Friday, June 17, 2011

Life At Restoration Farm

The chickens, I no longer think of them as chicks, are doing well at the farm.  I recently stained the coop a lovely barn red and it looks really sharp.

 Several days after that Dan bolted the coop to the back of his tractor and drove it to a new, more central location, at the farm.  The girls are now working 3 farm beds that will be planted later in the season with fall cabbages.  Their first location was just in a fallow area.  Now I feel they are being integrated into the farm process and are real workers.  They are eating cover crop of oats, peas and vetch and this, along with their droppings will be turned under to nourish the soil for the cabbages.  Each week the coop, and every few weeks the fencing, moves down the 150' long bed.

Since I have to be at the farm every evening to put the chickens to bed I have been encouraging friends to come and join me at the farm in the early evenings to watch the sunset.  It is a spectacular time of day at the farm.  It is peaceful and gorgeous and increasingly there are yummy things to taste like asparagus and snap peas and strawberries.  I also make sure to have chilled white wine and an array of delicious appetizers to round out the table spread.   Everyone that has ever taken me up on the offer has asked when they can come back and do it again.  It's wonderful.  The Habitat coup building crew came to check on the girls and got to know the Restoration pigs and oxen as well.  When the chickens got in the way of our plans with friends Linda and Bill Levine on the Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend we moved the party to the farm and had a surprising adventure in dining.
Linda and Bill Levine joining Steve in a toast

Graduation Trip to Florida

In mid May Liz graduated from Miami University and the family went to Florida for a long weekend to celebrate.  Ross came with us and Samantha flew in from Colorado.  The trip was great and we had a wonderful celebration.  Unfortunately things did not go as well for the dogs.  On friday afternoon the housekeeper let them out and they did not come back.  During the entire graduation ceremony I was on the phone with her as the time grew increasingly late and still no dogs.  By 5 I told her there was nothing left she could do.  I was hoping they would come home for dinner and called Trish, the combination House/Dog/Chicken sitter for the weekend to alert her to the problem.  It wasn't until after 6 that it occurred to me to have Trish listen to the phone message machine.  Sure enough there was a message the the girls had been picked up by the dog catcher.  When Trish called it was after 6 on friday evening so the girls would have to stay in the slammer overnight and she could post $30 bail in the morning to get them out.  Trish now calls them her jail birds.

Rare Chick
The real birds fared even worse that weekend.  No one really knows what happened.  I left with a list of chick numbers and breeds in the trailer at the farm and a sparse set of instructions on chicken care.  A different person had volunteered to close up the coop each night.  I was trying to spread the work around so no one person would be too burdened by the job.  Farmer Dan took care of opening up and feeding each morning.  In fact it was not a good plan.  When I returned on Tuesday morning there were 3 birds missing.  No one person was really ever watching or counting so no one knew how or when they disappeared.  There was no sign of attack but it was also several days perhaps since they had been gone.  My hope is that they were taken by a person and are being cared for somewhere.  One of the missing chicks was rare chick so that makes me think it might have been a person.  The farm is pretty deserted on Sundays and there are lots of tourists wandering around.  Lesly did the Sat night close up and she was particularly sensitive to rare chick's state of solitariness so she knows rare chick was there for sure on Saturday night but other than that there are no real clues.  I checked to see if they had wandered off and attached themselves to the flock at the Restoration but no such luck.  The 3 lost chicks were Rare Chick, a Partridge Rock, and a Black Australorp.

The day I left for Florida Dan and Caroline took the 3 chicks I had promised to raise for them for their backyard, so now there are 26 chicks at the farm.  Since that time there have been no more losses.  Twice I have found a chick wandering outside the fencing but they have quickly gone back in, under, or through when coaxed.  I still count every night to make sure they are all in.  This week I am again in Florida, taking care of my mom while my dad is away.  Farmer Dan is opening the coop each morning and feeding and watering the girls.  My husband Steve, with Security Dan"s help (and vice versa) are doing the the night shift.  Steve calls me every night after doing a head count and closing the door.  He's a good man.  The Dans too.  I am lucky and grateful to have all this support.

