Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Alright, as usual these days I don't have a lot of time, so I'm going to jump right in...

With the addition of a new backyard dog fence, we've finally been able to let our layer hens really free range. We've been putting the dogs away mid afternoon every day and our chickens have been wandering around as they please. 

free chicken!

Our dark cornish chicks are getting really big and are almost ready to go out into the chicken tractor. We've moved the chicken tractor out into the pasture with the pigs and Dave's been making improvements, more on that later. 

 Meanwhile, despite some pretty crazy weather this June - 90 degrees one day and then 50 degrees, cold and rainy for the next five (thanks global warming!) - the garden is looking good.

Teepees for pole beans, and in the top right hand corner you can see where we've covered the kale with row covers - to keep pests away

Despite a rough stretch after transplanting (you can see that the lower leaves look kind of unhealthy) the new growth on this eggplant looks great!

baby pak choy 

a very happy looking tomato plant

...and baby tomatoes!

brussel sprouts
There's so much going on here everyday that I've had a hard time keeping up. I realized that I'd forgotten to mention that we've been selling at the Carlisle farmer's market all this month! It's been a slow start to the season for us, mostly because we were so behind tilling the field, but we've managed to have enough greens and eggs to hold our own. This last Saturday we had sugar snap peas, beets, lettuce, herbs, flowers and strawberry-mulberry and goat-cheese and dill scones.

We've also been selling our delicious eggs to a restaurant in town, 80 Thoreau, where they're featured on their farm salad. See the menu here

This weekend we're going to be one of the vendors at Old Home Day in Carlisle. In addition to our rapidly growing produce selection and scones, we're also hopefully going to be selling some of Dave's freshly baked bread. Come visit us if you can!

Lovely little sourdough loaves being proofed

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Three Sisters

Dave and I finally got around to planting something in the far field today. Even though we wake up at the crack of dawn, it never seems like the days are long enough.

We wanted to try growing a little bit of corn this year, just to see how it goes. In my permaculture (permaculture: a system of cultivation intended to maintain permanent agriculture or horticulture by relying on renewable resources and a self-sustaining ecosystem) book I've been reading about creating poly cultures, or in other words, companion planting. The idea is that instead of maintaining classically straight and monotonous rows of one kind of plant, you mix vegetables together that are mutually beneficial. One of the most famous guilds (plant combinations) is the Native American "three sisters": corn, beans and squash. The corn creates a trellis for the beans, the beans fix nitrogen in the soil and improve it, and the squash covers the ground and inhibits weeds. Together, these three plants create a better product, using less space and requiring less effort.

                                                                                         The Legend:

Οnce upon a time very long ago, there were three sisters who lived together in a field. These sisters were quite different from one another in their size and also in their way of dressing. One of the three was a little sister, so young that she could only crawl at first, and she was dressed in green. The second of the three wore a frock of bright yellow, and she had a way of running off by herself when the sun shone and the soft wind blew in her face. The third was the eldest sister, standing always very straight and tall above the other sisters and trying to guard them. She wore a pale green shawl, and she had long, yellow hair that tossed about her head in the breezes.
There was only one way in which the three sisters were alike. They loved one another very dearly, and they were never separated. They were sure that they would not be able to live apart.
After awhile a stranger came to the field of the three sisters, a little Indian boy. He was as straight as an arrow and as fearless as the eagle that circled the sky above his head. He knew the way of talking to the birds and the small brothers of the earth, the shrew, the chipmunk, and the young foxes. And the three sisters, the one who was just able to crawl, the one in the yellow frock, and the one with the flowing hair, were very much interested in the little Indian boy. They watched him fit his arrow in his bow, saw him carve a bowl with his stone knife, and wondered where he went at night.
Late in the summer of the first coming of the Indian boy to their field, one of the three sisters disappeared. This was the youngest sister in green, the sister who could only creep. She was scarcely able to stand alone in the field unless she had a stick to which she clung. Her sisters mourned for her until the fall, but she did not return.
Once more the Indian boy came to the field of the three sisters. He came to gather reeds at the edge of a stream nearby to make arrow shafts. The two sisters who were left watched him and gazed with wonder at the prints of his moccasins in the earth that marked his trail.
That night the second of the sisters left, the one who was dressed in yellow and who always wanted to run away. She left no mark of her going, but it may have been that she set her feet in the moccasin tracks of the little Indian boy.
Now there was but one of the sisters left. Tall and straight she stood in the field not once bowing her head with sorrow, but it seemed to her that she could not live there alone. The days grew shorter and the nights were colder. Her green shawl faded and grew thin and old. Her hair, once long and golden, was tangled by the wind. Day and night she sighed for her sisters to return to her, but they did not hear her. Her voice when she tried to call to them was low and plaintive like the wind.
But one day when it was the season of the harvest, the little Indian boy heard the crying of the third sister who had been left to mourn there in the field. He felt sorry for her, and he took her in his arms and carried her to the lodge of his father and mother. Oh what a surprise awaited here there! Her two lost sisters were there in the lodge of the little Indian boy, safe and very glad to see her. They had been curious about the Indian boy, and they had gone home with him to see how and where he lived. They had liked his warm cave so well that they had decided now that winter was coming on to stay with him. And they were doing all they could to be useful.
The little sister in green, now quite grown up, was helping to keep the dinner pot full. The sister in yellow sat on the shelf drying herself, for she planned to fill the dinner pot later. The third sister joined them, ready to grind meal for the Indian boy. And the three were never separated again.
Every child of today knows these sisters and needs them just as much as the little Indian boy did. For the little sister in green is the bean. Her sister in yellow is the squash, and the elder sister with long flowing hair of yellow and the green shawl is the corn.
–A Mohawk legend

