Egg on my Face

We can see a thousand miracles around us every day. What is more supernatural than an egg yolk turning into a chicken?

~ Rutherford Platt

So the new batch of chickens have been with us for about 2 months. This was the free flock of 12, 4-month-old chickens I found on Craigslist in January. After a tragic encounter with a red-tail hawk we’re down to 13 total birds (old and new batch). We suspect solidly half of the newbies to be roosters. They’re huge with upright bodies and long pointed feathers. Stan, our original rooster, is currently the only one who crows (1am -3am, nightly) and the only one who *chases* the hens…yet. Roosters take a bit longer to sexually mature, so we’re just waiting for some definitive rooster behavior to drag out the chopping block. So sad I know, but we only want one rooster, and Stan’s the man.

It’s been especially confusing and frustrating because nobody’s been laying eggs. We had two hens laying regularly, but alas, they’re no longer with us.

So it was with excitement and glee that Cory discovered two eggs in the hen-house yesterday, a large green and a tiny brown. We jumped about like fools, screaming and cheering. We were convinced that the small brown egg had been laid by Edna, our little bantam (miniature breed) and special friend. We were sure she’d never lay, but she was too cute to fry. But here was proof, it had to be, that she was laying at last! Hurray! We were ecstatic.

Little Edna

That is, until Cory’s father informed us that many chickens start off by laying small eggs. It was probably just one of the new hens starting to lay. Apparently they’re called fart eggs. How cute.

I’ve officially labeled Cory’s father, “The Ruiner”.

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Seeds of Victory!

To see things in the seed, that is genius.
-Lao Tzu

Gardening Propaganda circa WWI

Cory and I have decided to open a small farm stand in the town of Winooski, Vermont. His father owns an empty lot on a main road he doesn’t use for anything, so we’re going to take advantage. We spent Sunday up to our elbows in the Johnny’s seed catalogue. It took far more time and many more spread sheets than we were anticipating, but we finally have our order organized. Thanks to the magic of excel we were able to compute the number of actual seeds we are going to get. 20,500! To seasoned farmers this may not seem like very many, but we started laughing hysterically. At one point, during the process, I looked over at Cory and asked, “Do we have any idea what we’re doing?” “None at all Babycakes,” he replied.

So I laughed some more.

I’ve Got Worms: Adventures in the Art of Vermicomposting

Earth knows no desolation.
She smells regeneration in the moist breath of decay.

-George Meredith

Cory and I have decided to call our enterprise, “Lil’ Bit Farm”. That way we never have to commit. When someone asks what we do, we can just say, “Oh, a lil’ bit a this and a lil’ bit a that.” I like it. Not that it’s much of a farm yet; more like a collection of projects. Sometimes I feel like an aging 4-H student, but regardless, everybody needs a name.

One project that I’ve been working on for quite a while is my vermicomposting bin. Vermicomposting is the process in which worms, usually of the red wiggler variety (Eisenia fetida), eat and digest compostable materials like vegetable scraps, eggs shells and coffee grounds. The worms’ castings (ahem, poo), are then released as a nutrient rich amalgamation of fertilizing magic.

I was first introduced to the idea by my Brooklyn roommate. We lived in a tiny, shoebox apartment, and I was enthralled by the idea that we could compost in such a small space. But we never quite made it to the worms. In fact, all we managed to do was save massive amounts of rotting produce scraps in our freezer. I do not recommend this. These were in addition to the dead parakeet and dead turtle that we also kept in the freezer. I do not recommend this either, but I digress.

I finally got my worms about a year later, after I had moved back to my parent’s house to (re)attend college. I remember it like it was yesterday. I walked into the kitchen to find my mother, a short (well, shorter than all of her children), surprisingly scrappy woman from the Bronx, waiting for me with a deadpan expression. “Jenny, your worms are hea (that’s spelled right). They’re on the dining room table,” And here her deadpan expression turned slightly less dead, “get them awf (that’s also spelled right) the dining room table.” My mother is a saint and quite supportive of all of my endeavors, but hell, they were worms.

I carefully opened the cardboard box they had been shipped in. A couple of weeks before I had ordered a pound of red wigglers from Wilson’s Worm Farm in Norris, Montana. I really had very little idea what to expect, but what I found was a greyish mass writhing in very clean looking soil. I had prepared a shallow plastic bin with shredded newspaper as per expert’s instruction, and installed them promptly, covering them with more newspaper. I poked holes in the lid for air circulation and gave them a steady stream of kitchen scraps and awaited my black gold.

What I got was mud. Lots and lots of mud. Stinky mud. I tried airing out the box, draining the box, adding in flour, cereal, dry newspaper; anything to lower the moisture content, but for three years all I got was mud. I stuck it out though. I couldn’t stand the thought of chucking my babies. It wasn’t their fault that I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. So for three years I carried around a box of mud, from apartment to apartment, not really sure how to solve my problem and have a productive worm bin.

