Friday, June 23, 2006

eyes in the night

Sometime during the 1950’s, maybe in 1956 or 57, I went with some older kids to a double feature matinee of horror movies.

This was in Dallas, Texas.

Downtown, Dallas, Texas.

I was maybe seven or eight.

The first movie was the House of Wax, with Vincent Price. I don’t remember much of the movie except for Price, dipped his victims in vats of wax.

The reason why I bring this up, though, was the second movie, which I have very little memory of. I don’t remember the title, or plot or actors or anything else, except...

Except I remember the monster.

And I remember the music that played just before the monster would appear.

I only bring this up because I heard, or imagined I was about to hear, this same music just the other night.

It was Tuesday, shortly after midnight.

I had fallen asleep on the sofa. The book I had been reading, a better than average SF, had fallen on the floor, the radio set to an XM space music station, was still on.

I sat up and remembered, suddenly, I hadn’t locked up the chickens.

So I got up, pulled on my blue jeans, put on my boots, got the flashlight, and went outside.

The chicken house, for those of you who have not been out recently, is a quarter of a mile away from the house. A quarter of a mile down the dark driveway, around several fields and through a little bit of forest.

As I walked down the lonely, dark road, I almost could have sworn I heard the music from that movie, the 1950’s horror movie, in the far distance.

Now in this movie, the one with the distant music, the major event of the movie would be when someone was handed a card, sort of like a business card, only, instead of phone numbers and e-mail addresses it had an evil symbol, and after getting the card, the eerie, monster invoking, music would start playing and before you knew it, the person, the one that gets the card, is running through the dark, (as I remember on some lonely railroad tracks, with a storm and wind blowing and a huge monster would appear and chase the person down and, I think, step on them.

Throughout my life, whenever I’ve wanted to enjoy that peculiar chill of fear running down my spine, I remember this scene.

Like when I was a paper boy in Arlington County in the early 60’s, out delivering the Washington Post at 4:30 on particularly eerie mornings, I would re-imagine the monster down at the far end of one of the especially dark streets on my route.

Or during the winter and spring of 1968, in the middle of the night, on the edge of a rice paddy. I was the medic on an advisory team in Vietnam and we would be out on night ambush and everybody was asleep.

Everybody but me. It would be my turn to stay awake watching the rice paddy through the night scope and that's when the music would start playing (in my imagination) and off in the distance, in that place between where you can see and where you can't see something would be moving just on the edge of darkness.

And while I never did personally see this monster at 4:30 in the morning in Arlington county, or even in Vietnam. I was sure I heard the music several times.

I only mention this because I heard it again last Tuesday.

I’m walking to the chicken house, with the dark forest on both sides, and the wind blowing, and trees swaying and up ahead, I flash the flashlight, over by the gate across the driveway, and there, in the dark, are eyes.

Ten eyes.

Eyes staring at me.

Blue eyes.

Bobbing, and leering, and swaying from side to side.

In the dark.

And I’ll stop right then and there and give you, instead, the farm news.

1. Farm party. July 8th. Saturday. evening. 5ish. Pot luck. If you are interested in helping organize this, or just help out, e-mail me back. This will be a pot luck. I’ll show people around the farm. We usually have an organized hike to the top of the mountain. Full details next week. But put it on your calendar. This is a time to meet the other shareholders. See the farm. Take in the beautiful view from the top of our mountain.

2. Vegetable new. Things are doing fine. The greens should be slowing down soon and the summer vegetables picking up. Actually, the coming week is usually the slowest week of the season. The week where its gotten warm and the spring greens have stopped growing and the week where it is still too early for the summer vegetables to kick in. That’s how it usually is, but that’s not how it is this year. We won’t, I don’t think, have a late June slow down. I think we’ll make the transition from spring to summer crops without a slacking.

