Yesterday evening I went down to the laying hens to help Harry bring up the eggs he gathered. As I was putting the cases of eggs into the truck, I heard this sharp snap, snap, snap behind me. I turned to find a group of hens in a feeding frenzy on a patch of bare ground. On closer inspection, I saw that they were eating tiny white larvae. And the larvae weren’t just scrunching or wriggling along the ground like normal maggots, grubs, or caterpillars; these things were launching themselves two feet into the air. They were less than a half inch long with no external parts visible to my eye. They move themselves by snapping their bodies with an audible click, and arcing up into the air. It didn’t seem to me that they were projecting their motion in any particular direction, rather they seemed to be just popcorning all over the place, probably just opportunistically hoping to find a good place to escape the hens.
It turns out that these little guys are the larval stage of the cheese skipper fly (aka ham skipper). In reading up on them, I learned that people dealt with this fly frequently in per-refrigeration times when they discovered that it liked to lay its eggs in cheeses and meat, and then a couple weeks later the piece of (now rotten) food would have little white things blasting out of it in all directions. After reading about them, I’m surprised I haven’t encountered them before. It seems like I out to have seen them in dead animals I’ve found in the woods, but maybe I just haven’t been paying enough attention to decomposing things.
So what were the larvae feeding on? Chicken feed. Two weeks ago we had a problem with one of the chicken feeders. The lip was too low and it spilled about 100 lbs of feed. I tried to clean it up, but there was still a lot of feed left in the grass. Then it rained for a few days, caking it all into a nice mess that apparently was an ideal habitat for cheese skippers. I inadvertently created a two-stage feeding system for chickens, feeding chicken feed to skippers and then feeding the skippers to the chickens. That’s terribly inefficient from the entropic standpoint, but I don’t think the chickens mind. They prefer live bugs over peas, sunflower seeds, and corn any chance they can get them.
Once the chickens figured out what was going on, they began tearing through the capped layer of spoiled feed to get at the larvae, which were all in a concentrated layer about one inch below the surface. Feathers flew. Larvae leaped. Chickens chortled.
One thing we appreciate about turkeys is their suitability for herding. Just judging by their body shape, we might expect them simply to act like bigger versions of chickens. Turkeys and chickens are only distant relations in the larger pheasant family, so it isn’t surprising that they express their flocking instincts quite differently. Even though they bear strong resemblances, they are very different birds.
Moving turkeys across open pasture is far easier than trying to accomplish the same task with chickens. Chickens scatter in all directions, and even with a crew of people, it normally takes three or four tries before the laying hens can be moved from one pasture to another. Whenever possible, we wait until night to move the hens, so we can move them when they are roosting in their wagon. Turkeys (with perhaps the exception of the first time moving them) always go in one big group without any drama.
Allie does all the daily the turkey chores, so they are imprinted on her and will willingly follow her anywhere. They don’t know me as well, so I work better behind the flock, driving them. I don’t need to any cowboy shouting, just following behind while making large arm motions is enough to keep the stragglers on the move. We spent about an hour moving fences, feeders, water lines, and the shelter trailer, so it is almost anticlimactic when the actual turkey move takes thirty seconds. Not that we mind it when things go well…
At lunchtime I went out to give the farm a checkup, and as I passed the small pond I saw a crow partially submerged in the water. It seemed in distress, flailing its wings but not making progress toward the shore. It wasn’t squawking, just opening its beak periodically without vocalizing.
I made a decision to intervene. It wasn’t a studied decision, just a spur of the moment action. I don’t try to interfere with every wounded animal, but I hate to see protracted suffering if it can be prevented with a little intervention.
