Archive for June, 2010

Building things

One of my favorite hobbies is carpentry.  I’m terrible at it, but I can usually figure things out as I go along and end up with something that’s functional, if not pretty (or even square).When we were in Iowa our church was undergoing a building project and I was able to help install the kitchen cabinetry in our new facility.  I was truly in heaven that day.  I learned so much and enjoyed ever single scratch, bruise and sore muscle I acquired.  One day, when I’ve learned to read a tape measure and to care about the 16ths of an inch, I’d love to build my own house from the ground up.  I think that would be one of the most rewarding tasks of my life.  However, my current projects are less exciting but equally as important, and include two chicken tractors, an eggmobile, and a brooder box for the farm.

Our current chicken tractor is really a turkey pen made out of PVC piping, chicken wire, about a billion zip ties, and a reflective tarp.  The concept is a good one.  The structure is fairly sturdy, although a bit large for chickens.  But it has a few downsides.  First, it’s made out of PVC piping, which is lightweight and flexible, but it also has to be glued together with PVC cement.  In the process of trying to figure out how to put the dumb thing together (the instructions were a disgrace), some of the joints were missed in the gluing process, and have now come completely apart in such a way that I cannot get to them to glue them together.  So we limp the tractor up and down the pasture for now until we can get the birds out of it and flip it over.  The second problem with this tractor is that it’s really designed for turkeys, so it’s about four feet tall, which makes it nearly impossible to catch the chickens without climbing into it.  The climbing presents a third problem.  It’s only made out of PVC piping so it’s weight load capacity is minimal.  I am at maximum weight, so hoisting myself in and out of the contraption puts a great deal of strain on the PVC pipes.  You can see where I’m going with this, right?

When Sam and I started talking about building a different style of chicken tractor we naturally referred to the Internet as a source of information and inspiration.  There are dozens of different designs and styles of chicken tractors and poultry housing available.  Everyone has their own ideas about what works and what doesn’t.  We looked at all kinds of designs which included a variety of building materials.  However, in the end, we decided to stick with a design that has been proven effective by one of our heroes in the local, sustainable food movement – Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Virginia (you might recognize him from Food, Inc. or FRESH).

The design isn’t pretty by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s functional and basic – it’s a large box.  The materials are easily available, inexpensive, and lightweight, which is a major concern for me since I’m not super strong and will have to be able to move the tractor by myself sometimes.  And the overall tractor dimensions can be adjusted up or down in order to fit the farmer’s needs.  Salatin’s tractors are 10’x12’x2′ and holds 100 brooders.  That’s just too large for our space, so I’ve adjusted it to an 8’x8’x2′ square, which will house 40 to 50 brooders quite comfortably – thus the need for two tractors.  I started on it last evening, and will finish the first tractor today.  The first one is always the hardest since I’m basically just working from scratch and trying to come up with a structure that resembles the one in the photo; but all-in-all I figure it has taken less than four hours for me to make this contraption, and that’s working alone – Sam was out mowing pastures.

Our brooder box is going to be our own design, but inspired by one of our local farms – Carlton Farms in Rockmart, Georgia.  They use a large, round, galvanized horse tank with a PVC/chicken wire lid.  This design is virtually predator proof and super sturdy.  Unfortunately, the galvanized tank is a couple hundred dollars at the local Tractor Supply, and more than we’d like to spend, so I’m going to be making a similar version using hardware cloth for the bottom (to facilitate drainage of urine and water, and to begin the composting process), a studded frame, aluminum roofing material for the sides, and then a basic, hinged wooden lid made with  1″x1″ framing members and chicken wire.  I think we’ll go with a 5’x5’x2′ square in size, which should comfortably house 80 to 100 chicks for three to four weeks.  I’ll post pictures of this project once it’s complete.

And the final piece of my building puzzle is a mobile eggmobile, which is basically  a rolling chicken coop, if you will.  Again, the design has been inspired by Polyface Farm’s model, although ours will be much smaller as we’ll only be keeping 25 to 50 laying hens.  I’ll build a lean-to type of structure on a small utility trailer base, which we’ll roll around our pasture behind the ruminants.  Thankfully I have a few weeks before this project needs to be completed as I’ll likely have to build it on site.

