Thursday, February 26, 2009

the lone chicken

I've been thinking a lot lately about the lone chicken.

That's the chicken I see hanging out by herself on the railing around the deck. Walking, quietly, across the front yard. On top of the stone wall by the barn, eyeing the dog food bowl.

One lone pullet.

She's sort of like the Lone Ranger.

When I catch her and put her in the pasture with the other chickens she doesn't even wait until my backs turned but runs across the pasture like a fat airliner, flapping her wings until she takes to the air and gets up just high enough to clear the top of electric, anti predator fence that surrounds her. leaving safety and her sisters far behind and back to her lonely life as the Lone Chicken once again

But before we spend more time thinking about chickens, let's do this week's farm news.

Farm news!

A new vegetable season has officially started. We started signing up 2009 shareholders last week. Right now we are 80% full. I'm about to cut off new subscriptions to both the Dupont Circle and East Falls Church spots and only take subscriptions for the less full Alexandria, Manassas and the farm pick up locations.

We have mostly finished ordering the seeds for this season, spending almost ten thousand dollars (seed prices increased dramatically this year) , ordering seeds from half a dozen different companies. E&R, Johnny's, Wetsels, Harris, Steigers and Territorial. I try to order from a number of company's rather than just give my business to one company, low prices isn't often our concern.. And there are still a number of good companies I haven't ordered from.

After spending 15 years of farming (and just about 60 years of living) price is far from my first consideration. Cheap often does mean just that. Cheap. But enough of that.

It's a beautiful day out here on the farm. Still muddy, the trees and plants haven't yet woken up from their winter sleep and aren't drawing the moisture out of the soil that they do during the summer. And, even now, with almost a week of above freezing temperatures, there is still a layer of frozen soil a few inches down from the surface preventing water from soaking in, making the fields and trails a layer of mud.

Anyway, this is the time of year for working in the greenhouse. We have been filling flats with potting soil and hopefully this afternoon, if everything goes right we will begin to put seeds in the flats.

It's time to start broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, peppers and even some tomatoes in the greenhouse. Seeds that take eight weeks or more to grow into seedlings before they can be planted outdoors.

The last average frost for this area is April 15th. That's the date we start taking the cold hearty seedlings out of the greenhouse and put them into the fields.

Visiting the farm
Shareholders, of course, are invited to come out and visit the farm. E-mail me first though, so we can set aside time. I'm more than happy to give you a tour, or have you help us around the farm. However...

A working farm.
We're not always set up for visitors. The only bathroom is the one in our home which means mud being tracked into our home.
And there is a sort of joke about farm equipment. When I buy a new piece of equipment there is usually a warning label that comes as close as possible to saying "Very Dangerous Equipment. Do not use !"

My heart always skips a beat when we have visitors and I am talking to parents and suddenly turn around to see a child has climbed up on a tractor and has managed, to my horror, to turn it on and put it in gear.

We have a pair of really sweet dogs, Andorra and Marcus, who would never dream of hurting a human. I have seen visiting children hitting them with sticks and throwing rocks at them and while Marcus weighs in at over 150 pounds he would never hurt a human.

That said, though, Andorra and Marcus are first and foremost working dogs. Great Pyrenees (GP). And, while, to look at them, you wouldn't know it, but they are not pets. They are here on our farm to do extremely important work. To protect the farm animals from predators, to guard your vegetables from eaters, and to attempt to keep the bears away from the beehives, corn and fruit trees. All in all, Andorra and Marcus do an extremely professional job of their assignment (much better than any human I know would. They take their work very seriously).

Rules for visiting!
Number one.
Please leave your dogs back at home. I know this sounds cruel. Your dog would enjoy an outing as much as the next critter, however Andorra and Marcus and, for that matter, almost all farm GP's put all dogs in the category with coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, skunks, possum, crows -yes they absolutely detests crows, bears, deer and any other non human or non farm animal.

GP's absolutely know all dogs have evil designs on their farm, and their farm animals. And no matter how sweet your dog is, a GP knows that given the chance she would love nothing better than to chase and probably eat a chicken, or goose or turkey. Without asking questions GP's will attempt to dispatch all canine trespasser. So, No dogs allowed and no exceptions to the rule.

