almost ready to go out into the chick­en trac­tor. We’ve moved the chick­en trac­tor out into the pas­ture with the pigs and Dav­e’s been mak­ing improve­ments, more on that later.

Mean­while, despite some pret­ty crazy weath­er this June — 90 degrees one day and then 50 degrees, cold and rainy for the next five (thanks glob­al warm­ing!) — the gar­den is look­ing good.

Teepees for pole beans, and in the top right hand cor­ner you can see where we’ve cov­ered the kale with row cov­ers — to keep pests away
Despite a rough stretch after trans­plant­i­ng (you can see that the low­er leaves look kind of unhealthy) the new growth on this egg­plant looks great!
baby pak cho
a very hap­py look­ing toma­to plant
…and baby tomatoes!
brus­sel sprouts

There’s so much going on here every­day that I’ve had a hard time keep­ing up. I real­ized that I’d for­got­ten to men­tion that we’ve been sell­ing at the Carlisle farmer’s mar­ket all this month! It’s been a slow start to the sea­son for us, most­ly because we were so behind till­ing the field, but we’ve man­aged to have enough greens and eggs to hold our own. This last Sat­ur­day we had sug­ar snap peas, beets, let­tuce, herbs, flow­ers and straw­ber­ry-mul­ber­ry and goat-cheese and dill scones.

We’ve also been sell­ing our deli­cious eggs to a restau­rant in town, 80 Thore­au, where they’re fea­tured on their farm sal­ad. See the menu here.
This week­end we’re going to be one of the ven­dors at Old Home Day in Carlisle. In addi­tion to our rapid­ly grow­ing pro­duce selec­tion and scones, we’re also hope­ful­ly going to be sell­ing some of Dav­e’s fresh­ly baked bread. Come vis­it us if you can!
Love­ly lit­tle sour­dough loaves being proofed

The Three Sisters

Dave and I final­ly got around to plant­i­ng some­thing in the far field today. Even though we wake up at the crack of dawn, it nev­er seems like the days are long enough.

We want­ed to try grow­ing a lit­tle bit of corn this year, just to see how it goes. In my per­ma­cul­ture (per­ma­cul­ture: a sys­tem of cul­ti­va­tion intend­ed to main­tain per­ma­nent agri­cul­ture or hor­ti­cul­ture by rely­ing on renew­able resources and a self-sus­tain­ing ecosys­tem) book I’ve been read­ing about cre­at­ing poly cul­tures, or in oth­er words, com­pan­ion plant­i­ng. The idea is that instead of main­tain­ing clas­si­cal­ly straight and monot­o­nous rows of one kind of plant, you mix veg­eta­bles togeth­er that are mutu­al­ly ben­e­fi­cial. One of the most famous guilds (plant com­bi­na­tions) is the Native Amer­i­can “three sis­ters”: corn, beans and squash. The corn cre­ates a trel­lis for the beans, the beans fix nitro­gen in the soil and improve it, and the squash cov­ers the ground and inhibits weeds. Togeth­er, these three plants cre­ate a bet­ter prod­uct, using less space and requir­ing less effort.

                                                                                         The Legend:

