Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A (Kind-Of) Quick Update on Brooding Chickens

SO, I mentioned yesterday that I went down to the coop and noticed that one of the chickens was broody. A broody hen has decided to sit on her eggs with the purpose of hatching them. That would be great if we wanted chicks and had a bunch of fertile eggs to hatch, but in this case the hen was just intent on sitting on her nest no matter what. Broodiness can be a problem because often broody hens who have no chance of hatching any eggs will sit on their nests until they starve and dehydrate to death, and often it's brought on by long days (I have a bad feeling that the heat lamp I put into the coop to keep them warm on freezing February nights might be to blame). We had been trying to remove her from the nest and take the eggs out from under her, but she was being stubborn, and a couple times I caught her sitting on nothing (and once an egg shaped piece of hard chicken poop). This morning I went down to the coop and found this:

It's hard to tell what's going on here, but there's four chickens in that laying box. The first hen was still refusing to budge and another had joined her (broodiness can be contagious). Two other chickens were attempting to muscle their way in to lay some eggs and they were all getting pretty angry and pecking each other. 

So I did a little research and found that sometimes it's possible to dissuade a broody hen by simply blocking off the laying boxes and getting her away from the nest. So we put all the chickens outside and blocked off the boxes. 

It didn't hour later they had managed to squeeze inside and there were four of them stuffed in behind the wood! Someone had laid an egg and someone else had broken it and now they were all eating it. Insanity. 

I tightened the gaps between the boards on the boxes, but the two hens just ended up settling down on the floor all puffed up and broody looking. A bunch of the sources I found online said that the best way to break broodiness is to remove the chickens entirely and put them somewhere totally unlike a nesting box. Ideally, this means a wire-bottomed cage off the floor with nowhere to bed down and a little cold air circulation underneath their bottoms (curing broodiness is all about cooling off the chicken's bottom). I tried to brainstorm some options - the greenhouse, an empty horse stall, a dog crate - but none of them seemed right. Then I remembered the old empty rabbit hutches that are sitting in the barn. 

And so I packed them up in a cat carrying case and brought them upstairs. The first broody hen is totally in blissed-out-dreaming-of-motherhood-mode (I can sympathize, I get the same way when I start thinking about my new birthday puppy, Angus, that I'm getting in March) and doesn't even seem to care what I do with her. The second hen put up a little fight, but I'm stronger than a chicken. 

There they are! I gave them some food and water and put down some hay on the floor in an attempt to control the mess. Here's hoping their bums cool off soon!

Cleaning Out the Greenhouse


Tango Lettuce and baby Swiss Chard

Arugula gone wild
Tough little lettuce plants

All cleaned out ready for new Spring seedlings!
We saved a few plants that were doing well. Lettuce in front, with kale behind and more lettuce plants and swiss chard under the plastic

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Planning for Vegetables and Pictures of Chickens

The seeds are arriving and slowly piling up in the corner of my room. Meanwhile, I've been trying to figure out what to do with them. In order to organize the information about each plant and get ready to make a full planting schedule I've been putting together spreadsheets. I have a page for each vegetable and then I list all the varieties separately. Then, using the Johnny's catalog, the Cornell Cooperative Extension website and Coleman's The New Organic Grower, as well as a couple of other sources, I've been compiling important growing information. 

First of all, I have to figure out what vegetables I'm going to start inside and then transplant, and what vegetables I'm going to seed directly into the garden. Some vegetable plants really have to be started inside, like the brassicas (cauliflower, broccoli, brussel sprouts and cabbage) and nightshades (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers). Luckily, the woman who owned Dave's parents house before them had a cut flower business, and so she built a small greenhouse off the garage. 

The greenhouse, the windmill and the sun this morning
The greenhouse really warms up during the day. Even in the middle of the winter I often have to open a window to stop the temperature inside from skyrocketing past 90 degrees F
So far I've just been growing lettuce, kale, swiss chard and bak choy in the greenhouse. Dave built me some tables and boxes, about 6" deep and of various sizes, and I was able to grow a fair amount of small, yet delicious, greens over the winter. This week however, I'm going to be pulling all the soil and the boxes out of there so we can start fresh with our new potting soil and transplants for the Spring. 

Next, I have to determine whether or not I'm going to be succession seeding the vegetables and, if so, how many times. For example, I'm growing 100' (one row) of a variety of carrots called Scarlet Nantes. These carrots will grow from May 1st to July 15th, which is about 12 weeks. During those 12 weeks I'm going to want to be planting new seeds directly into the garden (carrots are difficult to transplant on account of their roots becoming irregular, plus they grow pretty quickly) every 3 weeks to ensure that I have a consistent supply of new growth. This means that I'm going to be doing at least 4 plantings, and so therefore each planting will involve seeding 25' of the garden. 

