Tag Archives: chickens

Violet Spring

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I’ve been digging up wild violets this week, repotting them for a plant sale in May. A couple years ago, only a few small patches of violets grew around the farm. This spring, I’m finding them all over the place in both purple and white. After coming in like a lion, March is going out like a lamb with gentle breezes and sunshine; I wonder whether a good spring for violets portends a good season for vegetables, as well.

I’m seeing spring from a new perspective this year: the eyes of my two-and-a-half-year-old grandson as he learns about the change of seasons from winter to spring with its promise of new life. We took a little trip to the feed store last week for chicken food and to see the many colors and varieties of baby chicks, from grey-with-brown-striped Golden-laced Wyandotte to yellow-with-striped-wing Speckled Sussex. Back at the Stonebridge coop, I pointed out a Speckled Sussex, all grown up with her red spotted feathers, and we found a tea-brown egg she’d laid in a nest.

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In the kitchen, I showed my grandson the dozen blue eggs we’d have for breakfast the next day—not the kind of eggs that have chicks, I assured him (technically, they’re not, since we don’t have a rooster). He’s waiting for chicks at school from incubated eggs. “They’re hatching,” he says, like it’s an adventure of momentous effort and no little mystery. Since we don’t hatch chicks from eggs on our farm, I’m curious to see what he’ll think about this hatching idea once the chicks have emerged from the shells with their tufted heads and bulging eyes—not exactly the sweet peepers of story books, but they’ll soon grow into something more recognizably cute and cuddly.

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Along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, spring brings wind. Last weekend, my grandson and I both learned about wind as we ran in the park with our little kite straggling behind us. “Run into the wind,” I cried as we ran, him looking behind at the kite and me looking ahead to make sure we didn’t run into a sunbather, pole, or tree. I was winded, myself, from running like that.

On a March day with desultory clouds, sometimes the wind cooperates with kite-flying and sometimes it doesn’t. Our best success was standing still in wait for the breeze to catch our little kite and buoy it just a few feet over our heads. “Which direction is the wind blowing now?” I’d ask. “This way,” my grandson would say, as he turned his face to find it. What fun to launch a kite and see it fly, if only for a minute or two.

Last year my grandson helped us harvest vegetables from his family’s garden, popping cherry tomatoes right into his mouth. This year, he’ll get to help plant them, too. Parents tell us all the time that their kids will eat vegetables they’ve grown themselves or “picked” in the barn at our farm. “Where did this spinach come from?” I asked my grandson last weekend. “The farm!” he laughed—and then ate the vegan spinach lasagna I’d made for dinner. PBJ may currently be his favorite food, but this spring he’s learning new lessons in where food can come from–close to home and grown by someone he loves.

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Like Roosters

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“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up.”                      –Thoreau, Walden

On a trip to Cuba a decade ago to research sustainable agriculture, I arrived too late at the guest hostel in the southern, rural part of the island to see much of the hills surrounding us with palm trees in a small valley. I got my chance early the next morning when I was awoken by not one, not two, but what sounded like hundreds of roosters crowing all around me. I dressed quickly and went outside to find that roosters roamed freely in this village, strutting as lustily as Thoreau’s chanticleer. Roosters are undoubtedly more intent on alerting other roosters to their territory than on signaling transformation, but in El Valle del Gallo, as I called this place, I witnessed the power of roosters crowing in unintentional symphony at the dawn of another day.

Recently I heard a story on NPR about two women in their thirties who own a small boutique in a Tehran mall.The women’s best-selling items might not seem radical: shirts, mugs, and pillows with roosters on them. Yet these roosters feature feathers drawn from the words of a Persian poem celebrating a new dawn. Like an earlier t-shirt the women offered with the word onid, or hope, the rooster items draw mixed reactions. Some customers don’t believe there’s hope for their country right now, while others want to believe in a new future for Iran.

These women were hopeful because they remembered a more open time in their country; the items they sold offered the possibility of a brighter day. The women’s belief in renewal touched me because I, too, retain an optimism that often seems naïve in the face of the world’s problems, a hopefulness based on the idea of a better future once voiced by young people of the 60s and 70s. “All we need is love,” sang the Beatles, “Love is all we need.”

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In A Bushel’s Worth: An Ecobiography, I wrote about the first Earth Day in 1970 and the optimism symbolized by bell bottoms and group efforts to clean up the environment: “Earth Day would not only create awareness of the steadily declining health of the environment, but bring hope of a better future for our planet.”

