Tag Archives: agriculture

Day 28 – Soil, Seed, and the ALR

I am officially too tired to write anything – but I made this commitment to the 30 day farm blog challenge and given that I have made it all the way to Day 28 without missing a blog entry, by golly I am not going to let a bit of weariness beat me!

SAVE ALR button

Just came back from the big Hands off the ALR (Agricultural Land Reserve) meeting in Sidney feeling simultaneously optimistic (close to 400 people turned up), disheartened (sometimes it seems like there are just so many fights to fight), and very, very tired (an evening meeting at the end of a long day of farming, writing, and running errands is… taxing).

I’ll write a more complete post on what’s going on with the ALR when I have a bit more time, but what strikes me is that the issues are actually pretty basic.

1. We all need to eat.

White Cheddar

2. To eat, we need farmland.

3. Lots of good farmland is either a) in the path of urban development or b) here in BC, at least, in the way of the oil and gas or mining industries

4. Where money is to be made, people tend not to think of future generations and what makes sense for the long term. Which is why protecting farmland through regulation makes sense, even if our current system could use some tweaking.

Tomatoes!

At first glance, it’s pretty straightforward – protect the farmland so we have something to farm so we can grow more food and improve our food security. However, if farmers cannot make a living on the land, then what good is protecting that farmland through legislation? (the reverse version of this observation is, if farmers were making a good living on the land there would be no need for an Agricultural Land Reserve or an ALC (Agricultural Land Commission) to oversee it.

And this is where the can really starts getting wormy. If we as a society decide we want cheap food more than we want local food, then there is very little political will to support programs that support farmers. Nor is there much concern about insisting on organic practices that build soil and leave farmland in better shape each season than the year before (Atina Diffley’s book does a good job of describing this process).

If people just want cheap, then who cares that the food has travelled a gazillion miles to get here using gas guzzling transportation systems and questionable farming and labour practices? Consumers and all levels of government need to get involved to help establish and maintain local markets strong and large enough to support local farmers. Governments need to be willing to step in when crops fail, markets falter, or infrastructure is required.

Farmers need to be able to take back control of their supply of seed. Seed security and what is going on there is worthy of a whole other blog post (actually, a whole other blog, but I only have one lifetime and this blog is more than enough to deal with). Similar issues are relevant to those of us who are desperately trying to preserve the genetics of traditional livestock breeds (yes, more posts on those issues coming soon, too).

Large Black Hog piglets

Large Black Hog piglets

Meanwhile, here are some ways to connect with the saving our farms for the future movement, if you feel so inclined.

On Facebook: ALR Watch

Farmlands Trust Society

Farmland Defence League of BC

On the Web: Farmland Protection Coalition

Day 18 – The Moon Coffined in Clouds

“We love the night and its quiet; and there is no night that we love so well as that on which the moon is coffined in clouds.”  ― Fitz-James O'Brien

“We love the night and its quiet; and there is no night that we love so well as that on which the moon is coffined in clouds.”
― Fitz-James O’Brien

When we first moved the horses here a dozen or so years ago it was a very strange sensation to make my way down to the barn in the pitch darkness. There were dips in the land I had never noticed in daylight and the short trip seemed to take three times as long after the lights were out. Strange crackles and sighs came from the trees and, particularlywhen the weather was awful, I thought of farmers in prairie blizzards who had to tie a rope from the house to the barn so they wouldn’t get blown off course and disappear forever.

Deer, who had not yet figured out that their regular highway was about to be interrupted by fences and horses and outbuildings and dogs and strange activities at all hours of the day and night would occasionally crash away through the brush, panicked by the sudden appearance of a human. I rushed, nervous at being out there in the dark all alone. I remembered childhood stories of wolves and bears and shapeless creatures who sucked souls and left young girls for dead and thought more than once of the statistic that Vancouver Island boasts the greatest number of cougar attacks in the world.

I always carried a flashlight, which morphed into a headlamp (much better to have one’s hands free while dealing with hay and gates and feeding the cat) and was happy to reach the barn where I could turn on the light.

These days, the tree spirits feel more like they are protecting me, rather than trying to eat me.

These days, the tree spirits feel more like they are protecting me, rather than trying to eat me.

Gradually, things changed. Over time the batteries in the headlamp faded and I forgot to replace them. I found myself in the dark, strolling down the hill as if I could see. Which, it turned out I could do perfectly well when the moon was high and the skies clear. I found I knew where we were in the moon phase without referring to a calendar. And somewhere along the way the nervousness completely disappeared.

