Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Throwback Thursday I:Biodynamics.

Posted on | September 18, 2014 | No Comments

Because I am incredibly hip, I have decided to join the Throwback Thursday trend on social media.  No, I’m not going to get twitter or instagram and I promise I will never hashtag anything.  Mostly because the # symbol means “number” to me.  It has already been hijacked to mean “pound” on occasion. I think it makes life way too complicated to also have it represent “hashtag.”  Besides, it seems unfair.  Why so much attention for # ??  What do the people on social media have against ^ or {  ?  Those guys are totally underutilized.

I am also going to spare you any pictures of me in my 80’s hairstyle.  Primarily because I still wear my hair the way I did in the 80’s so you people get to see that every day.  Enjoy.

I also won’t bother to post any pictures of the kids when they were little because it’s too hard to resist the embarrassing photos.  The ones I am hoarding to display at the kids’ weddings.  Like this one of Middle playing princess and “breastfeeding” his baby.  In all his finery.  Because real princesses breastfeed, people.

Oh, wait,  I said I wasn’t going to do that.  Whoops.  Sorry, Middle. Read more

Work Out.

Posted on | September 15, 2014 | 2 Comments

I see what you’re doing there.  Posting your daily workout so you can keep track of your progress, make everyone else feel fat and lazy, and encourage and inspire the rest of us.

That’s sweet.  I appreciate it.

Thank you.

I’d like to participate in this new fitness trend but my daily workout usually consists of walking on the treadmill at the gym in order to get a glimpse of satellite television for 30 minutes.   I don’t have a “leg day” or “chest & back day” as much as I have “Celebrity News on E! day” and “Alaska: The Last Frontier day.”  Which is more entertaining and doesn’t have all the horrible side effects.

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Head of Household.

Posted on | September 10, 2014 | 3 Comments

The yellow jackets have lost their minds.  With the insects and nectar that they usually feed upon beginning to dwindle, they are hungry and irritable.  In addition, their colonies have had the entire summer to expand into huge hives hidden underground or in leaf debris.  Although the worker bees may not realize only the inseminated queen will survive the winter, they sure act as if their days are numbered and they are going to take as many humans down with them that they can.

I hit the first nest with the lawnmower in the front yard.  Luckily, I was casually pushing the mower, ran over the nest, and kept going.  Clueless.  It was only when I finished that row of grass and turned to start the next row that I looked back and saw a huge swarm of yellow jackets, angrily buzzing in my wake.  Either I ran directly over the nest or close enough to it that I had triggered the attack.  But since I moved away slowly (mowing the lawn in full sun and high humidity is not a game of speed), the yellow jackets seemed confused about my role in the drama.  Swift movements attract yellow jackets exiting the nest in defense because even bees know that only guilty people run.  Being a slow-moving, nonchalant, blob about 20 feet away was less suspicious.  Which goes to show that ignorance is a defense on occasion.

The second nest was a bit more problematic.

I staggered out of bed after night shift to find Pretty and her friend rushing inside, slamming cabinet doors, and babbling excitedly.  I wasn’t going to ask what happened before I had a cup of tea, but they quickly told me that they had run into a bunch of yellow jackets and been stung multiple times.

“How many times?”  I asked.

“Oh, like 10, no 13, maybe more!”

Now I was awake.

“What?  Where?”  Then, “Oh, jeez, you’re not allergic to bee stings, right?”  I asked Pretty’s friend.

She assured me that she wasn’t and the girls went on to tell me that they had been up on the barn roof.  They started kicking off the piles of leaf debris from last fall.  Of course, they hit a yellow jacket nest and were swarmed by the bees.  Pretty managed to climb back down the ladder off the roof and fled into the woods.  Her friend just jumped off the roof and ran through the back yard.  Apparently they spent some time tearing off pieces of clothing and shaking out their hair to free trapped bees before stumbling into the house looking for anti-itch cream.  Sure enough, their hands and arms, legs and knees, necks and faces were covered with angry red blotches. Read more

The Cost of Carrots.

