Bonafide Farm

And then, it rained

July 22nd, 2014 § 2

I had just finished an hour of weed wacking in about 99% humidity—a good way to get toned and lose weight!—and was messing around with the chickens. I heard a strange noise approaching from the south. It sounded like the drone of machinery, and as a big truck had just gone by I figured that was what I was hearing. But then the noise grew louder, rolling in waves up the road, across the bridge, and finally over the cedars that mark my property line. By then it was upon me, and within half a second I was drenched with a sudden downpour.

The chickens were out, and I sprang into action trying to call them all into the coop. Half responded, and the other half, along with the two young pullets, huddled outside or tried to jam themselves through the netting to get under the coop. It was chaos, and a scene I would have happily run away from. But I knew that if all the birds got into the coop together there was a good chance that the bigger birds would attack the two pullets, and getting soaked to my underwear seemed like a lesser evil than returning after the rain to patch up bloody birds.

So through the driving rain I grabbed at tail feathers, the water sheeting off the roof of the coop and straight down my pants, into my boots. Ungracefully but efficiently I got everyone caught and tossed through the pop-door of the coop, and then closed it up. Then I ran around to the human door to sort the two young pullets out from the flock and lock them up in their dog crate inside the larger room.


I grabbed the day’s eggs, and my dog and I ran splashing though the instant puddles to the house. In just these few minutes Tuck had already gotten so wet that he couldn’t come inside, so I left him out to meet his fate while I stripped off my streaming, grass-caked clothes right in the foyer.

And then I realized that all the windows were open upstairs. So commenced a naked, slippery dash for towels to mop up the water that was everywhere inside. Some people maybe would have run to close their windows before securing their livestock, but the storm came up so fast that I prioritized on instinct, and the house lost. I just can’t be in two places at once, holding down this while that springs up over there.


Amazingly, it continued to rain as I regrouped in a hot bath, read through a couple New Yorker articles and drank half an Indian Brown Ale. When I came out of the bath I heard a sound I’d been missing for at least a month, the low mechanical hum of the sump pump in the crawlspace kicking on. I’d begun to think my pump was malfunctioning, I hadn’t heard it in so long. But now it was back with its entirely reassuring noise, and so was rain the likes of which I haven’t had here in many weeks.


Big deal, you think. It rained. But this rain was needed. In fact, I was about to publish a post about how everything is browned out and we’re running a rain deficit for these last two months. Just last night I was e-mailing with my dad, both of us bemoaning the water stress we were seeing in our trees. The grass in the lawn is about totally dead, and last week the drought got so bad that I ran my well way down applying emergency water to the completely wilted gardens—something I only do in dire straights. Whenever I run the water down so far it kicks up tons of red clay and silt, which clogs my water filter and reduces water pressure in the house to a trickle until I remember that this happens and replace the filter. At $30 a pop.


It’s about an hour after it begun and still raining. This pop-up storm mushroomed right over my house and seems to have stalled, thank goodness. The water is coming so fast and furious that it’s ponded everywhere. The compost is floating off the garden, my driveway is running down the road, and I can sense the relief of every growing thing, myself included, as its washed clean, cells plumped and replenished.



I never thought much about water until I had a farm. In fact, I hated rainy days. But now I know that water is everything and I hope for it, year-round. Tonight I, and every living thing around me, got lucky. Even if we also got soaked.

Doing and not doing

May 30th, 2014 § 1

For weeks I’ve been watching a little house wren sit on a tidy nest in a front-garden shrub. I’d found the nest with my spade raised to prise the bush from the ground for relocation. Four blue, brown-speckled eggs popped into view, tucked just inside.

Obviously, landscaping was postponed, and each day I checked on the nest, always expecting the eggs to be gone. They were precariously sited in a bush not two feet off the ground, easy pickings for a snake or raccoon or possum. I considered surrounding the bush with some sort of barrier, but knew that the only thing that would keep a snake out was fine netting. I learned my lesson last summer when a large black snake got stuck and died in the netting I installed to protect the garden from the chickens. So I chose not to intervene with the nest.

Without any “help,” the eggs persisted, and two days ago the mother wren didn’t fly off the nest when I approached. She flattened her body in place, with only her brave eyes moving, and I knew her eggs had hatched.