Too Busy to Blog

Once the season at the farm got into full swing my days got long and full and I have not written in over a month.  By now the chicks are no longer chicks at all...young adults I would say.   We are still probably more than a month from any egg laying but there are feathers all over the coop and chicken yard as the girls lose their chick feathers and start to put on an adult coat.

The first time there were feathers in the yard it was a near disaster.  A hawk attacked my girls, specifically one of the black and white Dominiques.  It was a tuesday and I left the farm around 6 to go home and feed the dogs and get ready for my tennis game from 7:30-9pm.  I planned to come back to the farm after the game and close the coop.  It was late but I figured the girls would be ok for a short while.  I had done this at home in the driveway and no one had come to harm.  HOWEVER, by 6:45 I had a call from Dan the Farmer that Dan the Security Guard had called saying he had come upon the hawk attacking one of the chicks.  The hawk had been scared off but many of the chicks had flown either over or through the fence in a panic and were now hiding in the surrounding woods.  He would wait till someone arrived.

I drove to the farm in my tennis shorts and sneakers, expecting the worst.  I called my tennis friends and alerted them that I was having a chicken emergency and would be late.  I approached the coop with my heart pounding.  There were a lot of Dominique feathers but no blood or sign of a wounded chicken.  I started crawling through the nearby brambles searching for the missing girls...about a dozen or more of them had fled.

They were hiding in what they presumed, and correctly, were the thickest brambles and hardest to reach places.  As the thorns and branches tore at my naked legs I tried to coax, flush, and grab chicks as the sky grew increasingly dark.  As I chased the birds toward the coop Dan, the security guard was surprisingly good at scooping them up and depositing them in the yard.  Farmer Dan, with his 2 year old Ada in his arms, was also doing a heroic job of reaching under logs and grabbing chicks.  When the roundup ended it was pretty dark but amazingly all the Dominiques, five, were accounted for.  Except for some missing tail feathers no one seemed to be hurt.  I counted and recounted the birds until I was convinced that all were there except one of the dark brown Partridge Rocks.  I didn't want to leave but it was too dark to hunt in the woods.  We stood there for about 5 minutes, not wanting to call it quits when I finally said OK, lets go , there is nothing more we can do, when the last little chick came walking out of the woods on her own.  We grabbed her, put her in the coop, and locked up for the night.  Amazingly all birds were accounted for...and I quickly ran off to the tennis courts to make my apologies to the tennis crew.  They were all very understanding, having seen the chicks growing up each week, and were patient with my poor tennis strokes for the few remaining minutes of the evening's game.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Moving to Restoration Farm

So the move to the farm went really well.  I had asked Frank, my gardener, for help and he said he had a trailer that he used for hauling around a bobcat that he thought would work well.  A few days before moving day I called him to confirm and when I didn't hear back right away I got a bit panicky and arranged for another friend, Artie, the guy who hauls horse manure to the farm, to do it but his truck was not as suitable and when Frank called we went back to plan A.  Frank arrived at 8am on thurs morning and I didn't let the girls out of the coop...they moved inside.  It was tricky getting the coop up on the trailer because of its side rails being narrower than the coop but once we figured out how to load the coop to the necessary height before it rolled forward onto the trailer bed it all worked.  Thank goodness for people who know how to figure things out on the fly.  I have so much respect for that.

Anyway, so we loaded up and were off to the farm.  The coop on the trailer was about 11'6" tall and just cleared the overpass for the Northern State Parkway.  That was lucky because both the routes I had worked out required an overpass.  When we got to the farm Frank brought the coop out into the field and backed it into the area where we had set up the portable fencing.  I am so lucky and amazed to find such nice people to help me.  He wouldn't even take gas money.  I am going to owe a lot of people a lot of eggs before this is all through. Frank is definitely on that list.

As usual it took the chicks the better part of that first day to get used to their new surroundings.  Mostly they stayed inside the coop.  One or two ventured out and poked around the area but then quickly returned to the safety of the coop.  But as I've said before, I have a new respect for the wariness of chickens...they know how dangerous the world is out there for them. 

By the end of their first day at the farm they were venturing around their yard which is about 30' x 50'.  Mostly they stay within a few feet of the coop unless I am sitting there with them and then they feel a little safer and explore a bit.  I moved a picnic bench into the area so I can comfortably sit with them. 