Posted on | September 1, 2014 | 6 Comments

This was the first year that I grew carrots in containers.  I did it because this guy told me to.  I found his instructive video by typing “growing carrots, lazy” into the search engine.  The best gardening tip I can give you is to always add a comma and “lazy” when searching the internet for garden plans.  I used to add the word “easy,” but obviously “easy” means different things to different people.  “Easy” method suggestions included digging garden beds down to 18″ deep and making your own seed tape with flour, water, scissors, toilet paper, ruler, paintbrush, blah, blah, horribly not-easy-at-all blah.  In fairness, I consider myself more “time-crunched” than “lazy.”  But the internet gets too confused if you search for “growing carrots, time-crunched.”  Everybody’s pretty much on the same page for “lazy.”

As it turned out, planting carrots in containers was a wonderful idea.  My parents left a bunch of empty patio containers here last year.  I carried them to the garden.  Filled them up with wheelbarrows of compost from the chicken pasture.  Sprinkled the carrot seeds in rows that I dug with my index finger.  Covered the rows back over with soil using the palm of my hand.  Easy.  Lazy.  Whatevs.

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The Do Over.

Posted on | August 31, 2014 | 6 Comments

Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t get a do over in life.  Because you do.  Happens all the time.  Especially around here.  Around here we rarely get anything right on the first try.  So we have a lot of empathy for anyone or anything that needs a second chance.

Orphans and strays are our specialty. Making use of others’ scraps and discards is our forte.  If it can be rehabbed or recycled, then we’re up for the job.

Oh, I know what people say.  A penny wise and a pound foolish.  Save now, pay later.  But cheap or free isn’t just too tempting for us to resist.  This farm was built on things that other people just didn’t need any more.

The picnic table that we got from a neighbor that became the center of the barnyard.

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That Friday Feelin’.

Posted on | August 29, 2014 | No Comments

You know that Friday feelin’?

When you’re well rested, the first kids get on the bus at 6:30am, the last one gets on at 8:15am, and the whole day stretches out before you.

When The Other Half left the kitchen spotless and there are clean milk jars in the dishwasher.

When the trail of feathers in the barnyard makes you think Bella ate the guinea last night but she appears at the feed trough after all—-alive and gobbling breakfast (just covered in slobber and missing all her tail feathers).

When you’ve whittled down your To Do list all week long so all that’s left is “Schedule Dentist Appts” which you don’t have to do because there isn’t a dentist office anywhere that is open on Fridays.

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Double Down.

Posted on | August 27, 2014 | 1 Comment

Every year I make the same exact mistake.  In January I carefully make diagram after diagram of the summer garden.  I arrange the plants, move the beds, build trellisses, and make compost heaps.  All on paper.  Because these things are much easier to move on paper than they are in real life.  I especially consider the gradual turning under of the summer garden—a process by which the pigs root up and mix all the withered plants, the mulch, break-through weeds, and and a new batch of barn manure to prepare beds for fall planting.

Ideally, the garden beds are arranged so that the first crops to fail are grouped together (first the peas and carrots, then potatoes and onions, followed by the lettuce and brasscias, eventually the zucchini and summer squash, etc, etc).  So the pigs can be contained in a movable pen placed over one bed filled with spent, browned, exhausted crops and then quickly and easily slid over to the next bed.  That way the garden gets turned in a nice orderly procession and the pigs are kept away from tempting crops that are still producing.

But somehow, between January’s perfectly arranged diagram and the fall planting in September, all chaos breaks loose.  Perhaps it happens when I start squeezing extra transplants from the greenhouse into any space available.  Or maybe it gets thrown off when I find a new variety in the garden store that I absolutely have to try so I add or extend a bed to fit it in.  Could be last minute reshuffling to accommodate all those confusing companion planting or crop rotation charts.  Might even be the alarming tendency for plant rows to be mislabeled or left unlabeled because I had to rush off to pick someone up from sports practice, or stop to chase down an escaped goat, or spotted a snake slithering through the mulch and couldn’t really tell whether it was an Eastern hog snake or a copperhead so garden activities had to be canceled for the day.  Regardless, by the time I return to the garden I often have trouble remembering what seeds I planted where and I end up overseeding or simply seeding in a different spot than I had planned.  Garden charts just don’t account for snake sightings.

