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A Day in the Life

July 5, 2009

Days here are packed. By lunchtime, the morning’s activities feel like they occurred yesterday. I’ve been wanting to give families and friends some idea of what we do here day-to-day, so I decided this morning to take some notes.  So here’s what my June 29th was like, start to finish.

IMG_2385At 6:20 (6:30 by Nate’s clock—we argue a lot about what time it actually is), I arose to the opening jingle of “Octopus’s Garden.” We’ve been rotating CDs as our wake-up calls, and this past week or so it’s often been the Beatles. It takes Christopher and me a couple of songs to get out of bed and dressed for the day. Downstairs, Nate has put on water for tea and we do morning stretches.  IMG_2399My dad warned me how important it is to stretch when you’re farming, and we all agree—we regularly spend 20 minutes in the morning convincing our bodies that we can make it through another day. Back, legs, arms, neck… We are physically active for 8-10 hours, 6 days a week; even though we’re “young,” we feel it.  Stretching really helps.  We sit at the dinner table here in the lodge after stretching and drink some tea. It’s lovely to have a leisurely morning before chores and the bustle of the day begin.

IMG_6039At 7:15, Nate heads to the garden while Chris and I set out to the shed for chicken chores. Last week we slaughtered our 180 older chickens (aren’t you glad I’m not describing that day’s work in detail?), so morning chicken chores take much less time. We still have our 200 baby chicks eating, growing, and pooping in an old iron horse stall in the shed. Each morning, we raise the brooder hood (which we lower at night to keep them warm) , check the temperature, cover the ground with new chaff from the barn, clean their water dispensers, and give them new feed. IMG_6044They’re eating a mix of corn, soybeans, and oats, and we throw in a couple handfuls of grit for their gizzard to help with digestion. I talk to them in funny voices (I blame Nate for that habit) and they run over and peck my muck boots with intensity.  Even though the stall is large (7’x8’ or so), the chicks take up a lot of space. They zoom-zoom-zoom around, stretch out their legs, fall over, and try out their wings—you have to be careful where you step!  I love chicken chores, especially in the morning because their activity cracks me up.

This morning, Chris realizes that we need another feeder to keep up with their appetites, so he heads out to the now empty chicken tractor hutches out the field that used to house our 200 adult chickens. He comes back with the feeder and news that (surprise!) there’s still one adult chicken left that we somehow missed last week when we did the processing. Miraculously, this Jesus bird (that’s what I named her) survived since Thursday with no food and a hutch completely open to predators. Not mention she managed to camouflage herself last week when we were rounding them up for slaughter.  Crazy!

With chicken chores done, we then head down the garden, where we meet Nate to plant about 40 young brasica plants, including giant red mustard, moi toi, mitzuna, and tat soi . This was high on our priority list, since it is supposed to rain for the rest of the week. We surrounded each plant with a steel can and then covered them all with row covers, which should help with pest control during their first few days outdoors.  All this done before breakfast!

At 8:00, we meet back at the house, returning from the various chores we each do. Every day is the same breakfast—oatmeal with raisins and chopped apple, and a blended-up powdery mix of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and flax seeds. Healthy and hearty!  My own personal addition is a handful of chocolate chips, which makes me feel healthy and happy.  We eat out on a screened-in porch with a cement floor, which also holds a fridge and freezer for our harvests and meat. We sit and chat over oatmeal about the weekly schedule, the expected weather, high-priority tasks, and today we talk a lot about our Jesus bird. How did she survive? How did we miss her? What do we do with her now?  We divvy up tasks and head out to work again.

IMG_2396By 8:45, Nate, Chris, Mark (a WWOOFer), and I head down to the garden. We have a lot to get done before it starts raining, and it is looking imminent.  The guys continued covering the young brasicas, but I went straight to the hoop houses.  For the next couple of weeks, I’m in charge of irrigation. We use drip tape in the hoop houses, which I helped Fran clean, test, connect, repair, and lay last week.  It should be all set for connection to the hose, but something always seems to go awry—geysers spew from pinholes in the tape, joint fittings explode, the water pump breaks, etc. This morning, I planned on watering our peppers. I noticed 4 pinholes when I turned on the hose—easy to fix with a rag, Leatherman, Tuck tape, and patience. It’s been a bit of a challenge to figure out the correct water pressure so that the bed is watered thoroughly after 6 hours. It’s entertaining (though occasionally frustrating) to experiment and tinker with the system. After 45 minutes I finally have the irrigation working again, but it prompts me to dream of more efficient and logical ways to water our plants. Nate calls me on the walkie-talkie to go get harvest buckets from the greenhouse, so I gather them and return to the garden for morning harvest.

