Monday, April 25, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #4: Have some fun!

In case you were wondering, these PPEM Premises are not being shared in any particular order. From our point of view, they are all of equal importance, since as a group, they summarize our perspective on both farming and life (not that you can separate the two). I'm generally just writing about whatever happens to come to my mind at blog update time.

So, back to Premise #4. It's quite simple, actually: Have fun! Yes, that's right, HAVE FUN. The underlying goal of all that we are doing here is to create a life, and a farm system, that are sustainable, after all. And frankly, if it's not fun at least some of the time, who would want to keep doing it? If your initial reaction to this is to ask why one should have to consciously plan to have fun, read back over some of my earlier posts. It's not just that we're busy; who isn't these days? Our experience has been that it is too easy to get in a rut of just getting through today and hoping for some rest before getting up again at first light tomorrow. So we make a point of finding ways to bring some fun to the party.

Having fun isn't confined to off-work hours.The first year we had chickens, for example, we started a tradition of Happy Hour with the Chickens. During that summer, we had a couple of lawn chairs in the chicken yard, and we would take drinks and some kind of treat for the birds and sit down there among them for awhile before we tucked them in for the night. It was lovely to relax for an hour or so and enjoy the Chicken Channel. Some of the bolder birds would jump up on our laps, depending on how yummy they judged that day's treats. They seem to be partial to things like organic ginger snaps.

It also makes a difference, to me at least, to vary details of the routine chores. Even reversing the order in which I make the rounds to pick up eggs seems to make it more fun. I have no idea why, but who cares? And it's not as if these chores ever feel particularly tedious anyway; between indoor and outdoor tasks, I find I get plenty of variety on any given day, provided I put some effort into planning my schedule.

Of course, there are plenty of ways to have fun outside the work day. It's good to have non-farm-related hobbies and interests, and getting involved in your community usually offers many choices for you social butterflies. We like to watch movies, and we eat out fairly often at the Alder Wood Bistro, among other diversions.

I could go on (and as you know, I usually do), but I will leave it there, in the hope that you will use your imagination and start thinking up your own ways to regularly add fun to your life. What could be more fun than going to bed each night actually looking forward to getting up the next day and doing it all again?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Finally, turkey eggs are being incubated; hooray for surrogate moms!

Cochin banty hen with 1-day-old Midget White turk.

This year, for some reason our Midget White turkeys started laying eggs about a month later than usual, around mid-March. After losing two of our four breeding hens recently, we have been keeping close tabs on the surviving two and collecting their eggs. At this point, we have three broody chickens sitting on turkey eggs, and we just put one of the turkey hens on a clutch. We're still getting an egg almost every day from the remaining turkey hen, so we will save them up for a few days and then put her in a turkey brooder with her own clutch.

One of the many things we've learned in the course of breeding birds is that hatching eggs are dormant for about 6 days. This allows the hen to accumulate a clutch of eggs (since she doesn't lay more than one egg per day) before the actual incubation begins. Without this period of dormancy, the eggs would all hatch on different days. Our Midget White hens typically incubate between 12 and 18 eggs at a time, so obviously having them all hatch more or less on the same day is a good thing! There are sometimes late arrivals among the hatchlings, which may get left behind if the hen and other babies have already left the nest.

Cochin banty hen with Midget White turks.

One of our broody hens is a Cochin banty. The poor thing, all she wants to do in life is incubate eggs and raise babies. Because of her banty-esque size, she can only comfortably incubate 4 or 5 turkey eggs at a time, but I feel sorry for her when she's this broody, so I have her sitting on 4 of them. She successfully hatched and raised baby turks last year, too (see photo above).

Of course, in years when we've had more Midget White hens than we do right now, they have done a great job. They readily go broody, lay and incubate plenty of eggs, and are attentive and protective mothers.

 Midget White hen with some of her brood. 

Speaking of surrogate mothers, we have discovered that one of the hazards of letting all the birds free-range is that they sometimes lay eggs in some other bird's nest. Usually, when a hen is incubating a clutch of eggs, she hops off the nest for a few minutes every day, at least long enough to eat and drink something. (They also like to poop away from the nest.) Last year a Blue Swedish duck hatched 2 chicks; this was a little tricky because she was also incubating duck eggs, which incubate for 28 days (chicken eggs incubate for only 21). Fortunately, there was a broody hen available who happily adopted the orphans. Naturally, we called them Donald and Daisy.

Then there was the time when a Midget White turkey hatched and raised a chicken...
Midget White turkey with Barred Rock pullet she hatched and raised.