When the summer heat broke and we experienced our first morning in the 60’s, I stood in the garden considering fall plantings and surveying the damage.  Yep.  A random assortment of garden chaos.  With tomatoes flourishing next to overgrown lettuce beds, decayed zucchini next to sprawling pumpkin vines, almost-ripe watermelons trellised over the remains of the onion crop.  It looked like the pigs would have another year of forgoing a convenient 16 X 8 rectangle pen of cattle panels for an arbitrary assortment of  trapezoids, parallelograms, and rhombi.  These would be patched together with scrap panels and designed to put the pigs over the crops that need to be turned under, but at least a snout distance away from the thriving peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, and melons.

Except this year I made another mistake.

That’s right, people, a double down on the garden failures.

This year, I don’t have any pigs.

Last year’s pigs were so big that we’re still working our way through their tenderloins, shoulder roasts, and hams.  So we didn’t bother to get a spring piglet.   Which was a shame when the farm was producing the extra foodstuff  favorites of pigs.  It was disappointing to pour out extra goat milk, toss a discovered nest of hidden chicken eggs (therefore, of an unknown age, undetermined developmental status, and inedible by humans), or eat every single last piece of crookneck squash ourselves, but it was really depressing now.

We don’t till in our garden and yet I was facing off with this:

Enough to make a farmer cry tears in her bacon.

Luckily, I own way too many animals a diversified farm operation.  Pigs aren’t the only crop-grazing, dirt-tilling critters around here.  (Although they are the most delicious ones.)  The chickens were my next best bet for turning under the garden.  They’ll eat the majority of greens and even what they won’t eat they will trample down or scratch up by the roots.  They love digging through mulch and soil for grubs and bugs and create light fluffy, perfectly mixed piles of compost.  Sure, the raised beds would have to be reshaped after the chickens flung the contents around, but reshaping light, loose debris with a pitchfork is a whole lot easier than turning the soil with a shovel, hoeing the remaining weeds and clods, and then leveling with the iron rake.  A whole lot easier.

Too bad the pen creation wasn’t as easy.  Because chickens need one thing that pigs really don’t.

Predator protection.

The garden is surrounded by an 8′ fence to keep out critters.  But that fence is made of chain link which is easily scaled by the opossums and raccoons that feast on unprotected chickens around here.  Our chickens had to be secured at night if they were going to be separated from the livestock guardian dogs and placed in the garden.

Good thing I still had a chicken tractor in the garden.  Kind of.

What I had was an 8 year old chicken tractor.  Which worked fine when I got my first 4 chickens.  Those chickens were moved merrily around the farm, enjoying fresh grass and bugs every day and the security of a locked coop every night.  Of course, I only used the chicken tractor in that capacity for 1 year.  Chickens, being like potato chips, are way too addictive to have just 4 of them.  I mean, have you ever only had 4 potato chips???  Unless the kids only left 4 potato chips in the bag.  Or worse, they left just enough dregs of chips to equal 4 full chips if you tip the bag and funnel those dregs directly into your mouth.  Not that I’ve ever done that….

So by the next year I had a substantial flock of chickens.  Too substantial for a movable pen so they had to have a permanent stationary coop.  Since they had a permanent stationary coop, we had to let them free range to get the healthiest chickens with the healthiest eggs.  Once they were free ranging we had to put up a fence to keep loose dogs and daytime predators out of their pasture.   Once we had a pasture there was no reason not to fill that pasture with other critters like ducks and goats and sheep and pigs and ponies.  As soon as that pasture was full of critters, it only made sense to get a livestock guardian dog to guard all those critters.  And then that livestock guardian dog needed another livestock guardian dog as a friend.  Because, really, can you imagine the pressure of all that responsibility?

Yes, I know.  That’s kind of the equivalent of looking at the potato chip bag with its pathetic chip dregs and saying, “Screw it, who wants to go to Walmart for another bag of chips?”  And then coming home with 4 full bags of chips—sour cream and onion, salt and vinegar, barbecue, and ridged.

Please.  You know you’ve done that, too.

