Botany of the Home

I’ve started clearing the back part of our property. We’ve neglected it since we bought the place, aside from trimming down a few trees and my husband’s foray back there to dig out some of our wild roses.

As a result, it’s absolutely awful. The poison ivy has spread, but it’s only one of approximately 7 vines that threaten to take over our yard. The others are Virginia Creeper, Bittersweet, Wild Clematis, swamp dewberry, wild grapes, and ground ivy. Did you know Virginia creeper causes a rash in your skin if you’re one of those “sensitive people?” Neither did until I looked it up after getting a huge rash when I decided to pull some up Willy nilly. Wild clematis I originally mistook for poison ivy since poison ivy can also climb, also occasionally looks like a mitten and alternates on the vine. Except poison ivy doesn’t flower and I saw the wild clematis when it was flowering. Since the clematis had grown to cover several sapling, bushes and felled tree trunks, this was a huge relief. Less of a relief is the fact that the variety we have growing here just happens to be the kind that also causes a rash, though more temporary than the other two. Bittersweet, though invasive, wild grape, and swamp dewberry are probably the least distressing of all the vines. No rashes, they have yet to cover everything. They’re fine. I still want to get rid of them, however.

Ground ivy on the other hand…

If anyone knows of a more useless vine, let me know. Nothing eats ground ivy. In fact, it’s toxic to some animals. It grows like 60 cm a year, releases about a billion seeds from its tiny purple flowers, and will utterly and completely take over your yard. Kind of like it’s attempting to do to mine.

Like its name suggests, it covers the ground. Aggressively, choking out anything else that might want to grow there. You could use an herbicide to get rid of it, but me being a hippy, I don’t want to. But there doesn’t seem to be an easy way to get rid of it, other than spraying it or covering it with black plastic (which I’ve done with the poison ivy). The internet suggests that a solution of borax will kill it. However, it also says that if the solution isn’t exactly the correct percentage, it will kill everything and not just the ground ivy. I don’t really want to kill everything. Just the ground ivy. Then again, it’s not like i couldn’t just plant more grass.

In areas thick with it, you can just roll it up like a carpet, which I have done. You find where the vines end and just pull them up and roll, revealing the dirt and bugs underneath. This is weirdly enjoyable, especially for the chickens if they happen to be around. Of course, any plants that happen to be nearby will also be pulled up, but if the area is just ground ivy, not a problem.

It is, however, time consuming. I hate ground ivy.

At least it doesn’t cause any rashes and has no thorns. Unlike the wild blackberries and wild roses that have sprouted up everywhere. The wild roses are particularly bad. You have to dig them out with the roots or else they’re just come back and their thorns are much, much bigger than bramble thorns.

My husband doubts they’re actually wild roses and thinks they’re more of a thistle. I’ve searched the internet and they don’t look much like thistle at all. But unlike the wild roses I see when googling, these never blossom. These wild roses are all thorn and no flower. Could there be a more disheartening plant?

Sometimes I think previous owners must have had a garden back there because along with the wild blackberries, there are quite a few black raspberry plants growing. These too have spread, their long canes bending over and sticking into the ground to start next year’s crop. They’re easy to differentiate from the blackberries with their frosty blue color. The berries also lack the inner seed, which I prefer over black berries. Due to their wild and uncontrollable nature, I’m pulling them, too, although it may be stupid: I’ve ordered more raspberries to plant in the same area in the spring: red, yellow, and black. Why not just keep the free ones? I don’t know. it I’ve heard you’re supposed to rip out the old ones after a few years and plant new ones. I don’t know why, it’s just what I’ve been told. So I’m pulling these up by the roots as well.

All these things I clear, I toss over the steep embankment in the back of the upper part of our property. It falls off quite suddenly into the woods, where I don’t really want to go. My goal is to build up all the cut brush and let it rot, eventually building up the dirt so that we maybe have a nice gentle slope into the woods instead of a sudden drop off. Aside from that, I’ve also decided it’s my low-tech carbon sink. Where previously we would have burned all these things I’ve cut down, I’m now just throwing it there to let it slowly rot. No more carbon suddenly released into the atmosphere! Go me!

