Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Year of Opening Gifts

Ethan Book is a southern Iowa farmer/podcaster ( who reflected, this Christmas week, on the top five failures and successes of his 2015 farming year.  I like the concept, which prodded a bit of reflection on our own experiences this year at Taproot Garden.  I do, however, want to change the vocabulary a bit -- partly because I am yet too much of a novice to speak with any credibility about successes and failures, and partly because on this Christmas Eve I rather have gifts on my mind.  

So, with apologies to the casual reader more accustomed to stories and the occasional poignant thought than this reflective accounting, and who have my honest permission to stop reading now and return again next week for a more usual blog, here are the top five gifts I have received from the farmstead this year.  

1. The Chickens survived the winter.  That may not sound like much, but last winter was our first in the company of these beautiful ladies, and I was none too confident.  I have observed that many chicken keepers manage their flocks spring through autumn, and then butcher them for meat as winter settles in, starting over again with a new flock in the spring.  I completely understand the motivation. Chicken keeping in the winter is not for the faint of heart, adding as it does an extra layer of hassle to the care, beginning with the simple maintenance of food and water in frigid temperatures. I came to the conclusion last winter that work gloves simply aren't made that are warm enough to keep fingers functional while hauling, filling and gathering in the grimmer days of winter.  And then, when snow falls, accumulations must be shoveled and straw spread so that the girls have some space to move about and get a modicum of fresh air sans frostbite.  All that said, we survived -- the chickens, and me.  In fact, the flock continued to grow with the addition of a second, albeit slightly smaller, coop from Murray's Hen Hoops in Missouri that now, as this present winter descends, itself has reached capacity.  Along the way, we have developed a nice little clientele for the eggs which helps keep the girls in premium organic feed to which they have grown accustomed.  And I am not only relieved; I am grateful.

2. We completed one year of “Organic Ministry: Cultivating Soil and Soul.”
A couple of years ago a friend forwarded to me information about a farm-based clergy renewal program developed by a Lutheran pastor in Indiana in partnership with a local counseling center.  Captivated by what I subsequently learned about the program, I queried the possible interest of the local counseling center on whose Board I once served.  They shared my interest, and after a period of development, refinement and recruitment, we launched the program in March with 8 clergy from around the state.  On the first Monday of each month, the group gathered at Taproot Garden for breakfast, worship, light farm work, lunch, personal retreat and facilitated discussion of ministry and reading assignments through the lenses of metaphors inspired by our setting and the husbandry it involves.  It remains to be seen whether there will be adequate registrations to support a second class, but this first one was a nourishing and satisfying joy -- at least for me, but I sensed for all those participating as well.

3. The Solar system was completed and is generating.
Prompted by a wild imagination and the persistent desire to be kinder to and more sustainable for the planet, we began the installation of a photo-voltaic solar system just after Thanksgiving 2014.  Holiday travels and some shipping delays pushed completion of the project back to February 2015.  Since then, our ground-mounted 26 panels have been drinking in the sunlight -- some days more than others, but generally enough to supply our household needs. One of our favorite moments each month is opening our electric bill and seeing a balance due of $8.50 -- essentially the cost of the meter and taxes.  

4. Greenhouse seeding was a larger success.  Each year since moving to the farm, we have nestled seeds into seed cell trays in late winter and nurtured them under lights in the greenhouse -- with acceptable but hardly celebratory results.  This year we adopted a couple of changes we hoped would be improvements.  Instead of using those typical cell trays, we bought a special tool and made our own soil blocks from the compost/potting soil we purchase from Wisconsin.  The result is a 2-inch cube that rather looks like a soil brownie.  With the help of the Organic Ministry participants, we made close to 2000 of these blocks that were nestled together into trays, each hosting one or another variety of seed.  Additionally, having learned that soil temperature is a more critical factor than air temperature in the germination of seeds, I added warming cables beneath the seed trays.  Equipped with their own thermostat, the cables warm up anytime the soil temperature drops below a certain level.  The result of these two innovations was that virtually every seed sprouted -- an efficacy rate more than tripling previous results.  In fact, we had so many tomato plants beyond the 130 or so that we planted in our own garden that we donated almost as many to a nonprofit community garden for refugees in Des Moines.

5. The harvest was a bounty.  Development of seedlings, of course, is hardly the objective.  It is merely the first in a series of means headed toward a desired end.  The end, in this case, is harvest.  Did we actually produce anything of value?  Moreso than ever before, the answer is a surprising “yes”.  To be sure, the mild temperatures and the seemingly scheduled rain showers helped.  I choose to believe the soil development practices we have put in place have contributed as well.  Certainly the extra hand power contributed by the Organic Ministry group didn't hurt either.  In the end, even after sharing the fruits with the class members and neighbors; even after canning and fermenting and dehydrating various parts, we still ended up buying an additional freezer to preserve the abundance.  Meanwhile, all of this was accomplished under the newly acquired umbrella of being “Certified Naturally Grown” covering both the garden produce and the eggs.

All of which is to say that it has been a good year on the farm.  Whatever gifts we have given, we have received beyond even our most outlandish imagination.  We are humbled, but now that the tools are put away (except those necessary for tending the chickens through this winter) more than anything we are grateful.  