I grabbed two plastic fence posts and slurp-slopped my way through the mudflat around the pond until I could get one post under the crow and the other over it, chopstick style. I pulled on the crow, but it didn’t come easily. So I gave a heave and the crow came out, along with about 20 pounds of snapping turtle attached to one leg. This presented a philosophical dilemma. The turtle was still attached, just below the water line, and the crow was still in the water. I could let the frying pan sized turtle have its way with the crow. Nature, red in tooth and claw (and beak), would proceed in its innocent remorselessness. But I’d still feel bad about the crow having to take the long way out. I could rescue the crow and feel self satisfied about rescuing it, but then feel guilty for stealing a well-earned meal from the turtle. I didn’t have long to act because the turtle was tugging the crow back down. How does one reconcile pity for suffering and respect for the natural order?
I won’t pretend to have arrived at an ideal solution, but in the few seconds I watched, I decided to pull the crow. If the crow still had a good leg left, and if it still had a spark of life, I would release it. If the crow was missing a leg or if it seemed beyond hope, I would kill it instantly by cervical dislocation and toss it back to the turtle.
I don’t suppose we can ever pass through the world without changing it. At some point our sensibilities require modification, alteration, intervention. And when we intervene, we choose one thing over something else. A morality that adheres strictly to principals of nature seems like an appropriate and noble (albeit austere) standard. But before we get too self-congratulatory about painting with every color of the wind, we probably should question, “what is nature?” The turtle eating the crow is natural. But the pond where this drama unfolded is a feature I dug six years ago. I scooped out a small amount of dirt on a low-lying spot, using the excavated material to build up a nearby lane. The pond quickly filled with water and has remained full since. It now supports a population of turtles, frogs, muskrats, minnows, crayfish, leeches, and innumerable water bugs. Mice, deer, racoons, bees, killdeer, sandpipers, and other animals use it as a watering hole. Herons and ducks forage in it. The animals are all natural to my environment, but I’ve created this little micro-environment, so it remains in one sense an unnatural impostition.
Did I chose well between the crow and the turtle? I don’t know.
When I came back after finishing my round of chores, the crow had recovered and flown away. The turtle was deep in the mud, thinking turtlish thoughts, maybe wondering what strange predator stole its prey. Tomorrow, or the next day, the turtle will clamp something else in its beak and pull it under. And next spring, the crow will search for turtle eggs in the weeds on the bank, and eat them without ever considering the strange revolutions of the wheel of life. And I’ll still be baffled, unsure when to choose between intervention and acceptance, between pity and pragmatism.
We are delighted to offer grass fed dairy now! It’s always exciting to connect to other small farms with similar practices and offer delicious products that a lot of you have requested. We are now carrying plain and maple yogurts along with Raw Aged Tomme, Feta, and Havarti cheeses. (We are also carrying grass fed butter, but that is for another post.)
Not only are the farmers at North Country Creamery committed to caring for the land and treating their animals respectfully, they are providing employment for several people in their community. As I pulled into the parking lot by their cafe, I saw Ashlee and Steven and the five people they employ full time, along with a new friend or two, outside lingering late over their lunch together. Turns out that their communal breakfasts and lunches are a daily ritual. I gladly accepted the delicious soup the cafe chef had prepared and then enjoyed my tour through the farm.
Ashlee and Steven run their 20 cow dairy near Ausable Chasm where they produce rich milk, delicious yogurt, and a variety of artisan cheeses. They met in 2006 and have been farming together for 6 years.
“I became inspired to milk cows while working at Farm in Wilderness in 2006. So I worked on organic dairy farms across VT until 2011. I love the routine and closeness with animals that’s inherent in dairy farming. With a stroke of luck and encouraging friends, I landed on this property which the previous owner (“Clover Mead Farm”) had been utilizing for making several varieties of cheeses. We received a NOFA grant to hire him as a mentor our first year, so that he could teach us the tricks of the trade. I hadn’t made cheese on a commercial scale, so there was certainly a learning curve to the process. We’ve honed in on our 8 favorite cheeses to make and those that we’ve been most successful with, and added the creamline yogurts.
