Sunday, October 14, 2012


Sometimes on the farm, we lose.  I could present an upbeat, wholly untruthful narrative about the way things turned out on the farm this year. And, if I did so, I would be lying.  We had our share of losses.  No corn, and as it turns out, a pitiful vegetable garden plagued in a Biblical fashion.  Yes, I would have to call it a plague; RATS.

I have always been aware of their existence on this farm but this past winter was especially easy and I noticed them jumping out of the way in front of my tractor when I mowed in early spring.

They haunted all of my dreams of abundance. I planted 50 of the most lovely, lush paste tomato plants one could ever hope for.  I tended them, put manure around their roots, limed the soil to a perfect pH and watched them grow, expand, set flower and fruit.  I staked them with a Florida weave, and the green tomatoes abounded.

Then, in the heat of summer, just when the fruit was taking on a nice blush of red, the plague attacked.  I entered the garden daily to find each fruit still green at the top and eaten on the red-tinted blossom end.  Grrr.  Ok, I thought, just a rat or two (there is never just two where they live in cities). Indeed they are a force of destruction, taking a few nibbles out of each-and-every-somewhat-ripe---tomato.  While they plundered the tomatoes, my beans grew nearby, untouched and unravaged.  Lucky for me my taste runs toward the “haricot vert” side and I picked probably 10 lbs of beans for the freezer.  I felt like I was winning. Why is it that I had to erase this last sentence and rewrite it because of Charlie Sheen? He does not belong in my paragraphs.

All went well until the bean shells swelled with fat seeds inside. Now there was a higher nutrient value within the seeds, and the instinct of these remarkable yet disgusting creatures lead them to the bean patch. 

Half eaten beans, just barely chewed beans, completely eaten beans and very, very few pristine beans left for me.

The beet seedlings; sheared off at the sprouted tops.

Carrot seedlings; gone.

Sweet corn seeds were snatched out of their rows in the ground. No sign of disturbance at the soil surface, just unrealized corn.  Again, corn is an abstract this year on the farm.

I checked the sweet potatoes, previously pushing their tough shoulders against the soil, and rupturing it in great cracks above as they muscled through the dirt.  All dug out of the soil, and eaten.

My heirloom squash seemed to be defiant.  Tough shelled and smooth with a reasonably large diameter, they resisted assault.  Fine pairs of flat chisel marks from rodent incisors began to appear on some of the fruit.  HA HA!  The vermin cannot bite the squash.  I quickly harvested all the ripe and near ripe fruits.  This may be a sign, and adaptive gardening measure.  One should only plant hard shelled veggies. Sigh…not the diverse and tasty garden of my dreams.

What is going on here?

The organic, environmental reason for this plague is an imbalance in the ecosystem.  Perhaps it is the warm winter we had last year? Perhaps it is the presence of Livestock Guardian Dogs keeping rat predators at bay while ignoring the rats themselves?  Perhaps it was the lack of a human presence pushing them back for the past 20 years? Who knows, but this year I am hoping for a mighty winter to descend upon these fields, and for balance to return to the farmstead.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Livestock Guardian Dogs

We have two full time working dogs on our farm.  One is a Great Pyrenees mix (with Collie I understand), and the other is part Anatolian and part Pyr, which part is which I have no idea. That's her in the back wearing the mask..

These are beautiful, true working dogs.  They won't win any pageants covered in burrs as they usually are. But they are on the job all day and all night.  Not much escapes their notice and they hear, see and smell all of the threats to their flock.  We were told by the breeders of our raccoon masked dog, Daisy, that she would grow up not really caring about people.  She was to care for the animals and not much else.  We have found this to be very untrue.  She loves people, and considers them to be equally as important to protect, especially kids.  When working on different areas of the farm, it is very common to have the dogs follow us, and just sit there watching as we mow, make fence, dig or plant.  We are part of the flock they are guarding.  When the kids go walking, almost always one or the other dog follows with them.

