Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mother Nature can be a cruel teacher

Lucy came screaming out of the hay mow in the cow's barn.  She could hear little chirps coming from under her newly made kindred spirit of the bird variety. 

It started a while ago when Mark discovered the clutch of eggs in the hay mow and mentioned it to me.  I kind of forgot until many days later when I saw a lone hen out wandering around the cow barn, when the rest of the flock was well up in the pasture.  I took notice of her and she seemed to spend far too much time out wandering about to be actually sitting on the eggs so I called to Lucy to get an egg basket and we'd go clean up the clutch before it got even more rotten. I also thought it had been too long since she and the rooster had friendly relations so I felt pretty confident that we were doing the hay mow and thus, ourselves, a favour.

So we gathered up 29 eggs (!!), took them home and did the float test to see if there were any worth keeping for ourselves.  There were some that had obviously been there far too long and some we could even hear thuds as we shook them.  Lucy really wanted to see and smell what a rotten egg looked like (curiosity beats common sense every time) so she was keen to take the floaters across the road and break them open.
"Mom!!!  COME LOOK!"
Two of the eggs she cracked had chicks in them.


So I went into suddenly overly sensitive mode and carefully loaded the eggs gently back into the basket and advised Lucy to quickly take them back and GENTLY set them back in the nest.  Thinking to myself the entire time, "Well, that's likely futile.  First they had a bumpy ride over here, then we dunked them in cold water, shook them around and now we're going to give them back to a hen who may or may not have given up brooding."
Upon her lengthy return she happily reported that the hen had been waiting for her on the nest and let her lift her off, return the eggs and set her back on.  Then Lucy found water and feed dishes, set her all up and petted her and reassured her in only the way she can.

Everyday after that, Lucy would twice daily, sometimes more, refresh the feed and water and continue the soothing petting and chatter.  She christened her "Baby" and brought her flowers and the grasses she found she liked.

Finally, two days ago came the grand announcement of the impending arrival of (can you believe it!) chicks, working away at breaking out of their eggs.  All day, Lucy would lift Baby off to check the status and come back with the ongoing play by play.  "She's got 3!"  "There's an all brown one!" "There's five!!"
At one point she met me in the barnyard with a still wet chick in her cupped hands, looking devastated because "his head or neck or something doesn't work right."  I suggested she let the Mom look after it; he had JUST come out of a tiny egg after all (again, thinking to myself, futile- a brand new, wet chick with a wonky neck, handled by a 7 year old...yeah right).  But shortly after, "He's good now! And he's got brown on his head!"  There was even one egg that hadn't fully hatched by nightfall and I had tried to convince Lucy that sometimes they just don't finish hatching, and it's not good to help them hatch.  She agreed not to 'help it' and listened to my doom and gloom, but obviously never lost faith because early the next morning she was over in the hay mow, her faith rewarded by yet another wee fluff ball, for a grand total of 7 chicks.

We have hatched eggs in an incubator before.  It is a finicky, temperamental and sometimes frustrating undertaking.  The humidity has to be just perfect.  The temperature to the degree.  Turned just right, etc. etc.  And here we had shaken, drowned, moved, carried eggs all over the farm, replaced them under the hen and she had managed to get 7 babies out of it.  Nature is an omnipotent being, handicapped by our interference.

And for some reason, that hen trusted Lucy with her precious cargo.  Any of the rest of us would go in and Baby would ruffle up, purr angrily at us and be clearly unhappy with our intrusion.  Lucy however, could go in, stick her hand under, lift a wing, cuddle the chicks to exhaustion and Baby wouldn't blink an eye.

 So when Lucy decided that day 2 was a good time to bring the chicks outside, Baby followed obediently and then excitedly out the cow barn door and enjoyed a scratch in the late morning sun.  It was incredible to watch the chicks imitate their mother immediately.  Two day old chicks fighting over a tiny spider is a magical thing to see.  Nature just kept surprising us all with Her infinite, innate wisdom.    

Lucy replaced the chicks back in their nest before we did the pasture chores, but by the time we were done, Baby had them all back out again, this time in the doorway of the barn.  Clucking to them when they got too far and happily pecking away at Rosie's straw bedding.