Instead, the nightly walk down the hill became one of highlights of my daily routine. One night I reached up to stroke the cat on the gatepost only to discover it was a cat-sized barn owl. His heart-shaped face looked into mine as if to ask, “Were you seriously just about to touch me?” We stood like that for several long seconds before he lifted off and floated up to the roof of the goat barn, where he resumed his silent observation of my comings and goings.

I have sat in the orchard at midnight and sunk my teeth into a ripe pear sending a sticky sweet dribble of juice down my chin. With my back against a hay bale, I have listened to the patter of rain on the roof while the cat hopped into my lap for a snuggle. To my amazement, I discovered I could identify which of my three bay horses was which, even on a moonless night when I could barely make out my hand as it reached for the chain on the gate. I have paused to listen to the owls calling back and forth, the first frogs in spring, the goats munching their hay. The night is a different place for me now, one of calm and quiet where I don’t see all the many jobs that need to be done but instead savour a few moments of simple satisfaction as I find myself still here at the end of another day.

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days agriculture blog-a-thon or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

Day 16 – Search for Land Leads to Maypenny Farm

One of the problems with livestock (at least, livestock not raised intensively in big barns) is they need a fair amount of land for grazing. This is not a problem if you happen to live on a large farm, but my farm is micro mini – not even two acres, all on a hill, part of it covered with big trees. To get around this problem I lease several fields close by and make use of every square inch of space here on the homestead. None of the fields are huge and my flocks and herds are expanding, so as a result, I’ve been tossing and turning at night trying to figure out where I can lease more land that’s not too far away. And, this needs to happen sooner than later so I can move the piglets after I’ve weaned those I haven’t already sold.

I must say the Maypenny hens are a stylish bunch! They look a whole lot better prepared for the soggy weather than my girls...

I must say the Maypenny hens are a stylish bunch! They look a whole lot better prepared for the soggy weather than my girls…

Last year I had chatted with Maypenny Farm (well, not the farm – with Reay, a farmer) about possibly growing out pigs at their place, but there was a wedding planned and a need to keep the fields looking neat and tidy. I had pushed the Maypenny option out of my mind when Reay got in touch the other day and asked if I might still be interested. Faster than you can say ‘hen hats’ I raced over there to scope the place out to see if it might be suitable.

The field up for discussion is an old hayfield being encroached upon by brambles and scrub brush along one edge and bordered on the other side by trees. Not only would the piglets have a blast in there with plenty of forage and room to roam, the plan is to reclaim the field and extend the Maypenny market garden. Hogs are excellent for turning over the soil, enriching it as they go. Add a couple of goats to the equation and the Maypenny farmers can just sit back and watch the livestock prepare that field ready for whatever they may wish to do with it next.

The two big issues are: Water and fencing. The hogs are well trained to two-strand electric and are, therefore, relatively easy to contain. Goats are a different matter, but using the existing sheep fencing as a starting point, some repairs and new stock wire would provide a decent barrier while they are on clean-up duty. We have portable shelters that can be moved to the field without much trouble, which would keep everyone snug and dry in foul weather (unless Maypenny has hats that would fit the hogs…) When it came to discussing the water situation, the conversation proceeded in a very Canadian manner.

“What about water?”

“There’s a stream here – ” Reay said, pointing to one long side of the field. “And the beavers have moved next door so this field isn’t flooding any more.”

“Beavers?”

“They had a dam down there and the water backed up. You can see the half-chewed trees where they chopped them down.”

Beavers? Seriously? On southern Vancouver Island? I had heard rumours that beavers had returned to Beaver Lake, a local landmark I had assumed was so-named because some old fur trader was homesick for a place in the wilderness where actual beavers lived. Maybe the lake actually came by its name honestly. And, perhaps the rumours about the return of the beavers are true after all! Not that Maypenny’s neighbour is happy about the return of the furry, flat-tailed loggers. They are a menace when it comes to clogging up streams and ditches and their industrious plugging up of drainage systems can cause awful problems for farmers’ fields.

I’m not too worried – if the beavers decide to move back to Maypenny we’ll cope with the fallout. Mostly, standing there in the rain calculating how much fencing I’m going to need, I was delirious with joy that a good field is available, not too far away, with readily available water and lots of forage for both goats and hogs. I was so excited, in fact, I totally forgot to take any photos! By my next visit I’m sure I will be calmer and the full realization of how much work it will take to get things secure before we can move animals in will have hit me. Anybody feel like coming over for a fencing party? Maybe you’ll get to see a beaver!

