Monday, May 09, 2011

Deer Defenses

Here's a little farming history for you.

At least my history of farming right next to an over population of white-tail deer.

Or

How I went from feeding my neighbor's deer $15,000 worth of vegetable a year to making the deer find their summer feed somewhere else.

Like most things, it all started back in the good old days. My good old days consisted of looking out at any time of the day in any direction and seeing at least one deer munching away on our vegetables.

that's when I became an expert on what deer like to eat.

How they really love okra leaves, and sweet potato vines.

How deer have an hierarchy of desires when it comes to the varieties of mustard they'll eat. (southern curly is at the top of the list where giant red is down there at the bottom).

and how through trial and error I mostly tried every technique out there for keeping deer away and how I learned that when push comes to shove keeping deer out of your field of vegetables is a lot like keeping bank robbers out of bank vaults.

You can think of a lot of tricky schemes but in the end nothing works as well as an impenetrable safe.

What am I talking about? Well, here it is...

There was a time when I spent a good part of every week thinking of new ways to keep deer out of our vegetables.

This was, I guess, about ten years ago.

Back then if the deer weren’t eating the string beans they were eating they were in the sweet potatoes or the okra, the broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, mustard greens, kohlrabi...

I think there are a few vegetables out there that deer don’t eat but I can’t really recall any right now.

I remember one time I had harvested a pile of squash, its been a while now so I don’t remember if they were winter or summer squash, but I do remember we had them piled up. 

A pile with about fifty in it.

And I went in for the night.

And when I came out in the morning the squash were gone.

Everyone of them. 

It was as if someone had crept out into the field during the darkest part of the night and, making a half dozen trips, had hauled them all off.

I started looking at the ground for tracks. I couldn’t really believe that a human had stolen on to the farm and had hauled off over four dozen squash.

But how else would they have disappeared?

I went out in the field again and looked around.

I still couldn't find any sign of the pile of squash.

I was beginning to doubt my memory. Maybe I had only thought I had picked squash. Maybe it had been a dream.

That was when I saw the tracks. Deer tracks. it looked like maybe half a dozen deer had been in the field the night before.

And there, right where I had first thought I'd left the squash were seeds. Squash seeds. trampled in the deer tracks. Maybe a hundred seeds but no squash, and no parts of squash.  

As much as it seemed impossible, it sure looked like that night deer had eaten up an entire pile of squash, and left nothing behind except for a few seeds they had spilled on the ground and stepped on.

And if that wasn't strange, a sure sign that deer will eat just about anything someone would want to grow, here's another one that happened about the first year of our CSA.                                                             

That year I had plenty of problems but growing large leafy pepper plants wasn't one of them.

Our pepper plants were huge, but the problem was that these huge plants were naked.

Tall plants with large leaves and no peppers.

It was late August and we still hadn't seen a single pepper to give to our shareholders.

And I didn't figure it out until one evening when I was standing out in the middle of the plants looking, trying to figure it out.

The dark was just coming on when I realized what was the problem. 

The plants didn’t have flowers.

Someone was picking every flower off of every pepper plant.

And if there were no pepper flowers, there were no pepper buds. and if there were no pepper buds there were no pepper...

From there on I actively worked at keeping deer out of the fields.

I started doing research into what other growers were doing. I couldn't believe that farmers just stood idly by while deer ate up their crops. and how do you keep a thief out of your fields if it goes and robs you, like a deer does, while you are sound asleep. that robs you while you are sound asleep.

You wouldn’t believe the number of articles on the subject.

How to keep deer away with rotten eggs.

Collecting tiger manure from your local zoo.

Apples quartered and tied with baling wire to an electric fence.

Suspending cakes of soap (some writes insist the soap must be ‘Irish Spring’ ) from tree limbs.

And one of my favorites. A walkman (this was before the days of Ipods). set up with a timer to play a recording of a Rush Limbaugh show out in the middle of your broccoli plants.

Of course none of these worked for more than a day or possibly a week before the deer became wise and either out smarted or ignored the strategies.

