I Need to Get This Off My Chest

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Since I started blogging back in 2012, I’ve only written one non-farm-related post. That was right after my best friend, Maggie, died suddenly. She and I had made it a habit, sometimes verging on a game of literary Tag, to include one another in our blogs, so it seemed only proper to write about her one last time.

Now, I’m compelled to venture away from farming once again.

Sometimes stuff happens in life and we are utterly out of control. My recent breast cancer diagnosis has had this effect on my life, making everything a little more difficult in the immediate and promising to make everything A LOT more difficult for a bit in the very near future.

I am hoping to get the surgical portion of this program over with in the next couple of weeks, moving on to the reconstruction portion right after that, and then easing into the I-used-to-have-cancer-but-I chopped-off-the-offending-appendages-and-now-things-are-pretty-much-okay portion of the process with grace, style, and possibly a sassy new hairdo.

As someone who had two home births to avoid even the suggestion of a hospital or doctor invading my personal space, I am heading into foreign territory, to be sure. I am, however, surrounded by a community that has proven to be so overwhelmingly supportive and loving that I feel about as lifted up as any human has a right to feel.

A CaringBridge page has been started and maintained by my excellent and funny brother and a YouCaring page has been started and maintained by my lovin’ man. The mind-bending generosity of family, friends, and acquaintances has gone a crazy-long way toward helping us handle the financial burden that such illnesses bring (political rhetorical side question: How broken is our healthcare system when we are forced to resort to crowd-funding for life-saving surgery?). 

Gratitude. Gratitude. Gratitude.

All of this is by way of explanation as to why there will likely be a dearth of farming blog posts from me this summer. It’s a terrible time to abandon the farm, literally and literarily, but sometimes these things can’t be avoided.

I’ll catch up with y’all once this whole ordeal is over and I’m back to my old self (with the notable addition of a gravity-defying replacement rack), but now I just need to get this off my chest.

 

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Hand-Hatchlings

A couple of our hens went broody a little over a month back.

Because chicken eggs take three weeks to hatch, it isn’t uncommon for additional eggs to be added to the original clutch along the way. The sitting mama will leave her brood to eat or drink and another hen may seize the opportunity to lay an egg right into the broody’s nest.  The problem here is that the new additions aren’t on the same schedule as the original bunch and, once hatching begins, the late joiners can be left behind.

This is what happened to us.

Brahma Mama hatched out four of her eggs, waited a day, and then moved off the clutch to start to teach her new hatchlings how to scratch and peck and be generally chicken-y.

We knew the remaining three eggs had to be within a week of hatching, so we quickly moved them into our incubator to give them a second chance and, a couple of days later, they started pipping.

Pipping is when the chick starts to break through the shell.  Once pipping starts, the chick will usually emerge fully within a few hours. It is important to pay attention, however, because sometimes the chick doesn’t emerge but, instead, gets stuck inside the egg and can’t get out. If it takes too long, the membrane just inside the shell will become tough and rubbery and the little chick won’t ever be able to get out–it will die in the shell.

The rule of thumb is 24 hours. From the time of the pip, if the chick hasn’t hatched in 24 hours, it really isn’t going to. When that happens, it’s time to hand-hatch.

IMG_5804Hand-hatching is, essentially, unwrapping the new chicklet. This requires patience, a steady hand, and the dexterity of a mouse surgeon. The work is incredibly delicate and the possibility of damaging the chick-ball inside is super high.

Starting at the pip-point and holding the egg in a warm washcloth, you carefully peel away the shell entirely around the circumference of the egg (“unzippering”). Once the shell is removed, the thin membrane between the shell and the chick is carefully unzippered as well.

I use flat-tipped tweezers to avoid puncturing the bird and frequently clean them in warm water. I dab the tips before going back for more membrane, however, to avoid inadvertently putting drops of water into the chick’s beak and drowning it (yep, that’s a thing).

Once the membrane is fully unzippered, the “cap” of eggshell is gently removed. At this point, if the chick is animated at all, I will place the uncapped egg back in the incubator and allow the chick to finish hatching on her own.

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Chick-ball

One of our incubator rescues hatched entirely on her own, but the other two needed to be fully hand-hatched.

The difference between chicks hatched naturally (under a chicken) and chicks hatched in an incubator is fairly significant. Add to that the insult of not even being able to break through an eggshell unassisted and you’ve got yourself a pretty unimpressive start to life.