Anyway, the chicken tractor got demoted.  Initially it was used in the barnyard for hens with newly hatched chicks.  Then we built a brooder room in the barn.  So it was moved down to the garden for the guineas.  The guineas did a decent job of eating garden bugs without destroying the veggie plants.  But they were too loud for the neighbors.  So the chicken tractor became an excellent garden shelf to set tarps and row covers when not in use, to stack all varieties of sprinklers, spray nozzles, and hose connectors, and to hold rolls of bed edging.  Plus, a place to stash rocks where they were out of the way of the lawnmower but available for holding down paper mulch or hammering in garden stakes.

The downside of the chicken tractor being used as garden shelving was that it hadn’t been moved for about 6 years.  And as I assessed it’s chicken holding capacity, I realized there was no way it was moving ever again without falling completely apart.  Which meant that if I wanted to use it to protect the chickens as they turned over the summer garden, it had to stay in place.  The fencing had to come to the chicken tractor.

Combining the immobility of the chicken tractor with the haphazard arrangement of the beds to be turned over, I figured trapezoids, parallelograms, and rhombi were a pipe dream.  Heck, quadrilaterals seemed unlikely altogether.  I gathered a variety of cattle panels, fencing rolls,  PVC pipes, rebar, tarps, shade cloth, hay twine, and set to work.  I ended up with a decent straight stretch over the squash.

The rest of the pen was a free for all.  Where I ran out of cattle panel, I used some flexible plastic netting.  Even though I could have easily cut the netting with scissors, I didn’t bother.  It would easier to roll it back up on the roll when I was done with the pen if I left it in one piece.  Besides,  the intact roll added a little extra support to the wobbly PVC pipe post.

If the panel or fencing had squares that a chicken could squeeze through, I attached some of the garden edging.  I also left that on the roll instead of cutting it.  For the same reasons as above.  Plus, cutting wire is so successful at creating sharp ends that poke me despite my best efforts to avoid injury that my hands and legs start to spontaneously bleed whenever I get out the wire cutters.  Just to get it over with already.

When I ran out of cattle panels, fencing, and edging, I just started making do.  One section of the pen was created with an unused utility gate with the gaps covered by a trap, some shade cloth, and a scrap piece of field fencing.

Tractor Supply and Southern States can claim whatever they want.  But “For Life Out Here,” whatever is laying around the farm works just fine “For Those Who Do.”

I hung a piece of shade cloth for lounging under in the heat of the day.

I used some bamboo garden stakes to add extra roosts to the chicken tractor and I set the water trough right beside it to discourage the chickens from hopping onto the roof of the tractor and then hopping out of the pen.  I knew the chickens were capable of getting over the few 3′ tall sections of cattle panel but I hoped they had an incentive to stay in (lots greens and bugs) and no reason to get out (chickens hate to be separated from rest of the flock).

Overall, it was a success.  What the pen lacked symmetry, it made up for in purpose.  If it’s durability was in doubt, that just made it easier to take down when the job was done.  If the design was indecipherable, that just meant it would be harder for the chickens to find their way out.  After all, several times as I tied fencing to posts and attached shade cloth or garden edging, I found myself trapped inside the perimeter or wandering the outside of the fence trying to get back in to where I had been working.  If I couldn’t find my way out, surely the chickens couldn’t either.  Probably.  Maybe.

Then in went the chickens.  I chose 8 of the older hens plus Michael, the less dominant rooster.  I added a couple sheep to help with weed control.  Although the sheep’s role in the garden was short-lived.  (Flexible plastic netting and PVC pipes might hold chickens. But they don’t hold sheep.)

Now I’m just letting the chickens prepare the fall beds while I prepare to can tomatoes and pickle peppers.  In between rescuing the couple chickens that fly out of the pen, then pace the fence, frantically looking for a way back in.

Oh, the mind of the chicken is unknowable, Grasshopper.  Completely unknowable.

Love is….

Posted on | July 9, 2014 | 2 Comments

….the summer garden.