Lucy left them reluctantly to go home for lunch and when I announced that we had an errand run in town, she insisted on checking on them before we left.  So I drove over to pick her up at the barn once the boys and I were loaded up and ready to roll.

What I came upon is what can only be described as a scene of the deepest, gut-wrenching heartbreak.  There was Baby, outside the barn, repeatedly calling out to chicks who were nowhere to be seen and a little girl who couldn't let her heart believe what her eyes were seeing, or rather not seeing.  Crying tears of pure loss, Lucy was first like a frantic mother in a busy shopping mall, checking all the corners and hiding places, then in a moment of acceptance, collapsing beside Baby, saying things to make both of them feel better.  It was equally hard on the heart to listen to Baby not giving up, continually calling babies who would not return.  Lucy gathered her up in her arms and wept and for those moments, the both of them were silent, mutually mourning.  And then they'd find some resolve and go searching and calling again before finding each other for another quiet cuddle. 

Not one for sentimentality towards livestock, I surprised myself when I found myself weeping quietly, watching the heartbreak of a hen who had defied the odds only to lose them and a girl whose faith had proven itself only to be shattered.

The trip to town was replaced with a long cuddle on the front step while we talked about what predator might have been the culprit, how Baby knew just what to do to hatch them, how amazing nature is and mostly just sat in silence (and sniffles).

 I know there is some seriously valuable lessons in this and that if Lucy truly does grow up to be a farmer as she claims she wants to, this will stick with her in a larger way than just the heartbreak of the day.  Perhaps if more of us went through the anguish of feeling responsible for lives so easily lost, we would take the ones we have more seriously and appreciatively.  In any case, it was a hard day here on the farm. 
But as if to soften the blow, the kids and I did the chores tonight while Mark was gone to a meeting and the layer pasture was bathed in perfect sunset light and every last one of them was happily digging, scratching, pecking, dust-bathing, clucking and running about without a care in the world. I noticed Lucy looking resigned and as she held my hand in a rare moment on the way home, I could almost feel her understanding that the circle of life goes on.  


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Election Time on the Island!!

disclaimer: since I'm such an infrequent poster these days, I feel like I can post such a long tirade about local politics because I have so few followers left.  For those hangers on, thanks for sticking around- sorry about the length!  For farm photos and updates, you're much better off watching the Facebook page or Twitter.  :S

I have loved politics for as long as I can remember.  And politics was a favorite topic in our house, at all times of year, at every level of government.  Being heavy Conservatives at home mostly meant that it was easy to get into a good debate as long as someone else was willing to be a supporter of a different stripe.  And hell, if not a different stripe, there were always lots of politics within parties to discuss.  Federal, provincial, municipal, even international, a constant feed of TV news, newspapers and CBC radio gave lots of fodder for lively discussions and I was welcome to participate in the discussions, despite being a chunk younger than the rest of my siblings.
I'll never forget a conversation one night, while watching the news during a federal election and hearing what I thought were some interesting policies from the NDP, who were pretty new on the scene and at that point were totally new to me, a rural New Brunswicker kid.  I remember asking my parents about the 'orange party' and why we never talked about them, and their response being, "Well, they know they're not going to get in, so they can make crazy promises."  And at the time, it was certain that they weren't going to get into power and maybe some of the policies at the beginning weren't actually reasonable, but I also recognize that that belief about the not-blue-and-red parties still exists with a lot of voting Canadians, and I wish it didn't.

As someone who has voted for every eligible party at one time or another, I don't take my vote lightly and let's be honest, I just need a good political rant and Mark won't take me up on it and his family don't have the lively debates that I miss, so here goes!