?nce upon a time very long ago, there were three sis­ters who lived togeth­er in a field. These sis­ters were quite dif­fer­ent from one anoth­er in their size and also in their way of dress­ing. One of the three was a lit­tle sis­ter, so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The sec­ond of the three wore a frock of bright yel­low, and she had a way of run­ning off by her­self when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third was the eldest sis­ter, stand­ing always very straight and tall above the oth­er sis­ters and try­ing to guard them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yel­low hair that tossed about her head in the breezes.
There was only one way in which the three sis­ters were alike. They loved one anoth­er very dear­ly, and they were nev­er sep­a­rat­ed. They were sure that they would not be able to live apart.
After awhile a stranger came to the field of the three sis­ters, a lit­tle Indi­an boy. He was as straight as an arrow and as fear­less as the eagle that cir­cled the sky above his head. He knew the way of talk­ing to the birds and the small broth­ers of the earth, the shrew, the chip­munk, and the young fox­es. And the three sis­ters, the one who was just able to crawl, the one in the yel­low frock, and the one with the flow­ing hair, were very much inter­est­ed in the lit­tle Indi­an boy. They watched him fit his arrow in his bow, saw him carve a bowl with his stone knife, and won­dered where he went at night.
Late in the sum­mer of the first com­ing of the Indi­an boy to their field, one of the three sis­ters dis­ap­peared. This was the youngest sis­ter in green, the sis­ter who could only creep. She was scarce­ly able to stand alone in the field unless she had a stick to which she clung. Her sis­ters mourned for her until the fall, but she did not return.
Once more the Indi­an boy came to the field of the three sis­ters. He came to gath­er reeds at the edge of a stream near­by to make arrow shafts. The two sis­ters who were left watched him and gazed with won­der at the prints of his moc­casins in the earth that marked his trail.
That night the sec­ond of the sis­ters left, the one who was dressed in yel­low and who always want­ed to run away. She left no mark of her going, but it may have been that she set her feet in the moc­casin tracks of the lit­tle Indi­an boy.
Now there was but one of the sis­ters left. Tall and straight she stood in the field not once bow­ing her head with sor­row, but it seemed to her that she could not live there alone. The days grew short­er and the nights were cold­er. Her green shawl fad­ed and grew thin and old. Her hair, once long and gold­en, was tan­gled by the wind. Day and night she sighed for her sis­ters to return to her, but they did not hear her. Her voice when she tried to call to them was low and plain­tive like the wind.
But one day when it was the sea­son of the har­vest, the lit­tle Indi­an boy heard the cry­ing of the third sis­ter who had been left to mourn there in the field. He felt sor­ry for her, and he took her in his arms and car­ried her to the lodge of his father and moth­er. Oh what a sur­prise await­ed here there! Her two lost sis­ters were there in the lodge of the lit­tle Indi­an boy, safe and very glad to see her. They had been curi­ous about the Indi­an boy, and they had gone home with him to see how and where he lived. They had liked his warm cave so well that they had decid­ed now that win­ter was com­ing on to stay with him. And they were doing all they could to be useful.
The lit­tle sis­ter in green, now quite grown up, was help­ing to keep the din­ner pot full. The sis­ter in yel­low sat on the shelf dry­ing her­self, for she planned to fill the din­ner pot lat­er. The third sis­ter joined them, ready to grind meal for the Indi­an boy. And the three were nev­er sep­a­rat­ed again.
Every child of today knows these sis­ters and needs them just as much as the lit­tle Indi­an boy did. For the lit­tle sis­ter in green is the bean. Her sis­ter in yel­low is the squash, and the elder sis­ter with long flow­ing hair of yel­low and the green shawl is the corn.
–A Mohawk leg­end
First, Dave and I marked off a 20 by 25 foot space in the sec­ond field, and then divid­ed it into six 20 foot rows with stakes and string.

Then, we marked the string every 5 feet to sig­nal where to cen­ter our mounds. Mound­ing the soil is the tra­di­tion­al way to plant the three sis­ters, at least in this cli­mate and soil, because it allows for bet­ter drainage. We stag­gered the spac­ing in adja­cent rows. Before shap­ing the mounds, we dug a lit­tle hole and buried fish car­cass­es from my mom’s freez­er (you may remem­ber from Amer­i­can His­to­ry class that this was anoth­er Native Amer­i­can trick). Then, a scoop of com­post on top of that, and then, final­ly, we raked the mounds.
That’s a floun­der, in case you can’t tell.
Dave is 1/32 Chero­kee, in case you can’t tell
The Final Product!
It’s hard to take good pic­ture of dirt.
In each mound we plant­ed four corn seeds, 6 inch­es apart. The got a cou­ple nice, soft sum­mer rains this after­noon so hope­ful­ly they’re off to a good start. We’ll wait to plant the beans and squash until the corn is a lit­tle bit big­ger, so the fast grow­ing vines don’t over­whelm the lit­tle seedling.


Chicken Processing Day (caution: not suitable for the faint of heart, or for vegetarians)

So it’s been a pret­ty excit­ing and busy week in a lot of ways, but for now I’m just going to focus on what hap­pened in the poul­try world. 

We processed our Cor­nish X chick­ens last Thurs­day (which is a polite way of say­ing that we slaugh­tered and dressed them). These chick­ens have been quite a hand­ful. Despite our best efforts, we’ve lost about a third of them over the last eight weeks. A hand­ful died as chicks, either because they were weak or got smoth­ered. Then, about a week after we put them out­side, we had a very cold and rainy stretch towards the end of May. We think they were weak­ened by the bad weath­er, and that con­tributed to a num­ber of them get­ting sick, most like­ly from a par­a­site called coc­cidia (we noticed bloody stool in their pen). Then, only two days from our sched­uled chick­en pro­cess­ing date, we had an excep­tion­al­ly warm Tues­day and the chick­ens over­heat­ed. We went down to check on them after  lunch to find over a half dozen dead or dying. It was heart-breaking.

