It finally happened…

Molting. Yeeeesh.

Molting. Yeeeesh.

It finally happened: the chickens went a day without laying an egg.

Never in all the time since they started laying last fall have they missed a day. They’ve always given up eggs like champs, even through this past winter. During the height of summer, my six birds were averaging five eggs a day, thirty-five eggs – three freaking dozen – a week. Some days I got seven eggs. I couldn’t give away eggs fast enough.

No longer.

“Less than 14 hours of daylight,” said Denis when I mentioned this. “That’s when chickens start slowing down with laying.”

The birds have been slowing down for a couple weeks now, ever since the days started getting shorter. One or two eggs is the new daily count. When they lay.

But here’s what else finally happened: the chickens got ugly.

They’ve started to molt. And just like people, some individual weather the aging process better than others.

New feathers coming in.

New feathers coming in.

My birds are 17 months old, which puts them at just the right age for their first full molt. The decreased daylight during autumn triggered the process. Old feathers are falling out in patches, new feathers will be coming in. Soon, hopefully. The molting is a second major whammy to egg production.

Regrowing feathers demands significant amounts of a chicken’s energy and protein. Resources that are diverted from laying eggs. My birds could be out of the laying game for a couple months of or more, depending on how long the molt takes.

In the meantime, this decreased egg production throws a big wrench in my regular food routine, as well as the food plan for the next several months.

“I’ll get you squared away if you need eggs,” said Denis when I mentioned this.

Food independence is most often the result of growing and raising with your own two hands. But it’s also the result of having friends who can help you out in a pinch.

**
Additional Info:
Denis Lepel, Lakestone Family Farm

Mormino, K.S. (2012, July 27). Molting: what is it and how to help chickens get through it. Retrieved from http://www.grit.com/animals/molting-what-is-it–how-to-help-chickens-get-through-it.aspx#axzz3Habg0PJ4

Categories: chickens, food, weather | Leave a comment

Churning out seeds

Processing Goose Egg eggplants. Not a lemon.

Processing Goose Egg eggplants. Not a lemon.

Today we removed seed from eggplants, Goose Egg and Violetta Lunga varieties.

This is not an easy thing to do by hand, not like peppers or tomatoes. The eggplant seeds are tiny and imbedded in the thick flesh. Could you do it manually? Sure. Is a mechanical process better for efficiency and sanity? Oh yes.

As long as it doesn’t damage the seed in the process.

This is the key consideration when harvesting any type of seed. And you just have to pay attention when getting creative.

Seeds can be incredibly durable when mature. This is actually one way we tell the difference between mature and immature seeds with eggplants. Mature eggplant seed is rock hard when pinched between two fingernails; immature seed is soft, dents easily, and often pops like a little zit.

But mature dry beans are incredibly durable, too. And it required a bit of trial and error to keep them from getting cracked and damaged when threshing with the wood chipper. One batch of Orcas went through beautifully. But the next batch of the very same bean got beat up really bad; we had to adjust the chipper in terms of speed and time-in-the-flails to minimize the damage.

To get the seed out of the eggplants we used a little hand-cranked food mill. Absolutely nothing fancy. And it took a fair bit of jiggering to figure out the best way to use the thing. But once we had a system down, it made short work of the eggplant. No damage at all to the seeds.

The resulting heap of eggplant pulp was dumped in a bucket of water, letting the mature seed sink, and pouring off the rest. Just like with peppers and tomatoes.

The hand-cranked food mill is one of many creative solutions we’ve used to efficiently extract seed. And just another example of the cool shit we get to do on a small seed farm. Some more cool shit for your consideration:

Red Russian Kale and the truck

 

Squash and the wood splitter

 

Sunflowers and the wood chipper

 

Categories: DIY, Finding Fruition, seed | Leave a comment

Gypsy Seeds

Black Garbanzo, Orca, and Scarlet Runner beans.

Black Garbanzo, Orca, and Scarlet Runner beans.

The end of another day on the farm. I arrive home and empty my pockets: keys, knife, wallet, phone.