It is truly a safe feeling to be awakened in the night by their barks, and to hear them race off across the farm to protect against some other critter.  When you are tent camping, is is reassuring to hear them just outside your canvas wall.  They are awake while we sleep.  They do an excellent job, and we have lost very few chickens as a result.  One can lie in the dark, and listen to their two barking voices, each very unique.  Lexie's bark is higher, a bit raspy and squeaky. Daisy has the deepest most improbable voice for a lady, a rumbling low register, big dog bark. 

I am amazed by their camaraderie.  Lexie the Pyr mix, was brought in as an adoption. Her former farm could not handle her anymore as she was rumored to be chasing their goats. When she arrived, she walked out amidst our chickens, took up a commanding strategic location in the chicken yard, and went to guarding immediately. She has been a steady part of the team ever since.  Daisy arrived from her litter in Georgia as a 10 week old pup.  She did not guard right away, and took several months to mature.  At approximately 8 months old, the guard dog powers were activated. With the teaching example of the older dog, Lexie, she has become the finest of guard dogs.  It is impossible to teach these dogs to do what they do.  It is pure instinct.  It is unique experience to watch a creature fulfill what they are meant to be, and without any human interference.  When one dog darts away chasing something, the other is quickly up and away after her.

These dogs are not without their shortcomings however, and we have been working to teach them the boundaries of the farm.  It is in the dogs nature to maintain a secure territory.  Sometimes this means going on "walkabout" and taking the fight to the coyotes.  They dogs will wander, seeking to push the predators further and further away from the home territory. Often this causes them to "go missing" for hours.  For a caring dog owner, this is torture.  Every Pyr owner I have talked too can tell me a similar story.  It is a priority for the dog's boundaries to be clearly established.

These dogs are a great asset on the farm.  So much would be lost to predators without them.  They completely earn their keep.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Corn Crop Failure

My To-Do list got the best of me this year.  Or perhaps it was luck?  Just as the Midwest is reeling and crops are dying, we in East TN are having climate issues as well.  The month of June, I recorded only .65" of rain for the entire calendar month.  That is terrible I must tell you, plus for a good part of the month, the daytime high temperatures were over 100 F.  Almost unbearable to work in.  For sure impossible to grow corn in without irrigation.

In 2011 I planted about 1/4 acre in Oxacan Green Dent Corn.  I got it from heirloom seed sellers.  My hope was that I would be soon filling my corn crib, and building a seed bank to plant with continuously.  I saved two bursting 1 gallon zip lock bags with the seed product of that 2011 crop, fully intending to replant and expand in 2012.

It didn't happen.

I never got it planted.

Too much infrastructure building going on.  Too much bush hogging to do.  Too much of too much.  Not one kernel of green corn got planted in the ground.

I never thought I could ever be so lucky. 

Yes, lucky. 

The farm has no formal irrigation system.  The system is me with buckets.  There is no way I could have kept that crop alive through June, July and August without mechanical/petroleum powered irrigation.  I would have lost every last kernel in the weeks of 100 F and higher heat.

Now my two bursting gallons of corn seed are safe and tucked away in cool dark storage, waiting for next year. [Yes, with proper storage corn can be kept for decades, perhaps centuries as was discovered in the desert southwest]

So, a failure turns out not be a failure after all, but merely another chance to gamble with nature next year.

LJF 1,  Nature 0--- But Nature bats last.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Untold Riches

Fall is nearly here, the sun is slanted low in the sky.  The evenings have cooled from their uncomfortable highs of summer.  And, I have hay in the barn.  Hay from my own property. This hay also brought some beautiful friends into our lives. The man we hired to mow it, brought his wife to help us load it into the barn the next day. A blessing, a gift of labor, and we are pleased to now have them as friends.
It is wealth from the bottom of the food chain, the most basic of blessings, the kind of bank that can keep a farm and feed all the animals and people on it.  I am a wealthy woman indeed.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

To Do List:

Not necessarily in order.
-  build a Salatin drop cage for the meat birds before they get much bigger
-  plant the rest of the late season garden
-  prepare for the arrival of the new Rhode Island Red chicks
-  put up the invisible dog fence
-  install the charge controller, batteries and inverter for the PV system
-  build a stand for the 275 gallon water tote
-  pipe together the 55 gallon rain barrels
-  build a perimeter fence on the back property line
-  disc wheat field (more than once)
-  trim pony's hooves
-  get the kids some mud boots
-  get me some mud boots
-  start shopping for a new straw hat before this one rots off my head
-  buy spelt seed
-  plant spelt
-  plant Kamut
-  stop adding too many items to the to-do list
-  clean out the freezers
-  make a space for the mason jar shelf
-  plant some more veg winter garden
-  plant veg yet again (succession plant winter garden)
-  plant the garlic

I will only have 10% of my running to-do list ever completed.

The Oxacan Green corn above was on the to-do list, but was and epic to-do list failure, or was that a triumph of luck?

Seeds for Tomorrow

I was very pleased when Bear came up to me this weekend, his little hands outstretched, face beaming.  In his palms he held some small squash seeds.  He was so proud.  I asked him where he got those.  He told me that the dried gourd on our mantle had fallen down and broken, and that he was saving the seed from inside, because it grew more food, and that it was important to save seeds.

I am proud of my Bear, very proud.

Monday, July 23, 2012

We are born not knowing anything.

Isn't it great?


The nightshade plant family is as varied as large family full of relatives can be.  Many of our favorite vegetables are nightshades;  potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and okra.  Even the habit forming tobacco plant is in the nightshade family.  In addition, there are quite a few unsavory characters lurking around the family reunion; belladonna, ground cherries and horse nettle to name a few.  These plants are toxic.  And wouldn't you know it, some of the horse nettle variety are lurking around the farm. 

A "diva of dirt" gardener friend has often said to me that a weed is just a plant that is in the wrong place.  This definitely applies in this situation.  A toxic weed is taking up residence near my gardens, and even in them.  Wrong plant, wrong place.  Unfortunately my organic eradication plan is going to take some time.  I have been selectively cutting these with my scythe wherever I can find them, but it seems hopeless, they are persistent, mostly where ground has been disturbed, like my garden.  They are especially dangerous to small children whom may find their bright yellow berries to be appealing and eat them.

I feel very little attachment to these wicked little plants.  They are bold enough to sport thorns on their stems and on the undersides of their leaves.  I have to suppress the urge to lean over and pull them with my bare hands, an act that leads to instant punishment.  My drive to remove them often outweighs my fear of thorns, and I have been known to gingerly move the plant stem around looking for a place to get a purchase on it and pull without being bitten.  I rarely succeed.

I have noticed this year, that these plants are under particular stress.  Pests have played havoc on them, nearly all are blighted and suffering.  The drought conditions of June really stress these plants out and to top it off, the potato beetles and flea beetles love them.

Take a look at how utterly wasted this plant looks.  The leaves are all thickened and scarred from repeated pest attacks, leaving the plant susceptible to viral and bacterial attack.  BONUS! 

Then there is the organic gardener's principle of trap crops. Should I even be pulling this plant out at all?  If they are so tasty, and in such a weakened state, perhaps these little buggies will leave my beloved nightshades alone, and only harass these ugly nightshades?

I know last year that I was astonished at the speed with which the Colorado Potato Beetles reached my potato plants.  Almost immediately upon emergence, they attacked.  Within a couple of weeks my poor taters were shredded.  It was all because this plant acts as a harborage plant in addition to its trap crop duties.  I have squished many a Potato Beetle as it perched on these plants and munched.  Glass half empty/glass half full quandary. 

Since I seem unable to get totally ahead of the nightshades near the garden, I can always dump the dang glass out and make sure that my desirable nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes)have all of their immune systems functioning, and that they resist pests with full strength due to good cultural practices.