These inci­dents aren’t very easy for me or Dave to talk about. We are respon­si­ble for these ani­mals, and when they die there is no deny­ing that it is usu­al­ly almost entire­ly our fault. Most­ly, we make our­selves feel bet­ter by telling each oth­er how we will nev­er make the same mis­takes again — hope­ful­ly this is true. At the same time, we are get­ting bet­ter at cop­ing with the feel­ing of loos­ing one of our ani­mals. There’s a cliche about how liv­ing on a farm brings you clos­er to under­stand­ing and accept­ing death — so far, this is true.

In this case, how­ev­er, there is no deny­ing that it was­n’t just our inex­pe­ri­ence that caused so many of these chick­ens to die. For our first exper­i­ment with meat birds we decid­ed to get all Cor­nish X chicks, one of the most pop­u­lar breeds of meat chick­en. The Cor­nish X is bred to grow fast and large, which in turn makes them less hardy than oth­er birds. Through­out the eight weeks we spent with these chick­ens, we could­n’t help but to feel a lit­tle depressed about how help­less they seemed. Cor­nish Xs have a low­er sur­vival rate than oth­er breeds of chick­en, they suf­fer from leg prob­lems and weak hearts, and due to their weight they are very inac­tive. We have vowed from now on to only buy her­itage breed chick­ens. They might take longer to grow and may nev­er get as big (and they con­tain less white meat, and more dark meat, which is okay with me), but Dave and I have agreed that we want to raise birds with bet­ter instincts. Our new chicks are all Free­dom Rangers and Dark Cor­nish­es.

As we stood and stared and swore at those sev­en dead chick­ens on Tues­day, I felt both guilt and anger. Look at how much food was being wast­ed! These were our biggest chick­ens (which prob­a­bly explains why the heat gave them heart-attacks), they had been gorg­ing them­selves on our expen­sive organ­ic chick­en food for eight weeks! They prob­a­bly totaled 40 lbs of deli­cious organ­ic pas­ture raised chick­en meat, and they were being thrown into the compost!

It was, by far, the worst day we’ve had to date.

By prop­ping up one side of the chick­en trac­tor to facil­i­tate a cross breeze, and run­ning an exten­sion cord out from the house to the pen and set­ting up a fan, we were able to keep the chick­ens cool through the rest of the after­noon and into Wednes­day, which was 95 degrees. Need­less to say, we’re plan­ning on mak­ing some changes to the tractor.

Wednes­day night we went to bed ear­ly. Dave woke up at 3:30 AM to get the scalder going, and then woke me up at 4:30 so I could help him fin­ish set­ting up. The fore­cast Thurs­day said that tem­per­a­tures were sup­posed to be near 100 degrees F, which we were pre­pared for, but we weren’t pre­pared for the thun­der­storms that con­sis­tent­ly rolled through all day. Luck­i­ly, we had a tent for the farm­ers mar­ket that pro­vid­ed just enough shel­ter for the five of us (Dave, me, my mom and two friends) to stay most­ly dry.

Dave cut up two traf­fic cones and built a stand for them, so we could safe­ty hold the chick­ens upside-down while they bled out. To pluck the birds, we bor­rowed the scalder and the pick­er from anoth­er farm in town. The scalder fills with water and holds it at con­sis­tent­ly 147 degrees F, which is hot enough to loosen the feath­ers on the bird with­out cook­ing it. When we test­ed it out on Tues­day, the scalder took an unbe­liev­ably long time to heat up, so Dave built an insu­lat­ing wood­en box to fit around it to help it reach and hold its tem­per­a­ture.  The pick­er is a cylin­dri­cal spin­ning machine that is filled with lit­tle rub­ber fin­gers. When the scald­ed bird is placed inside, the rub­ber fin­gers pick off all its feath­ers. The pick­er is attached to a hose so the feath­ers can all be washed out the back as the bird spins. The next step, the evis­cer­at­ing, was done by hand.

Both Mom and I have done a cou­ple pro­cess­ing days with Pete and Jen’s Back­yard Birds in Con­cord, Dave and I have been doing a lot of read­ing and I’ve dealt with my fair share of chick­ens and knives work­ing in the food indus­try, so I felt con­fi­dent that we could process these birds safe­ty and clean­ly. We made sure to keep all our sur­faces hosed down and san­i­tized, and we got the dressed chick­ens iced as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. Pro­cess­ing chick­ens is time-con­sum­ing and sticky work, but it was reward­ing to know that we were final­ly pro­duc­ing our own meat.

Which brings me to my next point: when the chick­ens died need­less­ly because of a mis­take that I made I felt awful, but when we killed them our­selves them on Thurs­day I felt noth­ing but con­fi­dence in the fact that we were doing the right thing. Yes, it’s hard to slit a chick­ens throat, and yes, it can be kind of dis­gust­ing to gut it, but we had raised these chick­ens as humane­ly as pos­si­ble, and we killed them as humane­ly as well, and if I’m going to be eat­ing meat I feel as if this is some­thing that I should know about and experience.

