The chickens went down the road a couple of days ago. Literally. Once the fall CSA was over, we shut them up one night in their Portable Affordable Chicken Coop and drove them down the road where they took up permanent winter residency with the flock at Macs Happy Acres Farm. Once the ground froze up inour fields here the clover and grass was harder to come by in the field for the chickens and the insects that scurry around were gone. Gone also was the vegetable refuse that we make seasonably available to them from the farmstand. I tried to encourage them by throwing them some frozen heads of cabbage and cauliflower. They just ran up to me and looked forlorn and hungry. Now they live where there is an unfrozen water supply and bottomless grain feeders.
We got into the chicken business 3 years ago when we did our farmstand upgrade and added a commercial kitchen. I grew up on a dairy farm, so I had some experience around cows, but chickens? I surmised that they wouldn’t make as much manure as cows, and a chicken stepping on your foot wouldn’t hurt half as much as a cow would. How hard could it be? Besides, Ray was raising meatbirds for sale and everyone can use eggs, right? How hard to take care of a flock of laying hens be? The kitchen sure would use eggs ….and we would be able to sell the rest.
So armed with this bullet proof business plan, we took an old four wheeled hay wagon running gear and built a little 10x 12 house on it with roosts and nesting boxes. I bought a book by Joel Salatin, the Guru of American Pastured Poultry Farming and read it. We had a couple acres of clover and fescue on which we could pasture them on. I drove down to Wellscroft Fencing and spent a small ransom on portable electric poultry fencing. Then after some discussions Ray had with a gentleman known only to me as “Bucky the Chicken Guy from Connecticut”, a pickup truck piled high with chicken crates drove into the yard. The chickens came home to roost.
Of course they were pullets, and we knew they were going to lay little eggs for awhile. What we didn’t know is that it would be some time before they started to lay little eggs at all. About three weeks to be exact. But they were full sized birds with full sized appetites. Despite the fact they had lots of grass to supplement their grain habit, a pallet of 25 lb grain bags was vanquished in short order . In no time we understood that putting up a grain silo and buying grain in 3 ton deliveries would pay off the capital investment in about 26 minutes. But we didn’t see it coming….the hidden costs.
By week five the girls were laying a quantity of what were now large eggs. The kitchen was loving them, and the sales through the farmstand were indeed cleaning up what our 175 chickens are producing. Pasture poultry eggs are a very different product than anything that you find in the store. The yolks are a deep colored orange and the total egg and plops onto the frying pan and it doesn’t run at all. They taste really good. Probably the result of a varied diet and exercise…(where have we heard that said before?) But I realized that my role as Old Geezer Who Cares for the Laying Hens is taking a lot of time. Fresh water twice a day. All the kitchen and farmstand refuse is being diverted from the compost pile to the chickens, and dedicated garbage cans must be removed twice a day. The eggs have to be picked up and cleaned. And boxed. And taken up to the farmstand. Even the damn chicken nesting boxes became repositorys for chicken shit and had to be cleaned out and fresh straw added weekly. So I tracked my time. And I tracked the number of dozens of eggs that went to the stand.
There was predation and attrition. Chicken hawks would help themselves. Although we feared the eagles, they seemed to prefer fishing to picking off our bony little chickens. But the weasels, coons and foxes would move in occasionally and help themselves. A couple of our family dogs, despite their affable and good nature with humans, discovered latent hunting urges occasionally when presented with a strutting chicken. And that 4 foot poultry fencing? Even with clipped wings the more resourceful and energetic chickens could get a running start and clear the top of the fence to freedom. (Fortuneatley most are still not smart enough….) So this year our original flock of 175 birds dwindled to about 100-115 birds by the time they went south on River Road to their winter home.
At the end of year two I had some figures to work with. I calculated the gross dollar sales from the eggs that I boxed up for sale. I totaled up my hours and charged myself out at$13 an hour. I deducted the grain costs, the cost of the egg cartons and the cost of 3 bags of oyster shells. Looks like I made made $1100 profit. Cool! That’s not a lot, but at least we aren’t loosing money. That is, if you didn’t amortize the capital investments in the fencing ,the grain silo or the RTV I used to haul grain garbage, water,straw to them. Whoops.