3. Chicks. What was first thought to be baby chickens and then guineas and maybe bobwhite now looks a lot like grouse or maybe pheasant (we have a fair amount of grouse around here, so I say grouse). In the last week their wings have doubled, if not tripled, in size. Is anyone good at flying lessons?

3. Rain and lightning. We were suffering from a major drought but last night, Thursday night, we got 3 inches of rain in one of the most ferocious lightning storms I have seen in the 20 years we’ve lived here. I was up at midnight and saw lightning strikes in several places on the edge of our fields and some major strikes up on the mountain. In fact I ran outside to bring into the house the chicks from the cage in the greenhouse where they normally stay, and stepped almost on top of a copperhead. I couldn’t have been more than two or three steps outside the back door when the sky lit up from a close-by lightning blast and I saw it, the copperhead, just as it coiled and struck at my foot, Missing. Somehow. I didn’t stop running but when I got to the greenhouse I had to look for fang marks. It was that close.

And since we’re on to eerie things lets go back to the eyes. The bobbing and staring eyes.

I stopped waiting for that monster to appear. The one that steps on people (off camera) in that cheap 50’s movie.

Only the eyes stopped moving for a moment and I walked a little closer and could see that the eyes were connected to deer.

Five of them. Just on the other side of the fence. I guess looking for a way around the fence so they could come on in and eat your, our, vegetables.

The deer, though, realizing the spot light was attached to a human, finally blinked and turned and disappeared into the night.

And that’s one of the reasons we keep the gate closed out here on the farm. If you come out and the gate is closed, please close it behind you.

Before we put up our anti-deer fence and hung the gate across the driveway the deer used to eat in the neighborhood of ten to fifteen thousand dollars worth of vegetables a year. Deer damage is a good way to turn a great vegetable year into a miserable one.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

early squash

Let's start this week off with a report on the chicks.

These are the four chicks of unknown origins found scratching and chirping in the garlic patch.

My step-son saw them last week and put them in a box thinking they were misplaced baby chickens.

I looked at them and right away saw that they weren't chickens at all. "They're guineas." I said. Thinking they were offsprings of some of the guineas that, years ago, had flown off to the forest and never return.

Only, within a day or two these chicks' coloring had changed By the weekend they no longer looked like guineas.

By then a number of shareholders had sent me urls of pictures.

PIctures of all sorts of wild birds.

And after carefully studying the pictures I came up with - bob whites. That's what they looked like.

And so I told everyone: 'You know those chicks we found, they're bob whites.'

Only, the chicks kept on growing. On a diet of inhaled hamburger meat, bread and wild bird seeds (they never seem to stop eating) the chicks in a box quickly doubled in size.

Now they are larger than full grown bob white.

So, we've gone back to step one.

What kind of birds are those chicks.

A little bird found foraging in a garlic patch

(yes, I know, the mother was no doubt close by. But I wasn't the one who picked them up and put them in a box. And now, if we let the go, their mother has no doubt gone on to other interests and there are plenty of bird loving predators out there that I doubt our four house guests would last the first night in the wild).

Birds that aren't interested in eating greens. No lettuce, no squash, no fruit, no cherries.

Chicks that absolutely love hamburger meat, Great hunters of insects.

Chicks that will scratch away at seeds but aren't much interested in store bought chicken feed.

What are they?

And while we ponder this question, lets go on to the farm news.

Squash. Several people asked about the squash we had in the shares starting June 9th. "Isn't it too early for squash?" I was asked by more than one person. And my answer was. "Yes, it is, or at least it was.

"But here they are. Early squash."

Up until this year I never have even dreamed of growing squash this early. It's too cold.

Traditionally May (and that's when these squash plants were planted and grew) is much too chilly for squash plants to grow.

Normally squash planted that early would have just sat in the ground, not growing.

But last year, however, a neighboring CSA farmer, a young farmer (someone did a study and the average age of CSA farmers is in their late 40's. The average age of 'traditional' type farmers is closer to my age, almost 60 years old).