Another rule.
Please, please, please watch your children. Being out on a farm is a really fun place for a lot of kids (me included). But its a place for supervised fun. A farm, while being full of fun is also full of danger. Farm equipment, ponds, electric fences, plants that are irreparable damaged if stepped on and loads of animals that do not want to be chased or caught or in any other way being treated as objects.

And now that I've completely turned you off with rules I really do want you to come out and visit. We will be planning several organized events at the farm this spring. hikes and pot luck meals. Free flower, herb and vegetable seedlings for shareholders. And by all means plan a trip on your own, but check with me first.

And that probably does it for this week's farm news. Over the next couple of months I will be slowly giving you a better sense on how our CSA works so that by the time the vegetable season starts you will know what to expect.

Which brings us back to the Lone Chicken. (or is that the Lone Hen! Lone Pullet! The Lone Fowl!

While I have been writing I've seen the lonely chicken through my office window several times.

Once, walking along the top of the stone wall in front of our house, no doubt searching every nook and cranny for a tasty morsel.

The next time crossing the front yard, stopping several times to scratch and peck. Looking, no doubt, for that special weed seed..

The lone chicken is one of roughly three hundred chickens we have on the farm. Only she refuses to live with the other chickens.

In the day time she walks the fields by herself.

This morning I saw her sitting on the railing around the back porch with a pair of peacocks.

And at night, when the peacocks fly up in a tree as a safe place to spend the night, there she is, roosting deep in the middle forsythia bush. Deep enough inside that she has plenty of time to take alarm and fly off into the night if you (or me, or any other animal) try to get at her.

And if I do happen to catch her (and I have caught her half a dozen times) and clutching her under my arm taken her to the pasture with the other chickens.

And release her inside the chicken proof electric fence that surrounds the pasture.

I hardly get my backed turned before there she goes. Running across the pasture sort of like a fat, overloaded airliner caterwauling down a runway, flapping her wings to beat the band and then, just before she reaches the end, with the white electric bird netting rapidly approaching, she takes to the air, barely clearing the top strand and then, over the top and out, once again, to freedom. (which for a chicken can also mean being turned into a sudden meal for any passing predator or pet dog).

Later on in the day I'll see her again, maybe out in the middle of the field of winter rye, scratching for weed seeds. Not another animal with in a hundred yards of her.

She'll stop and look up as I get closer. Thinking.. Thinking what?

This is a complaint I have with just about all of the farm animals.

She doesn't speak English (or, as far as I can tell, any other human language).

And since I have never bothered to learn whatever language it is that she does speak, we have a decided communications problem. 

In the evening when I find her sleeping all by herself inside that forsythia bush, and occasionally catch her and take her to the chicken house she doesn't understand I'm doing it for her best interest and safety and instead just get a lot of kicking and screaming and struggling.

And when I put her safely inside, the next day there she is, back out in the middle of the rye, all by herself, scratching, and pecking, and scratching again.

The Lone Chicken rides again.


I was going to write about pigeons. 

Not those street wise ones you find in the city, but homing pigeons.

Every ten or twenty years I get an urge to build a loft, you know, a pigeon house, up on the roof, then go out and find some full fledged homing pigeons, and start raising pigeons that home.

I suspect I can blame this, the urge, on television. 

It must have been a television show back in the 1950’s. Someone, maybe it was Disney, must have had a show about a couple boys sending secret messages back and forth, half way around the world, or is that on the other side of the county?, top secret boy messages attached to the legs of their special pigeons.

(there was never a discussion on how more than a word or two could be written on any note that a pigeon could possibly carry).

I say Disney because I have evidence that it had, in other ways, a malicious influence on my early life. 

I think I was in third grade over at Janney Elementary when I convinced my father I really did want him to cut my hair just like the Disney actor playing a Mohawk, or was it some other Native American.

And then there was that alleged beaver skin hat I just had to have. I think it was Disney's Daniel Boone this time.

So the pigeons must have been the results of another equally influential Disney show (I just can't remember which one).