So there are some lessons we learned here along with the standard lesson of “all that glitters is not gold”. We have to raise our price on eggs, and get it at least in line with the pastured poultry egg prices in the stores (when you can find them). We have to figure out the reduction of bird loss. What do can we do to streamline some part of the chore process that I perform to save time? This is a process that we should use to figure out many aspects of our farm. We just don’t raise eggs for a living. We grow strawberries. Potatoes. Basil. And about a thousand other things. It would be easy to figure out profit and loss for Edgewater farm if we just grew eggs, but we do not. Turns out best idea for us may not be the idea to grow pastured poultry, but the utilizing an exercise that determines whether raising eggs and meatbirds makes any real sense at all.
This farmer’s time clock says that 2014 is pretty much over, despite the fact that there is no New Year’s Eve party in our immediate future or even the thanksgiving Turkey. That said, 2014 is pretty much done. The time to alter anything to change the outcome is past. We are truly in chore mode; a steady diet of fall maintenance and packing out of root crops. Daylight savings time shows up this coming weekend and we then will truly know what is in store for us. Most of us remaining will probably go down to two meals a day so that we can capitalize on the short amount of daylight allowed us. (In my case that will be a difficult sacrifice, but maybe I won’t balloon up this winter.) Still, I welcome this time of year because it is probably the only time of year that we feel relieved of any pressure that the growing and retail season brings. That will all return the first week of January when we seed the first greenhouse tomatoes.
2014 was a pretty nice year to farm in. We had adequate moisture, and despite a late winter that would not loosen its grip, we had a pretty temperate and sunny growing season (perhaps a bit on the cool side, but what farmer is incapable of not saying something slightly negative about the weather?) followed by a long warm fall. Who knows where we may go from here, but so far the farm workforce acknowledges this gift. No temperatures in the 90’s, no spring frosts (the first year in 38 that we didn’t have to protect the strawberries from frost with irrigation….I never had to get out of bed.Whooo-Hoooo!) And lots of sun. A fellow could get spoiled with weather this good.
It was an unusually busy year as well as we incorporated the Putnam Farm into the regular activities. We planted about 6 acres of potatoes there as well as a little sweet corn and 3.5 acres of strawberries that will be up to bat this coming spring. We got a new barn and a greenhouse up as well…as much for Ray and Jenny’s wedding as for the 2015 growing season. We are also in the process of constructing a dedicated office space and lunchroom in the barn. So we had our hands full with accommodating some projects during the growing season.
Crops all fared well, except our fall squash and pumpkin crops which failed through some colossally bad management decisions I can only blame on myself. Jenny continued to grow our CSA programs by adding some business drop offs and our commercial kitchen seems to be just about at profitability in year 3. We won’t attack the books until December when we move most of the operations inside. There will be seed orders to do as well, and tax work to be done as our year ends December 31. But first we must get the strawberries mulched and ready for winter, the rest of the carrots dug, greenhouse sides rolled up, stock plant house back in order, perennial pots covered for winter. The plow has to go on the truck and the snowblower mounted on the tractor. Blueberries could be pruned if the weather allows and if we don’t get too much snow we have lots of brush to cut along the field edges.
And maybe we will get to go south for a week in the winter before we have to start grafting tomatoes for spring of 2015…
“Stuff that works, stuff that holds up.The kind of stuff you don’t hang on a wall.
Stuff that’s real,and stuff you feel. The kinda stuff you reach for when you fall” ……Guy Glark, Texas songwriter
It first happened when one day in 1987 that my Dad proudly announced that he bought an American John Deere green tractor, because he didn’t want to support the Japanese economy by buying a Kubota tractor like mine. (This sentiment was fairly common amongst World War II veterans.)
So I lifted the hood of his newly purchased green John Deere and found the serial number plate,– A Mitsubishi motor married to a Yanmar tractor assembled in Osaka, Japan. It resembled his old John Deere two cylinder Model 420U because it was painted green, but therein the similarities ended It was a dog in my estimation…and I believe that he would have been more comfortable operating the Kubota I thought he should have.