Instead, it will slowly be released there except for whatever stays in the soil. I don’t know. But it feels productive and I like seeing any sort of improvement.

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A Boring Post About Farm Economics

Making a profit off your farm is challenging–especially if you’re a novice farmer like I am. But over the last 3 years, I’ve reached a few conclusions about ways to profit and shared them with my husband, who agrees.

So here goes:

1) Chicken eggs are loss leaders. Maybe not for every farm, but I think for most of them they are. It may not seem like it if you’ve never owned chickens, but having chickens has very low barriers to entry, which means that most people who move out to the country or small town start off getting chickens. You only need a coop, some chicks (or pullets), some feeders, waterers and feed and you get almost immediate payoff: delicious eggs every day. Even if they cost more than the grocery store, people who get backyard chickens decide it’s worth it because the chickens become pets. Then they end up having too many eggs and decide to sell the extra, resulting in a sign in the yard advertizing “Eggs $3/$2 a dozen!” Since any one can do it, chicken eggs (while easy) is not an area for which we should look to make a profit.  In order to break even on eggs at the moment, we would have to sell them for $7 a dozen. Reducing feed waste would go a long ways to decreasing this.

2) Duck eggs are a waste of time. The Guide to Raising Ducks book sold my husband on duck eggs, saying that people pay a lot of money for duck eggs, so you can definitely profit off of them! More accurate would be “Some people love duck eggs so much, they’re willing to pay a premium for them. But most aren’t willing to pay for them at all.” This means we exclusively eat duck eggs at home because we have very few wiling, paying customers for them.  Anyone who hears we have ducks gets excited and says “Oooh, meat ducks?” and then loses interest when they hear they’re laying ducks. Which brings me to my next point.

3) Raise meat. This is a better way to be profitable and has many advantages. Barriers to entry are much higher because most people who get a few chickens and think of them as pets aren’t thinking “I’m totally going to kill this chicken and eat it as soon as it stops laying!” They can’t handle that. Even if they would like to do it, they usually don’t want to do it themselves and would rather have someone else do it for them because they don’t know how and it takes some practice to learn how to slaughter a chicken quickly. Trust me, I taught myself using youtube and blog tutorials and have definitely spent more nights with my hands shoved up a chickens ass than I’d like. But I’m willing to keep doing it because every time we sell a stewing hen, we make up the cost of the chick, plus some extra, which helps offset the losses we make on our chicken eggs.

Therefore, we need to stop doing laying ducks entirely. We should concentrate on meat ducks, meat geese, consider meat chickens (but I’m weary about that–cornish crosses are very sensitive to stress and the environment and die easily. Ducks and geese, on the other hand, are very hardy.

Getting pigs is also a good idea. Every person I’ve told I want to get pigs wants us to get a pig to raise for them as well. Pigs are definitely considered Real Farm Animals and, consequently, have a high barrier to entry. The downside of pigs is that piglets are very expensive at the moment due to the porcine diarrhea that’s been going around, killing piglets.

Basically, we need to get into raising animals you slaughter after one season so you don’t have to overwinter them. It makes things easier.

4) Become the middleman. Surprisingly, the one area in our farm in which we are consistently profitable is the one we weren’t even aiming to be profitable. When we first bought chicks, I would order our soy-free, organic feed online, but shipping was really expensive and I didn’t have enough chickens really to make ordering a pallet worth it, so we started getting it from a feed store in a few hours away, but on the way home from Finnish school. It was still expensive. Then I met some other people interested in getting soy-free feed, thus making ordering a pallet worth it. We started ordering pallets of feed. At first, I didn’t fill the pallet up, but as the number of interested people has increased, I’ve started filling it up and we still go through it within 3 months. Keeping the price roughly the same as before and rounding to the nearest quarter, we still make over $1 on each bag of feed we sell to other people, which makes hauling the bags from the truck and storing them in our garage worth it.