This is all getting boring so I'll just show an example. 
Each vegetable has it's own sheet. After I'm done with the sheets I'm going to lay it all out on a MASTER calendar so I know exactly when I'm going to be planting everything, and how. Pretty exciting, right?

Meanwhile, there are a lot of other things to think about. Right now, I'm worried because we keep hearing more and more about how wet the land we're planning on planting on is. We haven't really looked at it critically without the snow and so we're not sure what to expect. The moisture could be an issue because we have to wait for the area to dry off in the Spring before we can even till the land, and with all the snow outside right now it doesn't seem like it's ever going to be dry. All this probably means that we're going to get a late start this year, and are going to have to rely heavily on transplants.

Right past those trees and under all that snow is the site of our future vegetable garden

Alright, enough about the garden. Here's some pictures of chickens!

This is the chicken coop for layers
Their yard. I put down some hay so they can come out and walk around on the snow which they seem to love until they get too cold
And here they are!
Laying boxes
Right now we have 9 laying hens and we're planning on bumping up the number to 30 this Spring, which is about as many as we can fit in this chicken coop while still making sure they all have enough space. That's going to involve building a couple more laying boxes, although right now they all insist on using the box all the way to the right, and have kicked all the hay out of the other two. 

The hen in the laying box in this picture appears to have gone broody in the last couple of days, which means that she's become intent on sitting on her eggs day in and day out, even if it means that she doesn't eat or drink. This is also a problem because our delicious eggs are going bad underneath her. I've been reading about several ways to cure broodiness, everything from dipping their stomach in cold water (I don't think that's a good idea in the middle of Winter) to putting them in a cage by themselves up off the ground and away from the nest. I'll report back later on how this problem progresses and how we manage to solve it. If anyone has any ideas, let me know.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

More Detailed Vegetable Garden Plans...Hooray!

Now, I'm sure that the pigs and our new flocks of chickens are going to present plenty of problems in the near future, but right now the biggest challenge for me is designing the half acre vegetable garden. In this post I'm going to describe my plan for the garden, as well as the thought process behind it. As I said before, my mom (Hasso) is really collaborating closely with me, especially when it comes to making decisions about the garden, so when I say "my plan" what I really mean is "our plan". Together, over the last couple of weeks, we've been trying to gather as much information as possible from farmers and experienced gardeners in the area. Luckily, everyone we've talked to has been unbelievably helpful. We also attended a NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association: MA Chapter) seminar on Systematizing a Diverse Vegetable Operation, which also provided a lot of great information (a lot of which went right over my head). 

In addition, we've both been reading Eliot Coleman's book, The New Organic Grower which has been pretty indispensable. Eliot Coleman, who has a farm in Brooksville, Maine, is one of the kings of small-scale organic farming and his book has been a great entry level textbook for us. 

However, one of the lessons I've learned pretty quickly is that no one is going to tell you exactly how to farm vegetables, instead you're just going to end up with a bunch of suggestions. It seems as though growing is such a personal thing, that instead of depending wholly on one text, or one afternoon of advice, it's important to pick and choose what makes sense to you. Each piece of land is different, and each style of growing is different, and farming is about developing a close enough relationship with your land to understand what it needs to be successful, and what you need to be successful along with it. Over the last couple of weeks I've heard several times that "farming is as much an art as it is a science". I'm a sucker for phrases like that. I can already tell that I'm going to be repeating that phrase to people for the rest of my life. 

So, back to my (our) garden. 

The first step was to take a soil text to determine what our soil's like. We dug down through the snow and pick-axed some earth from the frozen ground to send into the lab. We're still waiting for the results, so I'll post more information later. 

Next, I got a map of the property and we laid out exactly where we thought the garden should be (see previous post). It was important to keep the plot about 15' out from underneath the tree-line, to make sure the plants will have enough sun, and to keep the rows away from Black Brook, which runs between the vegetable garden and the horse ring seasonally. Ideally, the area would be flat, however, our garden has a slight slope to the East. Luckily, it's slight enough so that apparently it's not going to be a big deal. 

We were ready to plan the plot. Coleman recommends dividing your land into 5' rows that are each 100' long, and then planting 4' and leaving 1' for a path. We were advised by many people that 4' was a little too wide of a planting row for us and that 1' was a little bit narrow of a path. Since we're planning on doing the planting, weeding and harvesting by hand, it's important that we can easily move up and down and around in the paths and reach into the center of the rows. Therefore, we decided to make 3' rows and 2' paths. 