Its pretty confusing today trying to buy American, such to the point that you have to read the fine print just to find out who exactly did produce it. For example: Case – International Harvester is pretty much an American Company, right? Recently they introduced a new line of low horsepower tractors to the market and branded them Farmall after the venerable predecessors with the same name that successfully butted marketing heads with John Deere in the period from the late 1920’s to the mid 1980’s. I was looking for a no frills tillage tractor with about 90 hp and the new Farmall 95 seemed to be what was available to me. The verdict is still out on whether it is a good tractor or not, considering the active life of tractors can span anywhere from 20 to 35 years and its only 3 years old. (We still use actively 6 tractors that range in age of 35 to 60 years). Turns out my Farmall 95 is in reality a Fiat tractor put together in Ankara, Turkey and the loader on it is built in Sweden. It’s American in name and paint scheme only.
Wait! What about the new clawhammer style banjo I just bought form the Morgan-Monroe Banjo Company? Sounds pretty American, doesn’t it? Wasn’t Bill Munroe the father of American bluegrass music? Yeah, but his namesake banjo was built by oriental luthiers in China. And, like a lot of the pacific rim instruments ( and farm machinery), it’s pretty reasonably priced and pretty well made. And if this isn’t baffling enough….my old 2004 Toyota Tacoma truck was assembled by American workers in Atlanta, Georgia. And it just so happens that Atlanta is also home to a plant that assembles Kubota tractors.
The interesting thing is that quality used to be synonomous with the American name. Its a great deal more complicated than that now. I maintain that the chessey sheet metal fenders on my Kubotas wont be around in 50 years, but my little 245 Kubota tractors don’t cost any money to run, are easy to get parts for and I suspect if I can keep a seat on them and decent rubber under them those little motors and transmissions will make 50 years of farm work long after their fenders turn to dust. And my little Georgian 2004 Toyota truck is as comfortable as any sedan, and has given me 98000 trouble free miles with a little brake work, oil undercoating biennially, and a piece of the muffler replaced. Cant beat that with a stick, as the locals would say.
I like supporting the local economy as much as possible. Buying American made goods is a natural extension of that, and I am willing to pay some extra for that privilege. But determining what is produced in the US and is produced elsewhere is now a complicated proposition made more complicated by the American companies like Case IH who slap branded American names on overseas products.
Are Carharrt pants still made in America? I better check. Levis aren’t…..
It had to happen. The other night there was an indignant , impassioned message left on the answering machine. It went like this: “Why are you not opening your PYO strawberry beds? Wellwood Orchard is open, and they are farther away than you are. Why aren’t you open? You are stupid. You are wasting money.”
I was tempted to return the call, but the fear of reprisals from my dear wife and daughter made me hesitate. Then I considered the intellect of whom I might be trying to argue with. How bright could they possibly be? Do they really think that we are hoarding strawberries from them because we don’t like to make money? I reconsidered my call, and opted not to.
But when we started harvesting our first strawberry crop 38 years ago, we really counted on the PYO folks essentially to harvest that crop for us. Anne and I were the only pickers and we had no wholesale accounts. It worked well for many years. Back then there was no profusion of berries all winter long at the grocery store so strawberry season was as real summer landmark event, and people came in weather good and bad. They turned out frequently during the season and then frequently returned again. They picked for themselves, some picked for resale, others picked for shut ins and elderly folks. The PYO crowd was a tangible, dependable work force for us in 1980.
Fast forward to 2014. We have a new word- agritainment. Some people come to the farm not for the strawberries but for the experience….usually on a sunny day. They come to the farms because they like the wagon rides, or the petting zoo…. But this measurable fact exists that we harvest essentially the same tonnage of fruit with twice as many patrons in 2013 as we had in the field in 1980. Why? Pretty decent product abounds in warmer areas and gets shipped here. Strawberries from Watsonville or Plant City. Blackberries from Arkansas in the spring, but Mexico during the winter. Raspberries from Guatemala. Our strawberries just aren’t as big a deal as they were 30 years ago(despite the evidence of our phone call the other night). People aren’t as motivated to pick, and they pick smaller quantities. Fewer people freeze or make their own jam. It is now as much a nice sunny day’s activity as it is fresh strawberries on a shortcake.