In 2014 a friend approached us about introducing a cafe to our enterprises. Our first year we ran it as a farmstore, but the previous owner had run it as a cafe so we decided to re-install some equipment and make it happen. We decided to call it the Clover Mead Cafe to pay homage to the previous owners and Clover Mead Farm. We currently operate 4 enterprises (dairy herd, creamery, cafe, & lodging), but they are legally all one business. I am the current single owner, but we are seeking to form a cooperative. Hopefully it will extend ownership to all the employees who are interested. We are working with the Cooperative Development Institute to figure out the details, so we have lots to learn over the next couple of years. We actually have 11 employees right now as we enter the peak of our season! About 5 full time employees. We’re really excited about visioning with [the cafe manager] (and everyone who’s interested) regarding the cafe and other enterprises in the future! We’re focusing on creating a comprehensive vision statement this summer.”
Below is a glimpse of their endeavor as I saw it at the beginning of May.
Ashlee and Tulip
The milking parlor accommodates five cows at a time.
The cleaned equipment is ready for the next milking.
The bulk tank stores the milk before it is moved into the yogurt and cheese making room.
All is orderly and clean in the cheese and yogurt areas.
The boards for the cheese cave are curing.
The stairs to the treasury.
The farmers–Ashlee and Steven.
If you are ever in the area, they would be delighted for you to stop in at the cafe!
Pardon the name dropping, but the first group of turkeys went out to pasture today, under the intent gaze of Harrison Ford who is volunteering his services with us this summer. How did we manage to get him to help? Read on, but first let me drag this out with farmy details.
Allie has been raising turkeys this spring. She was reluctant at first, but she negotiated a deal that I’d let her raise eight ducks with the turkeys. It turns out she has a real knack for caring for the birds, and she has done a great job. Turkeys need more pampering than chickens when they are little, so they spent their first five weeks inside the shelter and warmth of the brooder. Now that they are well feathered and gaining some size, the time has come to turn them out to graze.
Since turkeys graze more thoroughly than chickens, we needed a different sort of pasture shelter for them. Recall during the winter I wrote about a wrecked old camper I bought for the turkeys. I tore the camper down to the frame, and was left with this:
I did a little structural work, and then I added a wooden roosting grid as the deck. I bent chainlink fencing tubes as hoops, and covered it all with a recycled billboard. The goal is to provide shade and a place to roost at night. Turkeys don’t need anything more fancy than that. They took to the pasture immediately.
The structure is ten feet wide and thirty five feet long. I could have made it wider, but ten feet seems to be a practical limit if we want to be able to navigate the twists and turns on the lane that runs through the farm.
So, about Harrison Ford. He’s signed up to watch our turkeys this summer. Here he is on guard duty:
I realize it is hard to recognize him because of the funhouse mirror effect. Below is the original billboard image. We cut the top 1/3 off for this shelter. We’ll keep the rest of him from the armpits down for another chicken hoophouse project.
It involves some mixing up of Harrison Ford’s oeuvre, but the kids get a real kick out of the idea that Han Solo is watching the turkeys.
Fence posts are going in! It seems utterly prosaic to you, I know, but for the last seven years most of our farm has been fenced in polywire temporary fence, torn down and reset each time we rotate the cattle. So this is a big deal for us. Permanent perimeter fencing doesn’t cost that much in the grand scheme, but it always is less urgently needed than all the other urgent things, so progress has been slow.
I was able to rent a post pounder yesterday. It needed to be reserved one month in advance, so I picked my date rain or shine, and it rained. But a rainy day in June isn’t much of a hardship, so I downloaded an audiobook, grabbed a thermos of coffee, and knocked my way through more than a hundred eight foot posts in a 15 hour slugfest.
I won’t be able to do much with the fencing for a couple months as I still have a several of chicken and turkey pasture houses to build, but the posts are in and now I can begin to chip away at the project one fence segment at a time.
I (Rachel) thought Harry was playing a trick on me because every time I went down to pick up the crate of eggs he gathered, I’d find several eggs left on top of the crate storage stack. I’d ask him why they were there, and he’d say he didn’t know.
So I started getting suspicious of the chickens, and sure enough! I went down mid morning and caught them preparing to lay those beauties in the most convenient place of all.
Hmmm…the possibilities that come to mind!