The best possible next step for the hand-hatchlings is to be adopted by a recently broody hen, but this is a hit-or-miss proposition.

Since we had a recently broody hen handy, we thought we’d give it a shot.

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Fluffing out

Placing the damp and bedraggled chicks into a brooder (a container lined with pine shavings under a heat lamp) for about a day allowed them to figure out how to use their legs and fluff out a bit.

The next night, when Brahma Mama and her four chicks were settled in and calm, we took the three brooder chicks out into the yard where they were set-up in our chicken tractor.

We carefully tucked each chick, one at a time, under the Mama and watched for a few minutes to ensure that she didn’t immediately reject them and start pecking at them or hurting them. Since the evening was pretty chilly, we needed to make sure she would allow them under her or else they would definitely have died overnight from exposure.

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Safe and content

Everything seemed alright at first, so we left them alone.

When we checked back an hour later, all seven chicks seemed to be safe and content with Mama.

This is definitely the best-case scenario as not all hens will even care for the chicks they hatch themselves, much less interlopers looking for a quick adoption.

It’s been over a week now, and all seven babes seem equally healthy and hardy. There are four yellow birds and three black ones and I genuinely could not tell you which were hand-hatched at this point.  That would not be true if the mama hadn’t taken them in–they’d be behind the others both physically and developmentally in a way that they just aren’t now.

IMG_1429And, of course, they are ridiculously cute (but they’d have been that either way).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mother’s Day Brunch

After about 25 years in restaurants, I can safely say that Mother’s Day brunch is the worst possible shift the industry has to offer. It is stressful for a number of reasons, but mainly because EVERYONE thinks that THEIR mother is somehow older, more frail, more needy, you name it, than everyone else’s mother. We actually had a script in the last restaurant that employees could use as Mother’s Day approached to tactfully deal with people who had “extraordinary” needs for that particular Sunday brunch.

So, waking up on Mother’s Day and not having to even think about working that unenviable shift is a gift in and of itself. The farm, however, had it’s own little Mother’s Day surprise today.

As it turns out, something is eating our chickens.

It started about two weeks ago when, in the middle of the night, the dogs woke us up in an insane frenzy of barking.

The middle-of-the-night barkfest is not an exceptionally rare occurrence, but this one was different. There’s a quality to the barking that is more desperate when THE THING triggering the barking is unusual. This amped-up howling roused us, and got us out of bed and to the windows. It was hard to see whether anything interesting was out there, but the dogs weren’t calming down, so we keep looking.

After a few minutes, I saw one of our Brahma hens careening, full bore, out of the coop (which we only then realized we’d never closed up for the night) followed immediately by what was, presumably, a hungry fox.

Dave grabbed some shoes and a dog and ran after them, following a trail of feathers, only to arrive at the scene of the crime in time to find a freshly-dead hen.

That was the first one.

We really felt that was largely our fault for having left the coop open overnight. It was a veritable poultry buffet in there and any predator worth his or her salt would have accepted our inadvertent invitation to eat our chickens.

The next one happened right in the middle of the day, though.

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*poof*

Sometime between Dave going out to the hoop house to water the seedlings and me getting on the tractor to mow (about an hour, mind you), something made off with another bird.

This time, there was no carnage, just a tell-tale scattering of feathers where mere moments before there had been a bird.

So, that was the second one.

Now, here I will interrupt the story to explain that we are currently in the midst of Broody Hen Season. This occurs every spring when, one by one, certain hens decide that they are going to hatch some eggs and nothing anyone says or does is gonna change their minds.

For the past couple of weeks, two of our hens (one Brahma and one Olive Egger) have been sitting on eggs in the garage barn.  The Brahma set up camp in the back of a dog crate and the Olive Egger hunkered down on some eggs in a cat carrier on the floor. They chose these spots, rather than in the relative safety of the chicken coop, because they are complete and total morons.

Of course, the dog crate and cat carrier are in the top five of Favorite Places for Hens to Lay Eggs these days. This means the broodies have monopolized valuable real estate and the laying hens have to find new digs. The only way we can prevent the laying hens from simply climbing in with the broodies and laying right into their egg clutches is to close the carrier doors until after everyone has laid her eggs for the day. At that point, we open the little gate doors for the broody mamas to be able to come out for food, water, and pooping.

