Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bears in the Trees

The other morning, out here on the farm, we had quite a show.

Not only did it get me and the dogs and a trio of bears running in all directions, it violated all sorts of truisms about mother bears and their cubs.

It started a little before 7:30 when a mother bear and her two cubs strolled out of the forest and down the road to our house.

Three bears probably looking for a healthy steak and potatoes type meal. Something like bee larva, fresh chicken, and a side of chicken feed (16% protein, according to the label).

(Not withstanding what Winny the Pooh might say, high protein bee larva ranks way above honey as a bears' preferred meal.

Bears, especially growing bears, have a real penchant for that high protein meal to be found in beehives.

Bee larva! A food even sensitive bears will risk the pain of bee stings for.

And everyone likes chicken. Even bears

So, it was with a filling spring meal in mind that a new mother bear took her cubs down the road to visit our farm house, only to be waylaid by our pair of gardian dogs Two Great Pyrenees who long ago were hired on for just such an eventuality.

Andorra and Marcus, our duo of working dogs, whose normal duties consists of keeping the deer out of the vegetables saw the bears at the electric fence surrounding the chicken pasture and came running and barking and the bears, rather than standing and fighting, turned, and ran up the nearest tree. A very tall and very wide Tulip Poplar.

The first I saw were three bears up a tree, treed, and our two dogs, at the foot of the trees barking and jumping as if trying to climb.

And my first thought was not for the dogs safety. Or the bears, or the chickens, or even mine.

My first thought was, 'Where's the camera?'

And I went running back into the house.

Over the past several years bears have become an ordinary event on our farm. For the forty-five years before that bears were seldom if ever seen in our valley. Wenonah, whose family were the only people living in our valley back in 1962, never saw a bear back here. And until recently the only sightings were of young males, kicked out of the area they'd grown up in, passing through on the way to someplace better.

But that has all changed.

The fifteen or so miles of abandoned farmland, woodlots and pastures to the east of us, over the past decade, has been turned into houses, lawns and 7-11's.

Our valley is now just about on the outside fringe of DC's suburbs.

To the east there is no longer bear habitat. Meaning?

We're it.

Since the bears can't go to the east, they stop here.

Leaving the trio, a young mother and her pair of hundred or so pound cubs, up a tree. They must have come down to the farm looking for food. Possibly, the mother was one of the cubs, a few years back, when another mother, she was much larger than this one, and her pair of cubs took apart seven of our beehives. One night devouring something like 400 pounds of honey between the three of them.

When I came running out of the house, camera in hand, the mother bear made up her mind and decided it was time to run.

Leaving her cubs behind, she jumped, landing on the far side of the tree from both Andorra and Marcus, and took off, full tilt, across the field, through the orchard, and to that stand of Poplars on the other side.

Leaving her cubs behind.

On her heels, though, was Marcus, he didn't hesitate, but barking and snapping, he followed at her heels.

And then she was up another tree.

And behind Marcus, one of the cubs, dropped out of the tree and followed.

And me, with my camera, followed all three, Mother, dog, cub, running with camera in hand only slowing occasionally to snap a picture, mostly of my feet, or the sky.

The other cub stayed up in the tree for a few minutes more, took that opportunity to drop to the ground and run. In the opposite direction.

Andorra, our ferocious female Great Pyrenees also took that opportunity and ran, not after the cub, or the mother, but ran in the other direction, down to the house and up the kitchen steps where she bravely defended the kitchen door.

And this is a good time to take a break for the farm news.

Spring Planting
. we usually start planting after April 15th, which traditionally is the last frost for our area. Is it the last frost? Tuesday it was up in the 90's but Friday night the temperature dropped to 35. The weather forecast for the up-coming week has a couple nights with temperatures in the 30's. Whether the springs are getting warmer or not it still seems prudent to wait at least until the second half of April to start planting.

What? The first vegetables in the ground are the cold weather plants. Broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, pac choi, and greens. We have two hoophouses already full of broccoli and greenhouse cucumbers. the cucumber vines are looking good. This coming week we'll be putting greenhouse tomatoes (tomatoes that don't need pollinating), and probably peppers and eggplants in the new hoophouses.