IMG_6021Peas are everywhere. We have nine 150-feet rows of shell peas and a double row of climbing snow peas and they are bursting with ripe bounty. We work straight for an hour and I’ve nearly picked a full bucket and eaten several handfuls. As they pile up, I wonder what we’ll do with all of them since we don’t have a market until Saturday.  At 10:00 we see Tony go by on the 100 year-old riding row cultivator, pulled by Peg and Sharlene, two of our Belgian draft horses.  IMG_6027Tony calls us over at 10:30 to demonstrate how he row-cultivates the field corn.  It’s astonishing how powerfully and precisely the horses move and how simple, antique machinery still make sense. In no time at all, the field is nearly free of weeds. We return to picking peas, which seems an endless task.  By noon, we finished with 5 rows of the shell peas. This last Friday, we harvested 5 gallons of shell peas.  This morning alone, we picked 20 gallons.

Lunch usually starts around 12:30 here. We eat sandwiches with every kind of bizarre topping. Today was especially eclectic. I had three open-face sandwiches—two with cream cheese, spinach, sour kraute, mayo and mustard on homemade bread and one with macadamia-cashew butter and apple butter (which comes from the orchard here). It still hasn’t rained, so we are quick to get back outdoors. Normally we take a nap after lunch until about 2:30 or 3:00, but we’ve got too much to do today. More peas!

IMG_2541We are back to picking by 1:30, and once it starts raining we work in the hoop house tying up tomatoes and hoeing between rows to kill young weeds. It rains on and off for the rest of the afternoon, so we hop back and forth between the rows of peas and the hoop houses. We don’t finish picking the snow peas, but by 5:00 we have nearly 5 gallons of them. Incredible! We usually don’t stop working until dinner is ready, but today we quit early just after 5 pm. Tony is on dinner prep today (we alternate); I’m not too excited about his liver and onions menu. .. That said, we do eat really well here. All our meat and vegetables come from the farm, and we make bread, mayo, wine, cheese, apple butter and other things from scratch. Fran also cans and freezes fruits and veggies every year, so we have quite an array of foods to cook with.  The liver and onions, as expected, aren’t my favorite, but there are several leftovers I can use to supplement my meal.

Evenings pass quickly because we are usually exhausted. We all feel ready for bed by 8:30 or so, but the sun doesn’t go down until after 10 pm. So, after dinner we come back to the lodge, listen to music, and Nate and I work on our blog entries.  While I can list what we accomplished today, it is much more difficult to describe the feeling it gives you to have your hands dirty all day, to harvest delicious food, and to see baby animals grow. I go to sleep tired and satisfied, then dream of peas, chickens, and weeds. Every day is different, but I hope this gives you all an idea of what it’s like for us out on the farm. Come visit us and see for yourselves! ☺

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I’m the Guy That Your 13-Year-Old Hopes You Don’t Buy Anything From

June 1, 2009

IMG_1770Green vegetables, the ever-feared, always-loathed food group that so many of us tried our best to avoid as our taste buds were developing.  It’s a wonder that Popeye convinced any of us that spinach was worth eating, but somehow I got past that stage and I am now the proud arch nemesis to many unsuspecting young teens in the Stratford area.  It’s not often, but every once and a while we come face to face, my enemy and me.  Imagine you’re thirteen, the only green in your diet are green apple air-heads and the last thing you want to do at eight am on a Saturday morning is walk around with your mom among a hoard of people that think like her.  If it weren’t for the borderline blackmail agreement you made with her last night about getting ice cream with your friends later that Saturday, you would still be in bed.  I stand behind my wall of green things, with a frightening number of other potted plants that probably produce similarly terrifying vegetables.  And not to mention the Apple Butter, if you thought apple sauce was bad, this stuff is darker, stickier and a far cry from its claimed main ingredient: the apple.  But it’s not the green stuff, per se, that is so daunting, rather the conversation that ensues:

IMG_1705“And do you know what this is?” I ask, gesturing to a bunch of horrifically coarse and furry leaves that you hadn’t noticed before.  “No” she replies with a dreaded tone of interest that always means something-new-to-try for dinner.