 At the end of the first day I went home to feed Thelma and Louise and told Dan, the farmer , that I would come back around sunset.  A few minutes after I got home Dan called to say he was worried about leaving the chicks alone at that hour...its when the farm is deserted and the predators come out.  In fact that afternoon I had seen a red fox in the asparagus field.  It was at the other corner of the farm but certainly not far and Dan got me pretty worried, so I quickly grabbed a crossword puzzle and a pencil and headed back to the farm at around 6:30.  Sunset right now is around 8pm.  I have always loved that hour at the farm and it really is no hardship to sit there and watch the chicks and the sunset.  I have been talking up the idea to lots of friends to join me and bring a bottle of wine.  It's really quite lovely.  And so I have done that every day since the move.  The first night there were two red tail hawks in a nearby tree and one made a few circles over the coop checking out the girls.  I spent the rest of that first evening checking the sky and didn't get very much of the crossword puzzle done.

The chicks are still scared easily.  Whenever a goose lets out a honk they all run for cover under the trailer.  Whenever a plane flies overhead they do the same.  I guess they are genetically programed to fear attack from the sky.  Thank goodness the coop is elevated.  I don't know what they'd do if they didn't have somewhere to run every few minutes.  The rest of the chick yard looks relatively lush and untouched but the area under the coop has been reduced to bare stalks...not a leaf survives.  When it gets hot later this summer the shade will also be a big asset.

This past weekend the farm had tours for all the new CSA members and the chicks were a highlight.  Lots of members are interested in helping with the girls, bringing them food scraps from their kitchens, and generally getting to know more about them.  They are looking beautiful in all their variety and the scene is very pastoral.  Dan is very happy, seeing a vision  he has for the farm starting to take shape.  They also like to eat mugwort, a weed that we have way too much of, and so my vision of seeing them as little farmworkers seems to be coming true as well.  Aside from the need to be at the farm early to let them out and again at sunset to see them safely indoors, they are not much work.  A little food and fresh water each day and some ground up granite to eat to aid in digestion.

Here's a photo of Ada, Dan and Caroline's daughter, visiting the chicks.
And a photo of the chicks using my bench
And some random cute chicken photos
Tonight we had a near disaster at the farm.  Everything is ok but the story will have to wait till next blog...I am spent.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

In addition to everything else...chickens are afraid of the dark

Well things have been going along pretty smoothly.  The chickens are loving their new house and the ability to play outdoors all day.  The Spring weather has brought out tons of weeds...chickweed, dandelions, and clover.  Every time I feed them something that is a nuisanace in the yard and turn it into savings on the chicken feed bill I am truly thrilled.  I am thinking of introducing them to mugwort, a weed of incredible durability.  I have spent the last 2 days at the farm pulling it out of the blueberry and asparagus fields until my fingers are sore, so if I can get them to happily do that project that would be a true blessing to the farm.

Yesterday there was an event at the Bethpage Restoration and the farm was asked, in the spirit of greenness, to compost all the food waste.  So at 4 in the afternoon I found myself picking through buckets of leftovers bagels, wraps, and pb and j sandwiches looking for things a chicken might want to eat.  I settled on apples, some half eaten cores and others whole but flawed and unwanted, red pepper rounds (platter decoration I presume), coarse leafy greens (also decorative) and some red leaf lettuce.  I also dug up three bunches of clover growing outside the farm trailer.  Dan, the farmer, also gave me some aging cabbage from the storage cooler.  I went home and threw a bit of each into the chick yard and waited.

The clover they loved.  It turned immediately into a mob scene.  I have learned to spread food out so that they don't step all over each other (and the food) trying to get at the good stuff.  But I forgot.  Sometimes I am a slow learner too.  The red leaf lettuce they also went for...I think tender is their highest criteria.  The apple core and the pepper were totally ignored.  This morning I went out and picked some more peppers and apples out of the bin and brought them into the kitchen and diced them up...saute see if that would make them more interesting...somewhat, but not really.  So I picked a few more, went back to the kitchen and pulled out the cuisinart and finely chopped each food separately....a mash of peppers, a mash of apples and a mash of cabbage.  I then sprinkled them all around the play yard....and SUCCESS...they loved it all.  So now my care of the chicks includes using and then washing up the cuisinart...ugh.  A friend referred the other day to looking forward to eating the eggs of my "Pampered Poultry".  I thought that was cute.  Now life is immitating art.  They are truly pampered.  If you find me writing about cooking for them next week someone please come over here and smack some sense into me.  There has to be a line somewhere.  But I am happy they are eating more vegetables and food scraps and less purchased feed grains...they have to develop these tastes to be really useful at the farm.

