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Holy Crap Bees, also I am a forgetful planter

So I have no idea what the viney things at the south end of our garden are this year, other than “Some kind of melon or squash” but whatever they are, we are going to be drowning in them. The strawberries are already producing epic amounts of berries compared to previous years, the zucchini have just started flowering and as soon as a flower open a bee gets to it and it closes and sets fruit, it seems like.

Turns out having a busy hive of resident pollinators really does make a difference. I’m more than a little bit afraid of what’s going to happen when the beans and peas start flowering. The peas nearly buried us last year and that was without a beehive 50 feet away. This year I suspect we’ll be trolling the streets of Fredericksburg and Culpeper looking for cars with their windows down so we can leave bags of peas in them, and with an 80 Gallon air compressor so we could steal it. Ok, that last part may be a lie!

But next year I’m definitely keeping a record of what I’ve planted where, so I have some idea what kind of fruit or vegetable the garden is about to bury us in.

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Busy bee watch the world go by

I did my first hive inspection since releasing my queen bee from her little cage yesterday, and am happy to report that the hive is thriving! There was brood in all stages of development from eggs to larvae to pupae to capped, there were cells of stored pollen, and best of all the bees had drawn at least some comb on all eight of the bars I’d started them on. I gave them two more bars to work on, a new jar of sugar syrup, and opened up another entrance to the hive so the foragers would have an easier time getting in and out.

Establishing the hive has been a fit of drama in and of itself. I got my first package of bees this spring from Virginia Bee Supply, one of two local apiaries, after doing my internet research and finding nothing but good reviews. I picked the package up at the end of March, brought it home, went to install it in the hive and…the queen was dead.

A beehive cannot live without a queen. In a normal hive if something happens to her, the workers will make an emergency replacement if they have brood of the right age to turn into a queen cell. But a package of bees doesn’t have any brood, it’s just 3 pounds of loose bees who have to start from scratch. With no queen, they’re basically a headless body and doomed to die.

So I called immediately and let Virginia Bee Supply know that my queen was dead. They told me to wait 3-5 days because there was probably a queen loose in the package. Weather conspired to make me wait a week, and when I opened the hive all I Found was dead bees. I sent them an e-mail to explain that to them, and they told me to combine the remaining bees with another hive. No good, I didn’t have another hive. Anyway, what I had paid for was 3 pounds of bees and a live queen. Not, y’know, 3 pounds of dead bees who just didn’t know it yet. I sent them another e-mail and suggested that the appropriate thing to do at this point would be to refund my money.

And then I didn’t hear from them for two weeks. At which point I e-mailed them again because what I had left was six bees clinging morosely to the inside of the hive. I recapped our previous correspondence and again requested a refund. This time they got back to me and said of course they’d refund me, since they hadn’t heard from me since the initial call to say the queen was dead, they assumed everything was fine.

Insert sound of record screech. Wait, what? I had the e-mail right there in front of me where I explained that I didn’t have another hive and would like a refund please. You know, the one they ignored. Right. Anyway, I got my refund out of them about a month after receiving a box of dead bees flying. Meanwhile I had ordered another package from Pigeon Mountain Trading Company.

I waited anxiously for a ship notice from them, and never got one…but one morning while the neighbor was working on my truck and my CRV was still dead, I got a call from the post office saying that there was a box of bees waiting for me. Wait, what? So I called the neighbor and got him to hurry on my truck and went and got my bees a couple hours later, much to the relief of the postal worker. He was pretty sure the three hitchhikers on the outside of the package meant that the bees were escaping, despite my reassurances.

That second package arrived hale and healthy and ready to go, with a marked queen in her little cage. She was significantly larger than the dead queen in the first package was, for that matter. And her colony is thriving, working away at filling up the hive with comb and brood and food. They’re building beautiful straight comb on the top bars just like they’re supposed to, almost as if they’ve read the same books on top bar beekeeping that I have.

It’s fascinating to just stand outside the hive and watch them work, really. You can get quite close and they do not partiularly care; once you get to about three feet out a guard bee will bonk you with her head to warn you off but otherwise they are too focused on gathering pollen and nectar to bother a quiet human who just wants to stand and watch the foragers zoom in and out.

At any rate, Virginia Bee Supply may be a great place to get hives, and even a great place to get bees if everything happens like it’s supposed to, but my experience suggests they’re rather useless when something goes wrong. Bees from Pigeon Mountain are great, and they have good prices on things like protective gear, but don’t send shipping notices when mailing you three pounds of stinging insects who will make your post office personnel very, very nervous. Hopefully this will be the last time I need to buy a package, though. I don’t intend to go into professional beekeeping, after all, and would like to top out at 2-3 hives. I hope to be able to establish those hives by splitting my original hive, since these are such lovely, peaceful, productive bees. I’ve also contemplated ordering a queen from hardy survivor stock that a localish apiary sells when it’s time to split the hive.