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days agriculture blog-a-thon or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

Day 13 – Chicken House Challenges Part 3

Meanwhile, inside the hen house, the girls were completely confused about where to sleep.

"You mean I'm supposed to jump up there?"

“You mean I’m supposed to jump up there?”

The first night, in fact, the girls couldn’t figure out how to walk back up the ramp, so they all piled up right at the bottom of the ramp, outside. By the second day they had figured that part out, but judging by the amount of hen manure in the nesting boxes and completely lack of bodies on the perches when I peeked in during the night, the girls hadn’t figured out that perches are for perching.

The next day, several of the hens had sorted out the perch situation, but nobody had laid an egg inside the nesting boxes, Instead, they are using the two back corners of the main area of the hen house. The next modification we’ll make is to add a low board across the bottom of the open side of the nest boxes. This will (I hope) accomplish two things: a) they won’t be able to shovel quite so much litter into the nest boxes when they are digging around in the shavings and b) they will feel more secluded, contained, and secure if they are behind more of a barrier.

Stay tuned…Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days agriculture blog-a-thon or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

Here's a shot from the stage when we were gluing down the roofing felt on the nest box roof. The plywood is over the top of the roofing to evenly distribute the weight of the heavy objects placed on top.

Here’s a shot from the stage when we were gluing down the roofing felt on the nest box roof. The plywood is over the top of the roofing to evenly distribute the weight of the heavy objects placed on top.

Day 11 -Chicken House Challenges – Part Two

Well, that was frustrating yesterday! Just as I was getting on a roll, the blogging interface ceased to function properly and I couldn’t add images or text below the bottom picture! Not that a description of chicken house building is so compelling that stopping where I did counts as a cliff hanger, but if you are someone who likes to complete one thought before moving on to the next, sorry about that.

Sticky black goop to glue down the roof and seal everything... Roofing was also nailed down.

Sticky black goop to glue down the roof and seal everything… Roofing was also nailed down.

We were really, really careful to use lots of sticky black roofing goop (for some reason, as I did this, I kept thinking of Brer Rabbit and his tar and feathering incident) but even so, after everything was assembled and sealed (so we thought) we had a couple of leaks.

IMG_6764[1]In the next photo, you can see how we should have made the main/upper roof overhang a bit wider on the nesting box side of the building. Though we had also ‘roofed’ the nest boxes, the water dripped off the upper roof and enough collected in the seam between the exterior wall and the nest box top that a bit seeped inside. It wasn’t exactly a flood, but even a bit of water soaking into bedding would lead to mould and other nastiness down the road. At first we tried to caulk the crack with a silicone bead, but in the heavy rains, it just washed right out. We had to scrape out the ineffective goop and use a super-sealant that works to seal cracks even when wet. This did the trick and the interior is now staying bone dry.

Here's a view of the nesting box side with the ramp up.

Here’s a view of the nesting box side with the ramp up.

We thought we were being very clever to have the hens exit through a different door to the humans. This would mean they could carry on with their business while the human carried on with hers (human door is large and at the end of the building). The only problem was, by situating the hen ramp between the two nesting boxes, we created a bit of a design nightmare when it came to figuring out how to make a sort of chute for them to use when the ramp was down so they could get in and out of their protected run. Keep in mind we needed everything to be lightweight and movable.

Ramp down but no chute in place

Ramp down but no chute in place

Ramp down with chute - solid sides but no top on yet

Ramp down with chute – solid sides but no top on yet

After we had built a solid-sided chute, we realized we couldn’t fasten on a top of any kind because then one wouldn’t be able to lift the ramp up and down when the chute was in place. So the next step was to come up with a cap of some sort for this whole fancy system.

For this part, we built a very light frame and covered it with heavy mesh.

Mesh lid in place over the ramp

Mesh lid in place over the ramp

Perhaps predictably, the chickens were a bit confused when we first put them into the house. Eventually, though, they got it figured out and were running up and down the ramp with impunity.

The ramp leads to a portable pen (only part of it seen in these photos – the long, narrow run was initially meant to lead to a larger, more square area, but we are going to repurpose the long, skinny run as a vegetable bed chicken cleanout run- as in, we’ll place it over a bed to be cleaned out in the garden, put a few chickens in there for a few hours and let them do some cultivating). The system of attaching the more square run will be similar to what you can see in the photos here.