Other areas in which we could become the middleman would be: supplying people with pullets. Sometimes people who get chickens don’t want to deal with chicks. They want things to be super easy, so they’re willing to pay to have someone else raise chicks for you. We’re raising some ducks for a friend and, since my husband ordered too many, have some extra ones we want to sell (though I wouldn’t mind selling all of them at this point). We could conceivably do this with other animals as well.

5) Premium berries, melons and asparagus. If I’m going to raise stuff in my garden to sell, I only want to do the stuff that is actually going make money. Carrots are out. Asparagus is in. Melons are in (I planted a good number this year, so hopefully that amounts to something). I need to eventually get to a point where I can order more raspberries–yellow and black in addition to red. It’s all about thinking strategically.

Our Ducklings and Goslings

We ordered new ducklings and goslings this year. We got 15 gold star hybrid ducklings–6 for a friend, 6 for us and 3 they sent extra– to replace our current ducks, who are getting along in years and are going to be turned into dog food before the end of the summer. They don’t know it yet, though.

We also ordered 4 white emden  geese and got 5. This will, once again, be used for meat and slaughtered come fall.

They all arrived in the same package, peeping pitifully, the goslings already twice the size of the ducklings.

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The ducklings’ and goslings’ first day out, happily swimming in their water pan.

We kept them in their pasture pen for the first few weeks in order to keep them safe for predators and, more importantly, our other birds. But yesterday I decided to let the goslings out to see what they’d do. And they did basically what geese do: wandered around eating grass and looking pretty happy. A few chickens tried to attack them, but one of the goslings fought back and bit the chicken. Then I broke up the fight and that was the end of that.

But once the goslings were out, the ducklings started peeping plaintively and loudly, looking for their lost comrades. I’m beginning to wonder if they view the goslings as their parental figures since they’re so much bigger than the ducklings. There are 15 ducklings, so they can’t have been lonely. One duckling managed to escape out of the pen and immediately ran to the goslings and happily grazed with them while the remaining ducklings kept peeping loudly until we relented and let them out as well.

Then the entire group wandered around our property, grazing happily:

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My husband was worried they were going to go down to the pond again. The last time they were out of their run, when we had to lift the hole thing up and move it across the yard to fresh grass, they were all out and our children toughtfully herded them down to the pond so they could swim in it the first time. My husband ended up having to wade in and get them out, leaving both shoes behind stuck in the mud. But they didn’t. They were far more interested in the grass, clover, and what I’ve decided must be wild kale growing in the yard. Not to mention the shrubbery on the part of the geese.

This weekend we will pull out the electric fencing stuck in the back, overgrown part of the property around the house and put it around some poison ivy. Then we can stick the gosling and ducklings in there to graze in the day. Either we’ll build them some sort of shelter from predators in there or just hunt them out and put them back in the pen during the day. We haven’t quite decided yet.

But eventually the ducklings are going to have to join their free ranging relatives in the wide open fields and stop hanging around the geese all the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Real Home Economics

Ages ago, I read the book Radical Homemakers, which discussed a subset of the population that was foregoing traditional jobs and choosing to live off the land and produce the things they consumed themselves. I was largely dissatisfied with this book, mainly because the author didn’t seem to have a good understanding of economics. She liked to call the economy the “extractive economy,” one that extracts your labor from you and doesn’t give you much back. She extoled the value of making the household a unit of production, instead of consumption. Except she never seemed to acknowledge that there are a lot of things it makes more sense to buy than produce yourself. And if you can get a job that pays more than turning your household into a unit of production (especially if you don’t enjoy all the work that comes with it), it makes more sense to have that job than to make everything yourself. However radical it may be.

Now I have finally found the book that discusses making it yourself vs buying it: Make the Bread, Buy the Butter. The author, Jennifer Reese, was laid off from her job in 2008 and decided to figure out which things actually were cheaper (or better quality) to make at home because it obviously isn’t everything.

