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.


VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED.


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.
Intestines
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…
Egg­plants…
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.