In my next post I’ll talk about some issues we’ve had with the interior design and modifications we need to make to the nesting boxes… I’m thinking that by the time we have built our twenty-seventh chicken house we might just have all the bugs worked out!

IMG_6782[1]

Here are a couple of brave girls standing at the top of the ramp considering their options.

Long, narrow run that was meant to lead into a larger turnout area... plans have changed once again.

Long, narrow run that was meant to lead into a larger turnout area… plans have changed once again.

The girls quickly got pretty good at running in and out

The girls quickly got pretty good at running in and out

Chicken house and run set up for testing on the back lawn (so it was handy for modifications). The whole set-up will be moved to a larger poultry-raising field down the road.

Chicken house and run set up for testing on the back lawn (so it was handy for modifications). The whole set-up will be moved to a larger poultry-raising field down the road.

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days agriculture blog-a-thon or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmer to find out!

Day 7 – Who is the Turkey at Bedtime?

Turkeys have a terrible reputation for not being very bright. What does this say for the human who cannot win the nightly game of 'let's put the turkeys to bed'?

Turkeys have a terrible reputation for not being very bright. What does this say for the human who cannot win the nightly game of ‘let’s put the turkeys to bed’? These chumps had put themselves to bed out on the goat fence. By the time I found them it was pitch dark and herding was impossible. One by one I had to catch them, carry them off, and tuck them in. Because, you know, I have nothing better to do with my evenings.

Every evening shortly before dusk I steel myself for a series of humiliations at the hands (talons?) of my turkeys. I know I am supposed to be smarter than they are, but if this is the case, how is it possible that the score is so lopsided when it comes to me trying to put them to bed and the turkeys figuring out ways to stay up just a little longer?

They are just like unruly kids who pull out all the anti-bedtime stops with an unsuspecting babysitter! The turkey kids pretend like they are heading in the right direction only to be distracted by some very important blade of grass. One will pluck said piece of grass and, leaving enough dangling from its beak so the others can see, will sprint off across the field. The other turkeys, convinced this particular blade of grass must be the tastiest in all the land, thunder after the trouble-maker who is, no doubt, chuckling under his snood because he knows very well the human caretaker can’t possibly keep up no matter how fast she sprints.

Occasionally, the turkeys are calm and cooperative and I’m able to herd them into their overnight huts with relatively little trouble, using two long bamboo sticks to help guide them in the right direction. Even on nights like these, though, several will decide they need to scale the shelters to roost on top rather than inside. As I am persuading these birds to jump back to the ground, they protest and scrabble around on the top of the shelters, which upsets the birds already inside. The inside birds sprint out looking very indignant just as I’m rounding the corner trying to herd in their wayward companions. Do you think the roof-hoppers quietly sit inside the shelters while I retrieve the sprinters? Of course not! There’s often a series of one goes in, two come out exchanges before, finally, everyone is wrangled into place.

The worst game they play is ring around the turkey hut. In this variation of the bedtime-avoidance game, one or two wily birds will sneak around behind the hut and hide. They are experts at matching their speed to mine, always keeping just out of sight on the other side of the hut. I try to sneak after them using tricky human maneuvers like changing direction when they least expect it. Except, usually they have already changed direction so I come around the corner saying stupid things like, “Hah! Fooled you!” except, there’s no turkey there because, hah! they fooled me and have sneaked up behind me. When I turn around, there they will be staring up at me with their beady reptilian eyes as if to say, “Are you looking for someone?” When two or three birds gang up on me to play a team version of this lame game it sometimes results in me sinking to my knees and pleading with them to, “Just go to bed, already!!!” This plea is often followed by some rude words that include references to Christmas and Thanksgiving.

Sometimes the birds pretend like they have never been herded anywhere ever before and each bird will head in a different compass direction when they see me coming. At times like this they are completely oblivious to my efforts to keep them all together. The exception to this general state of chaos will be a couple of goody-two-shoes birds that head straight for the shelters when they see me. Only when I have finally gathered the rest of the flock and we are almost at the shelters do the early-to-bedders decide they have had enough of being good and sprint back out of the shelters heading for the turkey waterers because, you know, they are dying of thirst and just need to get one more drink before they can settle down for the night.

The worst part of all this is that the main turkey field is overlooked by neighbours on three sides. I see them in their windows watching the Nikki vs the Turkeys Comedy Show each evening.