And it’s hilarious. Then again, watching suburbanites turn from city-dwellers to wanna-be homesteaders is always funny–I should know. I am one.

Reading her book has made me crave goats again. I really do want a goat, but since my goat would probably be a milk goat and not a meat goat, I’m holding off. I know I don’t have the time to milk a goat or learn how to play midwife to one or breed it or deal with subsequent offspring or make cheese/butter/whatever from the milk.

So that needs to wait. However fun making my own Camembert or mozzarella might sound.

This book has, however, made me feel more determined to get pigs. My husband and I discussed getting them this past spring, but we were woefully behind on everything we wanted to do anyway and decided not to add any additional livestock. But now we’re a bit caught up. And I’m out of pork. And we have about 5.5 acres of wooded area I’d love to see opened up a bit more.

I’ve been reading up on raising pastured/forest pigs and decided we should get 3. I know one person who would be interested in buying one pig from me (dead, of course). One pig would be for us and the third we would have to find someone to buy. I found a blog from a pig farmer in Vermont who seems to know what he’s doing and he wrote (and updated) a post on finishing your own pigs and it was very informative. Basically, pig chow, no. Forest/pasture, yes. Maybe I can embarrass myself and ask around at local stores/supermarkets/bakeries and find out if I can get their waste foods (bread, fruit, dairy) to feed the pigs as well.

The farmer recommend dividing up the area you want your pigs in into 6 small areas and rotate them between them, spending a week at each one in order to make sure it’s been well torn apart. I know exactly the area in our woods I want them at, too. The area and hill behind the pond, where we had loggers remove our pine trees. They left a ton of fallen lumber and branches there, which have been rotting for about two years now. We’re thinking about putting swales in there, a permaculture thing suggested by some of our friends (who are very into permaculture) and then planting our orchard on top of that. But the area is now overgrown with various plants and small trees. Having pigs open that up for us would be awesome. Maybe they’ll help get rid of our blackberry plants, too. Who knows.

Other than that, Reese has informed me that amazon.com has the cheapest vanilla beans ever and I just ordered half a pound of them for $36. I was also planning on making strawberry jam from u-pick strawberries this summer (Alpha wanted to see how it’s made), but her book informed me that homemade strawberry jam tastes just like store-bought and is therefore, not worth it. So I’m now going to make Strawberry-Rhubarb jam with Rhubarb I got from a friend who doesn’t have (or want) anything to do with it.

And I’m going to make my own vanilla extract. This is exciting!

Some notable quotes from the book:

“If rather than a lush green garden, you want your outdoor space to resemble a Third World village, I suggest getting some chickens, who will methodically denude the landscape of every blade of grass, low-lying weed, and wildflower. And i you want to rid yourself of shrubbery and small trees as well, get a goats. Very soon you will have the adobe patio of your dreams.”

“Where is that sweet spot between buying and making? What does the market do cheaper and better? And where are we being deceived, our tastes and habits and standards corrupted?”

“Are you nuts? If so, make it! (re: Vermouth)

“Chickens squabble. Chickens have minds of their own, however small. Not so the ducks, who waddled in lockstep formation around the yard, wing to wing, all day, every day, muttering. They were like a Hare Krishnas, always chanting in a gang.”

My Compost Pile

I have to show off my compost pile:

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Sorry, the picture is crap, but that’s it. Isn’t it beautiful?
This is my third year trying to build a proper compost pile. The first year, I got it stacked, we had heavy machinery come in to harvest some pine trees and spread it every where and the chickens scratched it apart. The second year, the chickens scratched it apart and then we had heavy machinery come in to remove stumps and spread it every where.

This year there has been no heavy machinery. I’ve wheeled out the bedding from the chicken coop (well, most of it) and piled it into a big pile–I decided to skip the compost-bin-building part. We can do that later. I’ve piled it up and have been turning it every other day. The strong ammonia smell that covered the yard the first week is gone. And it’s hot. It’s extremely hot. I measured it one day, after I turned it, and it was around 140F. I think it’s hotter now and it appears to be composting perfectly.  It’s lovely. And I’m looking forward to having perfect compost to put on my garden beds this fall.