It's election time here on PEI, and the Liberals have crafted what feels like a plan that has been in the works for months and months, with their too-smooth-talking Wade MacLauchlan up at bat, and acting as if it's in the bag in many ways.  Sadly, the attitude of some people I've talked to is that the party has actually convinced some that it IS in the bag, and voting otherwise is just a waste of time.  I'm generally a liberal 'sympathizer' (note:different than a supporter) but my distaste for the last government under Ghiz and the increasing sleeziness or condescension of this round of reds is really turning me off.  There was the careful exit of the former premier, timed just exactly right with Wade's coronation and the lack of any budget or sitting of the house before the election all just feels...a little too....something.  Something not good. 
Anyway, the point is, that the 'new' Liberals feel NO different from the last bunch and have offered nothing much to suggest it will be any different, so I find it pretty hard to get behind this crew.  Not that I've heard anything from my Liberal candidate whatsoever.  (Also, the way they're rolling out a wierd 'platform' of sorts, one day at a time, like it's a little gift to voters each day who are willing to stop by the website and try to figure out just what exactly they stand for...ugh...just adds to my distrust and distaste.)

As for the Conservatives, or the PC's as they would prefer to be called, I am still waiting to hear ANYthing about agriculture from them. There's been the usual blurbs about the importance of the primary industries and encouraging the use of local food in hospitals and schools, but I don't hear a lot of details behind any of it to give it some traction.  Wouldn't we all love that, but how can gov't make that happen and how can I tell it's a real priority if the word agriculture isn't actually used anywhere in any of the platform information?!  At least my local candidate has been by (I wasn't home dammit!) and left some info and his cell number.  His Twitter account also feels pretty genuine and down to earth, so at least there's that.  :/

Now, I'll admit some ignorance with the NDP this time around.  I certainly admire Mike Redmond, the leader, who spent a lot of time in Province House for the few weeks it has actually sat in the last year or so, and he addressed a lot of very valid concerns that I'm sure the gov't wished he wouldn't.  Sometimes I think the media put him into a bit of an out-there pigeon hole, but his presence in the house certainly made it much more interesting and legitimate than when it was the less-than-a-handful of dysfunctional PC men and the wave of back-patting Liberals.
Anyway, in my district, I've heard I may finally have a candidate, but I don't know who it is.  Someone swung by the farm the other day looking for signatures on a nomination form but he didn't live in my riding and admitted that he hoped the Green candidate in his riding would get in, so not sure he was the orange blooded candidate that the NDP's were hoping for.  I signed his form anyway of course and wished him luck, but I think I heard it was a woman who got the nomination.  In any case, the rather vague sounding 'platform' is another one totally void of the word 'agriculture' and in this case, even food.  (Note: just found out that my candidate is actually Mike Redmond's partner, who lives in Montague...with their five children...)

So now we've come to the Greens, who my parents would certainly have put in the 'will never get in' category. It's worth saying from the start, that I know my district Green candidate quite well and I really like him and his frankness and appreciate his willingness to say what no one else is saying.  He's also a farmer (our pig, Nancy,'s former owner) and has a true appreciation for agriculture of various scales and commodities, locally and nationally.  But he'll also call out farming practices that don't make sense or are unsustainable.
So yeah, it's a bit obvious now where I stand with my vote right now, but even if I didn't know Ranald, my review of the parties and my careful observation of their platforms would still have put the Greens out in front.  Their platform sets out a very specific strategy for agriculture on PEI, including land acquisition for new farmers.  There's actually two whole pages on agriculture!  And yet I can't find even the word from the other three parties!

I know that education, and health, and economy are important.  I pay taxes and use hospitals and sometime my kids will go to school.  But I also live here and breathe the water, drink the air and eat the food, EVERY DAY.  The current strategy with agriculture on PEI seems to be a continued head-banding-into-walls as we try to compete on an international, monoculture scale that is only serving to degrade soil, erode soil, kill fish and contaminate water.  We are too small to compete with Idaho or China or whoever, so why are we trying and then crying when it doesn't work!?  Let's differentiate, let's turn this thing upside down and look at new ways of doing things?  Actually new and not just the PC version of "new". 

Here's my 'thing', again.  Canada exports a LOT of alfalfa.  GMO alfalfa is in Canada and has the potential to cross pollinate with other alfalfas, both wild and otherwise.  Europe and Asia hasn't been real excited about GMO contamination in things thus far, but the Pandora's box of GMO's seems like it's probably a reality that will affect that entire export market.  UNLESS, there was a jurisdiction with like a physical border, maybe water, that could better ensure a GMO-free alfalfa product?!?  Hmmm..growing an Island full of a perennial legume, rather than a soil-exposing, tri-annual root crop?! 

