Friday, January 18, 2013

Sunshine! Beautiful Sunshine! What an end to an incredible week!

Friday morning as the sun is coming up.  

I’m going to stray from the story of how our Dream came alive this week because it has been such an interesting week. As a farmer, you have to love rain.  Without it we would not be raising anything for very long. But rain can sometimes bring with it complications.  After that beautiful weekend of sunshine and 70 degree weather (in January!!  WOW), we started Monday with a little rain which continued on to Tuesday.  Tuesday was the day for the Animal Welfare Approved auditor to come.  And he did….  So we walked the wet and slushy pastures.   This time of year the rain just sits on top of the ground instead of being soaked up like it does in drier, warmer seasons.  The audit was uneventful and went well and the rain continued.
By the end of Tuesday, the goats were getting tired of it (the one thing goats absolutely do not like is rain.  They can handle most anything else, even snow but not rain) and the chickens were loving it (the chickens on the other hand love the rain.  They love to drink from the puddles and scratch around them finding who knows what, worms and other bug stuff I imagine).  Chickens are happy in almost any weather except the summer heat. 

Well the rain continued on into Wednesday.  By now things are starting to get really soggy.  And the rain was getting heavier.  It was starting to drain and run through a couple of the hen houses.  This is a weakness of pasture raising chickens.  The houses are open to the ground and when water starts running, it will run right through the chicken house.  For the hens, this is usually not a problem because they don’t spend much time in the houses except at night. And at night they are perched up off of the ground.  While the broilers can and some do perch, many of them don’t.  They sleep on the ground and are much quicker to take refuge in the house when the weather is not pleasant (You might say they are fair weather foragers).   At this point, their houses were still dry.  All was well….

Dry feet at last

Then Thursday came…. I get up and water is standing everywhere an inch deep or better.  It had rained a great deal during the night.  I go out to feed and all of the chicken houses are standing in water.  Chickens are standing in water.  And it was cold.  Now what am I going to do…  This is a problem we’ve never really had since we started raising chickens.   There was no dry ground for the chickens, inside or out.  The goats had their shelter that was dry and the pigs had their shelter that was dry but for the chickens, water was standing everywhere inside and outside of their houses. (They do have a barn, which is where their nesting boxes are but chickens don’t seem to stray from routine much so taking refuge in this barn was not a habit so it was not happening)   I went ahead and fed everyone to give them something to eat while I figured things out.  Then I started hauling hay, one wheel barrow at a time (it was so wet that the mower we use as a tractor could not get around).  It took many bales of hay and a few hours but I finally had all the chickens on dry hay.  Chickens always seem to be enjoying themselves no matter what they are doing. But on this cold and wet Thursday, even the chickens seemed miserable.   And the temps were supposed to drop and the rain was going to change to snow.  I went to bed feeling a bit defeated. 

Sunshine, beautiful sunsine!
But then, Friday morning came.  The sun was shining.  Could there be anything more beautiful.  The chickens are out foraging through the snow (well most of them.  We have some newer chickens that have not seen the snow before and they are a little hesitant), the goats are out trying to find some grass in the snow (don’t worry, they have access to hay whenever they want it throughout the winter, they would just rather be foraging rather than standing at a feeder).  And the pigs, well the pigs acted like they’d been around snow all of their life. 

  The moral of this story for me is… sometimes it’s difficult to really see the beauty in things unless we first experience some of the challenges.   I have to say I’ve never had more appreciation for the sun shining in my face than I did when I was out this morning.  And, everyone and everything is doing just fine.  What a beautiful day….  What an incredible week….

I have to interject a cool pig story here.  Yesterday while hauling hay to all the chicken houses I hauled some to the pigs as well, to give them a little extra protection because the temps were supposed to drop and we were supposed to have snow.  I took a bale of hay and just spread it out against the wall of their shelter thinking it would be a good wind block for any wind coming through the bottom of the wall.  Well, the pigs have a big hole that they have burrowed into the ground in the shelter.  Sometime in the night the pigs managed to move all of the hay I’d put along the wall, lined their burrowed hole and built a hay wall around it as well.  It was one of the coolest things I’ve seen.  The pigs never seize to amaze me.

Until next week…..

Friday, January 11, 2013

The dream becomes reality

The story continues….. 

