Ode to Jack and the turnip

It looks like this late turnip crop is going to be a good one thanks to cool temperatures and adequate rain fall.  I may even have some little ones ready in honor of Halloween this year, too, even though they will only be salad size.  What does the turnip have to do with Halloween you may ask?  Well, they just may be more authentic than that pumpkin on the porch.Finca and Round Bales

Pumpkins have been for sale for weeks and children have decided on costumes but somewhere in the middle of it all is the story of All Hallow’s Eve.   Halloween, as it is known today, has its origins in something a bit more interesting than just pumpkin carving and candy collecting.  In fact, the evening’s festivities marked the beginning of winter for the Druids, an ancient Celtic race.

The Druids were essentially reacting to a belief that the souls of the dead returned to wander among the living for one night.  The Druids would light huge bonfires and dress up to both acknowledge and scare the ghostly beings away from their homes.  When Irish immigrants came to North America they brought All Hallow’s Eve with them; their children brought the tradition of carving the Jack-o-lantern.

Irish legend has it that a drunkard named Jack was the first to carve a “Jack-o-lantern,” back in Ireland it was carved from a turnip.  One day Jack had a run-in with the devil and a legend was born.  After some shenanigans Jack managed to trap the devil up in a tree by carving a cross in the trunk; he then proceeded to make a deal with the Devil and bargained for his soul before he would allow the Devil out of the tree. The Devil promised not to take his soul, so Jack wasn’t going to hell but he wasn’t going to heaven either.  The deal resulted in Jack wandering between the two destinations, in eternal darkness.

When Jack crossed the devil’s path once again, the devil threw a hot ember at him out of spite for tricking him up that tree.  In his cleverness, Jack quickly hollowed out the turnip in his pocket and placed the ember inside.  He now had a lantern to light his way as he wandered for eternity.  The Scots called their turnips “bogies” which gave way to the term “bogie-man” as children ran scared with their turnip lanterns on the night of All Hallow’s Eve.  I wonder if this has something to do with the golf term “to bogey”.  Golf did originate in Scotland and a turnip and a golf ball and one over par……well, you can see where this is going.

Anyway, because of the availability and ease in carving, the pumpkin became the “Jack-o-lantern” of choice for Irish immigrants in the New World and this is the tradition that persists today.  Pumpkins have been around for a long time, dating back to 7000 BC in the highlands of Mexico where they were prized for their seeds.  The flesh of the wild species was bitter so they were harvested as gourds for use as storage vessels, rattles and utensils.  The flesh of the pumpkin was not used until after it had been cultivated for centuries.

The pumpkin became a staple crop, along with beans and corn, for many southwest and southeastern American Indian tribes and its appearance figures into many tribal creation stories.  The Iroquois creation story names the pumpkin as one of the three vegetables that Mother Earth provided for the people in order to survive.  It was grown among the corn that provided shade for the growing vine.  The pumpkin vine, in turn, acted as mulch for the corn and kept the weeds under control.

When the Pilgrims dined with the Wampanoag in the Northeast at the first so-called Thanksgiving they surely enjoyed roasted pumpkin seeds.  So, don’t throw away those pumpkin seeds after you carve your “Jack-o-lantern.”  Pumpkin seeds make a delicious and healthy snack.  Let the seeds dry well before roasting them in the oven.  Once dried, toss them with a little oil and salt.  Spread the seeds evenly on a cookie sheet and roast at 350 degrees until they are golden brown, tossing them about on the cookie sheet a couple of times in the process.  They are best when they are still a little bit warm.

 

 

October 22, 2014Permalink

Tall Grass Prairies, Tim Farmer’s Country Kitchen and the Belknap Farmers’ Market

prairie
prairie

This spring we took advantage of our prairie as quality grazing for the ewes and lambs.  It worked marvelously!  Lots of tall grass with no parasites (until they were shed by the sheep, of course. As Dr. Ray Kaplan says “if you have sheep you have parasites”).  The prairie gets burned each spring so we can have a fresh start each year as dormant parasite eggs will be destroyed. The prairie grazing did require some due diligence on my part.  Strips needed to be mowed for the electro-netting; lambs would sometime get lost in the tall grass (not for long, though) and we needed to monitor any foot injury from the burned out wild pear saplings that dot the landscape.  The regrowth of grass was fast once they were moved off a section; but we could not keep them on it once the grasses had reach a certain maturity because if became less palatable to them. With some easier fencing I could get more efficient use of the prairie; I will continue to perfect the system.  So far so good on the parasite load after a recent FAMACHA (monitoring anemia by checking the color of eye membranes) check. IMG_0949