“This is comfrey” I explain, holding the bouquet of leaves as if it were a dozen roses.  Her eyes grow wider as her mind begins to fathom its potential health benefits, “how do you prepare it?” she asks trying to not sound ignorant or desperate.  As I explain its nutritional and homeopathic traits as well as its many culinary uses you can picture it in your minds eye: the putrid green pile of now felt textured, spinachesque vegetable matter that is plopped with pride onto your dinner plate; a new vegetable for you to try!  I can see all of this behind your blank stare, and my knowing smile is all that much more infuriating so you tell your mom you’re going to wait in the apple fritter line.

IMG_1797If it is not comfrey that you fear, than maybe it is the “Zesty Salad Mix,” just the descriptor “zesty” is enough to make you cringe.  You thought iceberg lettuce was manageable with a fair allotment of Kraft Fat Free Ranch salad dressing, but somehow these greens can’t be hidden behind even the strongest artificial flavors.  Even the heads of lettuce don’t look like they should, some leaves look glossy, some have a more colorful matte finish and none come neatly shrink wrapped.  It was as if your mom finally found that store of vegetable ammunition, which she has been threatening you with for so long.  That’s right, I’m that dangerous, and it’s only going to get worse as the spring turns to summer.

What you don’t know is that I used to be like you; my mother had to hide peas in my pancakes to try and get me to eat something green.  And what you cannot even begin to fathom is that someday you might be like me.  I love my “job” and what’s more I love the life that comes with it, and I don’t think I’m alone.  The New York Times recently ran an article in the”Dining and Wine” section that describes the recent trend of liberal arts students that have chosen to see what this whole farming thing is about.  It is not your typical job, life is put into your hands from the moment you step foot on the farm: often times animals depend on you for food, and vice versa.  IMG_1674You have to be creative, imaginative and when a chicken pecks you when you try to feed him and then poops on you when you do it helps to have a sense of humor.  Take this mustard flower to the right.  They litter our pastures and the flower is a burst of sweet flavor backed by your typical mustard gusto.  This yellow delight of flavor is now the newest garnish in our zesty salad mix and just one of the creative ideas that bounce around on this farm.

It is not surprising to me that liberal arts students, like myself, are drawn to farming.  It is like the best of essay topics, given by that imortal Humanities professor who always manages to instill that ever illusive self-kindled inspiration.  The question challanges some personal part of your intelect, it makes you dig deep into your mental and moral priorities: what is it that I care about?  And you know before you start that nothing but honest comitment and perserverence will come close to uprooting the answer.

Chicken Love and Death

May 26, 2009

IMG_1768I think I am in love with chickens.  Not in that romantic way that people mean when they say it to one another, rather I could sit and watch them and never get bored.  They have such comical mannerisms and idiosyncratic motions, they always seem to be either in an extreme hurry to do whatever life necessity is happening, or they can not be bothered to do more than blink from their ruffled spot in the corner of the pen.  I often get a hearty chuckle or bemused smile when I get caught just watching them.  It was as if there were mini dramas playing out in every corner because life is a free-for-all of who gets the prime spot at the feeder.  No one else here seems to find the same humor in their ways but it never fails to make me smile.

This week the roosters are really starting to show their combs and wattles and they have begun to face off against one another as the other more smoothed headed hens look on apathetically.  It seems appropriate that as they grow and mature so too does their set on which so many dramas unfold: this week I we moved them out to pasture.