So over time we have had to modify our harvest. PYO is still important and there not as many PYO Strawberry farms statewide as there were in the 80’s, but we need to have a way of guaranteeing that the crop will be harvested. So we have a field crew on the farm that harvests the vegetable and fruits as well as grows and cares for them. And we have some wholesale accounts as well as pick for our CSA customers and folks who visit the farmstand. The crew works on rainy days (PYO folks do not) they need very little management-other than coffee and donuts and pay- (PYO folks need extra facilities, parking and lots of direction and management). The crew monitors crop development and ripening for us (PYO folks are generally only interested in what they have in their bucket and their own experience in the field. There really has to be a large critical mass of ripe fruit out there ready for them when you open) and our farm crew picks in a clean organized fashion (some PYO folks harvest cleanly, but not as a rule). Bottom line is that running a good harvest crew is a profitable and dependable way to harvest the crop whereas PYO is more fickle and weather dependent.
So that explains the integrated approach we currently employ. We always grow more than we need for our stand, CSA and wholesale needs, and do so specifically for the U-pick. But more and more PYO is a gamble. And you know how I prefer to bet on a sure thing.
After 16 years of biodynamic pest control in the greenhouses and a spider is what I have to show for my efforts?
Meet Phiddippus audax. He is a tiny member of the arachnid family known generically as Jumping Spiders. He is a fast-moving little fellow about 1/4 of an inch in length, who can actually jump 3-4 times his body length when he needs to get somewhere in a hurry. As he is a timid little guy, we more often see him in escape mode. I wouldn’t say he is cuddly, and certainly if you were a potential meal for him, you might feel different about how he looks. But to me he is in the “Good Guy” category, and he doesnt seem as creepy as the over- sized barn spiders that move into the garage in late summer, or as sinister as the beautiful black and yellow orb spiders that move into the field tomatoes in the summer and weave those incredible webs. My Dad actually went so far as to bestow the name ‘Mr. Witloof’ on the little jumping spider, as to almost humanize him.
So what has this got to do with anything?
Well, for most of my life as a greenhouseman, Mr, Witloof made his appearance in the greenhouse furnaces in the fall, when he moved into the greenhouses looking for warmer winter quarters. In early winter, while I would be cleaning burners and doing annual checks of my furnaces, I would find him beating a hasty retreat. But Jake Guest (of Killdeer Farm in Norwich) and I have been noticing that for the last two years there seems to have been a population spike. These funny little fellows are now in the pot trays and plant canopies. I can find an occasional Witloof wandering around up in the brugmansia and fuchsia standards. Or meandering around the shelf behind the seed boxes and radio. They seem to be everywhere now.
Beyond their comical movements and the enjoyment that seeing them brings to me , I think that there are some real reasons why they are now omnipresent. That reason could be that we have actually gotten to the point after 16 years that we can control our pests in the greenhouse biologically, without the aid of conventional or certified organic pesticides. It hasn’t been an inexpensive learning curve to do this, but for the last three years we have been dialed in enough to achieve control with biological insect releases alone.
I am by no means an entomologist or out on the edge of this , but we certainly have learned a lot about biological pest control in the last 16 years. This is due in no small part to the efforts put forth by some determined individuals in the University Cooperative Extension Systems of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Annual meetings, studies, internet access, on-farm education and scouting have additionally contributed. Even vendors have gone from just selling “good bugs in a can” to being proactive in making sure the product they sell to us has good quality control (the good bugs get delivered in the best possible condition) as well as talking with us at length about the possibilities of choice of one predatory or parasitic control over another. Lots of info.
I don’t think I’ll be problem-free in the future. Problems and hurdles always crop up in natural systems. But to go three years without dragging my sprayer out and dumping a bottle of some goo in the tank to go spray for white fly or aphids is huge for me, and something for the farm to feel good about.
So maybe Mr. Witloof is out and about because of this. Even though the arachnids are generally insensitive to most pesticides in the greenhouse, the total absence of any materials makes his household more inviting. In any event, he is a funny little guy who is now part of our defense arsenal for greenhouse pest management for aphids and other soft-bodied plant pests. Welcome home, Mr. Witloof.
