And he’d given up on ecology when the ecology magazine he’d been subscribing to had shown its readers a plan of a self-sufficient garden, and had drawn the ecological goat tethered within three feet of the ecological beehive. Newt had spent a lot of time at his grandmother’s house in the country and thought he knew something about the habits of both goats and bees, and concluded therefore that the magazine was run by a bunch of bib-overalled maniacs.From Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
I was listening to Good Omens again after reading it a few years ago, and I appreciated the quote above. It sums up my jaded feelings about a lot of books and articles on ecology and agriculture.
While moving my desk I found some notes I made about ten years back when I was preparing to jump into farming. Back then I was scouring out-of-print books for information on how pigs and chickens were raised before industrialization. My goals were worthy enough, but what a sucker I was for impractical ideas. So many unmanageable, unscalable, unachievable ideas…
One thing I didn’t appreciate was how many “experts” are actually only vocal novices. It was true in the old books and it remains true. Perhaps it is a little worse these days because the barriers to broadcasting ideas are lower. So much of the advice for farmers is based on people’s expectations of how the system should work, not built on years of experience. In one particularly egregious example I recently read, the author hadn’t even started his farm before he wrote his book the farm he planned on establishing.
I’ve come to appreciate experienced farmers more. Even if their practices aren’t fully compatible with mine, they embody a deep and hard-won wisdom. Often the agriculture of the possible is the only sustainable agriculture. Many of the people who were loud voices in ecological agriculture ten years ago are no longer farming. I’d like to make it to the ten year mark, and beyond. Maybe I’ll last to the point where I can be the crusty old grouch who has a few well-tested ideas worth listening to.
We had a bulldozer in yesterday cutting a couple of terraces on the steep hill behind the house, making room for a few new chicken brooders. If I could have all the money I’ve spent on terracing over the years, I could buy about four extra acres of flat land. But extra acres aren’t on the market, so we’ve got to make use of the land we have.
After creating the terraces, we dumped and spread six loads of gravel, moved two shipping containers into position, and graded the area to make room for the new chicken brooders. The smaller shipping container will be used as a storage shed for all things poultry related, such as spare parts for feeders, water lines, extra hose fittings, etc. Implementing better systems for organizing supplies and equipment is a high priority for this year.
We’ve been revamping our home delivery options and we’re glad to announce a few big changes. Many customers have trouble meeting us at specific dates and times for neighborhood deliveries, so we’re trying to make home delivery more convenient. Here’s the summary:
- Free home delivery on all orders over $99. Orders under $99 will have a $9.99 flat fee, which is also lower than our previous fee.
- Two delivery dates every week. Packages will arrive Wednesdays and Fridays except when there are conflicts with holidays.
- We are now including eggs in home delivery. Because of the custom packaging to protect them, our home delivery options will include packs of 2, 4, 6, 9, or 15 dozen eggs since those are the size packages that work with our shipping materials.
If you are one of our Neighborhood Delivery customers and you’d like to switch to Home Delivery, you may do that by choosing Home Delivery at checkout. The shopping cart may ask you to remove the eggs from your current order and to add them again. If you have any questions about the process, send me an email and I’ll help you out.
The first chicks of the season should be here on Thursday. To prepare for their arrival we’ve been running shakedown testing on our newest chicken brooder. A brooder is a controlled environment where chicks spend their first few weeks until they develop the ability to regulate their own body heat, after which time they can go out to pasture.
Every year I end up building new brooders, both to accommodate larger flocks and to overcome design flaws in earlier models. I’m feeling pleased with what I’m seeing in this setup, but I know from past experience that by the end of this season I’ll have ideas for improvements. An expensive departure from previous designs is the addition of an auger-driven feed line. I haven’t used one before and so I’m not sure if it makes sense, but I felt like a limited trial in a brooder would be a good opportunity to dip a toe in the water.
We’ve made some tremendous progress over the years in chicken comfort, energy efficiency, and feed efficiency. My goal for this year is to improve operational efficiency, allowing us to achieve more with less grunt work. I don’t want to spend less time with the chickens, but I want to spend less time carrying things and more time observing the birds.
Last year a Canada Goose couple adopted our pond as their nesting site. We see large flocks of geese passing through, but this is the first breeding pair that have settled here. The pond is still iced over, but a few inches of open water are now showing around most of the perimeter. Soon enough they’ll be swimming in open water.
We keep an old bale of hay on top of the connections for the pond’s siphon plumbing as insulation, and the geese used the bale last year as their nest. The goose sat on the eggs for two months, then finally abandoned them in June after they failed to hatch. I’m curious how successful they’ll be this year. Perhaps the gander is sterile, or perhaps the goose wasn’t sitting on the eggs consistently enough. Canada Geese normally mate monogamously for life, so if this couple has fertility problems I’m wondering if they’ll keep trying the same routine year after year.