 Prior to buying the farm, we visited it a couple of times while the previous owners were still living here.  Grazing on the pastures were Dexter cattle.  These cows and bulls kept the pastures looking mowed and clean.  But three and a half months later, once we closed on the farm, the pastures looked quite different.  They were full of something called ‘pig weed’ or ‘spiny amaranth’ (I’ll have much to say about this at a later writing).  My first thought was “goats”. “We’re going to need some goats to help take care of this weed problem”.  So, I immediately did what anyone in today’s world would do.  I picked up my computer, got on the internet and started learning about goats.  I quickly determined that we did not want dairy goats because they would require milking twice a day (although I would love to have the milk) and neither Gary nor I would have time for that.  We both had full time jobs with long hours.  This is when I learned about meat goats.  I honestly did not realize that there were breeds of goats that were bred specifically for meat.  Did you know that something like 70% of the population outside of the United States eats goat meat?  I had no idea.
In North Carolina, Boer Goats, the most popular breed of meat goat, were easy to find.  So, after doing my internet research and visiting with the Agricultural Extension Agent here in Franklin County (who raises Boer goats) (she assured me the goats would eat the pigweed), we bought 12 goats.  Fortunately the farm had great fencing and shelters so we did not have much to do to prepare for them.  There were even sufficient grasses for grazing on the pasture so we did not have to worry much about feed.  So, here we were, goat owners.  Now what?  Over the next several weeks and months I spent a good deal of time reading books and searching on the internet learning about goats, what to do, and what not to do.  To my surprise, there is a large amount of valuable goat information on the web.  I also learned that the goat business could be a good business to get into.  So, the doors were opening on our first potential farm venture.

Within the first month of moving to the farm we attended the 4 County 4-H Poultry Show and Sale here in Franklin County.  There were lots of 4-H kids showing Silver Laced Wyandottes and another breed of chicken for which I don’t remember.  After the show the chickens were auctioned off.  We ended up buying 3 Silver Laced Wyandottes.  Again, we did not know a thing about raising chickens.  We carried the hens home in a cardboard box and stopped at Southern States to pick up some feed, feeders, and waterers for them.  We also looked for a book on chickens on the way home but were unable to find one.  So, when we got home I was back on the internet.  On the farm we had this big metal barn that didn’t really look like it was made for chickens but we decided we could make it work and the chickens should be safe in it.  We also had an extra big dog kennel (we have 3 big dogs and a small one that you’ll also get acquainted with along the way) so we decided it would be good to put the hens in the dog kennel inside the barn for a day or so.  We decided to let the hens outdoors after the first night and to our surprise, they went back into the barn and into the kennel every night after that until we built perches and removed the kennel.

We so enjoyed these three ladies (who kept eggs on our table all winter long) that four months later we had 25 pullets (this is what you call a young female chicken that has not started laying eggs).  And we enjoyed them so much that by May (3 months later) we had another 100 pullet chicks (yea, I think we were a little crazy).  The next potential farm venture in the making.  We had no idea what we would do with the eggs, and in that moment, it didn't really matter.  We bought a farm and now we had chickens and goats.  How exciting is that.  I spent the next several months on the phone with clients while I stared out my back window in total awe and amazement watching them. 

The goats were amazing.  They would spend the entire day roaming the pastures (covering what seemed like every inch of 6 or 7 acres at least 3 times per day), spending as much time at the fence line trying to get to the other side as they would grazing the pastures inside the fences.  During the first year they found every weakness the fences had and created some new ones.  We spent at least 3 or 4 days a month rounding up goats, mending fences (often securing them with a piece of cattle panel), and rigging gates so the goats could not slip by or under them.  Oh, and they loved to push their heads through the fence.  But, they had these fairly long horns that would get caught and they could not pull their head back.  I spent many mornings, breaks, lunches and evenings freeing goats from the fence.  I really began to understand why I had heard so many horror stories about why people could not keep goats.  After about a year and a half we borrowed a buck from a friend to breed the does.  This seemed to settle them down.  While they continue to challenge us from time to time in other ways (more stories for the future), the fencing seems to be holding them.  Three years later, I am still in awe when I look out the window and watch them grazing and roaming the pastures.
And then there are all those chickens.  This was back yard chickens at its grandest.   I had 100 chickens (pullets) in my back yard.  What a treat!  It was like watching a playground full of grade school children.  Only these girls were playing all day long.  They would spend the day digging in the soil, sometimes for bugs and worms, sometime for dirt bathing and who know what else.  They would run and flutter (sort of fly but not really) and hide in the weeds (we seldom mow to keep brush for the chickens and browse for the goats) and just appeared to be having a grand time.  But it was the socialization that really amazed me.  They would break up into groups, appear to have their little cliques, get into occasional fights.  It really did look like watching kids on a playground.