And seeds.

Cupped in my hand is a little collection of beans that had found their way into my pocket throughout the day.

A diverse little group. Individual beans that had gotten mixed in with others of a completely different sort. Threshing with the wood chipper makes easy work of beans. But things get stuck in nooks and crevices, get spit out with a completely different batch. You suddenly find a bright purple Scarlet Runner mixed in with the sea of Black Cocos lying on the tarp.

I picked up these gypsy beans as I found them. Put them in my pocket in the haste of the work we were doing. Keeping the current batch clean and wholly intending to return each gypsy to it’s own.

But being gypsies they continued to wander, disappearing into the very bottom my pocket. Not to be found until I got home.

Which is what seeds do.

Seeds are meant to travel. They’re meant to spread and put down roots in a completely different location from where they originally grew. Caught up in fur and hair and between toes. Eaten and later returned to the ground in a pile of poop. Blown free of their pod and carried away on the breeze. Seeds must spread to thrive. They can’t all drop from their parent plant and grow in the exact same spot. Nature got this figured out for plants a long time.

And at some point, we animals got involved. We became an effective mode of transportation for seeds. Often willingly and to our own benefit.

That’s really all the farm is: just another mode of animal-based transportation. We grow seeds in one location and share them with home gardeners to plant in another. Not exactly how we’d describe the business; not exactly what gardeners are thinking when they buy.

But animal participation was never about thoughtful consideration for the seeds’ need to travel. It just happened. It was all about the animal: like the fruit, eat the fruit, and poop out the seeds later.

Like the flower, grow the flower, and sell the seeds. Like the flower, buy the seeds, and plant them later.

Exactly what the seeds need. Sneaky.

Just like the beans in my pocket. They made it from the farm to my home. I’ll save them and plant them next season. Or if I decide not to put them in the ground, they’ll be tossed into the compost pile or out into the woods, both places where they could take root. Even if they go into the garbage, the beans will end up in a landfill. Eventually taking root?

Very sneaky.

To keep seeds from doing what they do, you’d have to want to stop them. You’d have to make a focused, purposeful effort to prevent seeds from spreading. Which would be just another exercise in human folly and hubris. But try if you want.

Nature’s got it all figured out. And Nature always wins.

Categories: Finding Fruition, garden, seed, waxing philosophic | Leave a comment

Magic Beans

Iroquois Skunk Bean

Iroquois Skunk Bean

“Have I shown you these special little beans?” asks Petra. In her hands is a single bean pod, brown and paper-dry. She’s just beginning to crack it open as she steps up next to me.

And inside are some of the coolest beans I’ve ever seen.

Of course, I’ve said this about every bean I’ve seen on the farm this season. Scarlet Runners. Chocolate Runners. Snow Cap. Calypso.

And now Iroquois Skunk Beans.

Also called Flagg and Chester, these are pole beans. Growing up to ten feet tall by some accounts. The bean looks like a huge lima bean but isn’t actually a lima. Gail Flagg gets credit for introducing this bean into the mainstream: in the 1970s she was given some by an unnamed farmer in Chester, Vermont. In turn, Gail gave some to Will Bonsall of seed-saving fame. He has since passed them on to others; the beans have also been traded by folks though Seed Savers Exchange. But it’s the Cornplanter Senecas who originally grew this bean in New York and Pennsylvania in the 1800s. Or something extremely similar. They called it a Skunk bean.

Petra presses her hand to her chest, holding some thought close and near to her heart. Her eyes fill with gratitude, as they often do when discussing seeds.

“I just feel so humbled to think about how many generations these beans have been grown by others. And now it’s our turn.”

Chocolate Runner Bean

Chocolate Runner Bean

It’s easy to see why some people are so enthusiastic about beans, collecting them to grow and store. Never missing an opportunity to tell you about their collection. The richness of colors and diversity of patterns make them unique among all other things you could grow in your garden. Flowers might rival the splendor but cannot match the permanence of beans. Hidden in unremarkable brown pods, harvesting beans is always like lifting wonderful little gifts out of a dull box wrapped in brown paper and string. And every bean has a story.