Anyway, this young farmer (he's in his 20's) brought me a box of early June squash to show off.

And I said to him, "You can't grow squash this early. It's too cold."

And we looked at the squash and I thought to myself. Hmmm. Maybe I better learn from this kid.

So this year back around the first of May, I started squash seedlings in the greenhouse and put them in the ground two weeks later.

And there they are.

Early June squash.

I don't know what to blame it, the warmer month of May, on. But something has happened. It wasn't but a few years ago squash, around here, wouldn't grow this early.

But now it does.

Maybe the warm month's of May over a the past two years are a fluke.

And maybe they aren't.

So, the common wisdom about no squash in the mid Atlantic region in June, is now wrong.

You are eating proof that it's wrong. Who knows, maybe the next thing we'll see is a ripe tomato before July 4th.

Oh, I got carried away with talking about the warmer climate and forget to mention our current thoughts on the chicks? Here's my present guesses:

Pheasants or maybe grouse?

Both have more or less the same markings as our chicks.

And there are other facts that fit.

a. The mother could have had them out hunting for food in the garlic patch.

b. When young they eat massive quantities of insects.

c. They love hamburger meat,

d. We have the occasional pheasant and plenty of grouse natively living out there in the forest.

The next milestone in determining what type of birds live in the back room is when they start flying. That should be interesting. I told Wenonah she has to quit her job when that happened so she could take care of her baby chicks full time

She laughed.

Hidden camera

I now have the answer.

And its on film.

And everyone knows that pictures don't lie.

Actually, these pictures, the ones that answer the question, were taken by a hidden camera.

A camera nailed up on a tree.

With the lens facing the chicken tractor.

Everyone and everything that came and went to and from the farm for the past two weeks had their picture taken.

And there, on three frames was the culprit.

The one who has been sneaking into the chicken yard and snatching chickens.

Just this evening I drove out the driveway with my ladder in the back of the pick up.

I stopped by a tree near the hen yard.

Leaned the ladder up against the tree.

And climbed.

Up to where our wildlife camera is perched.

I took out the key on the lock, balanced myself on the top of the ladder while I inserted the key and then jiggled it back and forth.

Of course the lock didn't give the first time.

And I had to pull the key out and reinsert it again.

And jiggle it again (cheap padlock).

And finally the lock snapped open and I unscrewed the face of the waterproof camera, stuck a screwdriver into the slot that held the photo disk and after a moments struggle, popped the disc out.

Inserted another disc.

Climbed down the ladder.

Put the ladder back in the truck.

And drove home.

Finally I got the disc upstairs to the computer and opened up IPhoto to find that there were 284 pictures on the disc.

284 pictures of chickens crossing the road. Dogs (mine) walking out the driveway. Dogs walking back in the driveway.

People coming to work in the morning.

People going home from work in the afternoon.

Wenonah going to work. Wenonah coming home.

Me, checking the mail, driving the tractor, the truck, the delivery van.

UPS trucks coming and going.

Delivery trucks.

Shareholders collecting eggs.

A group of unidentified strangers, outfitted in hiking gear, walking in the driveway (lost hikers?)

The same group leaving.

Cars coming in, cars going out.

And finally there it is.

(no its not that woman with the rooster under her arm. That's one of the people I hired to scrub the house, to clean the windows the day before Wenonah's birthday. Yes, I told her that if she caught a rooster she could have it. I didn't ask what she wanted it for).

No, the culprit had three pictures taken of her. One running in the driveway, with her head turned toward the chicken yard (4:28 pm). The second picture of her running back out the driveway (4:31 pm) and the third and final picture was at 4:32 pm.

This one has a little red fox caught right in the act.

With a large black chicken in her mouth.

The chicken looks, from the picture, to be almost as large as the fox. How does such a little bitty creature catch such a large chicken?

And how does she carry that large chicken, feathers and all, in her mouth?