Well, as things would have it, by December 2010 I was no longer working at my consulting job.  While I’d spent years dreaming of having a farm, I’m not sure that I expected it to become a reality quite this soon.  So, I had to decide whether or not I was ready to be a full time farmer and more importantly, whether I REALLY WANTED to be a farmer, a full time farmer.   I could not imagine making any other decision.  And down the rabbit hole we went.  All I can say is, it’s a good thing I like learning “how” to do things and that I’m pretty good at the discovery process and figuring things out and that I have a really patient husband who is loving this as much as I do.  And it’s awesome the way other small farmers are willing to share their experiences and help along the way.  I’m not sure we would be where we are today without the help of good friends and the local small farm community.  I assure you I am not a seasoned or wise farmer (I have sooooooooo much to learn), but a farmer I am and I’m loving every moment of the journey.

Until next week…..

Friday, January 4, 2013

The dream…

I have always been a dreamer and promoted the idea that we should all follow our dreams.  Dreams are what keep me moving through life and a dream is what made Two Bridges Farm a reality.  As part of the new year I’d like to start blogging about the farm.  We are asked a lot of questions at the Farmer’s Markets and elsewhere and I felt this would be a great opportunity to open our doors and give you a peek at how we got here, what it is that we do, and why we do what we do.  In this blog we’ll be sharing what we do, i.e., how we raise our livestock and crops; why we've made many of the decisions we have; some of the challenges we face; and most importantly, the awesome successes we have along the way.  It is my hope that this will be a joyful journey for me and for you as the process unfolds.

And what better place to start then at the beginning where dreams really do come true…..

For several years my husband, Gary, and I dream't of having a small farm as part of our retirement.  We were a little vague about what we would do with this farm but definitely knew we wanted to live in the country, raise some sort of livestock and (being an avid gardener) have lots of gardens, both flower and vegetable. 

Back about three and a half years ago I received an email about a small farm in Louisburg, NC that was for sale.  I read the email, almost in disbelief, realizing that this was it, the farm we'd been dreaming of, and  something we could do now.  I showed the email to Gary and then quickly dismissed it as I was working from home as a consultant and needed high speed internet to do my job.  I was not sure I could get the internet speed I needed in the country.  Gary convinced me that it would be fun to take a look.  And so we did.  As we walked the property with the Realtor  I had a list of “requirements” that had to be met in order for us to pursue this venture, this dream, and  one by one the “requirements” were met.  WOW! Now we really had to decide on whether we would make this dream a reality, a bit earlier in our life that we originally thought.

Well…. We decided to go for it.  We made an offer on the farm (conditional of course on the sale of our home in Raleigh).  This was in 2008 when the housing market was slow but we were convinced we’d be able to sell our home and within 2 months we did.  Another WOW!  We were able to meet the conditions of our offer on the farm.  And off to the farm we went, hardly looking back...

At the time, we both had planned to keep our day jobs for a few years. Gary works at NC State and commutes daily, and I had my "work from home" consulting job.  This would give us time to do our homework, decide exactly what we wanted to raise, how to raise it, and what we wanted to do with what we raised.  In other words, how we wanted to move forward.

Well, as things would have it, things moved a little faster that we originally planned.  Next week I’ll talk a bit about how the leap to full time farming became a reality quicker than planned and how we've stumbled our way into full time farming.

Please forgive any grammatical, spelling or typing errors.  It’s never been my strength in writing or speaking and this is for my (and your) joy and entertainment so I’ll try not to let it get in our way.

Until next week…..

Monday, February 13, 2012

Monsanto vs. GMO's

There's a growing movement in the food industry as more and more people are realizing the lack of transparency coupled with an alarming habit of our government to favor certain private industry giants within our food production system. One of the biggest outcries from the grassroots movement is the idea of GMO's becoming more common in our food supply without proper testing or labeling. But is this movement rejecting new scientific breakthroughs, which could possibly benefit society, because the companies which wield them do so irresponsibly?

Since there is little documented evidence among the plethora of rumors regarding the dangers of genetically engineered foods, the argument against GMO's is based on ad hominem attacks towards the corporations which have cornered the genetic engineering field. While these attacks may not be sufficient evidence for the harmfulness of GMO's, they are not in the least unfounded. There's tons of reading material online as well as popular documentaries which highlight the strategies of GMO giants like Monsanto, so I won't go into too much detail. But when we find the ex-VP and main lobbyist for Monsanto serving as our government's“food czar” (as well as many other Monsanto ex-employees findingjobs in shaping our public policy), when hapless farmers are sued by Monsanto for frivolous cases or situations outside of their control, when our Monsanto infiltrated government proposes retaliation for European countries who refuse to use Monsanto crop, and Monsanto's reach is far enough to twist the arms of local news stations to misrepresent studies and fire reporters who try to tell the truth, there is obviously something wrong with the way businesses are allowed to conduct themselves in a free market.