It's not always easy managing all these birds during breeding season, but we're learning every year and getting better at it. It's nice to know that so many of the hens don't mind sharing the mothering duties; it makes our lives easier, and sure makes for some interesting photos!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #3: Challenge the "get big or get out" myth

I was asked recently if it's possible to actually make any money raising poultry. My somewhat facetious response was that we'd find out after my book about heritage poultry is published.

Seriously, though, the query did get me thinking at a deeper level about what it is that we're doing here. Are we trying to make a living or make a life? Be more self-sufficient or more involved in our community? Indulge a hobby or create a lifestyle that reflects our values, our spirituality, our world view, even our politics? I am quickly coming to the intriguing conclusion that to one degree or another, it's all of these things.

Those of you who know me are aware of my love for the "what if" questions. Here's one to consider: What if the "get big or get out" idea of farming is simply wrong?

"Small" farmers, you know what I'm talking about. Supposedly wiser minds than ours want us to believe that short of buying up more and more acreage to raise the same crop (read "commodity") year after year, it's just not possible to make a living in today's farming world; hence, "get big or get out". Never mind the costs: the depletion of soil elements critical to its long-term health; the need for more and more chemicals over time; the financial stress of increasing debt and uncertainty. Funny thing, the marketing gurus behind such ideas don't mention the costs; perhaps they aren't aware of them, or maybe they just don't care. After all, they're in marketing, not farming.

Here's another question: Should we believe that "get big or get out" are really the only choices? To me, this mantra implies that at the end of the day, what's important is the profit margin. In other words, the bottom line is business. I think it's time to consider the possibility that growing or producing something to sell is actually not the only way to define sustainable farming. Granted, by definition, farming can't be "sustainable" if the farm habitually loses money. But there's more than one way to "make" money. For example, suppose that instead of earning more money by selling more crops, we save more money by growing more of our own food?

My mother once said to me that there is a unique sense of empowerment in providing even a small proportion of your own food. It seems to me that the trend of "eating local", coinciding as it has with our national economic downturn, is a perfect opportunity (and should be the motivation) for us all to do just that. It doesn't get much more local than growing your own. Also, considering that most of our food is transported quite some distance to get to us (see "Pot Pies and Egg Money Premise #2"), it's clear that saving significantly on our food costs is a real possibility. And of course, we benefit from the freshness, great taste and nutrition of food grown seasonally in our gardens.

I guess what I'm suggesting is that we all take a thoughtful look at our lifestyles, the things that we value, our true priorities. Suppose we pass on to our children the joy and deep satisfaction of planting a seed, then nurturing and harvesting a crop? Suppose we re-define our financial lives by choosing to live debt-free? Suppose we start thinking in terms of the legacy of our choices, instead of just today's bottom line? Small farmers, backyard gardeners and city dwellers, take heart: Saving money and providing for yourself and your family are not just possible, they're great choices.

Think small; simplify. Buy local, sell local, grow your own. How's that for a legacy?

Friday, April 1, 2011

Two turkey hens lost to a cougar this week

Just a brief digression from my summary of the Premises of Pot Pies and Egg Money: This week we lost two of our four Midget White turkey hens to a cougar. The turkeys like to go a little ways out of the yard and lay their eggs in the thick stand of salal near the edge of the woods. For the past two years, they've always laid their eggs in one of two spots; this, along with their bright white coloring, made it easy to find them, and their eggs.

This year, things have changed. First, the hens have found three entirely new places to make their nests. We've finally located all of them, after literally hours of looking, but unfortunately in two cases, a cougar found the nests before we did. The pile of white feathers in the nest and the trail of more feathers leading to the edge of the canyon and down the steep slope make it clear what happened. (Although this is a smaller-sized turkey, even the hens are too large to be bothered by bobcats; even young cougars are much larger than bobcats.)

As distressing as it is to lose the hens, what added insult to injury was finding the remains of broken turkey eggs in the nests. We were hoping to find intact eggs that could be hatched under a broody hen . We've been keeping a close eye on the remaining hens, and collecting their eggs as quickly as possible. We've got only 7 so far. I'm going to set up one of the broody coops this afternoon and relocate a very broody chicken there to incubate the turkey eggs. The Midget White hens are very good broodies and mothers; however, since we only have two left, we want them to keep laying eggs for as long as possible (they quit laying once they go broody), so we'll use chickens to hatch the turkey eggs for now.

It's a bit disconcerting to think that an animal the size of a cougar (males can weigh up to 275 lbs) is coming so close during the day; the nests are all within less than 100 feet of the house. We've put up some temporary fencing in the area where the turkeys are nesting, and all has been quiet for the past couple of days. At this point, we're not even thinking about Thanksgiving; we're concerned about replenishing our breeding flock.