And how, for that matter, did she catch it, armed with nothing but her pointy teeth and fleet feet? No gun, no net, no bow and arrow.

How come the fox was the one leaving with the chicken and not the other way around. A good sized rooster is almost as large as that scrawny little fox. How come the fox was capable of capturing the chicken and not being captured by a gang of roosters? (maybe if I hadn't allowed that rooster to be taken home by one of the cleaners, maybe that rooster would have been the one to organize all the other roosters into an effective defense of the chicken yard).

Anyway, since I don't have the answer to any of the questions I will close by saying that since then, since the fox started eating our chickens, we have electrified the fence around the chicken yard (sort of like in Jurassic Park). So far the electric, anti- scrawny fox fence, is working.

No more missing chickens.

(and while I was gone gaining weight in Italy, much to the postmistress's and my kind neighbor's distress, 30 pounds of bees arrived in the mail. Possibly I will tell that story in blog form and post it later this week).

waiting at the henhouse door

he other morning we drove out the gate right by the henhouse and there was someone waiting.

Waiting right at the henhouse door.

Waiting, just like on Saturday's when people come out to get free eggs.

Only it wasn't Saturday.

And it wasn't a person.

And I don't think they were waiting for eggs, but instead were looking for a more substantial meal.

And seeing there, right in front of the henhouse, apparently waiting for a meal, was a large grey fox.

The fox looked at us, we looked at her, and then, apparently not being all that sociable, she ran, ran right out the gate and off into the woods.

Fortunately, I have taken to locking the chickens up each and every night so she wasn't running away with a meal,

However, Wenonah and I have a debate going on how many chickens are missing. Wenonah things as many as fifty (she's wrong) I say maybe a dozen have been snatched and eaten before I electrified the fence around the chickens and started closing the door at night.

But, more devastating to me (and to us) are the groundhogs.

On the way back in the gate, about an hour later, I looked down past the henhouse into the cemetery field and there was a ground hog.


Eating squash plants.

I jumped out of the car and (this is when being a redneck with a gun rack has its appeal) before I could run into the field the groundhog stood up on its hind legs. Gave me a long stare and then, turned around and trotted out of the field and into the thicket beyond.

The next night (in a different field, the one up where the asparagus grows) 500 newly planted broccoli were chomped down to the ground. And the next night, the other 400 broccoli plants in that field were gone (this isn't as bad a loss as the squash - which had been in the ground growing for several weeks - we had just planted the broccoli and the next day replanted all 900).

Besides the fence (which seems to be working) I bought half a dozen more live traps (which aren't working).

Any other suggestions? I know, I should be sitting out there, for hours and hours, with a rifle, just waiting for the voracious groundhog to show its vociferous nose.


strange birds

This afternoon I looked down the hill and there, right over the by the hot spring pool is the peacock.

His tail feathers all spread out as wide as can be.

And at the end of each feather is what looks like an eye. Dozens, if not hundreds of eyes.

All of them shimmering and clicking.

And behind the fan feathers, sort of underneath, are these orange/reddish tail feathers.

And these he's intently shaking as though his very existence depended on it.

Watching all of this, one standing on the rock wall, the other casually nibbling on some grass, are the two peahens.

One the old woman, twice, or maybe three time's the age of the peacock and the other just born this time last year, the daughter.

The peacock has been courting, without apparent success, both hens since early April.

Up until now, neither have shown any interest at all. But something, this last week has changed...

But more about that later. What I really want to know, there's actually a little wager going on this one, is what sort of birds are those four little chicks we found running around in the garlic today.

They couldn't have been a week old.

Sort of the size of a tennis ball. But weighing more like a ping pong ball.

Orange in color, with dark stripes down their backs.

Everyone thought they were baby chickens. Everyone, I might add, everyone but me.

That means I have six people wagering against my position.

They all say the chicks are chickens.

"What else could they be?" Adrina says.