The new hoophouses are coming along fine. The 26 foot wide house has been up for a couple weeks, the 34 foot wide house has the hoops up but needs the cross supports connected. Hopefully, I'll finish those in the next day or two so we can put up the plastic by mid week.

Chicken tractors.
Alan, a friend and great carpenter just rebuilt our chicken tractor on wheels. This morning I was up until almost 4 am catching chickens that had been living in the new hoophouse and putting them into the chicken tractor. The chickens hadn't volunteered to move so I was out doing a little relocation work. Grabbing roosting chickens from the hoophouse's cross supports and carrying them, two in each hand, over to the chicken tractor and putting them in the back door. 150 birds and not all going willingly. While I wasn't pecked, often, I don't recommend being clobbered by flapping wings as a recreational activity.

This morning, after minding my nicks and scratches I drove the chicken tractor to the field in front of the house which is covered with a strong stand of winter rye, surrounded the house with a portable chicken fence and opened the door.

It took coaxing to get the chickens to leave their new home.

Go figure.

We are approaching 90% full.

Share payments. It's time to start getting them in. yes. I gave out different dates. The people that recently signed up, not until later. However, I need to know that everyone who has signed up is actually getting a share. Please get in your payment so I don't have to worry about it.

Asparagus. this warm weather has confused it. We had a large batch for dinner last night. We have moved the geese and turkeys off the main asparagus bed so maybe next week, if the weather stays reasonably warm we'll invite people out to get asparagus.

And I'll stop there and get back to the bear, which we left up a tall popular.

I saw the mother scale the first large poplar she came to, scaling it like she was running up steps.

No hesitation, no bother.

And the cub, taking the mothers cue, ran up another large trunk, running up just like ti was nothing. No hesitation, it didn't even slow down. reached the trunk and went straight up without a bit of trouble.

This confused Marcus.

He stood in between the two trees, running back and forth barking. When he turned and ran at the arriving baby, the cub scaled up higher on the trunk and the mother started coming down.

And when he turned and ran barking toward the mother, the cub switched directions and dropped down the trunk and the mother went up, sort of like that contest you see at country carnivals. The one where mostly young men line up to show how strong they are. Paying to swing a mallet and knock a ball up the pole, trying to ring the bell at the top.

Instead of young men, we had Marcus at the bottom. But even without a hammer he was getting the bears going up and down so high I half expected to hear a bell ringing.

It was something to see, despite their size, the bears looked a lot surer footed on the trees than a squirrel.

And a whole lot faster.

Marcus turned toward the baby and the mother didn't just climbed down the tree. She dropped. With Marcus' back turned she landed on the ground and started running.

Running away from both of her cubs

It didn't take but a few moments before Marcus turned and seeing what was happening, forgetting the treed cub, took off after the disappearing mother.

This is when my camera aiming improved. Instead of half a dozen snapshots of my boots, I started aimed the camera at the mother and Marcus, barking and biting at her heals disappearing into the forest. .

In fact, I was standing there, almost under the tree occupied by the baby, trying to find dog and mother bear in the viewfinder, when right there, less than a dozen feet away, the cub dropped to the ground.

The cub must not have realized I was there because when it hit the ground and looked up, the look on its face was one of shock.

Just like mine.

It could have been a minute, or less than a second, but we stood staring at each other, I don't know what the cub was thinking, but me, I was thinking, 'That's a bigger bear than I thought. Is it going to think its bigger than I am and act accordingly?"

I don't know what happened to the pictures, but when I downloaded the disk from my camera the half a dozen or so photos I took while the two of us were transfixed weren't on the disk. It was like I hadn't taken them at all.

And the cub turned and ran.

Not in the direction its mother had taken, or in the direction its sibling had run off in. But in a third way. It it ran up the hill, and across our driveway, across that field and into the forest behind.

That's when I realized I was alone. All the barking and the running, and confusion. It was all over. Both cubs gone. Andorra hiding. and Marcus' barks quickly disappearing into the distance.

After that I went walking around the farm, looking to see if I could make sense out of what happened. that's when I found Andorra hiding behind the house.Marcus? In about half an hour I found him on the outside of the gate across our driveway, filthy and panting.