Grateful, and of course hopeful. Who knows what 2016 might have in store?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Memories, with the Hope of Happy Tomorrows

The new girls have officially joined the neighborhood.  Since arriving in early October at the ripe old age of 10 weeks, the two Lavender Orpingtons and two Splash Marans have spent their days and nights in quarantine -- in the coop and enclosure we affectionately refer to as “The Annex”, separated from the main community by some 20 feet.  As I've written before, this segregation is initially a precaution against importing diseases into the larger flock, but over the protracted weeks it becomes, as well, a protective growth sanctuary for the smaller birds.  There, secured by both a chicken wire and an electric mesh fence along with an overhung net, they eat and drink and exercise their way into near-adulthood. 

It's no Utopia.  The enclosed space is adequate, but limited.  The coop itself is...shall we say “modest” -- a minimalist shanty compared with the upscale accommodations that await them across the yard, though like children of the Depression they are surely unaware of their privation.  It simply is all that they know.  The greatest shortcoming of the Annex, I’ve come to realize, is not its minimalist construction but it's orientation.  I situated it poorly. A heavy wooden construction, our primary concern when we transported it home was getting it off the truck in one piece.  That mission was accomplished with the help of friends, stationing it on the 4 X 4’s I had laid down to rest it slightly off the ground.  But we should have rotated it clockwise 45-degrees.  As it is, the hatch faces due north -- a Grinch-like aperture for frigid winter winds.  I close it up at night, of course, but during the day “in” is as “out.”  It's cold.

But the girls, for the most part, have managed it.  They are, after all, hardy breeds.  And though it won't benefit these winter veterans, somehow this summer I will get the Annex situated more advantageously.  As for these girls, they are ready for life on different terms. So it was that last night, along with Mike who had stopped by to help, they made the great migration.  This is the second time we have accomplished such a move under cover of darkness.  Docile and drowsy, they hardly notice my nervous hands surrounding their feathery warmth, thieving them one-by-one from their humble but familiar environs, shuttling them across the way into the main yard and re-settling them among the older girls who are, themselves, already cuddled in for the night.  It is a simple transfer.  No chasing. No squawking.  No feather rattling and trespassing protestations.  Old and new simply spend the night together and wake the next morning as curious but benign neighbors. 

At least that's the idea.  Morning brings its own realities as I learn anew this awakening dawn.  Once I lower the ramp and raise the hatch, the coop disgorges its contents in single file.  Cautiously, tentatively at the rear of the line, the new girls emerge.  There is some jostling at the bottom of the ramp -- a little pecking, a little chest bumping just to insure that the young ones keep in mind their “place” at the “peon” end of the order.  But with the help of a few culinary distractions I toss around the yard, the older girls leave the younger ones alone to explore their new neighborhood; and the new day, the new world, has begun.

It's not easy moving in.  While the little girls don't have boxes to unpack and furniture to arrange, they do have relationships to forge, social orders to interrupt and rearrange, food and water to locate, and that latent sense of disorientation to overcome.  That, and that wistfully lingering memory of home as it use to be... fade.

Good luck girls.  I’ll be watching, and pulling for you.  For the most part, however -- like it is for all of us -- the hard part will be up to you.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

To Everything There is A Season -- Even Eggs

If I didn't know better I would think the girls were holding back -- or holding out... if they were pouting, or exacting retribution for some free-ranged offense.  Egg production has dropped so precipitously that it's hardly worth the afternoon trip out to the coops to check.  With 23 hens of laying age, in recent weeks I have been lucky to find two eggs a day -- three if the Egg Angels are smiling fondly in my favor.

No, the colder temperatures are not to blame.  These are cold-hardy birds that come with their own down jackets.  With all that plumage they prefer the cold over the heat.  And no, I haven't reduced their rations, grounded them, scolded them or taken away their cell phones.  The problem is the light.

Chickens need 14 hours of light per day for routine egg production -- a natural resource in abbreviated supply this time of year.  It's difficult to log that many hours when the sun rises at 7 a.m. And sets by 5 p.m.  Even my limited math skills can add that up.  Compounding the problem is the fact that several of the girls have shifted their attentions to molting in preparation for deeper winter and have understandably diverted their energies and biological resources away from egg production to feather replacement.

It's possible, of course, to fool Mother Nature with artificial light -- a light bulb on a timer can replace those lost hours of sunlight.  The big egg houses do it routinely, as do plenty of backyard flocksters.  I did it last year, feeling greedy.  It's hardly cruel and unusual punishment.  But it turns out that chickens only have so many eggs to lay in the course of their lifetime.  You can spread that number out over a greater number of years by allowing the girls their natural winter rest, or you can run them full-tilt until they are empty and then figure out what to do with your menopausal friends.

Here is where metaphors become important.  If the hens are machines -- production facilities on a clock -- then turn on the lights. “We've got cartons to fill.  When these birds are spent there are more where they came from.”  If, on the other hand they are co-residents of the farm along with the two of us and the two dogs, then the longer view makes better sense.  It's not hard to guess which metaphor we've adopted, and therefore which course of action we've chosen.  We've got lots invested in them after all -- money, to be sure, which isn't insignificant; but who can calculate the time and emotional energy spent caring, tending and protecting?  I'm not in a hurry to replace them.  They have become, in a feathery sort of way, like family.  Plus, I have my own experience with forced production, and have come to value more natural rhythms.  That, plus the realization that my gratitude for what I find in the laying boxes tends to run in inverse proportion to my expectation.

And so despite the dimmer prospects in these wintry days, when the clock strikes 4 p.m. I steadfastly slip into my coat and boots, arm myself with the collection basket, and make my way through the gate for the treasure hunting ritual. 

It's still a thrill, a surprise, and a deep indebtedness, even with the meager returns.