Tim Farmer’s Country Kitchen

We were also featured on Tim Farmer’s Kitchen recently talking about raising sheep and chicken.  Tim and his wife Nikki are super nice; their daughter Kelly shot the video and does post production.  Here’s the YouTube video:  http://youtu.be/vv3mdHKmzMM

Belknap sign Belknap Farmers’ Market

The University of Louisville now has a new Belknap Farmers’ Market located at 3rd and Brandeis on campus.  We are there with lamb, chicken, eggs and fruit every Thursday from 3:30-6pm.  It is a full service market with prepared meals, vegetables, fruits, meat, eggs, canned and baked goods, bread and honey.  U of L’s commitment to community engagement welcomes everyone to the market.  The community, students, faculty and staff make this market fun!  Come see us, it runs through October. Here’s their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BelknapFM

June 21, 2014Permalink

Wiley Coyote gets a run for his money

Tuesday, 4:30 pm, after shedding my city boots for my country boots I head back out the door with my egg basket and a jug of water.  Our two livestock guardian dogs by my side we head back to the barn.  In the blink of an eye Baxter and Finca take off in full defense mode towards our hens and the barn.  Baxter takes the front and Finca takes the back.  And, to my bewilderment, a beautiful coyote is flushed from beyond and the dogs follow pursuit.  Wiley coyote hits the frozen lake and the dogs circle.

At one point Baxter (the Maremma who has remarkable speed) over shot the target and ran over the hill; meanwhile Finca (the Great Pyrenees who has might and determination) sat on the damn while Wiley Coyote sat down in the middle of the frozen lake.  I share the detail because I started thinking that this is probably the same creature I wrote about several months ago when we woke to an early morning pursuit between Finca and something (I was without my glasses at 3 am that morning so could not confirm what was circling a perennial bed with Finca in sleepy pursuit .)

That morning it seemed the creature was playing a game with Finca, a certain kind of Wiley taunt. I could imagine the creature thinking, “I can run in circles and wear this big white thing out!” I saw this yesterday; too, when this beautiful coyote sat down and looked at Finca as to say, “I dare you, again, big lumbering white thing!” at this point I am still an interested observer.  And, in fact, Finca did take the dare, and took to his pursuit on the icy lake.  Baxter shows up and the team successfully chases Wiley away.  At one point, even, Wiley literally tucked and turned tail when Finca got close.  I hope that Wiley understands that Finca and Baxter are not to be underestimated! And, I am happy to report that no chickens where involved in the incident.  Knock on wood, please.

Since it all ended well it lifted my spirits a bit; after all the ice and snow and cold and broken limbs and frozen water buckets- I needed a pick me up.  And at that moment I was glad there was all that snow and ice because I had a map to follow and study.  I compared the huge paw prints of the LGD’s and the small prints of the coyote at its various gates.  I could determine that Wiley was not just there yesterday being chased but I could follow the trail all about the orchard, around the berries and asparagus; and, amazingly, the tracks ambled a few 100 feet from the barn where 80 chickens where hanging out and about.

The next morning the dogs give Wiley a run for his money.  andy and I watched as Baxter and Finca chased the coyote about in our neighbors field.  It was a perfect view:  a northern snow covered slope with a brown coyote trying to evade our dogs.  Finally Finca pushed him far to the southern edge of their precieved territory.

So, if I could communicate with coyotes I would ask that they focus on the rabbit population.  Which, interestingly, next to the coyote tracks I followed were indeed rabbit tracks.  So, maybe some outdoor tracking is in your future, too.  Walk about and investigate and you may be surprised what you see left behind in the snow.  Is it a bird, a raccoon, a skunk or opossum? Maybe a fox or coyote is in your midst, too? I am starting to see nature’s designs everywhere I trek in the snow; it is a good winter distraction as we wait for the ice to melt.  And, I will remember that tracking in the snow is more fun than the mud that is to come!