IMG_1710It was a messy, squaking journey from the shed to the pasture where we had set up the four “chicken tractors” for the now two hundred and four chickens.  A chicken tractor is basically a portable chicken pen that we drag around the pasture so the chickens can eat grass, grubs and many other goodies as they drop their own precious, nitrogen rich goodies on the soil.  The tractors are a wooden frame covered in chicken wire, with most of the roof and sides covered with a white plastic to give them shade and shelter from the elements.  They have an automatic waterer hooked up to our livestock, gravity fed watering system, and a feed trough.  IMG_1722Every morning we move them to a new patch of grass, check their water and give them feed, and they sure can eat.  When they were just a week old the whole batch of them would eat a few scoops of feed a day, probably no more than a few pounds.   Today they are six weeks old, and we feed them about a hundred to one hundred and twenty pounds of feed a day.  And that is assuming that they are getting a good thirty percent of their daily calories from the pasture. That is more than half a pound of feed, per bird, per day and they only weigh about four to six pounds each.  That is roughly a tenth of their body weight, it would be like if I tried to eat seventeen pounds of food everyday.

IMG_1843There are of course, dangers to being outside, exposed to all the dangers of what chance has to offer.  This morning, as we moved the tractors to their new spot, the dinner menu changed.  Out from the under the dragging end of the one of the tractors rolled two chickens.  They both looked well feathered out, and healthy, except that they were no longer alive.  And there were suspicious looking red spots just below both chicken’s heads.  My immediate reaction was vampires, and my guess was not far off.  Skunks and weasels will catch and kill a chicken through chicken wire and then suck the blood from its neck.  Since it cannot get the bird through the chicken wire, it will then leave the dead bird and often kill again.  This time we were lucky, it only took two, so chicken was on the menu tonight.  You can’t get chicken much fresher than that, and it doesn’t get much better either.

In memory of a dear friend of mine I roasted the chickens with a lemon inside, some potatoes around the edges of the pan, and then basted the whole bird with a mixture of garlic, chicken fat and thyme.  It wasn’t seventeen pounds of food per person, but no one complained either.

Biodanamic Visit

May 17, 2009

IMG_1489In Ontario and now in many other provinces of Canada there is a program called CRAFT (Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training).  We are one of the original group of farms that helped get the program started in Ontario, though it dates back to New York and Massachusetts farms that started the original CRAFT program in 1994.  The programs basic principal is to give learning opportunities to farm apprentices and to link the apprentice groups on participating CRAFT farms.  This allows us, the learners, to see a variety of operations, farm philosophies and practical realities as well as providing a social way of meeting their local apprentice peer group.  Every second Wednesday of the month is CRAFT day for us, and we travel to a different farm to help, learn and spend the day on a new farm.

This past Wednesday was our first CRAFT day, our destination: Whole Circle Farm in Acton, Ontario.  Johann and Maggie are best described as biodynamic farmers.  A full discussion of biodynamic farming is not in order here, though it is a topic that comes up often here and deserves a more thorough exploration that I plan to give here.  Rudolf Steiner, as I have mentioned before in the post on Compost, has had a number of influential ideas when it comes to agriculture, or at least for the small but growing population of farmers that believe in avoiding the arsenal of chemicals and bio-engineered weapons that are available to any farmer with a credit line.  Steiner believed, though could not always explain, that what goes on below the ground surface is the what makes the plants and animals healthy.  He is, of course, not talking about Justus von Liebig’s NPK plant nutrition theories, but rather the enormous, sub-surface work force that is soil microbes.  This work force is comprised of the many microorganisms, bacteria, fugi and others that inhabit soil and give it life.

Biodynamic farmers have taken Steiner’s philosophy of worldly connectedness and applied it to the soil and all those who depend on it, and there are many of us.  The use of compost, compost teas, fungal inoculates, and holistic management technical are the building blocks for any biodynamic farm and Whole Circle was no exception.

IMG_1458Whole Circle spans roughly two-hundred and fifty acres, and was once upon a time two separate farms.  They run a large CSA, sell at the Georgetown Farmers Market and have varied livestock with a herd of Brown Swiss dairy cows that Johann has bred with some Canadiene.  Most striking of all were the large horns on every dairy cow in his pasture.  The average dairy farmer de-horns the cows, or has them bred to be polled (no horns).  Johann however, believes that his cows horns are an integral part of the life force of the animal and should not be removed.  He explained that horns are important to the digestive system of the cow, and that the cow’s energy flows out to the tips of the horns and then back into the cow.  If this energy is disrupted by the absence of horns, the cow suffers.