Back to the scared chicken story....

So as the weather got warmer I started to turn the lights off in the coop during the day.  At night I would plug it back in.  About three days ago I decided that the nights were now warm enough to dispense with the lights at night as well.  For several days before that the chicks were all dutifully going into the coop at sunset so that when I came out just after 8:00 pm I would close the chick door, count heads (several times to be sure), and say goodnight to the girls.  But when I went out on Sunday night there were 6 or 7 birds at the top of the ramp.  Curious, I peeked inside and saw that the other 25 chicks had all bedded down in a heap just inside the coop door, effectively blocking the others from getting in.  Perhaps they had never gotten very far in, or perhaps as it got darker they kept edging closer to the waning natural light coming in through the door, but by the time I arrived they were all huddled together in the faint remnants of the daylight and the chicks at the door , who I would normally think would not hesitate to step on the heads of their fellow chicks if something they wanted were just beyond, were effectively stopped in their tracks.  So I went to the garage, plugged in the light, and in the 5 seconds it took me to return everyone was calmly marching into the coop and finding a comfy place to roost.  I of course was laughing hysterically once I understood what was going on and ran inside to share my amusement with Steve.

The next night I tried leaving the light off once again.  This time at 8pm I found about 20 birds filling the ramp to capacity.  Faced with the prospects of dark inside or dark outside the birds seemed paralyzed by indecision and were left huddling en masse on the ramp.  Again I went and plugged in the light and everyone dutifully marched inside.  So my thought is to buy a night light and see if that is enough light to get them to voluntarily go inside.  Yesterday I was busy and forgot to buy it so I simply turned on the light in the evening.  But next week the coop and chicks are moving to the farm where there is no electricity in the fields.  I am going out now to buy a night light...I hope I can find one that uses batteries...just in case.

Pile up at the coop ramp
These chicks just never fail to surprise much fun!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Passover Seder and the Chickens

We were invited to Robin and Roger's for a Passover Seder on Monday night.  I volunteered to bring the salad and a vegetable soup with matzoh balls.  I got up early and made the soup and then went off to Restoration Farm to spend the day weeding the peas.

The support posts are in but before the netting goes up it is much easier to hand weed.  My afternoon was relaxing, talking with Dan and Trish about the recent Small Farm Summit held at SUNY Westbury last Friday.  The event was like a mini version of the NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Assoc) meeting I attended this summer in Saratoga Springs.  There were terrific sessions to attend on many aspects of land use and availability, farming methods, food education and outreach, food processing.  The keynote speaker was Joel Salatin, as near to a rock star in the world of organic farming as it gets, and he gave a keynote address on (mis)perceptions about farming that make it harder to have farms in densely populated counties like ours.  He is a very entertaining speaker and he was speaking to the faithful so was great.  He also gave a workshop in the afternoon on pastured poultry which both Trish and I (and Dennis and Steve, two more of the farms committed volunteers) attended.  Trish is using Salatin's model of pasturing poultry to raise her broilers (meat birds) at Restoration Farm starting in May.  Besides the usual talk about chickens we also discussed a workshop all of us had attended on raising nutrient dense crops.  The essence of the talk was that most plants only live out a small fraction of their DNA potential because of limiting factors in the soil.  Paying greater attention to creating a healthy immune system in your plants =greater insect and disease resistance.  The more balanced the fungal environement in the soil the more plants can communicate their nutrient needs and then receive the macro and especially micro nutrients they require. The result is longer life and increased health of your plants and also increases the yields and the nutritional value of your crops.  It was a talk heavy on science and technique but the basics were clearly valuable and we are all interested in taking first steps in this direction and improving the immune systems of our plants and the nutritional quality of our produce.  It was a nice way to pass the time weeding.  Anyone interested in learning more about this should check out  Dan Kittredge and  He is also at work trying to develop tools that consumers can use in a shopping environment to test/compare the nutrient content of food choices on the aim and shoot device with a readout...really interesting and great if he can do it.