February 16, 2014Permalink

Caught on the road moving sheep

Moving sheep to pasture
Moving sheep to pasture- My friend and neighbor Kim Heston snapped this photograph as I was trying to move the sheep across the road to fresh pasture.  They overshot the entrance so I was tempting them with their purple feed bucket to move in the direction I wanted.  Thanks to Kim and our Simpsonville mail carrier for stopping their vehicles in assist.  And for Kim’s great photograph.  

 

January 13, 2014Permalink

Winter settles in as we plan for a new year

Sheep spring 2013 027While the winter slowdown has not yet happened it does seem to be around the corner.  Or is that just wishful thinking?  At any rate winter is a time to regroup and plan for another year for the farm.  We have some serious infrastructure planning to do thanks to a grant from Animal Welfare Approved which will allow us to add some fox proof fencing for our free-ranging laying hens; and some improvements to our sheep pastures that will allow for more organized rotational grazing and sorting.  The AWA Good Husbandry Grant is not just financial support but a vote of confidence which really does propel us up to the next level as farmers.  We can build our infrastructure as we also grow emotionally and intellectually with our farming practices.  I know this may sound a little strange but farming is very emotional because at any moment things can go terribly wrong.  I am not suggesting that we have a fatalistic approach to raising animals, fruits and vegetables but for each species there lurks a threat.

We hedge our bets with fencing, livestock guardian dogs, movement, sunshine and rain, and vigilant observation.  This applies to sheep and potatoes alike. Observation reveals a happy lamb or a diseased potato plant.  If we see the happiness we know we are on track; anything to the contrary we need to act accordingly to address the situation.  Yes, we have blown it on occasion and missed the signs of distress but the lessons have never been lost on us.  I try very hard not to make the same mistake twice.lambs 2013

We had 26 lambs born this year, increasing our herd of Katahdins by nearly 100%; over 300 Freedom Ranger chickens made it from our pastures to local plates; and pints of fruit and dozens of eggs went out to our Egg CSA members.  Next year we take another step forward and grow the operation to meet both our desires to farm more and to address the growing demand for humanely raised food that relies on and contributes to our local economy. More eggs, more chicken, more lamb and we plan to try our hand at turkey for the first time.IMG_0714

There are two things that I go back to as I try to maintain a meaningful existence.  First is this idea that individual dependency on the whole reinforces accountability to one another.  We have lost some of this accountability because of the anonymity of the services we use daily.  My customers know where their eggs, lamb and chicken come from so you can be sure that accountability is easy to trace.  The other thing that keeps me grounded is articulated best in a quote from Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, “the way you know you are successful is do you still enjoy watching your animals.” I can say that this is usually the best thing I do on any given day.

December 4, 2013Permalink

We call it the “Fiesta”

We continue to challenge the threat of an aerial attack on the growing pastured broilers.  So many of you have been kind enough to lament my troubles with predation on the chickens that an update is in order.

080   I wrote earlier that I had let our Maremma livestock guardian dog out of his pasture where he patrolled for predators around the broilers and the sheep.  I thought maybe he would help to deter fox during the day around the barn area where we were having trouble with the laying hens.  This was not a real solution because it basically confused Baxter.  He had been trained (rather we reinforced his natural instincts) to stay on pasture with broilers and sheep.  If you go off routine with Baxter it makes him a little manic for a few days.

So, as the owls continued to pluck a chicken a night we decided to net the whole area; this was cumbersome because we move them weekly through the nut grove.