Our farm was home to a small commune of hippies in the early 1970s. Living in a tipi, bus, barn, and old farmhouse, they raised cows and chickens and sold milk and eggs to the small town nearby.“We didn’t know we were hippies,” they laughed, “until we read about them in a magazine and realized we were hippies too.” I was thrilled to hear that the Paul Butterfield Blues band had jammed in our living room. They showed us vestiges of the work they’d done here at the farm and told us how things had been different back then, including a much smaller farmhouse then we have today.

Their back-to-the-land experiment was short-lived, but their work contributed to the farm’s organic stewardship. Twenty years later, my partner and I started a community-supported farm on the same land. For the last 24 years, we’ve been building the kind of future we’d like to see, one based on a reciprocal relationship with the land and community-based support for organic food production.

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We raise chickens at Stonebridge, but since we don’t breed our own chicks, we don’t need rooster services. Last spring, we bought six chicks that were supposed to be egg-laying hens. From almost the beginning, I suspected that one of the blue-green egg layers would grow up to be a rooster. Its legs were longer and feathers more pronounced than the others; it looked regal, as if it were wearing a pair of 18th-century pantaloons and a tapestry jacket, just the type of braggart Thoreau had imagined. “ER-er-er-ERRR,” it crowed one day as I passed by the coop, making its intentions—and gender—clear. Luckily, our chicken-loving friends were willing to adopt a rooster to replenish their breeding stock.

Ajax the Rooster. Photo by Peter Butler.

Ajax the Rooster. Photo by Peter Butler.

I love my chickens, but since hearing the story about the Iranian shopkeepers and their rooster t-shirts, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the louder fowl of the species. Metaphorically, we need roosters among us to arouse the sleeping into action, voice inconvenient truths, and lead the call for change.

Today, social networking provides roosters more perches from which to crow than in Thoreau’s time. That may not make it easier to be a rooster; as befell ours, the risks of raising an unwelcome alarm will always exist. Still, more roosts means more roosters crowing together about the big things we’re facing like climate crisis, violence in communities and nations, and an ever-deepening gap between the have-mores and the have-lessers.

Roosters may be individualists, but with so many crowing at once, a collective message will surely rise above the cacophonous din. Like the roosters of El Valle del Gallo, we can raise our voices together with hope for change. By pairing personal acts with collaborative action, “hope” can be more than a slogan on a t-shirt. If we care about the future and the world we’ll leave behind, let’s be like roosters and wake each other up.

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Beans, Onions, Eggs, and a little Spinach: A January Cuisine

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Our seed order came Saturday, which is always a sign that winter won’t last forever and we’ll be working in the greenhouse again soon. Actually, John and our friend Peter have already started leeks and onions there to transplant in April. With this week’s temps in the high 60s, we’re beginning to think about spring while we wait for the gardens to give again.

What do farmers eat in winter? If we’re eating seasonally and locally—meaning what we’ve put up or still have laying around the farm—our cuisine is more limited than what we eat when the gardens are producing. Still, we’ve got plenty of food to last us through the winter.

Our Stonebridge freezer is full of peppers for stuffing, tomato sauce, applesauce, and berries. We’ve also dried tomatoes and shelled beans for winter use. After the deep cold of the last couple months, a few rows of spinach are coming again in the bluehouse and we’ve just seeded kale in the greenhouse too. The storage room of the barn is full of last season’s carrots and potatoes, late keeper apples from the Western slope, a trug of winter squash, and lots and lots of onions from last fall’s bumper crop.

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A couple years ago, John and I got over our fear of pressure cookers and started making our beans that way. What a difference in texture and a good savings in time, as well. We throw in carrots, potatoes and garlic, but never salt because that can toughen the beans. We eat bean soup, freeze some, and eat the rest in burritos or enchiladas with our own salsa. This year we grew black and white Oregon Peregions, large red kidneys, and golden buckskin, all flavorful and filling.

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People usually think of onions as the first step in cooking a meal rather than the foundation itself. Onions play a prominent role in lots of our winter dishes, especially when caramelized. Our pizza the other night was heaped with tasty golden onions and they’re also great as the filling in quiche or a layer of lasagna. French onion soup topped with broiled bread and cheese is especially hearty. Salting the onions in the skillet helps them brown more quickly—or at least I like to think it does.

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The longer days at the end of January bring a bonus to our winter meals because that’s when our chickens start to lay again. We don’t light the coop, believing it’s better for the chickens to take a rest. We have to buy a few eggs in the winter, which aren’t at all the same color, freshness, or flavor as our own. So when we get the first egg of the year, we celebrate. Here’s the first three we’ve gathered in 2015.