There was no sign of the cubs, the chickens seemed to be safe and sound, and the pictures?

When I finally got back into the house and downloaded the disk in the camera there were half a dozen shots of my feet, and my boots. A couple of the sky and tops of trees. A couple of Marcus panting on the outside of the gate and half a dozen of bears in the distance, climbing trees, dropping out of trees and running under trees being chased by a large white dog.

Leigh Hauter

Sunday, April 04, 2010


This afternoon I'm procrastinating. (I procrastinated in sending this out -- it was written Friday afternoon)

It's not that I haven't already put a day's worth of work. We started this morning up in the greenhouse around 7 am. The tables were full with about 50,000 seedlings so if we were going to get anything else in we had to reorganize.

The first thing we did was set up another six tables, each one holding 45 trays of seedlings (our trays hold 50 seedlings each) and then moved the seedlings that were up and growing from where they were (they were on heated tables) to the new ones (unheated).

This way we have room to start another 270 trays where the seeds will have an ideal environment for germination and early growth (we keep the new flat temperature at about 80 degrees).

And then there was collecting eggs (half a dozen dozen this early in the day), followed by a couple hours of putting together the pieces on the new 34 by 96 foot hoophouse. then laying out and connecting new pipe for the water system and finally sitting up here in the office doing some paperwork (which turned in to writing a newsletter).

And I foregot the 1500 pound pond/reservoir liner that just arrived along with its traveling mate, the smaller (500 pounds) goose pond liner.

Lifting a roll of rubber matting weighing almost a ton and moving it from the far end of a truck trailer out the back door is an interesting project. The driver said it was loaded with a forklift that drove into the trailer and deposited it.

We don't have a forklift, or a loading ramp designed for driving into the back of truck trailers. In fact the truck can't navigate the road to our farm so we ended up meeting him at the end of our road, backing the truck up to the door, putting one end of a chain around the roll of liner and the other to the tow bar on our truck and driving off.

Sort of...

Actually we pulled the liner out so it was hanging half way out the door of the trailer, then we backed the truck up underneath the liner and pushing and pulling managed to get it the rest of the way out the door and on to the truck (where it hung over the tailgate.

by now several of our neighbors were lined up (probably cursing under their breath) waiting for us to get out of their way.

Right now the roll of liner is on the ground beside the reservoir waiting for enough people to come out to help roll it out and put it in the pond.

The lighter goose pond liner, (when the bulldozer was here last week flattening a site for the new hoophouse (this is 4 feet wider than our large greenhouse) we finally gave in to our guilt of our weeder geese bathing in a Toys R US kiddy pool and had the operator dig out a real pond.

But so much for that. I was talking about was procrastinating which means putting off dealing with the thirty pounds of honey bees.

The story is that yesterday, an e-mail arrived with the message "come pick up your bees."

A beekeeper friend of mine had just returned from Georgia. He'd driven his empty flatbed truck down there several days ago.

And had returned with it full of bees. Packages of bees. Three pound packages of bees, each package with one queen.

For those of you who don't keep bees, or don't have a family member who keeps bees. Or hasn't ever helped out introducing a new package to its new home, a bee package, is a wire and plywood cage.

Sort of a box with the top and bottom made out of screen wire.

Cut into one of the plywood sides is a round hole that a quart can has been inserted into. The can is full of sugar water and the other end. The end surrounded by bees, has several holes poked in it. Holes big enough for the sugar water to slowly leak out and for the bees to hungrily drink it up.

And inside this cage, or package, are three pounds of bees (honey bees are sold by the pound). And one queen bee separated from the other bees by in her own little cage (a small version of the 3 pound cage).

So yesterday afternoon, we're talking Thursday afternoon, I took Wenonah's commuting car, a Prius and drove the 40 miles to pick up the bees, and putting down the back seat, loaded 30 pounds of bees divided in ten packages into the back.

And then drove back to the farm.

It was already six when I got back to the farm and I would have left the bees right there until the morning only I was thinking about Wenonah wanting to take the car to work in the morning and her thoughts on sharing the car with 30 pounds of bees.