With that in mind:

CAUTION: some of these pic­tures are vio­lent and there is also some blood.


Check­ing the tem­per­a­ture on the scald­ing box. We bor­rowed the box and the pluck­er from a farmer cou­ple we know in town. Thank god, it would have been a pret­ty impos­si­ble task with­out them.
The chick­ens we hung upside in the cones and Dave slit their throats and then let them bleed out into the buckets.
Then we scald­ed them for about a minute.
Then they went into the pick­er, which spins the chicken
Next, we cut off their feet and heads and evis­cer­at­ed the birds.  This is done by cut­ting a hole around the chick­en’s vent and extract­ing their diges­tive sys­tem, heart, liv­er and lungs.
Heads and guts

After we were fin­ished we imme­di­ate­ly put the chick­ens into an ice bath to cool them down. Then, we went back over them with pli­ers and a hose to pluck out any stub­born feath­ers and do qual­i­ty con­trol (dou­ble check to make sure all the birds were prop­er­ly gut­ted) before dry­ing them off and bag­ging them up to go into either the refrig­er­a­tor or the freezer.

We’ve grilled three chick­ens to date and they have all been delicious.

My last week in pictures


Installing the irri­ga­tion system
The trans­plant­i­ng begins! Lettuce…
Toma­toes, toma­toes, tomatoes!
The trel­lis­es start going in (thanks to Bob Hannan)
The egg­plants must be cov­ered to pro­tect against bugs and wind
And this morn­ing, baby chicks! Dark Cor­nish­es, they look like lit­tle tigers

Pigs on Pasture!

The pigs are graz­ing, root­ing, sniff­ing, and explor­ing their new pas­ture. They are so hap­py I can’t describe it in words. As soon as I released them from their tem­po­rary train­ing pen, they start­ed eager­ly explor­ing the whole area and soon were run­ning and run­ning all over the place. Its a tru­ly beau­ti­ful sight.

Tran­si­tion­ing the pigs to pas­ture took some plan­ning and prepa­ra­tion, but in the end it went very smooth­ly. After I got their A‑frame sit­u­at­ed in the field, I built a tem­po­rary pen for elec­tric fence train­ing. I pound­ed some U‑posts into the ground and then just built up some walls with skids and old boards. It was not very pret­ty, but it was easy to set up and it served its purpose.

I built three sides of the pen and then set up the elec­tric net­ting as the fourth wall. Then I set up more boards on the oth­er side of the net­ting. This is the secret to train­ing pigs to the fence. Pigs don’t have the best eye­sight so the thin strands of the net­ting are eas­i­ly missed. Putting up a phys­i­cal bar­ri­er behind the net serves two pur­pos­es. It helps them see the net­ting bet­ter and it pre­vents them from barg­ing through the net­ting in pan­ic when they first get shocked, which is often their instinc­tu­al reaction.

When the day final­ly arrived for the big move, I put up some tem­po­rary ply­wood sides on the bed of my pick-up truck and filled it with hay. Then I backed it right up to their pen in the barn­yard and my dad posi­tioned him­self in the truck while Gal­lagher and I caught the pig­gies one by one and hand­ed them up to him. Gal­lagher used a 4x4 piece of ply­wood to help herd the pigs into a cor­ner and then I swooped in and grabbed a hind leg. The pigs are about 50 lbs. now I would guess–I won’t be able to pick them up pret­ty soon! Pick­ing them up by the a hind leg is the best way to do it. It does­n’t hurt them and they don’t strug­gle very much as soon as you have them in the air, but they do scream. They’re not in any pain, but they scream bloody mur­der. Its so loud it real­ly does hurt your ears. And then the sec­ond you set them down on their feet again and let go, they stop.
We got them all in the truck very quick­ly and they stood calm­ly for their slow ride out to pas­ture­land. We backed the truck up to the pen and did the exact oppo­site maneu­ver. All of them got a shock from the fence with­in sec­onds of explor­ing their new space and quick­ly learned to avoid that wall as they went about rip­ping up the grass and root­ing around for bugs.
Soon they were right at home. They were in the pen for two days to make sure they had been trained, then this morn­ing I took down the walls and let them roam. As they explored the pad­dock, just like the rap­tors in Juras­sic Park, they each test­ed the fence in a few places, got a shock, let out a brief yelp, and scur­ried back in the oth­er direc­tion. What smart pigs! I’m so proud of them.