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I’m especially excited about the lightest egg because it was laid by the Speckled Sussex we raised last season. She’s a gorgeous bird, my favorite all-around variety of chicken. We also raised Americanas for blue eggs, but we haven’t seen any of those yet, except for the eggs our neighbor shared with us last week when her chickens started laying a bit earlier than ours.

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With all this wealth of food, what are we having for dinner? Eggs baked in tomato sauce and spinach, with onion, of course. Saute an onion until golden and then a little spinach until wilted. Add to some chopped tomatoes or tomato sauce, season with ground cumin, sweet or spicy paprika (we dry and grind our own), and salt and pepper. Divide in four oiled ramekins, crack an egg in each, and sprinkle with cheese. Bake 15-20 minutes at 400, until the yolk is set to your desired firmness. Easy, healthy, and good—my ideal of a meal.

Some folks might see our winter meals as boring; we think of them as an opportunity to use up what we have and ready ourselves for the next season. As I write in A Bushel’s Worth, “The winter wipes clean the slate of last year’s misgivings, knowing spring will offer us a new chance to re-write our dreams.” 2015 will be our 24th season as a CSA. Enthusiastic inquiries are coming in; returning members are happily re-subscribing. John’s built another cold frame; I’ve been sprucing up the Sunflower room and updating our outreach information. We don’t know yet what the season will bring, but we are sure whatever bounty or loss may come, we’ll be sharing it with a wonderful community once again.

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The Natural Affinity of Children and Chickens

Yesterday was our five-week-old grandson’s first trip to the farm. He slept most of the time but we took him on a walk anyway to get some sunshine and show our oldest daughter the crops. We even tucked the baby into the hanging barn scale to see how much he’d grown. 11 pounds, including blankets! He’s getting big and strong too, holding his head up longer each time we see him and trying to scoot on his tummy with his toes.

Too bad he was asleep when we visited the chickens. Most children love watching the hens and will stand, mesmerized, for longer than anyone could imagine their attention span would last, poking a blade of grass through the chicken wire and squealing when a beak nips out to grab it. Children and chickens seem to have an affinity for each other, perhaps because they sense a mutual beneficence and similar proximity to the ground.

I had intended to clean out the chicken coop yesterday but with our grandson’s first visit, put that plan on hold until today. We have 18 chickens right now, a full coop. Most of them are older and not laying anymore so we joke that we’re running a retirement home for hens. Six of our chickens are new, though, raised this spring to replace the older ones we anticipate will die a natural death this coming winter. The new chickens haven’t started laying yet but once they do, we’ll have a good supply of eggs again.

The new chickens–silver and gold-laced Wyandottes

Once a year, John and I muck out the chicken coop. More than just the routine raking out of old, dirty hay, mucking the coop involves the red Farm All tractor with its front bucket, breathers for the dust, and a couple hours of digging down into eight or ten inches of composted hay and chicken poop and forking it into the front end bucket. That might seem gross to city folks but it isn’t as bad as it sounds. The layers of muck flake up easily and, since it’s decomposed into essentially soil, smells more earthy than stinky. John empties the tractor bucket into our big compost pile and turns it in with the vegetable scraps and leaves our CSA members have left us. With childhood memories of my grandparents’ chickens, I never mind the smell of the coop but I don’t like the dust that gets kicked up, hence the breathers and farm clothes that go straight into the washing machine when we’re done.

My sister and me checking on the chickens at our Grandma and Grandpa Short’s farm in North Dakota

The best part about mucking out the coop is filling it, inside and out, with fresh hay. Today’s hay is as fresh as it gets because John mowed the pasture last week. (Hay, by the way, is cut grass; straw is the stalk of wheat or a similar grain). That hay—the season’s second cutting–will last us and the chickens all year. We fill their nest boxes with it every few days and add more to the coop as needed. In years past, we’ve stored it on the hay wagon or under a tarp, but this year John’s building a new storage box right between the coop doors to keep it fresher and handier, a small improvement but a significant one because it will save steps and make the chickens more comfortable too.

Chickens enjoying new hay from the pasture

Mucking the coop isn’t a big chore but it’s not a little one either. It’s a late summer task, one that shows up on the to-do list in July and waits until the heat wave’s over and the demands of watering and weeding relax. I might even call it a ritual because it marks another year on the farm, another season passed. Too, it’s something John and I do together each year, sort of an annual date, and doing it together makes the task more enjoyable.