When I had the opportunity, I took every type of bean available for my own collection of seeds. Despite my commitment to keep the home garden small, focused, and limited only to things I enjoy eating. Beans aren’t one of those things. Yet.

It’s a Skunk Bean. How could I pass up something with a name – a look and a story – like that?

Help me out? Historical information about the Iroquois Skunk Bean has been hard to come by so far. That is: nothing much showed up in my Google search. If you have any experience with the bean or know anything about the history, I’d enjoy hearing from you. Much appreciated.

**
Additional Info
Schreiber, T. (2012). Vermont Heirlooms: Plants with (more than one) story to tell. Retrieved from http://localbanquet.com/stories/times-past/item/vermont-heirlooms.

Will Bonsall, Khadighar Farm

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

Taking the insides out

Knife handling skills and a sharp blade are essential.

Knife handling skills and a sharp blade are essential.

“You know how to eviscerate a bird, right?” asks Denis.

I’m standing on the table side of the tarp. Zac has the first two chickens in the scalding water. They’re ready to be plucked.

No, I don’t know how to eviscerate a bird.

Zac has the first two chickens plucked and clean. He hands them over to us.

“Let me show you quick.”

And this is how I learn to take the insides out of a chicken. This is how you learn most things on a farm: about seven seconds before you need to do it. If you’re lucky.

Knife handling skills and a sharp blade are essential to the evisceration process. Economy of movement is how you get through forty birds in a morning, with both the chickens and your fingers in good shape.

I watch Julia remove the head, neck, and feet from the first bird to come through the tarp. Then she slides the carcass across the smooth metal table surface. To me.

Step 1: Remove the oil gland.
Every chicken has a gland just above the tail. The urypogial gland, the preening gland. It produces an oil that the bird uses to keep itself clean and waterproof. And the oil tastes terrible. It could foul the taste of whole bird. Very important to remove the gland.

Step 2: Remove the insides.
There’s an art to doing this with one hand and in a single motion. Making sure not to rupture the gallbladder, which is filled with nasty alien-green bile. Whatever the bile touches is thrown out and we don’t want any bird to be wasted.

Step 3: Separate the heart and liver.
People like eating these. So we save them to bring to market. There’s a skill to putting your fingers in the right place and applying the right pressure when you remove the liver and the heart from the rest of the mass. Again, making sure not to rupture the gallbladder.

Step 4: Get the bird on ice.
There’s a final rinse of the bird, both inside and out. The legs are tucked. Then birds are put in a cooler, submerged in ice and water.

The chickens are market-ready.

A whole lot of learning to do.

A whole lot of learning to do.

It’s not until I’m on my last bird of the morning, with all of the insides heaped in my hand, that I realize I know nothing about chicken anatomy. I can tell you what the heart and liver look like. I can show you the gallbladder. And after just one morning, I can give you their rough geographic location inside the bird. But I’d totally be making things up if I tried to tell you what the rest of the parts are and what they’re all for.

In my hands I’m holding a whole bunch of new learning.

 

**
Additional Info:

Denis Lepel, Lakestone Family Farm, http://lakestonefamilyfarm.com/

Categories: chickens, food, Lakestone | Leave a comment

Good soil? Good enough

Abundant tomatoes. Finally.

Abundant tomatoes. Finally.

The garden this year has been redemptive.

Previous growing has been hindered, stymied and manhandled by weather, late blight, and inexperience. But this year the space has been filled with an abundance of tomatoes and cucumbers, squash and kale. Which is exactly what I had planned.

The garden this year has also been an experiment.

All of my gardens have been experimental so far. It’s unavoidable when you’re just getting started with greater food independence. But unlike those previous gardens, this iteration has been experimental with purpose, intention, and – in the end – success.