Back to the chicks...and Passover.

So I went home, made the salad, showered and dressed up, put on my heels, and then thought about the fact that the seder was at 5:30.  I either had to go and come back at sundown to close the coop door after all the chicks had naturally gone inside , or if I didn't want to have to run out halfway through dinner I had to get all the chicks inside at this unnaturally early hour.  So I took off my heels,  slid my farm overalls, a ratty old ski jacket and my rubber boots on over my nice clothes and went out to the coop.  I remembered from my early days helping Jen with her chickens that she suggested using oats, a chicken favorite, to make friends with her rooster who had been bothered by my presence and shown it by pecking at my legs and generally terrorizing me when I stepped into his territory.  Well it had worked.  With oats he was literally eating out of my hand and I was able to go about my business in his yard.

I grabbed a bag of rolled oats and went out to the coop.  I started by sprinkling a few in the yard and interest was heavy.  So I decided to sprinkly them on the ramp hoping that once on the ramp I could encourage them up into the coop.  At this point about 15 of the 32 chicks were outside.  When I sprinkled them on the ramp everyone came running.  Unfortunately this meant everyone inside as well.  More chicks came out than went in.  However, I was undaunted.  I then went inside the coop and started rattling the bag loudly and sprinkling the oats all over the bedding.  This worked somewhat better.  Lots of birds headed in.  When I ran out of oats I went outside to count birds.  Better...only 4 still outside.  Now it was already after 5:30 but I was so close, so it was time to get down on my belly and start crawling under the coop (in the poop).  Two of the birds were easily coaxed out and shooed up the ramp where I quickly opened the door and let them in.  The hardest part of that was the quick shimmy backwards out from under the coop to get to the door before the chicks changed their minds and no longer saw the ramp as the preferred method of escaping from me.  I had visions of chicken poop smearing in my hair...the clearance under the coop is only about 15 inches.  The last two had to be chased down individually and captured and the backward shimmy repeated with a squawking bird in two hands....I wish there had been a video camera....again.

With everyone safely in ...and counted ...three times because they keep moving and I often get the wrong number...I went to change...again.  The phone was ringing...where was I?  is everything ok?  even my husband Steve, who NEVER gets anywhere before me, was calling to ask where I was.  Yes, yes, I am just leaving now...getting the soup and salad and wine into the car...running back and forth now in the high heels to the car that is no longer parked in the garage...I was an hour late.  My clothes were nice, my hair a mess but not poopy, and I think my friends are getting tired of my chicken stories...they just prefer to sit down and eat chicken...but I am still loving it.  A happy Pesach to all.

Cleaning Up The Dust

Sunday was spent cleaning the basement and trying to remove the thick layer of chicken dust that covered the walls, ceiling, floor and all the collected "junk" that occupies the basement storeroom.  I took the opportunity to get rid of a few items like a broken vacuum cleaner and Ross's childhood fishing poles, but largely I just dusted and rearranged the piles.  It does look neater down there but the dust is going to be with us for some time.  Perhaps this week, and every week for the rest of the summer, I should damp mop the floor and open the doors to air it out.  I think the chicken dust will be a part, albeit a small part, of this house till it gets its next owner who renovates or at least repaints everything.

Next I moved to the garage, which was inch deep in sawdust, tools and about 15 boxes of nail, screws, staples etc, all of which had somehow been opened but barely used.  My dreams of returning lots of unused items to the Depot were totally dashed.  I now am well prepared to build a chicken house if anyone else wants one.  There is also a lot of leftover wood scrap.  So it all needed to be hauled out, swept out, and neatly rearranged if I ever wanted to pull my car into the garage again.

It was a beautiful day and by 4 I was exhausted but happy to crack open a bottle of wine and show off the new outdoor coop to some friends that came by.  Our friend Robin, is our canary in the coal mine when it comes to chicken dust.  Unfortunately, after all my labor we did not pass.  It's a work in progress.