I quickly got into my bee suit (white shirt and vail), rolled down the car windows, (onthe way some several hundred bees had escaped from their cages) opened the hatchback, the doors and started taking the packages of bees out of the car and hurriedly carrying them across the herb garden to their waiting hive boxes (sort of a house before someone moves into it and makes it a home).

And once there, pulling out the can of sugar water and queen cage and pouring the bees from each package into their new home.

Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to complete the job.

While the sun officially sets at something like 7:30 I was still out there running back and forth in the twilight at around eight.

I didn't pull the cork on the queen cage (for those of you not in the know, a queen cage comes with two corks. One cork leads directly into the queens cell where her and a half dozen hand maidens are imprisoned and the other opens to a plug of soft sugar candy).

When releasing the queen you pull the plug on the candy. This way the three pounds of bees on the outside slowly free the queen by eating the candy.

And the other thing I didn't have time to do was feed the bees.

Remember, this package of bees are being put into an empty hive. Sort of like 10,000 people being dropped off into an empty town.

The buildings are there but the shelves are bare.

There aren't any groceries on the grocery store selves. No CSA's coming in from the country with van's full of produce. And while the restaurants have their cooks, waiters and dishwashers, there is nothing for them to cook.

The truth is, if someone doesn't do something and soon people are going to get hungry. There's a need for an emergency feeding program. A bread line until the town can get up on its feet and running.

That's where I come in.

A sugar water bread line (one part sugar to one part water) and through one of several types of bee feeders put this concoction inside the new bee town/hive.

Last night I ran out of daylight. And while around midnight I did mix up the sugar water (using buckets in the bathtub) I still need to go back through the ten new hives, uncork the queens and feed the bees.

And I should have done that at first light this morning.

But I didn't.

So that's what I mean by procrastinating. And here I am writing a newsletter instead.

And while we're at it, here's the farm news.

Greetings to all of the new shareholders. We are approaching the 85% full mark. Our shareholder list should be filling up in the next several weeks. If you want to sign up and haven't yet its time.

Questions Answered. This section of the webpage has been recently rewritten with an idea of being brutally honest about the true nature of a CSA. Going with our new motto, 'A CSA is not for everyone'. we try to make it clear to those whose sole motivation for joining a CSA is to find a bargain or to get a better type of supermarket vegetable section they will be disappointed.

By reading this section before they join up we are hoping to weed out the people that are not going to be happy with a CSA before they join one.

We also make it clear that a CSA (and particularly our CSA) provides the freshest vegetables anyone can get outside of growing them in their own garden. But that's a lot different than going into the store and buying a tomato that was harvested three weeks ago in a greenhouse 2000 miles away. Or a orange bell pepper that grew in Sicily. Or strawberries from Mexico.

Eggs. We will have free eggs for subscribers all through April. Not this weekend (my weekend is full of family visits, dinners and whatnots) but next weekend we'll have an open house -- I'll send out details during the middle of next week - expect the details about April 6th or 7th. I'll even give out free eggs to non members who come out and help with the pondliner.

Asparagus.  Two weekend's from now the asparagus should start appearing and we'll do a sort of asparagus pick your own, Or maybe Asparagus in exchange for picking up rocks. (anyone who has been out knows we do a great job of growing rocks)

Greens. And then the weekend after that hopefully, the greens will start to ripen in one of the hoophouses. (yes, salad greens in exchange for rock picking).

Seedling give away. We haven't set a date yet but it will be in the newsletters.

Growing Season. Up here on the side of the mountain we're about a week behind you down on the flat, but our last frost is generally around mid April and we plan to start planting the broccoli and cauliflower then. Right now our seedlings are doing very well.

(last year we lost most of our broccoli and cauliflower seedlings that night in early March when the temperature dropped into the single digits and the water feeding the greenhouse boiler froze).

This year all of our seedlings are coming along just fine. Many of them have never looked so fine. (we switched our fertilizer to a fish and seaweed mix)

Helping out. If there is anyone out there that wants to help put up a hoophouse, play with the bees, collect eggs, check anti deer fence and a hundred and one other chores and has free time during the week, I would love your help.

But right now I need to stop procrastinating. Those bees our hungry and the queens are anxious to get down to work (laying eggs).