Fortunately, the older I get the weaker these cravings and I had almost completely forgotten the recent desire for a pigeon loft when the UPS guy drove up with half a dozen book.

Homing pigeon books.

(I must have ordered them while under the influence).

Anyway, this got me thinking, not about pigeons, but about another problem we've been having out here on the farm.


Hawks and Owls.

I could see half a dozen brown tailed hawks surrounding my pigeon loft, perched on every tree. Waiting. just waiting for that brave pigeon, homing in on my loft carrying her top secret message.

When suddenly...

I don't even want to think about it

How many predators out here on the farm enjoy a squab meal?

I know they have a taste for gosling.

Last fall it was the screech owls.

Last summer, just as it turned dark what sounded like a dozen would start serenading the farm house. singing their distinctive chorus from the surrounding forest.

It was weird, sort of pleasant and spooky at the same time.

but why had they moved so close to the house?

This was the time when I was raising the dozen Giant Chinese geese (so cute, about a foot, foot and a half tall. pure white. running around the yard in a group as if the dozen of them had only one mind. One would turn left, they all would turn left. One would run across the yard, they all would run across the yard. Stop, turn, bark. All together now.

And then I moved them away from the house and the protective oversight of our guardian dogs.

I moved the geese up to the asparagus bed, just behind the greenhouse, so they could eat the weeds.

And it only took one night. One night the geese were there and the next there were only feathers. 

Huge piles of fluffy white feathers.

Down drifting in the summer breeze.

And no geese.

So last night, I thought of my geese again. it was about midnight when I walked up the hill to look in on our seedlings (we are up to almost 20,000 seedlings now. The first planting of broccoli popped up out of the soil this afternoon).

As I loaded the boiler with wood I could hear them. A pair. Hooting just behind the greenhouse.

They must have heard that I was thinking about raising pigeons and were eagerly anticipating a meal.

And while I might try again with the geese I don't think I'll try pigeons.

Other farm news?

Pick your own eggs? 
The nights are getting shorter (you would hardly know it) and the days are getting longer. Which means? The chickens are again laying eggs We are getting several dozen eggs a day. Which means, 2009 shareholders, are invited out to get free eggs. I have about a dozen dozens sitting in our spare refrigerator. Tell me first, but come out and collect your own.

We are down to the last few dozen shares. If you want a 2009 share of our harvest and haven’t signed up yet, you better do it soon. Check the webpage for instructions on signing up.

Egg shares?
We still have 40 egg shares left.

Fruit shares?
And plenty of fruit share (I can always expand the number of fruit shares since the fruit comes from several different orchards).

Our own orchard?
We have eighty fruit trees, mostly apples with a few pears and cherries mixed in. I am considering doubling the size of the orchard this year. So far I've bought figs, persimmons, quinces, pomegranates and pawpaws.

We have a smallish berry patch but its strictly for family use. I guess I could buy several hundred more berry bushes and have a shareholder pick your own area, but that’s a lot of upkeep. And last year, while some people availed themselves of the pick your own flowers, mostly people didn't.

Pick your own?
What do you think about us adding more pick your own as part of the shares? These would be things that are too labor intensive to pick to make it economical putting in the shares. Berries, flowers and more than a few string beans, lima beans and peas. (Beans are in the shares, only there are less of them than there would be if we could pick them faster).

To put more labor intensive things like raspberries in the shares would mean hiring more help which would mean raising the price of the share. We could grow them for u-pick if we thought shareholders would actually come out and pick. 

All of our seed orders are completed.

We bought a new 200 by 14 feet hoophouse that is due to arrive in two weeks. It will take about a week to assemble it. Any volunteers out there wanting to drive posts into the ground?

Chicken tractor?
and we are in the process of building a new chicken tractor to house this years' additional pullets. This one, instead of being built on a trailer, is built on skids. (I didn’t have an old trailer around and didn’t want to spend the thousand plus dollars a new one would cost.

More predators
I recently put up a wildlife camera down by the gate and got five shots of, I think, the same fox coming and going. A picture of her should appear soon on our website. I hope that beautiful glossy coat she has isn't the product of eating our chickens.