"They look like chicks to me." adds Wenonah.

Rangal just shakes his head when I tell him what I think.

"They are guineas," I said. "I know a guinea chick when I see one and those things are guineas."

Little does it matter that we haven't had a domesticated guinea hen on the farm for at least half a dozen years.

"One of those dumb birds we had could have flown off into the forest. Her or her decedents could be living out there, avoiding the various predators for all these years. And sometime this spring the hen laid eggs underneath the garlic and that's where they came from."

No one thinks my version is likely.

"That's one of the sillier things I've heard lately." Wenonah said.

But my answer is simple.

"How else would you account for four guinea chicks?"

Which gets us to the wager.

"They're not guineas. They're chickens."

And the next day, the day after I strung the fence and hooked up the charger no more groundhog damage. They stopped eating the broccoli. They left the squash plants alone.

You might ask, how do I know it's the fence that's caused the change in behavior. That's easy. The other evening I was over in the cemetery field moving water pipe. And right there by the varmint fence I reached down to see how wet the ground actually was. As I stuck my finger into the wet ground the leg of my blue jeans just barely brushed against the fence.

The next thing I know I've been knocked to the ground.

I'm sitting there on my hind-parts. Shaking my head.

What a shock.

I'm sure it doesn't take too many of those to convince a groundhog that he really, really doesn't like broccoli anymore.

The wonders of modern technology.

And since we're on the subject of technology I want to know what technology is going to determine what variety of bird those four, very noisy chicks down in our living room are?

After discovering the chicks in the garlic (Rangal had put them in a box) I thought it was the best idea to put them back out in the field and hope their mother would take them back under her wing.

Wenonah, though, thought that wasn't the best idea. "What if one of the cats eats them. THey are soooo small and cute."

Instead of just letting the chicks go under the garlic, I moved the box (this time a box with low sides) and water and special chick feed back in the garlic. The idea being the mother, once she saw no one was around, would come back, get her chicks and take them back to wherever they were before, before they'd been chicknapped.

No luck.

At the end of the day there were still the chicks. Loudly squawking without a mother.

So, what was I to do? I picked up the box and moved them in the house where they are now. Squawking.

Squawking like I know only a baby guinea can.

Is anyone out there expert enough to tell what sort of chicks they are? Can you tell the difference between a guinea and a chicken? or for that matter a baby chicken and any other semi-wild variety. A friendly wager depends on the answer.

What is a CSA and why are those people taking all of those vegetables?

After being the farmer for a CSA for a decade I often forget that many people join our farm without knowing what they are actually joining.

First, before I try to answer some of the specific concerns many people have about a CSA let me give you a little background of the concept of a Community Supported Agriculture farm. That is, after all, what you have joined by signing up for a 'share' of the harvest from our farm.

A CSA is a different way of looking at food and labor than the more traditional corporate commodity system that most Americans have been raised with. Joining a CSA isn't like grocery shopping. When you join a CSA you become a member of the farm. Subscribers are called shareholders. Meaning, they join to get a share of the harvest. In good years (like this year) that share is larger and sometimes much larger than in bad years (like last year). Shareholders aren't buying produce, they are joining a farm and receiving a share of that farm's harvest.

A traditional CSA, to reinforce that relationship between the food one gets and the labor involved, usually requires a labor committment as part of the shareholders. Shareholders have to come out to the farm and work so many hours if they want to be members.

Obviously, in the DC area, with the horrible traffic and the horrible work patterns of most people, a work share doesn't 'work'. It's hard enough for me to get back and forth with the vegetables and to find a drop off time when many people aren't still at their 'jobs'.

But still, in short, you and everyone one else that has joined our farm has signed up for a 'share' of the harvest. They have not signed up for a specific amount of vegetables. (look on our webpage, we make this really clear).