Things We Need to Do in the Spring

I know, technically it’s already spring. But the snow suck to the ground outside says otherwise. It’s starting to melt, but slowly, reluctantly. We had enough snow out there to read above my knee without snowshoes. Our large 5 gallon chicken waterer was completely buried. The day its lid reappeared was special.

But now we have that spring paradox: tons of things we need to do before spring actually hits full on, but can’t do until the snow has melted and the ground has thawed.

1) Fence in the chickens. The deep bedding in our coop has covered their little back door entirely, so we’ve been letting them free range around everywhere. However, it’s getting warmer and the foxes should be coming by to dine any day now. While we have rifles and are prepared to shoot them, we’d rather not lose any chickens first. So we need to get them fenced in. But first we have to….

  • Build a compost bin. But the snow needs to melt first
  • remove most, if not all, of the bedding from the coop
  • Fix the electric fence because it has fallen over in places
  • Run an extension cord to turn it on to keep the chickens and the foxes out

It’s never as easy as just opening the chicken door.

2) Build separate brooding areas for the ducklings and chickens we’re getting. You cannot brood chickens and ducks together because ducks are fiends for water and scare the living crap out of the chickens with their outlandish behavior of trying to swim in the waterer. They also get the chicks wet, which the chicks really hate.
We can however, put the goslings with the ducks should they arrive at the same time.

3) Fence off the shed so the chickens stop laying underneath it. My husband hopes to do this today. About 10 of our chickens have decided they’re too good for their nesting boxes and lay underneath our woodshed. We cut holes in the floor so we could access the area underneath and pull out eggs, but the fact we have to is annoying.

4) Fence off the garden. Right now my mobile manure spreaders can go in there and hang out, that’s fine. But I’m bound and determined to get my spinach and peas in early this year (as soon as the ground is workable!) and I’ll be damned if they’re going to be the ones to enjoy them. I made a makeshift fence last year to keep the geese out, but the few chickens who managed to escape their fenced off area still managed to get in. This year we will build a proper-er fence, a few feet away from the outer most raised beds so no one can use those as leverage to propel themselves over the fence. I’m not joking. Chickens can be annoyingly clever when it comes to getting greens.

5) Clean up the basement. Ugh. Going down there makes me want to throttle myself. We managed to free the last logs from their trap of frozen mud and are burning those and hauled in some branches to saw off so we can rely less on the propane, but now the basement floor is covered in bark, wood shavings, and water. The water is actually from the washing machine because the outflow pipe came off the other outflow pipe and we failed to notice, attributing it to the heavy rain and snow melt. We were under a flood watch! Now I still have water to get off the concrete floor.

6) Start the rest of the seedlings! I enjoy this. I’m going to buy a heat pad today and see if any of my friends have extra eggplant because I forgot to order that…again. I’m going to have an awesome garden this year! I say that every year, but last year was disappointing. No one got tomatoes before August, which is quite late. I’m going to concentrate on melons and hope to get a lot. Being as far north as we are, we grow the small “personal sized” melons,  but they’re still deliciously awesome.

I think that’s it. I didn’t include the regular every day stuff. All this is on top of that. Sometimes I feel I don’t appreciate the winter enough.

 

 

The Chicken Coop of Despair

Three years into having chickens and I’m still not sure if we’re doing it right. I’ve learned a lot about having chickens, for sure. People have started asking me chicken questions, which is a sure sign of having some sort of Chicken Owner Seniority. But things never go perfectly.