And yes, I see your hand up. I know what you are going to say. 'shoot them.' And my answer to that is how are you going to shoot them when they keep on coming. Night after night after night.

One year I went to the game warden and he gave me a 'nuisance' permit.

"Here," he said handing me the permit. We were standing at the gate to that first field on the left, the cemetery field. "I'll put down that you can shot 35 of them. But its not going to help. You can shoot ten times that number and there will still be others out here to replace them. and be here the next day eating your vegetables. You'll have to think of something else."

and he was right, not that I shot any deer (I'm not one who wants to spend his nights, and that's when the deer come out to eat the vegetables, shooting deer after deer after deer). The idea is to keep the deer out of the fields. to stop the deer from eating the vegetables.

Shooting a deer here, and a deer there doesn't do it. It doesn't accomplish the goal of keeping deer out of the vegetables. As soon as one deer has been shot and the hunter has picked up his target and driven it off to the butcher another has popped up and is hungrily eating a row of mustard greens.

I remember back over a decade ago when I had decided the solution was to pasture half a dozen hogs right next to a field of vegetables that were being particularly ravaged by the deer in the hope that the strange smelling animals would keep the deer from crossing the pasture on the way to eating the vegetables.

It didn’t work for much more than a week before the deer decided that the risk of being eaten by a hog was only minimal, especially when balanced against the pleasure of eating our vegetables.

Finally, though, while leafing through a mail order catalogue with products aimed at farmers I saw it.

A fence.

And not just any fence. A fence that was at least ten feet tall.

this wasn’t just any fence. In fact over the years I had played with the idea of several different fences. 

This fence was special.

It was one made out of woven plastic that I could nail to the trees surrounding our fields.

It came with metal hooks that could be hammered into the ground keeping the bottom tacked tightly down so deer couldn’t climb underneath. And the top was ten feet tall.

Tall enough that only the rarest of deer could jump over the top.

Maybe you have heard that saying about deer.

The one that goes deer: Deer can jump over something six feet tall if they are standing still.

Eight feet with a running start.

But the only time they can jump over ten feet is if they are really being motivation.

So if you haven’t noticed already, we have a ten foot fence surrounding about 25 acres of our farm.

And running free on the inside are our two Great Pyrenees.

A breed used to protect livestock from maundering critters. And while they do a good job of protecting our chickens they also are adverse to deer sneaking in and eating the vegetables.

All of this means that while ten years ago we were losing over $12,000 a year in deer damage to our vegetables, last year, and the year before and the year before that, our deer related loses were less than a hundred or two hundred dollars.

We do have losses due to ground hogs, pocket gophers, but that’s another story and one that we’re also working on.

So lets get on to this week's farm news.

Right now we are going as fast as we can, getting our crops into the ground.

So far we have planted over three thousand each of broccoli and cauliflower. We’ve planted a couple thousand cabbage. More Kohlrabi, fennel, beets, potatoes, mustard greens We’ve filled one large greenhouse with bell pepper and eggplants. Another smaller one with hot pepper plants.
Over 500 tomato plants in another green house.

In other words, we’re working as fast as we can and hopefully, if everything breaks our way, by the end of next week we’ll have the majority of our crops in the ground.

The bee packages we put into the hive boxes last week are doing fine. After work today Brian and I stood beside the hives watching worker bees come in from the fields loaded down with a pale yellow pollen. What flower do you think they would be working that would produce pollen that color? Next week I’m going to make a fast trip down to Georgia and pick up another ten hives, these, instead of being packages will be nucs, the difference, nucs are already established as hives, were the packages are a collection of three pounds of bees thrown in with a new queen.

Another point of interest for the week, today for the first time there were several small white chicken eggs in the hens’ laying boxes. This means that those chickens we raised over the winter, the White Leghorns, started laying today. By the time the season begins all of them should be producing eggs for the egg share. White eggs to go with the light brown, dark brown and bluish green eggs we’re already getting.

And I guess that’s this week’s round up. The 2011 shareholders received a separate notice about picking up salad mix, asparagus and eggs at the farm. This is our best year, I think, for early arugula and lettuce.

The red lettuce, I think, is exceptional this year.

Leigh

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