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We managed to break the cycle and finally return to an unnetted version with no fatalities for 21 days- several nights ago our winning streak ended and one got it! It was very foggy so we are thinking that this may have worked to the advantage of the very nearly silent owl that Baxter could not see.  Next night it happened again and there was no fog, plus owls are silent is the problem.  A new idea emerged and we decided on the “Fiesta”. I bought colorful  pennants to string between branches because the netting is now over the blueberries.  So on total we have lost 8 broilers to owls.  They go to the processor on Tuesday so a cleared field for a month may help to “reset” the simpatico of the farm and encourage the owls to move on; or not?  Plus, the “Fiesta” seems to be working, no fatalities since it was strung together.  IMG_0507

Our troubles did not end with the winged and four-legged eaters; seems snakes like to eat baby birds and chicken eggs.  Yep, of all things, one morning we look up at one of the barn swallow’s nest and there is a big rat snake wrapped around and in it (with a bulging mid-section).  This was the ultimate insult to the farm because we are named after the barn swallows!  We discussed the matter and decided that we needed to protect our investment and let us just say the snake is no longer in one piece.  Our brooder for baby chicks is also in the barn, right below where the snake is) and is about to receive 125 new Freedom Ranger chicks so it is critical to secure it from snakes.

So at the end of a couple of bad weeks Andy and I sat down to try and figure what the long term solution to some of our problems may be and we finally decided on another Livestock Guardian Dog that would be trained with an emphasis on the barn and home where the layers roam.  Of course my car broke down on the way to pick up a Great Pyrenees puppy but my neighbor Cindy Danehy came to my rescue and we came home with Finca.  Finca means farm or estate in Spain so it

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seemed fitting for this breed that was used by the Basque people over thousands of years. I have never been around a more laid-back puppy in all my life.  He was not afraid of the thunderstorm that hit overnight his first night here; never batted an eye at fireworks and has taken to his hens quite well.  I have the advantage of our old dog Buck who is proving to be an excellent teacher.  Buck never roams off property; does not chase chickens and will put Finca in his place when he doesn’t feel like playing.  He has even helped me teach Finca to stay and sit as the pup mimics the old man.  I vowed I did not want another mouth to feed and vet but this may be just the solution we need to secure our environment from predation threats to a reasonable end. In addition to Finca and the “Fiesta” setup we have going on for the broilers we added 2 Nite Guard devices.  Nite Guard is a small, solar charged blinking red light that activates at dusk.  The red light deters nighttime predators by making them think there is a predator already on the job. We shall see…..

July 17, 2013Permalink

Chicken Predation: Fox, Hawk and Owl

Please note, that the images here are only to make me feel better after a bad week of predation!  Dinners from the farm that include our pastured poultry, kale, sage lamb sausage from KyLamb, asparagus, eggs and sweet potatoes.  Eat real food and it will make you happy.- Jroasted Swallow Rail chicken, asparagus and potatoes Sunday dinner of kale. sweet potatoes and shirred eggs Kale pizza with lamb sausage

 

I value the guardian behavior of our animals as one is charged to protect the other.  We have house cats that are free to go outside; barn cats that mostly hang out in the garage; a companion red heeler mutt who rarely leaves my side; and a Maremma livestock guardian dog (LGD).  Baxter, the LGD, has challenged our thinking in owning dogs.  He has reinforced that animals follow their instinct above all else.  He is not a pet, rather a worker that is a critical component to keeping our farm alive.

And, to that point, this week has been a challenging one.  On Tuesday morning, after doing morning rounds to open the barn and check on the pastured poultry, Andy says there is some good news and some bad news.  I get butterflies in my stomach when he says that.  Apparently after our 75 laying hens were freed from the security of the barn for the day a fox did a morning grab?  Two dead just south of the blueberries;  I was charged with disposal but by the time I got back there they had returned to actualize the meal.  I was glad they returned to take the birds because I would rather they not go to waste, plus this was how we were able to determine the likely predator as fox.  Dogs kill for sport; fox kill for sustenance.  Oh, and the good news, Andy added, was that our 102 Freedom Rangers (a chicken breed we raise for meat) down in the nut grove looked great.

So, during the day on Wednesday, while I was away, it seems the fox returned.  There were additional 6 or so scenes of struggle.  Not every pile of feathers corresponded to a dead hen; and there were several missing their tail feathers (sort of like a lizard.)  By our best count I think we lost 4 or 5 hens that day and all I kept thinking is that the fox will keep coming back if I don’t do something.