Then I moved to Vermont, the land of all things compostable, and I got a chance to visit a real live worm farm. Down to Earth Worm Farm in Greensboro Bend, Vermont, promotes wooden boxes for housing vermicomposting operations. The theory is simple: wood breathes. It’s porous and allows for far more circulation then my little air holes ever could. My plastic bin was really good at collecting condensation and letting it pool to create an anerobic (oxygen-free) little swamp, perfect for killing worms. Perhaps this is why every time I opened the bin to check on my worms, several of them would be clinging to the inside cover as if attempting an escape. They were not happy.

Down to Earth also bucks convention by recommending maple leaf litter bedding (Vermont, go figure), instead of newspaper. I’d assumed that there were baddies in yard waste that could hurt my worms, but I failed to realize that there might also be goodies present that help with the composting process. Worms are not the only creature that composts. Also, the forest floor provides more nutrients than dead newspaper, resulting in more nutrients in the finished product.

It’s all experimentation, as always, but if you’d like to try a worm bin for yourself…

1.Start with a shallow wooden box. Exterior grade plywood is appropriate. The exact dimensions are up to you, but keep in mind how much space you have and whether or not it will ever have to be moved. Red Wigglers are surface dwellers and anything more than about a foot deep will be lost on them.

2.Add bedding. Maple leaves work well for this as they break down easily. Mulching them into smaller pieces speeds the process. Soak the leaves in water  and then squeeze out the excess before adding a layer to your box. You don’t want them sopping wet, but worms can’t move well through dry material.

3. Add your worms! I started with one pound. You can order them online or check out local bait shops. Red Wigglers are usually recommended for home composting systems. Cover them with a bit more bedding.

4. Feed them. Appropriate items include fruit and vegetable scraps and peelings (My worms seem to dislike citrus, especially lemons), coffee grounds, loose teas and natural tea bags, egg shells, cereals and flours, soy milk and tofu. Dairy and meat products may make your box smell, and if you have animals they may be more interested in your box then you’d like. Bury all food additions under at least 3″ of leaf litter.

5. Remember the temperature. Worms function best between 50-80 degrees F. They’re also very sensitive to light and vibration so select their location carefully.

6. Harvest your castings! You probably want to wait about a year to harvest your first castings. It’s easiest to begin a couple of months before you want to harvest, by feeding only on one side of the box. Most of the worms will migrate to the food leaving the other side free to harvest. Sift your castings through a screen to remove any large, uncomposted chunks, and any worms that didn’t get the memo.

Catching Chickens

People who count their chickens before they are hatched act very wisely, because chickens run about so absurdly that it is impossible to count them accurately.

— Oscar Wilde

Craigslist and I have a bit of a love/hate thing goin’ on. I check the farm and garden section daily for deals and opportunities, and while many times the sellers are unreliable and the merchandise crap, sometimes I find a gem. Like last week, when I was the first to answer an ad for a large flock of four-month-old laying hens. Usually free chickens are geriatric; no more prone to lay an egg than knit a sweater, so when I saw their age, I pounced. A wonderful woman named Bridget responded, and explained that the chickens had been a sort of rescue mission. Their original owners apparently hadn’t realized that when you combine a hen and a rooster, you get many, many little chickens. They were planning on leaving the chickies out in the cold to die, so Bridget, who was blessed with a whole human heart, offered to take them in and secure a new home.

On Wednesday I headed out to North Hero, one of the Champlain islands, to pick up my new friends. I brought a few small cardboard boxes and a cat carrier. I had been dubious about the size of the boxes, but Cory’s father assured me it was OK to “cram them in”. When I arrived, Bridget eyed the boxes with suspicion. It had come out during introductions that neither of us had ever chased chickens with the intent of actually catching one, and I think the appearance of my pitiful cardboard cemented her notion that this was not going to be a pleasant experience.

The chickens were housed in a horse stall. They were beautiful but skittish, careening around the stall in a colorful herd. In the center of the stall was the huge dog carrier they had arrived in. Fortunately Bridget was willing to let me borrow the carrier, and we soon abandoned the boxes in favor of this far superior option.

It was chaos. Chickens shrieking, feathers flying, round and round we chased. Our only real hope was to herd them towards a corner where we could snatch them up and fling them, one by one, into the dog crate. I turned out to be quite skilled at the snatchin’ and flingin’ and soon they were all secured. I have no real idea how many chickens there were, but it seemed like thousands. I had been told I would be getting ten, but I ended up leaving one behind (I think it was dead. It was jammed into a corner and not moving. I didn’t investigate further). When I stopped at a gas station on the way home, I counted 12. Whatever.