We leave the carrier doors open overnight and then close them back up in the morning when the process begins again.

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Not brunch

When I went out this morning to open the coop and close up the broodies, all seemed well. The dogs had been calm overnight and so I had absolutely no preparation for what I was to find when I went into the garage barn.

Brahma Mama was alive and well and sitting on her clutch in the back of the dog crate, but the cat carrier was overturned. There were FEATHERS. Everywhere. There was such a profound magnitude of chicken shit it looked as though there had been a well-attended Teach Your Chickens to Shit in a Giant Pile seminar overnight in the space.

The overturned cat carrier was chicken-free and the egg clutch was cold and no longer viable.

Someone had gotten themselves a free Mother’s Day brunch and I imagine the Olive Egger felt briefly like a tortured restaurant worker.

At least it was a short shift.

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Crying Fowl

Since the moment we started farming, we have cheerfully and gratefully taken in rescues and castaways of all descriptions.

IMG_1287We started with a flock of Rhode Island Reds we found on Craigslist. Driving almost an hour to collect them, we didn’t realize what we would encounter when we got there. The asking price ($2/bird) seemed a little to good to be true, but we wanted to start somewhere.  It turned out that these birds had been slated for factory farming and had already had their beaks clipped.

At first, this made me really sad. Then, after about a week of having them on the farm, I saw what it really meant to give a creature a second chance. Despite the beaks being clipped, they were able to peck and eat and forage; the free-ranging and organic feed turned their eggs from anemic and watery to rich and deeply colored; even their feathers seemed to brighten and shine.

DSC_0001That was almost four years ago and now our flock of roughly 50 chickens has diversified to eight or nine different breeds and a daily collection of eggs that looks like an orbicular artist’s palette.

Then, when we started to think about keeping goats, we heard from a woman who was going through a divorce and couldn’t keep her beloved doe, who happened to be pregnant. We happily adopted her (the goat, not the divorcee) and eagerly awaited her babes. Of course, not long after her kids were born, another local friend wondered if we’d like to take in her doe as well.

Of course we would.

Somewhere in there, yet another friend was having a bullying problem with her ducks and roosters. One poor duck was the victim of vicious roostering shenanigans and something had to give. Until this point, I had been vehemently anti-waterfowl. After all, we don’t really have a consistent source of natural water on our farm, and ducks are obnoxiously noisy, and I don’t even like duck eggs.

None of that got in the way of us taking two ducks on as well.

So, when I got a text last weekend that said simply, “Hey Laura! Would you like guinea hens?” I knew what was next for us on applewood farm.

DSC_0020We were given three guinea fowl (or The Italians, as they’ve come to be known), and they are the most delightful and fascinating living versions of Muppets we’ve ever seen.

They move like mini vultures, hunched and graceful, and their feathers are a speckled grey-purple that any fly-fisherman worth his or her salt would pay good money to use for tying flies.

Watch them for any amount of time and you just KNOW that Jim Henson must have encountered some of these birds in his travels.

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Our confusion

They are quirky and odd; they are majestic and weird. I was instantly in love.

The very best part? A group of guinea fowl is called a confusion.

I’m a big fan of collective nouns. There are so many wonderful ones.  It started when I learned that a group of crows was called a murder and went on from there.

Among my favorites are an exaltation of larks and an unkindness of ravens–now I get to add a confusion of guinea fowl to the list.

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Horrible

A few people warned me that guinea fowl are cacophonous creatures whose nonstop, discordant crying would make me wish I’d stopped at ducks. The truth, however, is that they are absolutely lovely. They are no noisier than any of our hens, quieter for sure than our roosters, and considerably less annoying than the horrible geese who live two houses over and honk like the world’s worst car alarm, day and night.

The calls of the Italians vary depending on the time of day and, seemingly, their state of mind.  If it is daytime and they are calm, they can sound like mewing cats. If they become agitated, the calls morph into the sound of dogs chewing squeaky toys. At night, they are almost entirely silent except for the occasional conversation that best mimics a group of rocking chairs creaking in unison.

But, mostly, they move quietly through the day eating ticks and spiders and anything else that comes their way.

Maybe we can get them to eat the neighbors’ geese.

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Spinning Out of Control

I had absolutely no intention of spinning honey today.