Yes, being a shareholder entails a bit of honesty and trust on the part of the shareholders and farmer alike. Certainly more is involved in in CSA than just walking into a grocery store or even going to a farmers market. The farmer is trusting shareholders to sign up and pay for the number of people they intend to feed, at the same time there is a certain amount of trust on your part and the other subscribers.

You signed up and paid to join our farm before there were ever any vegetables. You, in effect have giving me money trusting that I will make a good faith effort to grow vegetables. (notice, from the webpage, it doesn't say that you will get this many vegebles each week, what it says is that I will plan to grow vegetables for you and I will plan for so many vegetables with so many varieties, however, there is no guarantee. Depending on all the variables in farming it might be a rotten season and you might get very few vegetables, or, as it is, so far this season, it might be just knock you bountiful and you are going to be flooded in vegetables.

Yes, people can obviously scam the system, especially in those years in between the two extremes. Some people could pay for a one person share of the harvest but really intend to feed 3 or 4 or even 5.

The way I look at it, though, the way that I look at someone joining a CSA with the intend of exploiting the farmers labor and really, being dishonest and stealing from the other shareholders, is that in the end, its the dishonest person's problem. These are the same people who shop lift from mom and pop stores or steal money from unguarded purses at work.

The dishonest person is the one that will have to live with themselves. They have to live with the knowledge that they are cheating their farmer and the other shareholders. They have to come to the pick up each week and look me and the other shareholders in the eye (or maybe not, maybe avoiding their eyes) and steal from them.

And, you know, my experience, most people aren't that person.

Now, the other problem that you noted, the one that happened this week and usually happens every season with the new people is people taking more vegetables than the sign says that they should.

This is a problem. Basically, these people are stealing from the other shareholders. I pick enough vegetables for everyone and someone takes, in effect, someone else's vegetables.

To cure people of this 'problem' is one of the reasons I grow and harvest so many greens early on. Its sort of an inside joke. The new shareholder coming to the pick up spot and sees the sign that says 'all you can eat mizuna' and then loads up her bag with a bushel of the stuff.

She then goes home with her mizuna, loads it into her refrigerator and over the week starts eating it.

How much mizuna can someone eat in a week? What are people going to do with more of these greens than they can eat? Are they going to eat them all? Not likely.

I personally found it somewhat amusing this week ( like I always do, because it happens every year) when the one woman on Monday seeing that it was all you can eat dumped an entire container of lettuce into her bag. When I saw her do that I smiled to myself and saw a picture of her dealing with all of that lettuce in her refrigerator. What was she going to think once she realized she couldn't eat it all. In my mind I saw her with a refrigerator of rotten lettuce.

(I bet you next week she thinks twice about taking more of a vegetable than she can eat).

So that people can easily learn that lesson about greed is one of the reasons I grow and pick and bring to the pick up site all of those extra greens for the beginning of the season. People learn really quickly that they can only eat so much.

As I said, the system depends a big on honesty and trust on the part of the subscribers. When people sign up they sign up and pay for a share for a certain number of people. Generally, I find most people honest. Yes there are a few who subscribe for a one person share of the harvest but intend to feed five people. But, you know, I am not the subscribers' parent, or some sort of morality police.

The second problem, is the 'eyes bigger than stomach problem.'

The first problem is really an ethics problem. A person who steals from the people around them. The second one, a problem of greed. Mostly, through experience people come to grips with this.

And really, joining a CSA, for a number of people is a learning process, people are learning a different type of relationship between a person and their food and the people that grow it. If I lose a little mizuna along the way of teaching people this, that's fine. And if people can come to me week after week, and stand shoulder to shoulder with the other shareholders, look me and the shareholders in the eye and take more than the share of the harvest that they paid for I feel very sorry for that person. My experience, though, is that after several weeks the amount of that going on decreases.

I hope this answers your questions. If not, please look on our webpage where I try to explain what a CSA is. There are also several books that try to explain the concept.

I hope you have a wonderful weekend,

Leigh Hauter