Just wanted to post something to the website to prove that we’re still here. The crush of spring activities has a way of focusing us on the tasks immediately at hand. There’s a lot to tell of and plenty to show, but that will all have to wait.
Here’s the crabapple tree blooming near the old milkhouse.
It all began with a spinning wheel. A friend living in the Philippines asked me (Rachel) if I would like to have and treasure her wheel that was in storage at her parents’ house in New Jersey. I said, “YES!”
This winter I went looking for someone to help me learn to spin and found a lovely little shop in a tiny town I’ve driven through many times when heading down to NJ. The owner welcomed me, helped me understand my wheel, and introduced me to the sub-culture of fabric artists.
Just as the local food movement is growing and offering us all connection to our land, animals, produce, and farmers, so the local fiber movement is giving us healthy options when it comes to our fabric and bedding choices. The story of our clothing is familiar: products are made out of sight by people in unhappy conditions using methods and chemicals that degrade our land and pollute our water.
We can begin to change that as we learn where and how to source what we need from people who are working to promote health in our communities. Recently, I took the kids to visit Battenkill Fiber Mill where the wool from Carole and Mark Harth’s Bear Farm in Burdett, NY, is made into yarn. I’m happy to be able to offer some of that yarn on our website. It’s 100% Corriedale hand dyed wool. This product supports the livelihood of two farming families and a small business right here in upstate NY. And in your skillful hands, it can be made into any number of useful items or gifts to be treasured for a long time.
If you aren’t one to knit up scarves for you favorite nieces and nephews, I imagine you are one to need a good night’s rest. We are also offering 100% organic cotton cover wool filled pillows. My friend, CeCe, of the lovely little shop in Esperence, NY, talks about the process in the second video here.
Enjoy the photos of our mill tour, and find the products on our store here.
The piles and piles of fiber pouring in reflect the return of spring and and the shearing taking place all over upstate NY.
The wool is washed and rinsed ever so gently and multiple times.
It dries in the open doorway on racks,
moves through several carders and spinning machines, is dyed, and then
… we get to take it home…
…to make into baskets and other goodies. The top of this basket is made from the Corriedale yarn I am offering. The bottom is a result from my spinning CeCe’s sheep’s wool.
This place is starting to look like a “real” farm, now that we have our first grain bin. I bought this bin from a nearby farm, and since I had to move it I was scratching the growing bald spot on my head a bit before arriving at a solution.
I was in the middle of tearing down an older iteration of an eggmobile to build a bigger portable chicken feeder, so I had this sixteen foot trailer conveniently stripped to the frame. The tires are mismatched and the lights don’t work, but it would suffice for a two mile drive on backroads.
With the bucket loader, I flipped the trailer up against the bin. Then working from ladders I strapped the bin to the trailer.
Once all was connected, all I had to do was to chain the trailer to the loader and gently rock it back below the tipping point, unchain it while the trailer rested on the loader, and slowly lower the entire contraption back to ground level. Going down went flawlessly, and the whole job, travel included, took less than two hours.
Going back up wasn’t as smooth. I replaced the 4×6 skids, and my replacements were a few inches longer than the old ones, just enough extra to change the geometry and to make the base of the bin catch behind the trailer when I tried to raise it. In the end I needed to raise the bin directly with the bucket, which dented it more than I’d prefer. All the damage is repairable with some hammering and galvanizing paint.
With all our poultry on the farm, we have a three or four different feed rations at any moment. The pullets get one mix and the old laying hens get another. The turkeys will have four different feed mixes during their development, while the broilers have a starter and a grower mix (thankfully these overlap with the turkey grower and finisher mixes). Having the extra bin will help as we need to keep all our feeds dry and stored separately.
I am interested to note that this bin has stood in an unsheltered position since 1999 without any anchoring, other than the friction from the skids sinking a little into the dirt. Most of that time it has been standing there empty. Our hilltop is a windswept place, but so was the farm this bin came from. I guess these things are more stable than they appear to be. I hope so. I’d rather not have to stand it up again.