We also learned that it was very helpful to be able to drive a truck right into the middle of the garden. This option will help us to bring supplies into the center of our vegetable patch, and move harvested produce easily and effectively out. With these stipulations in mind we made the following plan:

I had to decide how to fill up all these rows. Enter: seed catalogs. Seed catalogs are so much fun; they are also so overwhelming (someday ask me about my bittersweet one-week love-affair with seed catalogs). I got most of my seeds from High Mowing Organic Seeds, because they're local (out of Vermont), but I also got a fair amount from Johnny's Seeds, which has everything, and Seed Savers Exchange, which sells primarily heirlooms. I went through vegetable by vegetable and used information from the catalogs as well as information from Coleman's book and off the web to figure out what varieties I wanted to grow, approximately how much of each vegetable I wanted, how many plants I needed, how many rows of each vegetable I wanted to plant, and, therefore, how many seeds I needed. Then I placed the order. This all took me about a week, and still it felt like mostly guess-work. 

This year I'm going to attempt to grow: beans, beets, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, carrots, celery, chard, corn, cucumber, eggplant, fennel, all kinds of greens, kale, leeks, peas, peppers, parsnips, radishes, squashes, tomatoes, herbs and flowers. I got a bunch of different varieties of each vegetable, so I can really find out what I like and what works best in our climate and soil. 

Now I'm in the process of deciding what goes where, and attempting to lay out a planting schedule. I have to determine when each seed needs to be planted, and whether it will be planted inside and then transplanted into the garden or seeded directly into the ground. A lot of the vegetables need to be succession planted as well, that is to say that I will need to be planting them throughout the season to guarantee a constant and consistent harvest (aka lettuce, beets, carrots etc). All of this needs to be carefully and clearly planned and organized as well. So far being a farmer means making a lot of charts. 

Things to figure out:

Tilling schedule: when the ground unfreezes we'll need to till the plot before we can plant it. This is complicated and involves a lot of machines and tractors and knowledge. There is also a school that argues that tilling is not necessary. More on this later. 
Fencing: we need to figure out how to keep all the rodents, woodchucks and deer out. This is also difficult, and involves deep thought, spending money and possibly various fence erecting equipment. I've been warned that deer can eat your entire crop of heritage french filet beans in one night. Chilling. 
Cover crops: once we figure out what's wrong with our soil we can determine what kind of none-edible cover crops we should plant in areas that are fallow (aka. unplanted) in order to add nutrients and enrich. 

...and much, much more. 

I hope all this is interesting to you guys. If you have any questions let me know!


Here's a picture of the property with our general plans. The outline of the vegetable garden is just approximate, but in reality is going to be about 200 ft by 100 ft (the white area next to the garden is a horse ring). 

I'll include more details about the vegetable garden tonight!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Beginning

It's February, the ground outside is covered with 3 feet of snow, and I'm inside sitting next to the fire trying to picture what tomato plants growing in the middle of Summer will look like. This isn't the first time I've spent a Winter afternoon staring out the window and dreaming about warm evenings and tank tops, but it is the first time that the seasons and their changes have been so important to me. It's the first time I've ever sat down with a calendar and figured out when the last frost is supposed to be, and when the ground will be dry. It's also the first time I've thought so much about soil, about nutrients and how many earthworms there are in a square foot of earth. I've only been seriously planning this small farming enterprise for a month, and already I feel as if I'm so much more aware of the land around me, even hidden as it is underneath all this snow.

The idea of having a small farm has appealed to me for a long time, but it wasn't until a couple of months ago that I began to seriously consider making this dream a reality. It all started when my boyfriend David Erickson and I moved up from Brooklyn to his parent's horse farm in Carlisle, Massachusetts at the beginning of last September. Both of us felt like we needed a change, but we weren't sure exactly what that change was, and so we decided to take a little time out and try some new things: a new place, new interests. We spent last fall busy with various projects. Dave got a wood shop up and running, we successfully roasted a 60 lb pig and I learned a little about butchering and about growing lettuce and kale in a greenhouse. When the new year came, both of us realized that we weren't ready to leave yet, we had become too excited about the prospect of really investing ourselves in the farm. And so, in the second week of January 2011, Black Brook Farm Growers was born. 

Here we are in February. Dave's gone to New York to work as a set lighting technician on Boardwalk Empire for the next couple of months, in order to make enough money to buy piglets and fencing. Meanwhile, I'm living in Massachusetts, where we both grew up, spending my days with seed catalogs. Luckily, surrounded by both our families, I have no shortage of help and support. My mom, Hasso Ewing, who has worked as a grower and landscape designer for years (and who has always wanted to farm) is very involved in this project, my dad, Bob Hannan, is excitedly designing our logo, and Dave's parents, Tom and Tammy Erickson, have been generous enough to give us free reign to use any horse-free fields their property has to offer, and have really made this all possible. We're going to plant about a half acre of vegetables, get a couple pigs, increase our flock of laying hens from 9 to 30 and build a mobile chicken trailer for a new flock of pasture-raised meat birds. The plan is to sell vegetables, eggs and hopefully some meat weekly at a couple farmers markets and see how we like the farming life, and if we're any good at it. 

Enough blogging, it's time to get back to planning about tomato plants in front of the fire.

Farming is fun!