Now go get ‘em..
Alan Jackson’s song “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere” keeps coming into my head, but its lyrics transpose in my head to “It’s Got to Be Spring Somewhere.” Here it is March 6, and the temperature has broken 40 degrees only once in the last month and a half, and it’s pretty tough to even remember when last it was in the 30’s. But farming is done by the clock as much as the weather, and so the greenhouses are up and running. Despite the fact that the sun is getting stronger by the day (when the sun actually shines) the nights have been brutally cold. A couple of after-hours trips to the greenhouses have already been executed to tweak temperature alarms, thermostats and propane furnaces. This cold weather is playing hell on our propane contracts.
But we have had some sunny days this week and the greenhouse crew have begun trickling back after their long winter’s nap. There are sprigs of green in the pots and baskets. Despite the outdoor temps in the low twenties, I have been shedding layers on sunny days as I work in the upper greenhouses. The furnaces will not come on if the sun is anywhere near out, and I duck outside to cool off from time to time in the midday. I know that this weather will break, so we are trying to keep up with things and not be caught napping. It could well be that the snow is all gone and we will be having 70-degree days in April. This is, after all, New England.
One of the benefits of working at a bench in the greenhouse – besides being warm – is that I get caught up on world events through news broadcasts and talk radio shows. Much of the time I spend grafting tomatoes, taking cuttings, watering flats and seeding, so there is plenty of time to hear what is going on beyond the realm of the weather at Edgewater Farm. Of course, we have had the Olympics and the developing events in Ukraine, but the talk shows resound with many of the same issues as last year at this time. Many are pertinent to what we do here. The ongoing issue of food safety, global food supply, hydrofracking, the FDA’s re-vamping of FSMA ( see earlier blogs for more info on that) and how that will affect how and what we do for business on this farm. We hear about GMO and gene splicing in plants and animals. Yesterday I listened to a call-in program on NHPR where people were lamenting the fact that many of New Hampshires’s open fields were growing up to woods, meaning the loss of open land. Meanwhile, two other callers talked about the benefits to the environment that forests provide through carbon sequestration. Talk shows, discussions and the media are full of all sorts of authorities on all sorts of subjects.
I find myself marveling at the fervent nature and assured authority from which these media panelists argue their point of view. Most of the time I can understand all points of view, and empathize to a degree. Many of this season’s discussion involves mankind’s use of technology to solve problems. The GMO question is frequesntly brought up to us all at the farm. Do we use GMO seeds? Is our sweet corn Round-up Ready? These are fair questions, and for the record we do not. Upon investigation we do, it seems, use some varieties of vegetable seeds that come from companies whose parent company is Monsanto, who actually does produce large amounts of GMO soy and grain and feed corn seed to complement the sale of their proprietary herbicide Roundup. Monsanto accumulated vegetable seed companies, I suppose, for the simple fact there is money to be made selling seeds. Then there is the GMO labeling issue as well, which is not altogether removed from the GMO/gene modification discussion.
I find the food labeling issue a no-brainer. I think GMO foods should be labeled, since there are some issues regarding the safety and politic of its use, especially where transgenic gene modification is used. These are of burning interest to consumers,v as been demonstrated by petitions circulated by movements like MoveOn.org. People have a right to know, and if the FDA mandates that the producers of Slim Jims have to state that they use “processed beef lips” in their product, then I think folks should be allowed be able to determine whether their foods have GMO products in them.
However, how I feel about GMO as a science gets more complicated. I am against transgenic GMO plant production (remember the death of the Monarch butterflies?). But GMO in plant development as a way of expediting the process of hybridization? I don’t know enough about that to be for or against it. The other day NPR had panelists discuss the introduction of genes into the human reproductive process to prevent generational transmission of endocrine immune deficiency into children. Some panelists were fervently opposed because it would be “opening a Pandora’s box of medical mad science” and might well lead to the creation of “Franken-babies.” On the other side of the fence the people who had this immune deficiency maintained that they would have have cut off their arm not to pass the same problem on to some of their children. So what is it….good science or evil science?