First, Dave and I marked off a 20 by 25 foot space in the second field, and then divided it into six 20 foot rows with stakes and string.

Then, we marked the string every 5 feet to signal where to center our mounds. Mounding the soil is the traditional way to plant the three sisters, at least in this climate and soil, because it allows for better drainage. We staggered the spacing in adjacent rows. Before shaping the mounds, we dug a little hole and buried fish carcasses from my mom's freezer (you may remember from American History class that this was another Native American trick). Then, a scoop of compost on top of that, and then, finally, we raked the mounds. 

That's a flounder, in case you can't tell.

Dave is 1/32 Cherokee, in case you can't tell. 

The Final Product!
It's hard to take good picture of dirt.
In each mound we planted four corn seeds, 6 inches apart. The got a couple nice, soft summer rains this afternoon so hopefully they're off to a good start. We'll wait to plant the beans and squash until the corn is a little bit bigger, so the fast growing vines don't overwhelm the little seedling.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Chicken Processing Day (caution: not suitable for the faint of heart, or for vegetarians)

So it's been a pretty exciting and busy week in a lot of ways, but for now I'm just going to focus on what happened in the poultry world.   

We processed our Cornish X chickens last Thursday (which is a polite way of saying that we slaughtered and dressed them). These chickens have been quite a handful. Despite our best efforts, we've lost about a third of them over the last eight weeks. A handful died as chicks, either because they were weak or got smothered. Then, about a week after we put them outside, we had a very cold and rainy stretch towards the end of May. We think they were weakened by the bad weather, and that contributed to a number of them getting sick, most likely from a parasite called coccidia (we noticed bloody stool in their pen). Then, only two days from our scheduled chicken processing date, we had an exceptionally warm Tuesday and the chickens overheated. We went down to check on them after  lunch to find over a half dozen dead or dying. It was heart-breaking.

These incidents aren't very easy for me or Dave to talk about. We are responsible for these animals, and when they die there is no denying that it is usually almost entirely our fault. Mostly, we make ourselves feel better by telling each other how we will never make the same mistakes again - hopefully this is true. At the same time, we are getting better at coping with the feeling of loosing one of our animals. There's a cliche about how living on a farm brings you closer to understanding and accepting death - so far, this is true.

In this case, however, there is no denying that it wasn't just our inexperience that caused so many of these chickens to die. For our first experiment with meat birds we decided to get all Cornish X chicks, one of the most popular breeds of meat chicken. The Cornish X is bred to grow fast and large, which in turn makes them less hardy than other birds. Throughout the eight weeks we spent with these chickens, we couldn't help but to feel a little depressed about how helpless they seemed. Cornish Xs have a lower survival rate than other breeds of chicken, they suffer from leg problems and weak hearts, and due to their weight they are very inactive. We have vowed from now on to only buy heritage breed chickens. They might take longer to grow and may never get as big (and they contain less white meat, and more dark meat, which is okay with me), but Dave and I have agreed that we want to raise birds with better instincts. Our new chicks are all Freedom Rangers and Dark Cornishes.