Yesterday when I went down to the field ready for a lengthy battle I was greeted by a completely empty field. Not a single turkey was anywhere to be seen. I felt sick. Raccoons. Stray dogs. Eagles. A cougar. Some irresponsible jokester neighbourhood kid let them all out. A foody thief stole them all. How would I report the theft to the police? How did I know they had been stolen and not eaten? How did I know they hadn’t got a bit confused and tried to fly off with the Canada geese? I figured I’d better have my evidence in order before I called 911, so I entered the field, steeling myself in case I had to pick up turkey bits and sweep up piles of feathers. Which is when I heard the distinctive soft chatter of turkeys settling in for the night. Every last bird had put itself to bed. They had evenly distributed themselves between the three shelters. They were all on perches and, eyes half closed, were talking quietly among themselves, no doubt wondering what was taking the human so long to close and lock their doors. Or, more likely, plotting what devious trick they were going to play on me next time.

Photo of one of our turkeys taken by D. Craig, BC Min. of Agriculture

Photo of one of our turkeys taken by D. Craig, BC Min. of Agriculture

Interested in learning who else is participating in the 30 days blog-a-thon or the five things Holly Spangler will be talking about this month? Head over to Prairie Farmerto find out!

Day 6 – Living and Dying by Lists

It doesn't take long for critters around here to figure out the formula human + bucket = food

It doesn’t take long for critters around here to figure out the formula:
human + bucket = food

I don’t know where I would be without my lists. The TO-DO lists on the farm are endless – chores to do, things to fix, build, plant, harvest, clean, paint, scrape, haul, lug, prune, empty, fill…  I also have lists relating to current writing projects, and always have a list going of what things I need to pick up when I’m next in town.

Wednesdays are a painful list day as that’s the day each week I go to the feed store to stock up. Well, going to the feed store isn’t painful per se – I actually love checking in with everyone there, it’s quite the social event to see how everyone is doing — it’s the paying part that hurts. Right at the moment the turkeys are eating up a storm, the piglets (two litters on the verge of being weaned) have fully understood what their mothers get so excited about when I show up with the feed buckets, and this year’s pullets are full size and just starting to lay. Not that the girls are laying many eggs given the time of year, but still, everyone seems to be needing huge amounts of food these days!

Today, the feed store list looks like this:

5 bags organic hog mash
4 bags organic turkey mash
4 bags organic layer mash
4 bags timothy-alfalfa cubes
1 bag sheep feed
1 bag horse pellets
1 salt block (for the horses)
granulated salt (for the goats and sheep)
crushed oyster shell (for the layers)
shavings (for bedding in the various poultry houses)
garden stakes (not for the garden, but for the last bit of framing for the new chicken run)
Lunch Cart

At an average of 25.00 for a bag of organic feed, you can see why my hand shakes a bit each week when I pull the feed-needed list out of my pocket and start to give my order! I know these numbers would make a larger scale farmer laugh, but at the end of the year, if I lose a single litter of piglets to predation, a careless mother squishing them, or if a sow fails to get pregnant in the first place, poof – there goes whatever little profit I might have hoped to make with my modest hog operation! Meanwhile, the sows and the boar keep eating… and eating, and eating!

While I’m out I’ll also swing by a couple of local farm markets to pick up veggie scraps and two big sacks of feed carrots. Soon I’ll also be able to get feed apples, right about the time my friends have stopped dropping off boxes and bags of too-small, too-bruised windfalls they can’t use. Getting gas is also on the list (more pain – the truck is big!) as is picking up the newly repaired lawn tractor tire. There’s a list associated with that, too – all the little jobs I need to do once the tractor is back in operation.

Then, I’ll grab 15 bales of hay from the barn a couple of miles away from my place where I still have a couple of hundred bales stored for use through the winter. With the truck groaning and the dogs looking very uncomfortable perched together on the front seat of the truck (the feed bags completely fill the back seat of the cab but the dogs have been scolded so often for riding up front they look awfully guilty on feed days when they have to ride up front), I’ll make my way back to the farm to unload everything. (On the plus side, hauling all those hay bales and sacks of feed completely eliminates the need for a gym membership!) For a day or two I”ll feel wealthy, indeed – the cupboards full to bursting. Too soon, the empty feed bags will start to accumulate and I’ll start another list with:

Take empty feed bags to recycling depot.

How many of you are also list makers? What’s at the top of your To-Do list today?