All I wanted this year was tomatoes. Big, beautiful, bountiful tomatoes. Last year, late blight snatched away victory when it was within my grasp. And I was trying to do too much, growing lots of things for the sake of growing them and not because I really wanted to eat them. So this year I kept the garden small, focused, and manageable. Just a few beds, just four types of vegetables, up near the house. I got as many transplants as possible from the farm where I work instead of starting from seed.

I built a small collection of raised beds from reclaimed pallets and filled them with “experimental” soil. Maybe soil isn’t even the best term for it—you decide.

I started with a giant pile of dirt that had come out of my workshop when I put in the floor. I also had a pile of “the material formerly known as soil” saved from last year’s container garden. The material in both piles was about as fertile as a parking lot.

I mixed the reclaimed dirt with well-seasoned cow manure. (Free barrels of manure are another perk that come with working on a small farm.) I filled the beds with equal parts manure and dirt, alternating between the two with each bucket-load and mixing with a spade as I went.

I had no idea if this experiment would work. Nothing about this garden looked like the kind of thing you see in coffee table books or glossy magazines about gardening. It was in that moment of reflection that I had a full-blown episode of Tomato Anxiety: a deep-rooted fear that I was going to catastrophically screw up the tomatoes in my garden and end up with nothing. Not a single fruit, much less a bushel or two for canning.

But working on the farm has given me something even better than free manure: the understanding that things don’t have to be perfect to succeed. You don’t have to know everything; you never will. Instead, you just need to know the right things at any given moment in time.

Understand soil basics: Soil is shelter for the roots of a plant. Soil must hold both moisture and air in just the right amounts. It must be an appropriate medium for roots—big and small, deep and shallow—to expand in. Soil is the pantry for plants, a storehouse of food and nutrients. It’s also great if you can establish mycorrhizae as a reliable roommate to help the roots do their nutrient-uptake thing. These were the factors I carefully considered throughout my soil experiment.

Seeds and plants are resilient: Around my property, kale and lettuce and other random lonely plants grow in the lawn where seeds have been dropped. Cucumber transplants tossed into my dump bucket continued growing despite abandonment and neglect; I transferred a couple of the best-looking plants into my experimental bed, and they’ve given me beautiful cukes all season. Plants have been growing and fruiting and reproducing for how many millennia? Something was sure to grow in this experimental soil.

Mitigate transplant shock: Regardless of soil quality, stress is inevitable when moving plants from pot to earth. The trick I used this year was soaking the roots of the transplants with fish emulsion to minimize the shock. It’s a way of patting them on the back and saying, “It’s going to be okay, you can do it.”

Feed regularly: No matter how good your soil is, feeding your plants is always a plus. With the questionable nature of my soil, regular feeding was a no-brainer. Understanding what each element in the N-P-K rating does for a plant was key to smart feeding. Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium: grow up, grow down, grow all the way around. To get the tomato plants established, I used fish emulsion with a higher ratio of phosphorus. Once they were on their way to fruiting, I used fish emulsion with a higher amount of nitrogen and potassium.

The tomatoes speak.

The tomatoes speak.

Good soil doesn’t happen overnight: No amount of money and expertise can produce ideal soil in a single season. It takes an investment of care and attention and chicken manure over several years. It takes keeping the soil continually covered and filled with plant matter. It takes learning about the rhythms and needs of your particular piece of earth over time.

But that wasn’t going to stop me from growing this year. It should never stop anyone. Do what you can, with what you’ve got, right where you are.

The garden was redemptive this year. The soil wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough. I got it right. The tomatoes told me so.

Categories: compost, DIY, food, garden, repurpose | Leave a comment

Saving seeds. Getting burned.

Padrón peppers

Padrón peppers

There are never enough hours in the day to get everything done.

Been saying this sort of thing my entire adult life. But it took working on the farm to really appreciate how true it can be. So sometimes you bring a little work home.

Like five gallons of Padrón peppers to de-seed.

Saving seeds from peppers is easy, not the worse thing to bring home. Especially when you get to keep all the meat from the peppers to eat, freeze, or otherwise incorporate into the pantry. The quirky perks of working on a farm.