It is all about the march of technology. I don’t envy scientists. Poor old Robert Oppenheimer. Did he really want to be remembered as the father of the atom bomb? Wouldn’t he rather be remembered as a physicist who further the development of the fission reaction that heats homes and powers air conditioners? The guy who expedited, in some small fashion, the development of radiation treatment for cancers? Technology is always a double-edged sword. DDT was a swell way to treat soldiers in World War II when they came back from battle covered with body lice. Worked well in agriculture, too, or so we surmised. Seemed harmless enough for those who used it as directed until some years later when Rachael Carson pointed out it was accumulating in the food chain. Whoops. Monsanto developed Roundup back in the 70’s. We all were led to believe that there was rapid breakdown of the active ingredient, and it was the safe to humans. But the Emperor’s clothes started to deteriorate when it was discovered that the compound actually did bind with certain soil types under certain conditions and rendered damage to the very plants farmers were trying to protect. Meanwhile the parent company got involved in developing Roundup-resistant corn and soybeans through GMO. Then they went about with their legal police force looking to protect their proprietary rights and taking anybody who looked suspicious to court. As if this weren’t bad enough or terminal confusing, we can look at some of the medical compounds medical science developed to fight diseases and infections over the years. Many have been pulled from the market since because of the unintended side effects on some humans. Makes the old head spin.
This is all part of the human dilemma as we march forward. Will technological advancement help humanity go forward or guarantee our species’ extinction? Can we operate in a void and try to ignore it while it spins everywhere around us? I have no answers, only questions. We here just try to inform ourselves and make the best possible decisions with the fewest compromises as we move forward.
The books are closed on Edgewater Farm’s 2013 season (our tax year being somewhat different than most people’s, we have to file our taxes by March 1st). By all accounts it was a much better year for us than we thought it would be back in July when we had our onion crop and a fair amount of our strawberry crop ruined by rainy weather and flooding. That was a grim period for all NH and VT farmers and their employees . You couldn’t cultivate the weeds to have them dry out and die, and your work boots were soggy 24-7. My old hockey-skate-induced athletes’-foot returned with a vengeance, and we all got depressed from sunlight deprivation. Then August came, and summer showed its cheerier side; fall was absolutely delightful. Sales were strong, and we able to get some stuff to actually grow. So now, as we surround ourselves with catalogs and go to meetings, we can erase the memory of the bleaker times and have happy dreams of the future. Unfortunately, the future begins now as we have to make plant divisions and start seeding ornamentals this week, as well as start root stocks for the greenhouse tomatoes we graft. But it is nice to have these little seasonal benchmarks to adhere to. Keeps you in touch with the flow of the seasons, and fosters the hope of renewal.
It has been very cold thus far this winter, starting back in November. All of us old geezers are making the same comment: that this winter is more like the winters of our childhood. Cold temps and snow appeared well before Christmas, and such has not been the case the last many years. I know better than to make general statements about what may lie before us weather-wise, for it could turn out to be warm and rainy yet. After all, this is still New England even if climate change is out and about. But the single most striking thing one notices as you get older (and if you work outdoors) is the lengthening of the days. It has been brutally cold this past week (a couple of nights of -15 F ) and yet farmers notice that it seems to be much lighter outside at 4:45 PM than it was at Christmas. The change is subtle, but it captures your attention. And it brings you some cheer. I guess that the one understated benefit of farming is that you get to enjoy nature’s subtle changes. The slowing growth of lettuce in the fall, the accelerated growth of summer squash in the June heat, the muggy oppressive tension before a thunderstorm in July, the cooler drier change of the air of late August and early September, the lengthening tree shadows of November. There are more lucrative ways to make a living, but not many that let you directly feel the vagaries of the natural forces about us.
So the temperatures have abated and it’s a sunny Sunday morning, and the snow is nice and dry….good for skiing and snow shoeing. I have been at the desk too long, and with warming temps and rain in the forecast, I have decided all the greenhouse work that I should have done yesterday will await me tomorrow morning when it’s icy and miserable. And I will be happier to tackle it then….