Yesterday I went out to feed the chickens and saw Tucker bent over something in the grass. I knew that posture. Immediately I checked the nest, and it was empty.

I went back to where Tuck had been standing and searched the dewy clover. I found two little bodies, perfectly bloodless and still warm. I picked them both up, and they curled together in the palm of my hand as they must have in the nest. I almost felt their hearts beating against my skin, but knew it was only wishful thinking. Nearby the mother bird swooped and chattered, scolded and cried.

I buried the babies in a scrape of dirt, and went on with my chores, silent and avoiding eye contact with my dog. Of course I was sad but I had no right to be angry. I knew Tucker was only doing one of his jobs, hunting. A wild baby bird in an ill-positioned nest is to him no different than a rabbit flushed from the wellhouse or mole dug out of the pasture, and all are fair, encouraged game.

As I’d wrapped up the chicken chores I moved some flats of seedlings out of the shed into the rain. I glanced down and saw that my crepe myrtle, still in its gallon nursery pot, had leafed out by several inches from the base.

Seems reasonable until I tell you that I’d tortured this plant all last summer, letting it go bone dry and sunburned, as I prevaricated about where in the ground to stick it. And then summer became fall became our incredibly cold and snowy winter, all during which the pot of dead sticks sat unprotected outside of the wellhouse.  I was disappointed in myself that I’d killed a perfectly good future tree by not being able to make a simple, timely decision, and just a few days ago I had accepted my crepe myrtle was toast and mentally pitched it on the compost pile.

But in that short interval between intention and action this forsaken plant had quietly, and on its own schedule, conveyed to me its plan to live.

Doing or not doing. Both are choices, and the joke of this choose-your-own-adventure is that we’re all just bumbling along. In a span of five minutes I got a perfect lesson in acting and not acting, and how each movement’s consequences can be both predictable and surprisingly unexpected.

I am going outside now to plant a crepe myrtle.

Flock management: Blue hands and bloody pliers

December 31st, 2012 § 0

For weeks now there’s been a mystery among the chickens. They’ve been losing feathers across their lower backs, sometimes so much so that they would bleed, attracting the other chickens to peck at their wounds. They’re too young to molt, and I didn’t find any symptoms of mites or lice, so I suspected the newly “active” young cockerel, Calabrese, of clumsy technique.


But the other day I noticed that even he was starting to get a ratty back. I picked him up by the feet and dug around in his tail feathers. I found a group of blood feathers (growing feathers with active blood supply still in their sheaths) that had been ripped off close to the skin and were bleeding.


Hmmm…the plot thickens.

I looked at the hens again and saw that only one had pristine feathering on her back: Iris, my broody hen. This surprised me, as Lilac has historically been the feistier hen and I’ve never seen Iris attack any of her coopmates. I was loathe to separate her from the flock because of the upset to their social dynamic, so I looked for other solutions. A quick internet search turned up a lack of protein as a possible reason for feather eating.

As a quick supplement I whizzed eight eggs, shells and all, in my food processor and cooked up a giant omelet.


I fed this to the birds as I caught them, one by one, for ministrations. I started with Calabrese, whose broken blood feathers were continuing to ooze and no-doubt attract more pecking from the flock. I pulled each out with my pliers.


Then I rubbed all the birds with blue food coloring, which tints their red skin and makes it less attractive to picking.


By the time that fiasco was over I had food coloring on my jacket, on the coop, my dog’s nose, and of course on my Smurf hands:


But triage is complete and now I must turn my attention to my flock husbandry, which is obviously lacking. I spent the better part of Saturday reading halfway through Harvey Ussery’s wonderful book, The Small-Scale Poultry Flock. I picked this up at the Mother Earth News Fair and just now have gotten in to it. That I can read it straight through like a novel is testament to Ussery’s writing. I think he gives the best advice on chickens that I have read anywhere—really practical stuff presented in a humorous, engaging tone. I appreciate Ussery’s wholistic outlook on keeping birds and his emotional sensitivity to creatures that are often regarded with the opposite of respect.

My reading confirmed what I already knew, that my birds were too closely confined, and bored. I let them out to range the yard and gardens about twice a week, but that’s obviously not enough to keep them happy. So now, in addition to feeding supplemental protein, I need to figure out a way to get the birds outside more often while still keeping them safe from hawks, foxes, dogs, etc. And, I need to take more advantage of the chickens’ manure and their pest-eating skills. And it wouldn’t hurt, what with the cost of feed, to have them hunt some of their own food.