As the snow releases its grip on the fields, the laying hens are ranging farther afield each day. There are tantalizing little hints of green among the brown thatch of grass. It is instructive to watch the hens forage at this time of year. Surprisingly, their first objective isn’t to eat all the tiny green shoots. They actually are eating a lot of the old dead grass. But their favorite thing is to scratch through matted leaves and sticks that have been plastered to the ground all winter. Under the leaves they find the first insects and worms of the season. It looks to me like they are eating wispy fungal strands, although it is hard to be sure because they go after everything so quickly. That all makes sense as something deep inside their bird brain reaches back to their jungle fowl ancestry.
This year I’m making efforts to approach our farming operations more systematically to make things easier on everyone. Chicken production is the focus since that’s where we’re putting the most work these days, and that’s where things have always been the most chaotic.
I finished wiring the newest chicken brooder trailer today. Our brooders have evolved steadily, but the system for controlling heaters, ventilation, cooling fans, and lighting schedules has gotten out of hand. I’m adding more electric controls to the system, but in doing so my goal is to reduce the complexity of the daily workload. In our other brooders things are so tricky that I am the only one who knows how to work all the doodads, and sometimes I stump myself. I want to make it something that AJ can easily handle with daily checklists and that he can maintain when I’m away from the farm. All the controls will be labeled and each checklist will have the settings for the chicks at their stage of life for that specific day. Since we are using automation, I also am planning for overrides or workarounds in case any of the controllers fail.
In the course of planning out the control system, I realized that one important requirement in making the brooders easy to operate was putting knobs on all devices. Too many timers, thermostats, lighting controllers, etc., are moving away from knobs to LED/LCD screen readouts. The problem is that each device uses some weird programming sequence, and no two devices use the same sequence. Hold down the PRG key for 5 seconds, then scroll through a bunch of forgettable abbreviations, then hold down the RUN key for 2 seconds to set the program. Wait, was I supposed to hold down PRG again before RUN? Just checking the temperature settings can require pressing ten key strokes. This is stupid.
Knobs are just a far better interface for this application. If today I need to set the brooder thermostat to 90 degrees, I don’t need to study a manual to understand the keystrokes; I just point the knob’s arrow at 90. In two days when the chicks need less heat, I can twist it back to 85. Simple. Easily remembered. Easily verified. Easily communicated. Perfect.
Also, for the daily almanac, we all enjoyed being outside on an extraordinarily warm day. I chopped a path in the ice at the bridge to ensure that the meltwater had a place to go. The ice and water was up to 3 inches from the underside of the bridge and I was concerned that it might wash the bridge out. After I got a channel carved in the ice, the rushing water cleared a path and after a few hours dropped the water level to a safer height. Later, because the weather was so warm I was able to caulk the leaks in the brooders’ roof. The kids climbed up too. I’m not sure what there is about a roof, but roofs demand to be climbed upon. Maybe it is something about the new perspective. Everything looks different when standing on a roof.
I’ve had Townes Van Zandt’s rendition of Dead Flowers stuck in my head all day, ever since I came across a patch of dried Black Eyed Susans in the hay I was feeding the cattle. I suppose the combination of the dead flowers and the “little Susie” reference made the connection inevitable. There are a bunch of other Black Eyed Susan songs in the folksy or rootsy that could have been contenders, but today Dead Flowers just seemed to demand that I keep humming it as I fed the cattle and worked on the chicken brooder. Perhaps writing this post will finally get it out of my system.
Flowers are typically more broken up by mowing, raking, and baling, but I was surprised to find dozens of intact specimens in this bale. Hay bales are time capsules, archives of the plants that were growing at a particular season and place. They vary from field to field and even within the same field. Seeing these colors, faded as they are, provided a little boost of expectation for the coming summer when we’ll be surrounded by blooms. Winter is great, but summer is always better.
Last fall we tried a small batch of beef sticks and we completely underestimated just how popular they’d be. We sold out in a few weeks.
We’ve restocked with a bigger stock of beef sticks. We also tried a small test run of a slightly spicier beef stick. Individual sticks and ten-packs are listed on the storefront here.
The beef sticks are produced with traditional charcuterie techniques using lactic acid starter cultures and allowing the meat to ferment briefly. This is the same bacterial fermentation process employed when starter cultures are used to make sauerkraut, pickles, or yogurt. Meat doesn’t have much in the way of available carbohydrates so we need to add sugar to feed the bacteria. As the sugar is consumed it is converted into lactic acid, that pleasantly sour taste we crave in our favorite fermented foods. The combination of lactic acid and salt, along with the smoking and progressive air drying processes that follow, make the beef sticks naturally shelf stable without the need for any nitrates or other chemical preservatives.