Ah farming, there’s always something to be done, but the rewards are truly great!

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If we were only dealing with nutritional, environmental and sustainability issues, Americans would be lining up to buy rabbit meat.  After all, Rabbit is lower in calories (795 per pound) than chicken (810), turkey (1190), lamb (1420), beef (1440) or pork (2050).  It is also lower in cholesterol. A study by the Department of Food Science, University of Bologna, Italy, published in the fall of 2009 said, “Rabbit meat is often recommended by nutritionists over other meats because it fits well with the current consumer demand for a low-fat meat with a high degree of fatty acid unsaturation and low sodium and cholesterol levels.”

Rabbits are easy to raise, and reproduce rapidly.  Statistically, 6 lbs of rabbit meat can be produced for the cost of 1 lb of beef and on a fraction of the land.  Even a large scale rabbitry does not create the environmental challenges of a traditional feed lot.  The by-product of any rabbit operation (manure), is environmentally beneficial, as it is a 100% ‘organic’ fertilizer and does not need to be composted first like most manures (But it composts very well, too.)

Rabbit tastes great.  Like chicken and turkey, it is a mixture of both dark and white meat.  The dark meat, however, is milder than its avian counterparts.  As with other pastured (grass fed) meats, the cooking process is different than grain fed meat.  Rabbit is a true slow food and comes out best if cooked at lower temperatures for longer periods of time.  It is perfect for the crock pot or slow roasting.  I like to marinade rabbit overnight in salt water, put it on the smoker for about 45 minutes to an hour, then toss it in the crock pot with some bbq sauce. The result is some of the best pulled bbq you will ever eat.  Add some coleslaw and a bun and you are will find yourself in Q heaven.

I began this article with “If” for a reason.  Sadly, many omnivores (vegetarians and vegans have their own reasons, and I won’t take time to debate those) miss out on the rabbit experience because of what I call, “the cute factor.”   If I had a nickel for every time someone said, “How could you eat a bunny?  They’re so CUTE”, I’d never have to work again.

I agree that rabbits are cute, at least young ones.  But so are sheep and cows.  Even piglets are cute as buttons.  But for some reason, the smell of frying bacon trumps cute.  With rabbits, it’s a whole different story.  People who wouldn’t bat an eye at a juicy hamburger or a plate full of buffalo wings will practically break down in tears at the thought of eating a rabbit.

No one ever says squash is too pretty to eat and yet I don’t know of any flower in any garden that is more spectacular that a squash plant in full bloom.  From my seat, food is food, whether animal, vegetable or mineral.

There is no argument against ‘cute’.   It can’t be defeated in a debate.  Logic doesn’t matter.  So I won’t even try.  But if you are looking for tasty, nutritious, sustainable, cost effective, natural meat, please consider rabbit.  The rest of the world has figured it out.  America is lagging.  I hate lagging.

For readers in driving distance of Acworth, GA who already enjoy rabbit, or who are willing to try it, stay tuned.  East of Eden Farms will begin supplying rabbit meat this fall.  It will be priced the same as our pastured chickens.

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Same song, different verse.  We had another huge storm yesterday.  We were out at the farm moving sheep and chickens when it hit.  The wind was so severe it lifted our shade shelter and threw it 60 feet or so across the pasture and tore it apart.  As it flew, it knocked over a couple of our electric fence posts.  We noticed the fence during the hail storm.  Along with lightning, howling wind and torrential rain, we had quarter size hail.  Fortunately, while it was large, it wasn’t falling as hard as it could, so I was able to get the fence back in the ground even while it was still hailing.  There was a couple of inches of standing water after only a half hour rain.  Gotta love that Georgia clay.  The sheep and chickens were undaunted.  They are inspiring creatures.

After the hail stopped, Brittan and I waded out into the rain to repair the shelter for the sheep.  We managed to find all of the pieces and get it back together in about 40 minutes.  We were soaked to the bone, but nothing serious.

Back up in the pasture where the chickens are, several large branches had blown off a chestnut tree and were laying against the chicken tractor.  We moved those, then headed home to see what remained of our garden.  Along the way, we saw some pretty impressive wind damage, including a house cut in half by a huge old oak that was uprooted.  No one was hurt, but they will be living somewhere else for a while.