I’ve got a nice compost pile just sitting in the woods, far enough from the coop that the birds don’t venture there.


And I’ve got a deer-fenced garden enclosure, reinforced with dug-in wire at the bottom, that’s now got nothing but a thick straw mulch on it to keep the soil organisms happy through the winter.


I wonder what would happen if I started composting directly in the garden, turning the chickens out in there each day to pick through the pile? The worm life would definitely benefit. The birds would be reasonably protected from ground predators, and if Tucker is outside he helps chase off any threats from the air. I just need to rig a semipermanent passageway from the coop to the garden so that the birds can travel back and forth, both for safety and egg laying, which happens throughout the day.

I’ll still let the chickens out to roam the pasture if I am around to supervise, but this might be a good way to solve the confinement problem I am having while putting the birds to work in the garden. It’s worth a shot.

And then when I do some more research and get some cash flow I will invest in an ElectroNet fence. With that I could have the birds work different sections of the yard without always worrying that they’ll be carried off by a fox. I think it would be good to erect the fence around the garden and run the birds in this “moat” after the garden has been planted and they can no longer be free in it. Perhaps they would help with the insect population if they were serving as ravenous alligators to any bug trying to crawl toward my vegetables!

Tucker’s first varmit (that I know of!)

November 12th, 2012 § 0

I spent five hours outside today cleaning out the garden for winter. I chopped down freeze-blackened plants, dug dahlia tubers for storage, pulled out tomato stakes, transplanted tender plants into pots for winter storage, and rewound chicken wire pea supports. I had all nine chickens penned in with me, and I believe they all thought they’d died and gone to heaven as they enjoyed a veritable banquet of bruised greens, displaced worms, slugs and the occasional black widow spider.

All day long Tucker had been worrying a pile of brush in the woods. It’s a spot that’s always fascinated him for some reason. It’s not large enough to shelter a fox, so I figured it must be home to some smaller critter. Whatever it was captured Tucker’s complete attention, and he spent three hours snuffling and digging in that pile with almost unbroken concentration.

I left the garden to grab something out of the garage and as I did, Tucker trotted out of the woods, head high, holding something in his mouth. Without me saying a word, he came right up to me, flung a creature at my feet, and collapsed into a happily panting pile next to it.


A rat! Tucker got a rat! And boy was he proud.

Turns out the rat wasn’t dead, just partially paralyzed. I tried to get Tucker to finish it off, but he just wanted to play.



He was surprisingly gentle with this creature, just batting it and lightly mouthing it. I am a little surprised he didn’t try to kill it immediately. Maybe he is inexperienced or just wanted a toy, or perhaps he saw the rat as a creature to be protected, as English Shepherds are wont to do? Maybe the countless hours we spent learning that baby chickens are to be guarded and not eaten translated to this rat? Who knows? Perhaps with this and his love of water, he really is a retriever in a sheepdog’s clothing?

Regardless, I forgot the first lesson of rodent handling, which I learned as a child keeping mice: don’t try to pick them up by the end of their tails! I tried to pull this little guy out of the grass and his tail skin came away in my hand with a rip. Gross, I know. Sorry. Just reporting the facts. It gets worse so if you are squeamish stop reading now.

I had heard of chickens eating mice, so I picked up the rat and threw it into the garden thinking my birds could use the protein. It got quite a lot of interest from the gang before Lilac commandeered it. She spent about ten minutes tossing it too and fro, nibbling its toes and divesting it of its eyes before she gave up and went on to munch less-challenging bugs. I think it was too big for her to find an easy way in. photo(77)Web

At this point the poor rat was still alive and had been tortured enough, so I dealt it a quick blow to the neck with a garden hoe and took it into the woods for the foxes to find. I did feel sad for it—a rat!—but this is pretty close to the way nature works. Proud Tuck, meanwhile, took up his post right outside of the garden door with a keen ear and eye on the woods.


In fact, not a second after I took this photo he was off like a shot to investigate some scurrying action in the leaves. What a good farmdog—in my book he earned his hunting merit badge today!

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