I hadn’t even planned to check on my bees, really, but then I noticed that one of the hives had an alarming absence of activity.

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The ineffectual security system.

Upon closer inspection, I saw that the mouse guard had been moved from the entrance and when I dug around the main entrance, I was greeted by the wreckage of thousands of bees.

Now, unless the bees themselves moved the mouse guard so they could collectively decompose in a pile at the foot of the hive, my guess was that we had company.

Uninvited, unbidden, bee-murdering company.

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Chateau de Souris

While this hive had been alive and well just a few weeks ago, today it was a buzz-free crime scene. When I opened it up to take a look, my worst fears were realized. The hive was silent and, as I disassembled super after super, I encountered at least three complete nests, four scurrying field mice, several ruined frames, and a whole lotta honey.

The mayhem unleashed within the hive body by these miniscule morons is impressive, to say the least.

Now, not every mouse that moves into a hive will destroy the hive. Since bees focus all their energy on caring for the queen throughout the winter months, a mouse that gets in will live fairly unimpeded, eating honey and wax and hunkering down until spring. Once the weather warms up, however, an unlucky mouse will find itself the subject of a bee onslaught reminiscent of Hitchcock’s birds.

Our mice fared much better.

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The aftermath

It seems as though these guys managed to work their way through the one super that happened to be housing the whole colony. While this devastated the bees and did extensive damage to the frames, it did leave a significant stockpile of honey that I had no choice but to spin.

And this is where a perfectly pleasant day turned impressively haphazard in a short couple of hours.

I guess I’d never appreciated how much organization and planning a day of spinning out honey required. After today, I feel it is fair to say that one should not “hurry up and spin some honey.” Because that’s what I did.

I quickly unpacked and washed the equipment, shlepped the honey-heavy frames up to the deck, filled a bucket with hot water, and dropped a couple of frames into the spinner.  I started trying to crank the arm when I remembered that I needed to secure it to the ground for stability, so I hammered a few nails through the feet and resumed spinning. A moment later, it occurred to me that I’d completely skipped the step of uncapping the honey (this is especially important if one wants the honey to be released from the frame) and was simply giving the frames a county fair-style ride.

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Wood slats and foundation wire and beeswax, oh my!

Once the frames were appropriately uncapped and spinning, things really started to go south. I’d assembled a number of new frames back in the autumn and had, apparently, used the wrong size nails.

This resulted in frame after frame simply falling apart in my hands, leaving me with dripping, sticky hunks of honeycomb that couldn’t possibly be spun.

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Superglue is my friend

As the frustration mounted, I persevered and, as I started to spin the next frames, one of my plastic spinner lids popped right off and cracked in two–one half flying across the deck and the other dropping INTO the spinner.

I did not start crying.

But I was losing daylight and the temperature had really started to drop. All I could do was start a fire in the wood stove and move the whole operation inside. The only way this project would ever be complete was if I was able to warm everything up enough to allow the honey to really flow.

I enlisted the help of my daughters to hold the spinner steady while I cranked the handle and, eventually, we got through the whole slapdash production, warts and all.

 

imagesLosing a hive is depressing. It is not the end of the world, however, and I will make a split of another hive at the end of May and start again.

But this time, I’m paying the cats extra to sit sentry.

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Spring has Sprung

When we were kids, our dad would always mark the arrival of spring with one of his typically silly sayings. It went like this:

“Spring has sprung, the grass has riz, I wonder where the flowers is!”

While it is only mid-March and anything can happen, weather-wise, between now and summer (e.g. blizzard, ice storm, mud slide, swarm of locusts, etc.), the signs of spring are everywhere you look.

Not poop

Not poop

It is times like this that we realize what a gift it is to live on a small farm where nature offers up a bounty of edibles that is ours for the taking.

The chickens are laying prolifically and, from time to time, even in places where we are able to find the eggs! After a long winter of feeling like we were feeding chickens only so that they could poop with reckless abandon on every outdoor thing we own, finally getting some eggs seemed like a real boon.

The sap flowed generously from the sugar maples and has been boiled down into lovely syrup.

Tree juice

Tree juice

Even though we missed an entire week of sap collection, we still felt like the trees were giving it their all and making sure we’d have syrup all through the year.

We don’t have enough trees to justify a tubing system, but tapping six or seven trees each year seems to provide us with what we use as a family, which is pretty cool.