Take our coop, for example. It was a disaster from the get go. We hired a contractor to build it, being short both on time and construction skills. He didn’t understand what we were trying to do (we wanted a lightweight mobile coop), so we ended up with a very sturdy non-mobile coop with a wire floor. It took our contractor twice as long to build it as we thought it would, too, so it cost us about twice as much. We installed the roosts ourselves, first putting them perpendicular to the nesting boxes, which turned out to be a bad idea because it left no space for a waterer and feeder inside the coop. So we redid those and reinstalled them parallel to the nesting boxes, which means we only have two of them. This is fine, we still have enough roosting space because the nesting boxes were built inside the coop, instead of hanging off outside the coop. This means there is a nice shelf for the chickens to use as roosting space about it. It also means that all the poop gathers on top of it and we have to frequently go out there and scrape it off. It also means that there is wasted space below the nesting boxes, which usually serves as a good place for chickens to sneak under and hide eggs.

The doors to the nesting boxes on the outside of the coop are basic paneling. At first they shut fairly tightly, but over time they have warped and started to bow out, leaving a nice gap between the door and the side of the coop. This makes the coop drafty and that is exactly what you don’t want in a coop for your chickens.

Our contractor also insulated the coop for the winter. It’s a toss up whether or not this is necessary. Chickens tend to keep themselves warm well enough as it is because they have a lot of feathers. In our case, it was futile since neither we nor our contractor covered it with anything (such as hardware wire or boards), so the chickens ended up removing basically all of it. And then they pooped on it. So we had to drag torn up mats of chicken poop covered insulation to the town dump.

Originally, our coop was going to be mobile. I have no idea how we thought this would work. It’s built too heavy for the two teeny tiny wheels my husband bought for it. To even hold it up off the ground, we’d need at least 4 larger wheels. And we’d need to be able to steer it. Unless we wanted to only push it around, we’d have to get a tractor or something with which to pull it as well. And probably an axle so we could turn it. Basically, it’s a stationary coop.

We also thought we would have a coop with a wire floor so that the chicken poop from the roosts would simply “fall through” onto the ground below, thus saving us a lot of mucking out. This worked for a little while in the beginning. But once the chickens reached a certain age, the poop just started clumping up together on top of the wire with feathers mixed in for good measure. It started to smell, too. Then I read that wire floors are bad for heavy breeds, so we gave up and cut the floor out and switched to an impromptu “deep bedding method.” Since we never got around to putting in an actual floor, we’ve decided to stick with this one.

After Mr. Fox slid under our coop a few times to steal chickens, I took some wire fencing and stuck it around the coop with wires. This keeps the fox out and keeps our deep bedding in–a double bonus. Whenever I want to remove the bedding, we just remove the wire and rake it all out. Violá!

This year we’ve decided we’ve learned enough to really know what we want in a coop. So we’re going to make some changes. The biggest change is going to be in the nesting boxes. Since the chickens only use 3 of them anyway, we’re going to rip them all out and build one row of 6 nesting boxes hanging outside the coop. This will 1) prevent the chickens froom roosting on top of the nesting boxes and pooping up there 2) Get rid of the drafty gap from the nesting boxes’ door (the new door will be a lifting roof that should fit snuggly) 3) give us more room inside the coop for hanging feeders and waterers and another roost. We will reinsulate it and cover the insulation with paneling or hardware wire (we can’t decide which). We will take more hardware wire and staple it to the outside of the coop around the bottom to replace the wire fencing we currently have. This will prevent chipmunks, mice and rats from being able to sneak into the coop to nest and steal food, hopefully decreasing our feed bill. We will still be able to lift up the hardware wire when we need to clean out the coop.

We still need to find a solution for keeping the deep bedding from overflowing and falling out of the coop. We have two doors: the original one and a smaller chicken sized door we cut into the back of the coop. At this point, the smaller door is entirely covered and I’ve been adding blocks of wood in front of the bigger door to make a threshold. I hate having to leave that door open so the chickens can get out, but I don’t want to lose bedding through the back door. We’ve thought about cutting subsequent higher chicken doors, but then we’d need more chicken ladders. Other than that, I feel like our coop is finally getting to a point where it isn’t completely ill-suited to our needs.

Having chickens is complicated.