This year mucking the coop became a little more urgent when I found a bull snake inside last week and realized that may have been the reason for the skimpier number of eggs we’ve gotten lately. Although with chickens, one never knows–it could be a lull between the older hens finishing their laying cycle and the new ones beginning. But if the snake’s been eating eggs, hopefully our presence in the coop today has compelled the thing to move on.

Beyond eggs and compost, I like the chickens for their company. I like taking our compost pail out to the coop each morning; I like how excited the hens get when I throw the grain and vegetable scraps in the coop yard, nudging each other out of the way to grab the piece they want and running to a corner of the coop with it in their beak to eat in private. I like that as long as we feed them, give them fresh water each day, and keep the coop reasonably clean, they’ll give us eggs.

I like, too, that the chicken coop is a convivial place on the farm for children and their parents. I like how trusting chickens are of our stewardship and how we depend on each other. Our chicken coop isn’t fancy—not anything like our friends’ beautiful chicken “palace” with the egg finial on top—but it serves our purposes for now: sheltering happy and healthy chickens laying delicious eggs.

I can’t wait for our grandson to discover the chickens, throw them kitchen scraps, and feed them grass through the chicken wire. Now that he’s here, taking care of the chickens and their coop seems even more important because we want this farm to survive for his generation and beyond. We’ll keep performing the small rituals like mucking the coop and making the small improvements that increase our productivity, efficiency, and comfort. We’ll do it all more mindful of the future and careful about the steps we take to get there. And in a year or two, we’ll get to something else that’s on the list: a treehouse for a little boy to dream in.

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Along the Farm’s Edge

I went out this afternoon to look for abandoned nests, something I occasionally find this time of year. I felt like a walk to wake up after lunch on this partly cloudy, partly sunny day. Not too bright for photographs, a day when white clouds provide the sky some interest behind the winter mountains. Just a little snow powdered Mount Meeker and Long’s Peak in the distance, with the red of Steamboat Mountain in the foreground.

As I walk along our middle ditch, the Rough and Ready, all the way down to our north property line,

I find the frowsy heads of wild clematis,

 a small bird twittering in a bush,

 

 

 

 

and a few bees buzzing in a hive, 

 

but no nest, so I head back along the east ditch, the Highland, which is a little wilder than the R&R. I walk past the herb garden, middle orchard, iris bed, raspberries, and flower gardens, back into the older orchard, the one with trees we can’t name but that give good apples some years when their budding misses the last frost.

I like this part of the farm. It’s not tidy, the grasses are long, and the trees can’t be called anything but gnarled. Deer sometimes make a path here where the two ditches draw close together and the wild land narrows. But today, I find the path overtaken by cottonwood saplings and tiny grey firs.

Here I spot the yellow-green berries of poison ivy

and the wine-red branches of new dogwoods. 

I’m glad to see the dogwoods spreading along that bank, but I’m not so happy about the poison ivy. As we tell the kids on the farm (and some adults too), “leaves of three, let them be.” The dogwoods and the poison ivy like the moisture between the ditches; I think we’ll let them both be.

I end my walk by the old apple tree that someone girdled with barb wire years ago as a boundary, I suppose. I don’t really know where our property ends up on this bank and I don’t think it matters much. I admire this old tree; half its limbs are lifeless but it still produces new growth. I only know it’s an apple because I found a few dried cores on it years ago, though I haven’t come across another apple there yet.

I’m warm now in my heavy sweater and long underwear so I head back to the house past the chickens. Maybe there’s an egg today. We’ve been getting a few blue ones from our Araucanas since last week. Today, I find the first dark brown egg of the year; one of the cuckoo marans must be laying. We have Welsummers too but their brown eggs are spotted. We lost our cheerful little Red Sussex hen this winter and another chicken to a weasel that tunneled under the chicken house in the fall. I’m hoping our animal-loving young friend will start a few chickens for us this spring, if we promise her mother to take the chicks back when they start to fly around the house.

 

January is almost half gone and I’m a little sad this year to see it going. Without the busy-ness of a new semester, I’m enjoying these long days, especially as the light lengthens each evening. Yesterday we started leeks and onions with friends in the greenhouse. The seeding’s underway, but I’m glad to see the land resting, taking in what moisture we have to revitalize the soil for the coming spring. I’m hoping to find the owl’s nest this year too so my strolls along the edge of the farm will continue as the season comes around again. These cycles provide a new kind of schedule, one offered by nature and accepted with pleasure.

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