1)  shallow tilth, keeping the nutrient rich topsoil ON TOP
2)  additions of rotted manure, and compost to encourage a lively microbial life in the garden bed
3)  additions of lime to straighten out the pH of the soil.  Acid soil binds the minerals and prevents plants from using them.  Maintaining the proper pH gives the minerals mobility and they can be used by the plant to build their biological defenses.  Oh yes, and store these minerals in their fruit, which we humans like to eat. More nutrients for us bipeds.
4)  proper watering these weed plants do not get the benefit of water during the drought conditions

Another neat observation;  with the stress and possibly disease going on with these, the horse nettle may be its own worse enemy this year.  They are potentially, in their weakness, spreading disease amongst themselves. Self annihilation. 

Now if only crabgrass could annihilate itself from my garden, we would be on to something.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Fancy Chicken

Label Rouge is what they're France.  They are called that here too.  But mostly, they are known as "pastured poultry" in the US.  These are some pretty unique birds and we received them via mail on June 27th.  Since that time they have grown to four times their original size.  This is not the typical growth rate of your standard barnyard chicken.  These chickens grow to full size in about 12 weeks, at which time they are ready for processing.  A typical laying hen can take 6 months to reach full maturity. 

I have to preface the following by mentioning that I have no affiliation with the hatchery nor any connection to them.  These birds in particular come from the JM Hatchery in PA. They are called "Freedom Rangers".  They are a true meat type. One can tell from simple observation that they are bulky and thick in the legs.  They have been really interesting to raise so far.  While in the brooders, they did not seem to fear humans like other egg breed chicks do.  These chickens quickly learn that humans = food.  They eat; a lot.  And, they grow; fast. When I reached in to place the refilled feeder, some would leap up and try to peck the freckles off my arm.  That dear friends, is a sassy chicken.

Today, as I tended them, I watched as they aggressively hunted for the bugs in their pen.  Let's face it, when your body grows that fast, you'd better be eating something to fuel it.  I saw one chick take a hop-flight in pursuit of a scarab dung beetle that haplessly flew into their pen.  The chick caught it, and in doing so alerted his pen mates to the tasty treat.  Then, the chick with the bug did the typical chicken with a bug prize evasive maneuvers.  About 4 chicks were in hot pursuit.  Just in time I set the feeder back in the paddock and the chasers left the chick to his bug snack.

More on these later, I am sure that they will more than keep us amused. These photos were taken last Sunday afternoon.  And today the chicks are noticeably larger.

Runneth Over

What an upside down weather pattern we have had this summer.  We recorded .65" of rain for the entire month of June, and were down to the last 8 inches of water in ten rain barrels. This was all that was left to water the chickens. Indeed, the weather was so hot that I heard of someone's potato crop getting partially cooked in the soil due to nearly two weeks of 100+ temperature.  The humidity was ultra low for East TN, where the rain probability was at 10% chance daily.  That is horrible I tell you, when you have plants trying to grow.

We used irony to break the drought, and our friends Tim and Kim helped us haul 3 barrels to the lake to bucket-fill.  It is this act of desperation alone that caused it to rain two days later, and we have got about 3 inches total this month since then.  It is amazing how this works. Hand bucket 165 gallons of water, only to get effortless water just two days later.  I cannot complain.  I have some really happy tomato plants and about 100 grateful chickens. Not to mention two very hairy dogs whom were very pleased to see the weather change.

Renewed Purpose

As a mom is has been always somewhat bittersweet to purge the house of old baby items. Pacifiers here, jumper suits there.  I have a little longing for the baby that once was, at the same time reveling in the child that is.  Here is a bit of fun with some of my first son's baby overalls, re purposed into a clothespin bag.  This way they aren't wasted, they aren't discarded and are not forgotten.  On my pilgrimage to the clothesline, my little one is with me, and I can remember his sweet little time.

In case you are wondering, it is the easiest project ever. Just sew the legs closed and trim the pant leg off about 1/2 inch from the seam.  Voila!  Clothespin bag.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Get Your Ducks in a Row

Off in the distance, a thunder of webbed feet. Duck parade.  They travel this way, criss-crossing the farm. Usually follow the leader. Always greeting us looking for food. When they discover that we aren't going to feed them again, away they go, single file back to the pond.