This post designed to make gardening look so awesome that you, too, join those of us who spend our free time weeding, watering, hauling compost to melons, staking (and restaking) tomatoes, spreading straw over potatoes, onions, and carrots, trellising cucumbers and beans, pruning herbs, mowing or mulching between the garden rows, and, of course, harvesting.  Any time spent inside the air conditioning is for hopelessly scrubbing at the dirt embedded under your fingernails and in the crevices of your cracked gardener hands, plotting against squash bugs, and planning the fall garden.

And, of course, arranging the harvest into impressive, delectable food art to inspire future gardeners.  Because misery loves company it’s all worth it in the end.

Step away from the pool, people.

Come on into the garden.  It’s sweltering buggy lovely in here.

Plus, that leaves an empty lounge chair by your pool for me.  As soon as I finishing putting in the pumpkin beds….

Second Cuts: A Guide to Shearing Your Sheep For Felting.

Posted on | July 8, 2014 | No Comments

I forgot to tell you that I sheared the sheep.  I forgot to tell you because it happened this spring when we were busy with fishing and farm tours, strawberries and sports award banquets, birthdays and brooder room set-up.   So much was happening at once that I was forced into reactive mode instead of proactive mode.  Not to say that we are usually proactive around here.  We’re not.  There’s way too much procrastinating around here to be considered proactive.  But at least I can say I am usually forced to be reactive because my time and energy is always consumed with unplanned emergencies—a kid home sick from school, a deer deciding to take out the front fender and headlights on the car, pasty butt on the chicks, Colorado potato beetles spreading from the potatoes to the eggplant, finding out it’s Dollar Day at the Goodwill only when I drive by and see the overflowing parking lot and line of people around the building, etc.

This spring the emergencies couldn’t even compare to all the preplanned events that were eating up my time.  Why did I think 4 kids in 4 different sports was a good idea?  Why?  Why? So it wasn’t until we were on farm tour that I realized everyone’s sheep, except for mine, had already been sheared. I mean, everyone’s sheep.  There were NO unsheared sheep.  Even the hair sheep had been trimmed to keep them comfortable in the rising temperatures.  As a matter of fact, most of the sheep had been sheared so many weeks earlier that their fleece was already growing back.  It was embarrassing.

I had noticed that my sheep were starting to look like bath mats from behind….

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Place Your Bets.

Posted on | June 22, 2014 | 3 Comments

A full house is almost impossible around here.  One of the kids is always missing—sports, sleepovers, birthday parties, camp, play dates, any excuse to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.  Sometimes we’ve got one pair.  Occasionally we’ve got three of a kind.  Sometimes we’re busted.

In the beginning it was disorienting to count heads and come up with fewer than 4.  My heart would pound and my breath would catch as I’d realize that not only had I finally lost one, but I had no idea what the missing child was wearing.  No idea.  Not even a haphazard guess.  What kind of a mother couldn’t describe to police what her child was wearing before he or she wandered off in the Food Lion???  (Besides a mother that makes them dress themselves, wash their own laundry, and put it away in their drawers and closets on their own.  And should I admit those facts to the police?  Is it even legal to make kids do their own laundry nowadays?)

Even worse, what if the stress made me stumble over his or her birth date like I do in front of the pharmacist after a bout of illness in the kids??  People, it’s confusing to have some children that are born 2 years apart and some that have birth years that are back to back.  (Anyway, who’s fabricating stories in the CVS to get illegal pink eye medicine??)  God help me if the police asked me when I last had all 4 kids together.  Surely we all arrived in the car together.  Right?  I mean, probably.  Maybe.  Um,….were they all in the car when we got here??

Eventually my brain would override my panic and I’d remember that the missing child was at a bowling birthday party or swimming at the neighbor’s house or staying after school for practice.  As the kids grew I even got accustomed to the absences.  Lately it’s unusual to have all the kids together.  I’ve become resigned to it.  I figured the days of all 4 of them trooping through the house, battling over board games, rushing in and outside, building forts, and playing tag through the yard and the woods were almost finished.  Maybe even over.

My parents did not yield so easily.  They weren’t about to fold.  No, they were ready to call against baseball games and sleepovers.  They were ready to raise  the stakes.  And for the past 2 weekends we’ve had all 4 kids together.  All in one place.  All day long.  That’s right, people.

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