Even considering the budding of the fruit trees, the pushing through of the garlic and flower bulbs, and everything else spring has to offer, the best part, without question, is the moment I know for certain that all my bee hives have survived the winter.

All is well.

All is well.

Several times throughout the winter, I’ll go up to the hives and press my ear up against the side to listen for the audible vibration of the hive body. Sometimes it is loud and clear, other times I am sure there is no sound and the hive must have died. It is difficult to wait for a warm and sunny day to open the hive just a little to have a look and see what’s what.

The best possible sign, however, is activity around the front of the hive.

Spring is a dangerous time for bees, though. The weather begins to warm, but there are no flowers in bloom and food is scarce.  This is the perfect time to supplement their food supply with bee patties, but we’ve also noticed that the bees thoroughly enjoy the dust that sifts out of chicken feed and cracked corn.

The chickens wisely avoid their feeder when it is swarming.

Pathetic garlic shoots

Pathetic garlic shoots

It has been a tough winter and spring for our garlic which, although sprouting, looks about as bedraggled as I’ve ever seen a garlic crop look.

We will keep our fingers crossed that the upcoming warm and sunny days will correct the damage done by the one-two punches of cold-hot, cold-hot, cold-hot…

It is a busy time for us now–seed planting will be happening soon, the garden needs tilling and the soil needs amending. Before we know it, the chickens will go broody and we’ll start seeing new chicks hatching all over again. It is a time of renewal and of hope.

DSC_0020And there the flowers is.

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Pig Nest

This past Sunday, we finally finished the last two pigs from our original Gang of 14.

We really should have finished them sooner, but time hadn’t been cooperating. And when you only have two pigs left, you have to be able to finish them together; you can’t leave one pig all alone. They are far too social and, in winter, they need each other to help stay warm.

DSC_0039This winter has been significantly milder than the previous two. We’ve seen only a handful of days with below-zero temperatures and snow has been infrequent at best. Still, it’s a rough gig being a naked pig on icy-cold nights.  As the days passed without us finding the time to organize a kill, I wondered how our last two ladies were managing.

Turns out, pigs have mad skills in the HVAC department. I knew they were excellent at keeping cool in the summer through their deliberate and totally obnoxious use of water (spilled out of their drinking troughs) to make refreshing mud baths, but how they kept warm in winter seemed more of a challenge to me. So, I skulked around them for awhile to see what they’d been up to.

Five words: Coarse hair and pig nests.

When you finish pigs yourself (as opposed to sending them out to an abattoir), you see everything from the death to the scalding/scraping to the hanging/evisceration to the butchering. The scalding/scraping part is the hardest because you need to lower the animal (usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 lbs.) into a tub of scalding water to loosen the skin and hair enough to make scraping possible. You then need to lift it back out of the tub and onto a table where you scrape off every last bit of skin and hair.

In the summertime, this is pretty easy. The skin stays warmer longer and the delicate hair doesn’t provide much resistance. It’s a better job for colder weather, however, because being able to hang the pigs in 25 degree temps allows us to work without the pressure of time (no flies, no danger of the meat getting too warm) as well as allowing us to hang the animals until we are ready to butcher.

Bad hair day

Bad hair day

A pig in 25 degree temps, however, has grown long, luxurious locks of wavy, coarse hair over her entire body.

By the end of January, the amount of hair on our girls rivaled that of our dogs.

There was no way these pigs were getting scalded and scraped–there was simply no way to work fast enough in the cold to remove that level of hair.

So, 86 pig cracklings. Alas.

The other notable effort in the pigs’ efforts at keeping warm is what I can only describe as a Pig Nest.

The nest

The nest

Their shed is a short, angled structure filled with hay bales in the winter, which we let them break up however they please. As the days get colder, they pleased to build an actual nest, which they used to snuggle in whenever they weren’t eating (roughly 23 hours a day).

I didn’t manage to get a shot of them in their nest, but they would lie in there, yin-yang style, and I swear the temperature in that drafty little structure would hit at least 20 degrees higher than whatever it was outside.

Those porkers are insanely efficient.

And, as it turns out, the legacy they left behind reached beyond a Great Deal of Pork. That pig nest has almost instantly become a favorite laying spot for the chickens.

Maybe they’ll grow into it.

 

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