But that's too hard to get our head around, or spend time on right now. Right now we have farm debt and too much big equipment and contracts and no one to buy the farm, and retiring farmers and dead fish and on and on.  Of course the parties don't want to touch it. 
But the Greens have.  And they are offering a short term plan, but also a real willingness and desire to set up a long term goal of legitimate sustainability. 

Yes, it would be different.  It might be uncomfortably different.  But being uncomfortable is a helluva lot better than being indifferent, which is where a lot of Islanders seem to stand right now.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

What I learned on Mark's summer vacation

For those of you who don't know, a couple important things happened around here lately. Firstly, Mark left for a 10 day trip to Chile with his Atlantic Agricultural Leadership Program for their international study tour.  At the same time, PEI experienced Snowzilla like never before (well, since 1923 at least).  Here's 10 things I learned from Mark's Summer Vacation (it was 30 degrees and sunny in Chile).

10. I'm tougher than I thought.
9.  But not tough enough that I don't call a brother in a blubbering mess in the middle of the night.
8.  Certain kinds of snow make for much easier shoveling than others.
7.  Milking a cow can be a very meditative time.  The world can be crumbling around you, but it's a task that requires your presence and patience and must be done, no matter what else is happening.  Despite having to dig a 4 foot tunnel everyday just to get to the door, it became my "be still and know" moment.
6.  I can understand how people get addicted to their cell phones. Mark left his behind when he went, and I came to rely on it for everything when our internet went out, and then had a hard time giving it up when he came back.
5.  Asking for help is still hard, but so effective.  Neighbours, family and friends are so good.
4.  Snow and wind can be very scary.  I've never actually been scared of being outside before, but there were true moments of fear (hence reliance on cell phone for security blanket).
3.  Furnaces are wonderful when they work.  Mysteries of frustration and anxiety when they don't.
2.  I take a lot of what Mark does for granted.  And mostly the small things that really add up.
1.  My role as the mere 'housewife' is a crucial one.  I truly gained a new appreciation for my role and the importance of what it is I do around here.  Twice, I forgot to eat supper until I lay in bed and my stomach growled.  I slipped into Survival Mode and all the extra niceties of life gave way to the bare minimum requirements and it became so clear to me just how valuable all those little things that I do, actually make a difference to not only the household but the farm and our business. 
So for that, I'm very thankful for Mark's summer vacation.

However, he will never go that far, for that long ever again. 
Without me.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Investing in Permanent Infrastructure

I suspect that if a statistician moved into our house to figure out what stirs conversation about the farm between Mark and I, they would find that many times it starts with a discussion regarding a capital purchase.  Mark will present his idea (which by now he has learned to carefully craft before bringing it forward in order to have a much better chance of early positive reception) and I will respond accordingly (which by now I've learned to do very carefully so as not to 'crush dreams' and instead, encourage spirited conversation) and then the discussion will grow from there, spreading to cover anything and everything and often topics that we've been wanting to discuss, but haven't made the time for, or thought of in the quieter moments.
Lately we've been talking a lot about our livestock rotation plans and fitting all the pieces together this coming summer.  With the sows both farrowing, we'll have more pigs than ever and they're past due needing to be moved to a new section, but we've never done a real temporary, or frequently-moved set up for them before, which we'll have to if we want to move them out onto a more established, nice pasture that we want to not tear up too badly.  And the cow needs to move to a new pasture before we get a parasite problem happening there.  And finally, the chickens need to shift around a bit, and perhaps separate the hens and meat birds.  Anyway, many options and much to discuss so that's been on the table quite a bit lately, but doesn't mean we're not talking about those other 'investments' and purchases as well.