When I got home It dawned on me for the first time that I had a giant dog crate full of grousing chickens in the back of my car. I had to leave for work in less than three hours and I was the only one home. I had managed to keep them relatively calm on the ride with a rousing rendition of Old MacDonald (I’m not kidding), but now they were fussing. Beginning to panic, I searched through the garage for something helpful. What I found was two long pieces of plywood I could use as a ramp. I leaned one end against the bumper of my Forester, slid out the crate and dragged it over to the chicken yard. The chickens did not find any of this amusing, but they lived. So did I, albeit covered in chicken poo.

Bacon Tears

A peasant becomes fond of his pig and is glad to salt away its pork. What is significant, and is so difficult for the urban stranger to understand, is that the two statements are connected by an “and” not by a “but”.
– John Berger
 

Tuesday was the day. Pig day. I was upset to learn that the Slaughter-er (I don’t think that’s actually what he’s called, it just sounds better than Pig Killer) wasn’t able to come until two in the afternoon, an hour after I’d left for work, and three hours before Cory came home. I fretted for days about leaving them alone to their fate, but I had a plan.

On Tuesday, about an hour and a half before PK was due to arrive, I mixed a bottle of apple jack with several handfuls of grain in a five gallon bucket. I let the grain absorb the apple jack and then added a half a bottle of corn syrup, and a few dashes of cinnamon. I had been assured by reputable sources that getting them drunk would be enough to take the edge off any awareness they might have.

I brought the bucket out to the pigs and dumped the contents into a shallow trough near their feeder. They trotted over and shuffled through my offering. At first I thought they were digging in, but I soon realized they were just moving it around, like kids with unwanted broccoli. I scooped up handfuls of the goop and held it under their noses, cooing, trying to tempt them. It didn’t work. I put some into their feeder, but they nosed it out of the way and continued eating their regular grain. I kicked myself, realizing I should have tied up their feeder the night before so that they would have been especially hungry.

I finally gave up, and left for work feeling a little sick.  

So, nothing went quite as planned. I wanted to be there, or at least know that Cory was there, but from what I was told it was very quick, just one bullet each. In the end it was their good natures that made it easy. When PK arrived, they went right up to him, giving him a clean shot. Walter went first. Flo oinked a bit and scurried into the hut, but she soon came out, trotting right back to PK. Cory, in a lachrymose moment, suggested that she may have gone willingly because she decided she couldn’t live without Walter. This sentiment will haunt me.

I told Cory it was extraordinary that I’ve been eating pigs for 29 years without having any idea what that meant; without really knowing where the meat came from. Cory shook his head. “You knew the meat came from a pig,” he said. “You just didn’t know what a pig actually was before now.” 

I’ve decided not to buy pork products in the grocery store anymore. It’s important that I raise the pigs I eat. If I don’t raise a pig, I don’t have to eat a pig. Now that I know what a pig is, I can’t be so careless.

Living with Pigs

Death is a very dull, dreary affair, and my advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it.

-W. Somerset Maugham

I’ve been trying to figure out how best to proceed with the pig slaughter. Cory is convinced that I should be away from home when the deed is done to ensure I don’t hurl myself between pig and bullet, but I’m not so convinced. I’ve spent the last few days researching how to kill a pig. I wouldn’t recommend this as a pleasant pastime, especially if you have access to YouTube, but my overall fear has diminished. As they say, knowledge is power. My favorite account so far has been by Chuck Wooster of Sunrise Farm in White River Junction, Vermont. In his book Living with Pigs, Wooster devotes more than 2 full pages to “emotional preparation” for slaughter day, something no other source of my acquaintance did. He describes how he felt after his first pig slaughter…

“I was tired and dirty and ready for sleep…But I also felt a distinct skip in my step and an enormous sense of competence. It wasn’t just the pride of a job well done, though I certainly felt some of that. It was the pride of tackling a job that most people find too horrifying to even consider, let alone to discuss in polite company, and discovering that it wasn’t so bad after all. Discovering, in fact, that it was a job full of richness and meaning, wonder and learning. An unforgettable experience…”

This description strengthened my resolve to at least be there. I don’t think I’m ready to kill a pig myself. I’m terrified that my lack of experience would somehow result in suffering for Walter and Flo, something I could never forgive myself for, but I think I need to at least be there. I can’t leave the house one morning, scratch Walter behind the ears and then come home that night to find him in the freezer. I don’t need any more disconnect between my food and its source; I’ve had that my whole life. The goal now is to firmly and permanently make the connections, and maybe that means seeing this through to the end.

Meet the Girls!

Here they are! I’ve been researching breeds but if anyone knows for sure what my girls are I’d be appreciative. We’re naming them slowly as we discover personalities.