But is the behavior of one megacorporation enough reason to completely reject a new technology in which the possibilities are unimagined at this point? The fact that Monsanto doesn't allow independent study on the safety or side-effects of their crops which are being pumped into our food system is alarming regarding our personal health, but does that mean we should reject GMO's from all angles, forever? Imagine if things were run a little differently. What if genetically engineered crops were allowed to be independently tested, or even required to be independently tested in wide, long-term trials before allowed for human consumption? What if we could be sure that our government was no in bed with the megacorporation pushing to change the entire landscape of our food production system, so we knew that all agricultural viewpoints got fair treatment? What if we could engineer crops to produce more energy efficient biofuels, allowing us to greatly increase plausibility of renewable fuel energy? What if we could engineer crops that could grow in the places where the population exceeds the food production potential of the land? Or we could certainly find some usefulness in a situation like we are facing now with bananas, where the popular Cavendish variety (the only variety suitable for shipping to consumers worldwide in mass amounts) faces possible extinction within the next decade because of wide-spread blights. Would we prefer no bananas, or independently tested, proven safe for human consumption GM bananas?

Biotechnology, and genetic engineering specifically, holds massive potential. The power we have when we're able to manipulate the building blocks of life to act in any way we wish is massive.  As the saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.” I don't think the power is being handled very responsibly, but we shouldn't let that sour the potential for great innovations in the biotechnology field.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

This week: Ramping up for Spring, preparing soil.

Things have been steady here on Two Bridges Farm. The lack of any good sunlight recently kept a lot of the winter produce in dormancy for a few extra weeks. Since we only had an experimental amount planted, veggie production has been on hold for a couple weeks, and will probably stay that way for a month or so. This is okay though, considering how new growing produce is for us (let alone growing winter produce), we're happy with the results we had this Winter. We didn't produce an amazing amount, but what we have learned from the successes and mistakes will be priceless in the end.

It all works out for the better anyways, since it's crunch time for getting things prepared for the Spring produce. I have been busy starting seed, tilling soil, spreading compost and amendments, and regularly visualizing what this Spring plot will look like.

We treat our soil using our own livestock along with some recommendations from Eliot Coleman, a pioneer of small-scale organic growing. Before the ground is to be prepared for production, we have our broiler chickens on top of the plot, moving the houses frequently to help intensively add chicken manure as fertilizer to the soil. Once this is done, the ground is tilled. The ground has never been worked for veggie production and is very compact, so this year I used the rotary plow on our walking tractor for deeper tillage. Deep tillage is important to break up deeper compaction in the soil and help aerate, so the crops' roots are able to reach further down for nutrients, allowing for closer spacing with healthier plants. After the deep tillage, we add compost. We had some very nice 2 year-old compost ready to use, as well as horse manure from the pastures and chicken manure from our stationary chicken coops. Other organic amendments will be added to help preserve the soil integrity and then I will use the shallow tillage to mix in the compost and amendments, then the soil will be ready for production. This should be done by the end of the weekend.

It's going to take a few years to get the soil balanced, loose, and fertile, but plant quality and increased yield in the long run, as well as full soil sustainability, make all the work worth it. I plan on implementing a system of biointensive-style double-dug beds after the initial work is done on the soil, which is my long-term goal for maintaining soil health.

The baby goats are running around playing and growing fast, the chickens are breaking egg records almost every day, and the weather just can't seem to make up its mind. I've heard a saying around here regarding this fickle weather: “Welcome to North Carolina, if you don't like the weather, stick around a couple days, it'll change!” I guess it at least makes things interesting!

Since winter production is slow, we are not going to the Western Wake market next week, but we will be at the Wake Forest market with plenty of chicken and eggs. Hope everyone is staying warm with this blast of cold air this weekend!

Saturday, January 28, 2012

This week: More kids!

Proud mom with her twins just minutes old.

The very last kid was born right after I returned home from the market today and went out to check on the goats. Blondie had two little twins to bring the total number of healthy babies to 21! Huge thanks to one of our 4-H friends for volunteering to take the one goat which would need bottle fed. After those triplets, the rest of the newborns were either singles or twins.