So, yes, we live with constant anxiety over who might be dead in the morning-or afternoon!  To allay this anxiety we have employed Baxter to the nut grove to patrol the area where our pastured poultry are rangeing inside of an electrified fence.  He does a great job keeping the fox from even thinking they can take a chance.  But on Thursday morning it seems that our configuration was a bit off.  The nut grove is perfect for free-ranging chickens because the trees actually deter aerial attacks by hawks.  Well, it seems the way we arranged their little A-frame shelters allowed for a clear aerial path between the row of nut trees and 2 little Rangers got it.  The viscera was left behind which is an indication of a hawk strike.  This batch of Freedom Rangers was special because up until Thursday morning we were at 100% success rate.  102 chicks came in the mail and we still had 102 chicks at 1 month.  Damn that hawk?  Or is it our faulty configuration?

Okay, now it is Saturday morning, a lamb is born on the 15th anniversary of my my father’s death due to prostate cancer.  I like the idea of rebirth so this marked the occasion well.  But, as I was checking on the lamb Andy was noting we had a problem again from the other end of the pasture.  3 more broilers dead!  No heads or neck!  We finish the chores and I head to Lexington to sell my blueberries.  There I described my dilemma to 2 seasoned poultry farmers and both immediately said OWLS!

So, ultimately it is playing out like this:  Baxter was being freed from his pasture patrol in the morning to go back to the barn area as I pick blueberries to maybe deter daytime fox predation?  Now we are going to ride it out for a few days and just keep them in the barn.  The broilers in the nut grove are going to get a netting strung between 4 trees to thwart an aerial attack…..or that’s the plan at least.

June 15, 2013Permalink

The Swallows Return to the Barn

IMG_2838Swallow Rail was the name my Dad gave the farm over thirty years ago.  He wanted it to be relevant, reflecting the spatial and natural qualities of his 18 acres in Western Shelby County.  His inspiration came from the swallows that swoop and swerve so adeptly in open fields, catching insects on the fly.  The rail of Swallow Rail comes from the two railroad tracks that flank either end of the road.

The name he chose remains as true today as it did thirty years ago; almost more.  The swallows still fly and the trains still run.  We value our swallows and it is remarkable how the population has rebounded from the years after daddy died and before the barn was opened back up for active use.  For 5 years if was mostly closed, storing a smattering of equipment; for over 5 years now it has been opened at both ends at daybreak to release the hens and closed at nightfall to protect them.  This time of the year we must also honor the swallows’ timing as the return to their nests for the night.

They fly about in rapid movement; sometimes I flinch because they come so close and at such great speed.  If they were bats catching insects I would be uneasy but because they are the swallows I feel a sense of comfortable familiarity; and that they belong here more than anyone else.  They are doing what they do best, out there in the field catching insects on the fly.  They know exactly how to manipulate their bodies to move this way or that.  Tail forked, pointed or fanned; wings outstretched or pulled close to their bodies, their flight truly is an aerial acrobat.  Swallows are one of the few birds that are entirely insectivores and they have all the moves to catch as many insects as possible.

The barn swallow is the only swallow that has a “swallow-tail”, a term that has come to mean deeply forked.  The colorations also make this bird easily identifiable (which is helpful to me because I am not a very good birder).  As they jet through the air you can catch glimpses of its blue-black back; the underside is buff-colored to cinnamon with a slightly darker throat; and then, of course, that amazing forked tail.

The barn swallow is most common but there are others including the tree swallow that has entirely white under parts; the cliff swallow has a rust-colored rump and a squared tail; the bank swallow is marked by its brown back and dark band that runs across its otherwise white breast; and the much desired purple martin, which is the largest of the swallows and has an entirely blue-black body.

To date we have about a dozen families nesting in the barn this year.  They swoop in one door and out the other end or perch a while on the rafters as they prepare their nests or tend to their babies.  I am watching 3 glean in flight just outside the window now, in the late morning.  Later this afternoon they will perch on a utility line above an open field and pond before they take their last flight for the day.

We so often do not take the quiet time to simply sit and observe.  Watching the swallows- or any other species for that matter- reinforces the reality that there is an extraordinary balance in the natural world.  I do not need to put out a hummingbird feeder full of sugar water if I let the native wild flowers grow on the dam.  The grove of catalpas in the middle of the back field makes it a perfect place for my little Eastern King Bird who watches from her perch for an insect meal. Her tail fans out and she shows off the unmistakable white band that allowed me to identify her.  I am often mesmerized by her moves because she hovers just above the grass with her wings out stretched, fluttering like a heavy butterfly or a papery puppet on a string, until she goes in for the snatch.   And, those amazing swallows that are worth keeping the barn doors open for.