Back here in the burb, you guessed it, the wind took yet more toll on our poor tomatoes.  The squash was damaged as well.  Yet, strangely, the pole beans stood tall.  go figure.

Some of the pepper plants suffered wind damage as well, but as always, it was the tomatoes that suffered most.  Several more were split open and probably two dozen tomatoes were blown off of bushes and smashed.  Mostly they were beefsteak and we had so few of them to begin with.

So today after Church, we planted some more squash   and cucumbers.  I worked on that while Brittan harvested beans.  Tomorrow evening I will take cuttings off of some of the more healthy tomato plants and try and create a late crop.  We can’t give up.  We won’t give in.

By the way, thanks for all the notes we’ve been getting from potential customers.  We have had a number of inquiries about produce and meat.  We’ve been contacted by some very interesting organizations as well.  We may be providing some chickens and hot peppers for Jack Johnson and his band when they come to Atlanta next week.  We were asked, along with several other local producers, to provide for Phish and the Dave Matthews Band as well.  But because of the storm damage and the fact that our chickens and rabbits won’t be ready in time, we had to turn down the opportunity.  I hope some of our friends are able to get some big orders out to the deal.  But if we can help feed Jack Johnson in August, well that’s ok by me.  We’ll keep you posted.

We were also contacted about a conference next spring and were offered some college students and participants to assist us with any work projects.  The conference will be in March, just in time to help us get our raised beds ready for planting.  I truly hope something comes of that.  One of our primary purposes here in the burb is to train other suburban dwellers on how to live sustainably in small spaces.  It’s all very exciting.

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From January we have fought an uphill battle to have a decent tomato harvest this year.  Everything that could go wrong has.  If you’re not a regular reader, check the archives.  On Wednesday evening, nature reached deep for a knockout punch.

After supper we drove out to the farm to move the sheep and chickens.  While there, the sky turned black and the lightening flashed, so we hurried through our chores to avoid getting caught in it.  We mostly succeeded.  The heavens opened just in time for me to put the freshly filled feeders into the chicken tractor.  No big deal.  Wrong!

The rain pounded down like hammers.  It was like a monsoon on steroids.  “At least I won’t have to water the veggies,” I remarked as we unloaded the truck back at the house.

When I went out to the garden yesterday morning (Thursday), my heart sank as I saw the destruction wreaked by the previous evening’s storm.  Tomatoes lay all over the ground.  The plants were smashed and broken.  In some cases, the bamboo tripod stakes were snapped in two.  The devastation was awesome! (just not in a good way).

Last night, I took some twine and rescued what I could.  But overall, the crop is done.  Oh, we’ll have enough for our own summer use, but there won’t be anything for a farm stand, that’s for sure.

Over the weekend, we’ll take some cuttings from a few of the plants and try to create a late season crop, but my expectations are not high.  Stuff happens.

As Job said in the Bible, “The Lord gives.  The Lord takes away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

We lost a big battle.  But we will win the war.  I so vow! 🙂

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We had a flash storm last night.  It brought blessed relief to the ground and to the air temps.  But this morning I discovered the storm had a sting in it’s tail.  When I went out to the garden, I discovered my already feeble tomato plants had been savaged.  I have broken limbs and stems everywhere.  What a mess.  After work this evening I will salvage what I can.  Praise God for beans, sweet potatoes and squash.  They are difficult to damage.

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Everyone who knows me is painfully aware that patience is not one of my personality traits.  I am pretty much always in a hurry.  I want to get there NOW!  I want to eat NOW!  I want stuff to grow NOW!  Waiting is for other people.

Alas, June may be the month that most tests my patience.  Especially this June.  While we are getting a few beans, squash and peppers, most of our garden is patiently waiting to ripen.  Each night I go to water and hope for tomatoes, melons and ghost peppers, only to remember that I knew when I put them out, the earliest tomatoes would be ready is July.  But that doesn’t keep me from wishing (or stomping my feet to get them to hurry).

The chickens won’t be ready to process until the second week of August.  The rabbits won’t be ready to breed until July.  We won’t have eggs until October.  That’s nature.  That’s life.  That’s too long!