Great day to laze around in the sun.
We ended up with 14 girls and 6 boys, which is great. This brings our heard up to 38 goats, 32 who are females. We have set a goal of 30 steady breeding does for the time being, so we have exceeded that goal and have successfully built our heard to a comfortable level. All of the kids are beautiful and healthy and will be a great addition to the herd. Our next goal for the goats is to have an electrician come to get our electric fencing in working order so we can start a decent rotational grazing system. They had plenty of forage room for the first full year they were here, but consistently rotating them onto new land helps prevent disease and minimizes (hopefully eliminates) the need to medicate them. We will keep them contained to a few acres and hay them while the babies are growing, but as Spring moves in we want to make sure they have more than enough room to roam free and graze as they wish while taking them off of the pastures they grazed last year.

The walk-behind tractor we use for soil work.
Everything else is well and moving forward on Two Bridges Farm. We finished putting up a high tunnel for seedlings this week, and started some cabbage seed. This week begins the first round of real seed starting. The working of the land to be cultivated is on schedule and set to be done with irrigation laid and ready to plant in two weeks. This process is more tedious and strenuous for us because we do not have a conventional tractor to work the land. For now we only use a walking tractor with a rotary plow implement for deep tillage (important to break up soil compaction and for aeration) and rotary tiller for shallow tillage (to thoroughly mix in manure, compost, and amendments in the soil while smoothing out the surface). The slope of our land makes using this machine even more difficult, but if divide the work into manageable bits and stay on schedule, it works great for our needs. We are lucky a machine like this exists as a conventional tractor is outside of our budget and there are no friendly farmers or rental places near us to borrow from.

Western Wake Farmers' Market today was bustling and the weather was beautiful. I'm inspired every week by the loyalty of customers and the sense of community. It makes a week of hard work worth it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

This week: Kids!

Apologies, I'm a bit late with the weekly update this week because we've been busy scrambling around taking care of momma goats and their newborn kids. Yup, kidding season started with a bang this week! It seems like every time we look outside, there are more newborn kids with a proud mom standing nearby. Not much else exciting happened this week so I'll talk a bit about what this entails for us and the new moms.

Heart and her kid born overnight.
All the births have gone smoothly so far. Since we can't keep a constant eye on all of the goats intervention would be difficult, so it's a good thing we haven't needed to yet. In a perfect world, we wouldn't have to intervene after the birth either, but things have not exactly gone perfectly there. Sometimes in domesticated animals, or animals in general, the maternal instinct doesn't always kick in right away (or at all). Luckily we have not had any does completely abandon their babies yet, but we have had to encourage some. If the doe has twins or triplets, they may take responsibility of one and neglect the rest. If the doe is not used to suckling newborns, she may not let the babies underneath her to feed. This is especially true in new moms.

After the babies are born we give the moms enough time to clean them and recover a bit, and then we take them to our kidding barn to protect the babies from the elements and keep the other goats from causing any trouble. If the mom is not taking to a baby or not letting them suckle, we will hold her still while we show the baby where to feed...once the baby and mom get used to it, they begin to click and take over from there. We have only had a bit of trouble so far and most of the moms have done very well taking care of their kids.

The napping corner.
Boer goats can have between 1-3 kids. Having three kids might seem like a blessing, but in reality a doe is only equipped to nurture two kids. Normally all the triplets are a bit smaller than normal, and at least one is even more of a runt. The chances that all three will survive the first day aren't guaranteed. If all three end up strong enough to live then it's in the best interest of the mom to take one away and bottle-feed it. Luckily we have been involved in the local 4H programs and have children who are willing to take a goat and bottle-feed it. Bottle-feeding is very time-consuming and produced very dependent and needy goats who have a very hard time being integrated back in with the herd. Giving the extra kid away to a responsible family is the best case scenario.

So far we have had five moms with two sets of triplets, two twins, and one single kid. We've lost one of the triplet babies, but all other kids and their moms are healthy and thriving. They especially enjoyed the sunny warm day we had today. We expect the kidding to go on for a few more weeks, and we hope the rest are as beautiful and healthy as these first few.

Not much else has been going on around the farm. The winter produce is still recovering from the different setbacks, so we only had chicken and eggs at the market last weekend. Enough has recovered to have a full selection this coming Saturday. The early tomato and pepper seedlings are doing great and growing faster than expected. We may have tomatoes earlier than we had planned, possibly in April. The first batch of Spring crops has also been started, and the last batch of over-wintered seedlings are going in the ground in the next few days. These will tide us over in March going into April. Spring can't come fast enough!