As we stood and stared and swore at those seven dead chickens on Tuesday, I felt both guilt and anger. Look at how much food was being wasted! These were our biggest chickens (which probably explains why the heat gave them heart-attacks), they had been gorging themselves on our expensive organic chicken food for eight weeks! They probably totaled 40 lbs of delicious organic pasture raised chicken meat, and they were being thrown into the compost!

It was, by far, the worst day we've had to date.

By propping up one side of the chicken tractor to facilitate a cross breeze, and running an extension cord out from the house to the pen and setting up a fan, we were able to keep the chickens cool through the rest of the afternoon and into Wednesday, which was 95 degrees. Needless to say, we're planning on making some changes to the tractor.

Wednesday night we went to bed early. Dave woke up at 3:30 AM to get the scalder going, and then woke me up at 4:30 so I could help him finish setting up. The forecast Thursday said that temperatures were supposed to be near 100 degrees F, which we were prepared for, but we weren't prepared for the thunderstorms that consistently rolled through all day. Luckily, we had a tent for the farmers market that provided just enough shelter for the five of us (Dave, me, my mom and two friends) to stay mostly dry.

Dave cut up two traffic cones and built a stand for them, so we could safety hold the chickens upside-down while they bled out. To pluck the birds, we borrowed the scalder and the picker from another farm in town. The scalder fills with water and holds it at consistently 147 degrees F, which is hot enough to loosen the feathers on the bird without cooking it. When we tested it out on Tuesday, the scalder took an unbelievably long time to heat up, so Dave built an insulating wooden box to fit around it to help it reach and hold its temperature.  The picker is a cylindrical spinning machine that is filled with little rubber fingers. When the scalded bird is placed inside, the rubber fingers pick off all its feathers. The picker is attached to a hose so the feathers can all be washed out the back as the bird spins. The next step, the eviscerating, was done by hand.

Both Mom and I have done a couple processing days with Pete and Jen's Backyard Birds in Concord, Dave and I have been doing a lot of reading and I've dealt with my fair share of chickens and knives working in the food industry, so I felt confident that we could process these birds safety and cleanly. We made sure to keep all our surfaces hosed down and sanitized, and we got the dressed chickens iced as quickly as possible. Processing chickens is time-consuming and sticky work, but it was rewarding to know that we were finally producing our own meat.

Which brings me to my next point: when the chickens died needlessly because of a mistake that I made I felt awful, but when we killed them ourselves them on Thursday I felt nothing but confidence in the fact that we were doing the right thing. Yes, it's hard to slit a chickens throat, and yes, it can be kind of disgusting to gut it, but we had raised these chickens as humanely as possible, and we killed them as humanely as well, and if I'm going to be eating meat I feel as if this is something that I should know about and experience.

With that in mind:

CAUTION: some of these pictures are violent and there is also some blood.


Checking the temperature on the scalding box. We borrowed the box and the plucker from a farmer couple we know in town. Thank god, it would have been a pretty impossible task without them. 

The chickens we hung upside in the cones and Dave slit their throats and then let them bleed out into the buckets. 
Then we scalded them for about a minute.

Then they went into the picker, which spins the chicken around while pulling off its feathers with its black rubber fingers 
Next, we cut off their feet and heads and eviscerated the birds.  This is done by cutting a hole around the chicken's vent and extracting their digestive system, heart, liver and lungs. 


Heads and guts

After we were finished we immediately put the chickens into an ice bath to cool them down. Then, we went back over them with pliers and a hose to pluck out any stubborn feathers and do quality control (double check to make sure all the birds were properly gutted) before drying them off and bagging them up to go into either the refrigerator or the freezer.

We've grilled three chickens to date and they have all been delicious.

Monday, June 6, 2011

My last week in pictures

Installing the irrigation system

The transplanting begins! Lettuce...


Tomatoes, tomatoes, tomatoes!

The trellises start going in (thanks to Bob Hannan)

The eggplants must be covered to protect against bugs and wind

And this morning, baby chicks! Dark Cornishes, they look like little tigers