Without talking in length about it, sometime in the last couple years, we mutually agreed that while all the wonderful infrastructure in the world would certainly make things easier and many times more efficient, there a couple pieces of infrastructure on the farm that although may be aging, don't need to depreciate so quickly and actually make more difference to the day-to-day operations and overall goals of the farm; it's us.  Mark and I came out of the gate from school, charging ahead at full steam, confident in our knowledge and curious about where it would take us.  With every conference, webinar, magazine and book that we read, it's clear that our own knowledge base, experience and relevant research will be what keeps us competitive.
But we've felt over the last years that we were starting to farm ourselves into a rut.  We had figured out how to do a few things really well and had sort of stopped innovating in a big way.  We are constantly changing small things to make our lives easier, but weren't breaking ground with new ideas, crops, rotations, livestock, value-adding, etc. and immediately recognized this as a problem, given agriculture today and our need to be diverse and 'innovative'.

So Mark enrolled in the Atlantic Agriculture Leadership Program and has been doing courses and traveling over the last couple years.  And then this past fall he went to Ohio to take in the Acres USA conference.  I've been doing lots of bedside table farming, enjoying lots of books and cultivating lots of ideas, but not necessarily breaking any new ground.

We made a leap and an 'investment'.  In me.  I'm going to a Polyface Farms Intensive 2-day Seminar down at the farm in Swoope, Virginia.  In July.

If you haven't heard me talk about Joel Salatin, you haven't spent much time with me, as I've been reading him, watching him and listening to him for years now and implementing parts of his practices in what we do.  I've read most of his books, including Pastured Poultry, Holy Cows & Hog Heaven, Family Friendly Farming, Folks This Ain't Normal, and more.  He's not without controversy, but I think the best minds probably aren't.  He writes like he talks and he speaks with an eloquent passion that makes even his detractors sit up and listen.

Here's an overview of what I've signed up for:
"Two out of every three years, Polyface offers this two-day, six meal (it’s worth coming just for the meals) intensive seminar limited to 30 people in order to maintain intimacy. If you ever wanted to go behind the scenes with the Salatin family, this is your opportunity. We actually process chickens, process rabbits, go up the mountain to see pigs, discuss water systems and road building.

We go to one of the rental farms to talk about mob stocking and land lease options. A silviculture session accentuates good forestry management. We mill a log into lumber on the farm’s bandsaw mill, and talk about adding value to woodlots.

The first evening Joel presents a Relationship Marketing session until dark, highlighting the current techniques the farm and its collaborators use. This is a hands-on, in-the-field learning experience in which the how-to is smothered in Southern hospitality"

 It's not cheap and even though we used AirMiles to book the flights, I recognize the significant investment this is for our business and I am thrilled for the opportunity.  As I said to Mark when I was carefully presenting my idea (haha!) I feel like I could spend a few months in a classroom taking a course, but would still get more out of two days of hands on learning from a farm and farmers whose model I want to emulate, or at least implement many parts of. 

It may not be everyone's dream to travel to Virginia in July to kill chickens, but I am losing sleep I'm so excited (ok,there's so much more than that, but it makes it sound extra funny when I say it that way.).  Am already planning our own chicken killing chicken CSA break around it and canNOT wait. 

So that's my big news. You can relax now Mom.  :)

With this excitement fueling my farming train, I anticipate that my brain will be more awake and will have more to say and will hopefully fuel my blogging train.  

(For those with no background on this you can check out a little information about the farm here :  or just google Joel Salatin and watch one of hundreds of youtube videos of him and the farm.) 


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The (Bitter)Sweet Spot...

...between Christmas and getting back into routine again...

Have you heard about our Egg CSA?  It runs much the same as our chicken CSA, except instead of a chicken, you get 2 dozen eggs every two weeks, or more if you've asked for them. 

We currently have the pick up at the Summerside Presbyterian Church (the one beside Three Oaks) parking lot on Thursdays from 4:30-5:30 and the first one for this round is next week (the 22nd) so you're not too late to sign up.  Email Mark at infoATbarnyardorganicsDOTca for more info or to sign up.  This round runs from next week until the end of April.

And since our last CSA ended at Christmas and we skipped a couple Farmers Markets in favour of over-eating and merrying, we've got what you might call a PLETHORA of eggs right now.  I am headed to the Charlottetown Farmer's Market this week and boy am I ready to bargain!  You want 5 dozen!? Sure! Let's see what kind of deal we can do for you!  We'll start with a simple 3 for the price of 2 to get things going.  More eggs than that, lets play a game of "how good of a deal can I give you for a volume purchase!?" 