It all starts with busting open a pepper: dig your fingers in and rip off the top. If possible, remove the seed cluster with the top. Then rip open the rest of the pepper to get to any remaining seeds. Scrape all the seeds into a pot with enough water to ensure plenty of space for them to separate by sinking and floating.

Mature seeds sink. Immature, poor quality seeds float. Simple.

When all the seeds have settled, start pouring off the floaters. Refill and pour off a few times; be sure to let the seeds settle for about twenty seconds before pouring. I tend to pour the floaters through a mesh colander because sometimes I’ll do a second round of separating with these. Just to make sure I got all the mature seed.

Sinkers and floaters: winners and losers.

Sinkers and floaters: winners and losers.

When all you have is mostly sinkers, spread them out on a screen and give them good airflow. At the farm we have a walk-in drying booth: a series of 4-foot screens shelved in front of a wall of fans. At home, I just use another mesh colander and a single box fan. However you do it, make sure the seeds are spread in as thin a layer as possible. Let them dry for at least a couple days.

For the record: Padrón are hot peppers. Not the hottest we have in inventory but definitely delivering a firm kick to the palate. And any exposed skin.

The smart thing to do is to wear gloves when you process the peppers and seeds. Or be sure to wash your hands afterwards. Immediately. Do not touch your eyes or nose or armpits or other parts of your body after touching Padrón seeds. It burns. For days. Ambushing you from your fingernails and other hidden crevices on your hands. For days, people. Days.

Or so I’ve heard…

Categories: DIY, Finding Fruition, food, food storage, seed | Leave a comment

The Muther of Invention

Jamaican Cucumbers. Awesome.

Jamaican Cucumbers. Awesome.

Necessity is the mother of invention. Creative, quirky, jerry-rigged solutions to the problems that pop up on the farm. Solutions that safety-conscious individuals and agencies would likely frown upon.

Solutions that definitely qualify as “cool shit we get to do on a seed farm”.

This season we’ve been growing Jamaican cucumbers for the first time. The biggest ones fit in the palm of your hand. They’ve got a sweet-ish cucumber taste. Their spiny skins aren’t as tough on the palate as you might think. They definitely rate high on the novelty scale.

They also rate pretty high on the “how the hell do you get the seeds out of these things” scale.

Their small size, rough rinds, and prolific quantities make de-seeding by hand an all-day affair. For several days. A mechanical solution is ideal and preferred.

Enter the wood chipper.

A small, green, 20-year-old wood chipper with a 5 horse engine. Tumbling flails inside the drum for shredding and pulverizing material. A nice big hopper to put the material in and a wide-open underside for ejecting all the material out.

Easy to start. Easy to maintain. And sitting right in out barn, waiting to be put to use.

With the addition of four cinder blocks, a 10-gallon tote, and a make-shift chute, the chipper was cucumber-ready: one block under each wheel, one tote under the chipper, and a chute directing ejected seed into the tote. Most of the seed, anyways.

Not just for wood.

Not just for wood.

Plenty of room for improvement in design but a more than passable solution for the day. None of the seed was damaged by the process. And what would have taken a full work day ended up requiring only fifteen minutes before lunch.

Before heading in, we filled the tote of cucumber seeds with enough water for things to start floating. Then left it to sit and ferment for several days to clean the anti-germination gel from the seeds. If left alone, the cukes would do the same thing all on their own: the fruit would drop from the plants, rot and begin to ferment, cleaning the seeds.

But that would take weeks.

Nature don’t have a wood chipper.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, repurpose, seed | Leave a comment

Pluckin’

Making sure birds are treated well in both life and death.

Making sure birds are treated well in both life and death.

Today I started learning how to process chickens. How to turn bird into barbeque.

Denis let me take an entry-level position in his processing tent: plucker.