 

June 5, 2013Permalink

The Spring Lamb Crop

lambs 2013Our lamb crop for the spring of 2013 totaled 23.  We had all twins including 2 sets of triplets.  All of our lambs presented perfectly with nose and two front hooves headed out first!  I was worried about #1065, my big ewe who had a little trouble with her first twins last year.  She was huge this year so we suspected triplets and that is exactly what she delivered under the night sky with the constellation Orion’s Belt above us.  We call her triplets Orion’s Belt!

We gave our ewes 3 cc of BoSe 2 weeks before lambing, the extra selenium (due to their all-grass fed diet on generally selenium deficient soils here in Kentucky) helps with muscle tone and therefore ease of delivery.  It also can help off-set white muscle disease in lambs due to selenium deficiencies.  One ewe (our Houdini-girl because she always slips away) did not get the injection so I gave each of her twins a .75 cc of BoSe at 3 days.  One of the Orion triplets exhibited some signs of wmd at about 1 month- looking a little puny, getting up and down and a hunched over appearance (not constipation because I saw him poop pellets)- so he got .75 cc of BoSe as well.  We are always mindful of selenium overdoses with lambs and never give more than .75cc.  lambing 2013 065

Look forward to about 13 ram lambs for the fall harvest.  If you would like to be on the “Lamb List” to be informed of the harvest email me at JWiche@Shelbybb.net.

 

May 28, 2013Permalink

The Chicken or the Egg?

Rangers at 9 weeksYes, the age old question about which came first springs to mind this time of the year as the stores start to stock the shelves with chicken raising paraphernalia.  We had a total of 130 chicks in brooders in the basement and barn this early spring. It was not a warm season so we were met with many new challenges.  The Brown Leghorns and Araucanas that have joined our other laying hens are thriving after being brooded in the basement; the 100 Freedom Rangers now totals 95 after spending a week too long in the brooder due to 22 degree nights! They content today in the nut grove but it was a season mounting in stress for all of us.  I learn something new each season as the variables of animal and Mother Nature are never the same.

We have turned chicken farmer in less than 5 years from keeping our first chickens.  I had wanted chickens so my friend and neighbor Kay Yount gifted me a dozen of her mature Barred Plymouth Rocks in the spring of 2008; the following spring, on my 40th birthday, we were brooding our very first batch raised from day old chicks.  How does one go from raising a few chickens for eggs to raising enough to sustain a small broiler and egg business, you ask?

I will attempt to answer that question for myself as we navigate our second year of raising animals for food.  My first thought on the matter is that I really like food and I take what happened to this food before it reaches the table very seriously.  This includes animal, vegetable, mineral, water, worker, environment- the whole lot of what it takes to turn something into sustenance.  Okay, so the second thought (which is only now becoming evident after being engage in animal husbandry) is that the very hard work of carefully raising living creatures is not for cheap and convenient eating but for mindful living.

I have pondered, too, that perhaps our disconnection from the actual processes of procuring, raising and transforming edibles into edibles has left us disconnected with one another.  When it took the collective help of neighbors to get the fields planted, cultivated and harvested we were accountable to one another; we valued each other’s successes because it was a reflection of ourselves.   To help your neighbor was an investment because the favor was often returned in short order.

Basket of fresh figsSo, back to raising food for ourselves today:  try it in the garden, with some hens for eggs or a few broilers for the table.  If you keep them alive long enough to reap the rewards you will learn to value food in a way barely imaginable by most who eat with no thought as to where their food came from before the cellophane wrap.  It is so easy to eat today, just go to the grocery and pop it in the microwave?  Drive-thru?  Instead, consider playing a little role in what keeps you alive and healthy.  In just a few weeks you could be planting potatoes and onions; maybe raising some chicks that will give you eggs in 6 months (yes, it is an investment in many things including time and patience).

We are at the threshold of another growing season.  Grow something…animal, vegetable, mineral, mindfulness, horseradish, whatever!

 

 

April 24, 2013Permalink