IMG_1415Whole Circle also had what some of the apprentices called a chick sanctuary, and the rest just called the chicken bus.  Apparently, Johann has a deal with the local hatchery and he takes rejected chicks that they would normally kill; batches that are too old, breeds that have been mixed up..etc and they end up at the bus.  The bus provides a roost for most of the layers and a safe place for the chickens and their roosters to sleep at night.

IMG_1418Like many artifacts on Whole Circle farm the school bus as well as the chickens have found a second home.  To some this might give the farm an aura of chaos and disarray, but from a different perspective recycling and ingenuity seem to be more fitting adjectives.  In fact, it occurred to me that of the many farms that I have seen as we drive through southwestern Ontario it is the large, cash crop farms that appear “organized.”  These farms have, on occasion, reminded me of large public school cafeteria kitchens.  They have that genre of cleanliness and tidiness that can only be explained as industrial, the scale and impersonal design is representative of the fact that the owner puts little of his or her own character into what is done; just a collection of large equipment that gets the job done efficiently.  And yet of the select few small farms that I have had the privilege to visit I have always been struck by the individuality and character of each farm, and having gotten to know each farmer there is always a connection between who they are, what they believe, and the feeling you get when standing in some corner of the farm.

As I stood in a back corner admiring the personality of each horn on all of the many dairy cows a hand bell was rung to call us all to the large potluck lunch complete with fresh bread, countless entrees and a plethora of tantalizing, homemade deserts.  You can count on good food when it is a potluck of farmers.  Mingled among many plates, piled high with food, the seeds of small farms around North America and the world began to germinate.  Many CRAFT apprentices have aspirations, intentions or dreams of running their own farm.  That dream, which has lead many of us to take “jobs” that will not pay us more than a place to sleep and food, is not as acceptable as your typical childhood hope of being a doctor or a fireman.  Secure income?  Time off?  Slumping economy?  Enormous start up cost?  They will ask, and many of the baby-boom generation are not unfounded in their concerns, after all many of them went “back-to-the-land” with little or no experience their chances of success were little to none.  This time around however, we are a different generation of inspired and now educated youth.

Thirty years ago WOOFing did not exist, the idea of the family farm was fading, the farm bill had just been changed to encourage over production, and the whole point of getting back to the land was that you didn’t need anyone to teach you to do it, let alone try and run a successful business.  As the ice cream began to melt in the sectioned off corners of the remaining plates and conversation shifted to more serious matters, it was clear that many of us knew how much there was to learn, what running a business means and how we wanted to go about it all.  And there was comfort among those who share a dream.

IMG_1475What came next was arguably the highlight of the entire CRAFT day: Ken Laing of Orchard Hill Farm (check out their blog) and his excited crew of apprentices gave a puppet show of sorts, explaining the ins and outs of soil chemistry.  Ken started with a brief quiz to get us thinking about some of the basics of soil chemistry and then with the help of ions on sticks, plastic bag humus colloids and cardboard clay particles we learned how all the various trace elements and major nutrients move through the soil.  I for one, will never forget the ionic attraction of cations to a humus colloid, the video below captures the second and slightly less emphatic reenactment of the chemical process.

IMG_1429Small farmers are not like computer programmers or web designers.  There is no instant, universalized source of shared information, and they are not particularly good at exchanging ideas or problemsolving tactics.  This is not for lack of interest however, and each year the CRAFT group in southwestern Ontario grows with the addition of new farms that want to expand their ideas and learn from others.  One idea that I particularly liked was the use of this cement mixer pictured to the left.  They used it to wash their root vegetables for the winter CSA, a good deal cheaper than an industrial carrot washer from your local farm Co-Op.  There were infinite tricks, ideas, and solutions to learn from the way they did things, and yet none are perfectly applicable to anything but their own operations, which is probably why farmers are not big on Twitter. 😉

Spring Fever

May 12, 2009

IMG_1353Spring doesn’t really get old.  How could it?  By the time it arrives you have been waiting for what always seems like too long, and it is usually fashionably late with a typical, extravagant entrance and subsequent faltering presence.  But once it has set in, once the warm afternoons, thick grass, cool breeze, cow pies, flies, flowers, baby calves, asparagus shoots and late nights anticipating frosts have taken hold there is no turning back: you’ve got spring fever.