I have some very exciting news about myself, related to the farm, but I'll share that in another post, to come shortly.
Off to brush up on my current affairs as Mark and I off to defend a title in trivia with my derby team tonight.  #thankgoodnessforCBCorIdbedoomed

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

In the Deep Freeze!

And I don't mean our freezers, since those are mostly empty, save for our own chickens, some apple cider and some of Lucy's left-over pet food. 

Speaking of which, prepare for a whole new line of products in 2015 from Lucy's Offal Good Business.  With the recent arrival of a borrowed dehydrator, big things are in motion for some value-added pet treats. :)

I've been wanting to get back at regular blogging for a while now and tonight on a twitter feed I follow called #agchat it was all about 'agvocacy' and how people keep up with trending topics, dealing with negative publicity, etc. and one of the suggestions was just to schedule a regular time each week or month or whatever to 'get it done'.  I often have a ton of ideas in my head that I think, "as soon as I get a minute I'm going to blog that!" but then the moment passes and nothing gets done.  I've been tossing around the idea lately of a new blog with a different focus, but still agriculture-related, and we'll see if that comes to fruition but for now we'll stick with this one and brief update of life on the farm at this moment.

Well, at this moment it's a blustery, icy minus 30 outside, but a toasty 22 inside with our new outdoor furnace chugging away.  Still working out some plumbing kinks, but for the most part, we're no longer fossil fuel dependent (for heat at least- although admittedly, this isn't the winter to be bragging about that with the price of oil dropping. haha).

The sows, Gail and Nancy are cozy in their barn.  We shut the door yesterday to keep the wind out and because they haven't ventured out on their own for days.  And the pigs we're fattening for ourselves, Jillian Jiggs and Bud are out in the straw shelter on the pasture.  I keep worrying they'll be cold but each time I crawl in or make Mark crawl in, it is cozy and dry in there and except for a drink of water now and then, they hardly leave it either, so the pigs have pretty much settled in for the winter, hibernation style.

The cow, Rosie and her calf, Daisy, are in their barn and are happily chewing their cud, no doubt dreaming of tender grass and spring pastures and maybe like myself, wondering if it's true that winter does make us appreciate summer temps that much more than people/cows who live in them all year round. 

The hens and roosters are likely settled into their self-designated, pre-determined spots on their roosts, clucking quietly as undoubtedly, an odd little mouse sneaks in for a snack of chicken feed in the night.  Most of the summer and all winter, we've only had one rooster in with the hens and he wasn't fairing very well. He was great all summer, but I think the girls had less to distract themselves with on the pasture and the winter confines gave them too much time to notice that he was a lone wolf.  I think there were just too many girls for one man and he was looking dejected, spent most of his time cowering on the roosts and huddled in the corners.  His tail feathers seemed shorter and he almost seemed to be trying to disguise himself in the flock.  So when we had the opportunity to get another rooster, I jumped at it, thinking that it might help the balance.  And did it ever!  We now have a gorgeous white, young Chanteclair (sp?) rooster who attracts the ladies like white on rice and it has brought Johnny Cash (our original rooster) right around.  Today he was strutting and crowing and shining and back to his glorious self.  And the pen is huge, so each man has lots of territory for himself and his respective harem, so there's (thus-far) no fights.  It seems as if, for now at least, that balance has been restored. 
We recently toured a farm that sprouts our grain to feed to their livestock and I am excited that we are going to be giving it a go for the chickens.  I think they will go crazy for it and maybe it will help restore a little of that sunshiny golden colour to the yolks that we all miss! 
I will post pictures of that set up once we get going. (First, some furnace kinks to work out.)

Other than that, the grain is all tucked into its bins and tanks and bags and totes and the kids are asleep in their beds and I'm on my way.

If you didn't receive any of the Summerside Egg CSA information for the January-April session, please email us: infoATbarnyardorganicsDOTca for more details.

Looking forward to writing more in 2015.  (More interesting than this one and with more pictures.)