This time of year is simply work and wait.  We water, weed, move pens and pastures and we wait.  Of course, we sweat a lot, too.  This whole ‘slow food’ thing might be righteous, but it sure tests the patience of the middle aged ADD demographic.

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This is our third year having a garden in Georgia.  I have yet to see a honey bee.  Bumble bees, yes, but no honey bees.  Zero.  Nunca.  None.

A simple google search will bring up an abundance of articles, websites and youtube clips, decrying and pondering the rapid disappearance of honey bees in the USA.  In many places up to 30 percent of the population has vanished, in others it is claimed the number is perhaps 70 percent.  I don’t know the actual percentage, but the phenomenon is real.

I remember going out on recess at Clays Mill Elementary School in Lexington, KY when I was a kid and seeing bees everywhere.  We would sit in the clover and catch them.  We would see who could catch the most or hold onto one the longest without getting stung.  Honey bees were as much a part of spring as the flower blossoms themselves.

The disappearance of the honey bee is a complex issue, with as many twists and turns as a horror novel.  Only this story is terrifyingly true.

First, the honey bee is politically incorrect.  The once beloved garden companion and producer of honey is a pariah in many parts of the country because some people are allergic to them.  So they are exterminated in many places.  Granted, no one wants to see a neighbor or classmate rushed to hospital unable to breathe for any reason, but the overall benefits to society (pollination of food crops and honey), counterbalance the risks.  What happens when the bees are gone?  Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying that if the bee population disappeared, the human race would follow in four years!

Without bees we would be hard pressed to have most fruits, nuts and many vegetables.  Birds, butterflies and the like could never keep up.  For example, both the California almond industry and the Florida citrus industry truck bees in to pollinate their orchards.  You owe that morning orange juice and the nuts in your bowl of cereal to the honey bee.

Viruses and mites, among other things, are decimating the bees.  Buy why?  Bees have been oppressed by both adversaries for millennia, why are they now losing the fight?  I would like to offer a hypothesis that the human commitment to the weed free lawn is a major contributor to weakening the constitution of the North American Honey Bee.

We saturate our lawns and flower beds with chemicals to kill the weeds and grow the flowers.  The harsh chemicals affect more than just the dandelions and crabgrass.  The birds, bees, rabbits and other wildlife are constantly ingesting the toxins.  Can anything good come of that?  Think about it, when the lawn service leaves a location, they put a little flag in the yard in part as a warning for the home owner to take care of their pets and children until the chemicals neutralize.  But who keeps out the bees (or the bunnies for that matter)?

When the exterminator sprays around our houses to eliminate the creepy crawlies, the good insects are also vulnerable.  In our drive to win the ‘yard of the month’, we may inadvertently be killing our future.

B and I cancelled our lawn service over a year ago.  It shows.  We have a lot more weeds and need to mow more often that our neighbors to keep the front lawn looking civilized.  I know some of our neighbors look at our yard in disgust.  It doesn’t look bad, but it’s not as lush as it used to be.  We have planted bee balm and other bee, butterfly and hummingbird attractants, but we are also attracting a whole bunch of weeds.

In my opinion, a handful of chickens and a couple sheep or goats would do just as well as the big expensive lawn services and would provide food for the table as well.  But our Home Owners Association would have a fit.  I guarantee that a few chickens would control the bugs without creating a bio hazard and a goat would work wonders on the weed population.  Together they would provide natural fertilization as well.  But the Beverly Hillbillies are not allowed in our neighborhood.

Conventional farmers contribute to the problem as well, in my opinion, with their tons of pesticides.  They don’t intend harm, it’s a by-product of our industrial farm system and in needs to be fixed.  I know most farmers agree.

The honey bee is nearing endangered status.  The problem can be reversed if we moderate our chemical use.  Let’s welcome the honey bee back into society.  Our very future may depend on it.

Finally, those who can, should set up a box or two and take an active role in regenerating the bee population.  Brittan and I will add bees to our operation next spring.  We will put them out on the farm since the poor creatures are not welcome in the burb.   Home Owners Associations of the world……..REPENT!

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