Most other folks on the farm have a much easier time embracing this season induced fervor for life and growth.  The chickens grow and eat with a new ferocity, they have all feathered out and are itching to get out into the real world of the pasture and see what this whole foraging thing is all about.  The horses can’t get enough of the green grass, the smell of the fresh air, the soft ground under their hoofs…all except those infernal flies that never seem to leave the general vicinity of their head.  Even the slow-moving organisms like the trees have suddenly burst into action, throwing all their energy into new leaves and blossoms that then attract the buzzing cloud of insects after their sweet nectar.  But perhaps most striking of all is the flagrant desire to mate.  Even our two male horses who are geldings (they are basically eunuchs) still sniff at the other female horses manure, as that is usually the best indication that a mare is in heat.  And then there are the cows.

IMG_1334The cows have been calving for the last three weeks, and we now have seven new baby calves gleefully chasing each other around the pastures between vigorous bouts of nursing.  And even with all this birthing and focus on their newborns the cows still go into heat.  When I walk by one of the pastures where the cows are grazing it is not uncommon to see a few cows trying to mount and hump one another with varying degrees of success.  Apparently, cows will mount each other when they are in heat, and if the cow being mounted does not run away or “stands” then it is the one in heat, but if the cow clearly does not want another beast on its back then it is the mounting cow that is in heat.  I for one, have a hard time being that open about my spring feelings, though it might be convenient to be able to literally smell attraction.

IMG_0579Even our old friend time seems to have been snared by the spring bug, and here we are in the middle of May and it seems like only yesterday that the snow was covering most of the south wall of the greenhouse, remember those days?  Those were the days when the natural markers of time seemed to be telling me to slow down, take my time, learn to listen.  IMG_1393Somehow time has forsaken those patient words and seems to be lost in its own hurry to get life moving again.  The blur of signals that tell me time is flying by is staggering when I stop to try and focus on it, but most of the time I just marvel at how high the grass is, how many weeds have popped up in the garden, how far along the spinach is, or that the peas have finally bloomed, whispering sweet-nothings about the long awaited arrival of their first offerings.  However it is still only spring, and the rush of summer is still many weeks away, and time has occasionally looked over its shoulder and reminded me of those long winter naps, which have since been replaced by occasional, twenty-minute power naps.

IMG_1400Despite summers absence, the war on weeds has officially begun.  You can’t stop them, though they will try to stop you.  Fran says that without a sense of humor they will inevitably defeat you.  After an entire afternoon of digging up Twitch Grass with a pitchfork I decided that there must be a market for this abundant plant, and I could somehow make my fortune with one of its hidden, marketable traits.  As it turns out Elytrigia repens (Twitch Grass) has been used for many years as a herbal remedy to bladder and urinary troubles!  We haven’t made the tea from its roots yet, but there is plenty of it to go around.

I have added a short clip of one of our newest calves, just minutes after he was born.  You can see his mother licking off the mucus and birth membrane while the calf gets used to the strangeness of existence.  After no more than three hours this calf was up, nursing, and walking around!

Taste’s Like Chicken

May 4, 2009

img_1280Spring means many things to many people in many places, and here in the northern hemisphere spring means birth, green growth, and the visible end to eating the same root vegetables that have been slowly growing in your root cellar.  At least that is what spring meant one hundred years ago.  These days vegetables come from far away to keep your supermarket shelves green, birth is replaced by a shrink-wrap package and root vegetables elected the potato as their king and banished him to the deep fryer of fast food franchises.  And somehow time travel is still possible.  Read more…

Seed Cleaning

April 30, 2009

Most farmers can’t help but collect things.  I’ve heard farming described as “constant creative problem solving” though some would simplify that down to tinkering.  In that line of work, however you call it, you never know what you might need, and so most things that could be trash, are saved just in case.  Not a day goes by here that I am not surprised, amazed, skeptical or intrigued by some new gizmo, tool or machine.  Today’s dose took my expectations to a new level.shed

Our task was “cleaning seed” as it’s called, though the verb is a bit misleading in my mind.  The goal is to take your seed, which in our case was about ten, fifty pound bags of mixed grain that was harvested from a field last fall and separate all the different types of grain.  The field had oats, barley and wheat planted on it and so the bags of seed are a random mix of those grains and luckily each seed has a slightly different size and weight. Read more…