It sounds like a laborious and old-fashioned job, but there’s a machine. It’s a half-barrel with rubber fingers all across the inside surface, like a giant scrub brush turned outside-in. The floor of the plucker is covered with the same fingers and spins, powered by a small electric motor. Twenty seconds in the barrel and a bird is clean of feathers. Much faster than plucking by hand.

“I think the fastest time for plucking a bird by hand is four seconds,” says Zac, checking the temperature of a giant pot of water. “Of course, I can’t vouch for the source. Just something I googled.”

The tent is divided by a clean blue tarp. On one side the birds are killed and cleaned. On the other side their heads and feet are removed, their insides are taken out; they become what most people expect to see as food.

Plucking is cleaning, which puts me on the same side of the tarp as Zac. He handles the killing, two birds at a time. He soaks the carcasses in the pot of scalding water, to relax the skin. Then he hands the birds to me.

Two at a time, I clean them and then hand them to Denis and Julia on the other side of the tarp.

Forty chickens this morning, in a just a couple hours. It is a fast-paced process.

It’s also a heavy process. Emotionally.

Someone needs to do it, right?

Someone needs to do it, right?

“I had a hard time doing this the first few times,” says Denis from the other side. He had read some books, attended a conference. He thought he was ready. Then he worked on his first farm. “It was a very emotional experience for me, killing chickens.”

“I actually don’t like killing as many birds as we do in a morning,” says Zac. “But I guess I’m willing to make that emotional sacrifice.”

Forty birds means food for forty families. High quality food from animals that have been treated well in both life and death. Processed in a way that provides an alternative to the agro-industrial farm model. Someone needs to do it, right?

“At least this way the chickens are part of a closed system,” says Julia. Chicken parts not sold for food are composted. The compost is used on the expansive beds of vegetables that Denis grows for market. Vegetable scraps and rejects from the field are fed to the chickens. A closed system.

I’m still new to this, maybe the heaviness will change. Maybe it won’t.

“I always say a little something for the birds before getting started,” says Zac.

Like a prayer?

“Something like that.” He shrugs. “If that makes a difference.”

Of course it does.

**
Additional Info:

Denis Lepel, Lakestone Family Farm, http://lakestonefamilyfarm.com/

Categories: chickens, food, Lakestone | Leave a comment

Seed Greed

“Seeds will make you a thief… I steal seeds in the hopes of surrounding myself with a bewildering and awesome universe of plant life.”
– Janisse Ray, The Seed Underground

The limits of my seed greed.

The limits of my seed greed.

“You should take a look to see if you want any of those seeds.”

Matthew was pointing to a cardboard box on a table in the corner, a random assortment of bags spilling over the sides.

“We’re cleaning out the cooler. It’s stuff we don’t need to keep.”

This is another of the unique perks of working on a seed farm: free seed coming your way. High quality seed. Interesting seed. Seed you’ve never seen before, maybe most people haven’t seen before. Maybe never will see in a catalog anywhere.

I don’t know if Janisse Ray is right. I don’t know if seeds will make you a thief. But they definitely fire up a key cardinal sin: greed.

It’s easy to get over-enthusiastic digging through a box of seeds like this. The look of the beans alone make you want to grab them all. You start thinking to yourself, “I’ll definitely grow an entire field of anise hyssop next season.”

No I won’t.

And so I set limits, mostly choosing only things I want to eat. Varieties I know I will take care of.

An almost-empty packet of Black Zebra tomatoes, “a cross between a Green Zebra and a Black tomato.” Half used packets of cucumbers: Bush Pickling, National Pickling, and Little Leaf. A giant ziplock bag of cilantro. A dime-bag of basil. Lemon queen sunflowers and barley, two varieties I want to grow for chicken feed as well as cover crop.

And I took the beans, every last one. Beans leftover from a collector who gave them to us. Calypso, Dolloff, May Flower and Annelino Giallo.

I brought them all home. Sealed them in glass jars. Made sure they were labeled. Stored them in the back, bottom corner of the refrigerator.

And started dreaming of next season.

Categories: Finding Fruition, food, garden, seed | Leave a comment

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