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I am the chicken grinch.

Every so often, someone writes to me to ask my advice about keeping chickens. Their goals usually boil down to “we want eggs” and sometimes also “we want to teach our children where food comes from.” These are admirable goals, even if the second one is rather dishonest — the eggs in the supermarket do not come from pet hens in backyards but from battery farms where the hens have a space about as large as a sheet of paper. I will go on record as saying I don’t think its a good idea to spring the realities of factory farming on your three-year-old, but neither do I think you need to outright lie.

Anyhoo. This has become more common as the backyard chicken thing takes off, although I think it’s now reached critical mass, and these well-meaning people often have some really drastic misconceptions about what keeping your own chickens means. I am then left with the unenviable position of pointing out all the problems with their plan.

1) You will certainly get fresher eggs, but unless your hens are free-ranging and the majority of their diet coming from pasture and bugs, the nutritional profile of the eggs from your hens is going to be pretty much the same as the ones you get in the supermarket. Free-range eggs are lower in cholesterol and higher in omega fatty acids, but eggs from a hen who lives in a coop in your back yard and eats commercial chicken feed with the occasional snack of kitchen scraps are not free-range hens.

2) Your eggs will not be “hormone free”. Hens in commercial egg farms are not treated with hormones to make them lay, as there’s no need. You can force a hen to lay by manipulating the level of light to which she’s exposed, which is what commercial egg farms do. Dairy is another story entirely.

3) Your eggs will be free of antibiotics. Some commercial egg farms do prophylactically treat hens with antibiotics. They need to because their hens are living in miserable, high-stress conditions. So as long as you’re not treating your hens with antibiotics, your eggs will be free of them. Keep in mind, however, that your hens may get sick and need treatment. They may get worms and need treatment. If you withhold treatment they need in the name of organic breakfast eggs, you’re an asshole.

4) You will not make money on chickens. You just won’t. You cannot compete with the economy of scale that commercial producers can leverage. It will cost you more to keep 3 or 4 hens at home for the eggs than to just buy your eggs at the grocery store, even if you are buying organic free-range eggs. I used to keep a spreadsheet amortizing the cost of feed and chicken facilities over the number of eggs produced. It got too depressing when it bottomed out at around $1 an egg, so I stopped.

You will also not make money selling offspring from your chickens. You are competing with the big hatcheries, and the people who will pay serious money for chickens are not going to want yours unless you have dedicated yourself to building a reputation on the poultry show circuit. This will take you years. There is no financial incentive to keeping chickens on a small scale.

5) There are only two ways to ensure you do not get roosters: either don’t keep chickens, or only buy adult hens. Vent sexing is 80-90 percent accurate, so even if you buy from the commercial hatcheries, you may still end up with a rooster or two. This leads us to another hard truth: as my friend s. e. smith stopped just short of saying when covering this, the name for extra roosters is “food.”

Even people like me, who live in the country and want roosters because we have a self-sustaining dual-purpose flock only need one rooster per ten hens. There is not a large market for pet roosters. It doesn’t matter if he is the sweetest rooster ever, if you tenderly hand-raised him for 8 weeks in a brooder in your spare bedroom, whatever reason you’re trying to convince yourself of. He is a surplus rooster, and the word for surplus roosters is “food.” If you are going to keep chickens, if you are going to hatch some eggs to teach your children about the miracle of life, then you have to come to terms with that.

You can try to sell your spare rooster. If you price him too high, say over $5, the odds are very slim anyone will buy him. If you price him under that, the odds are good that the person who comes to get him is going to eat him. If you can’t handle that, then hatching your own chickens or buying them as chicks is not for you. Stick to buying adult hens.

6) If a breed is “rare” then the odds are the gene pool is small and unhealthy. Someone is going to be upset with me for saying that, but it’s sadly true. Blue-laced red Wyandottes, a very pretty chicken, are the type I’ve seen it in most recently. They have a hard time thriving as chicks, and even as adults seem prone to mysteriously dying at a higher rate than other chickens.

People will try to tell you that “inbreeding doesn’t matter” with chickens. These people are at best misguided and at worst consciously lying to you. Chickens that have been relentlessly linebred for a particular look will have problems with fertility, with thriftiness, and with hardiness. You will end up babying them along and they’ll still drop dead at an alarming rate. THe problem here is that to keep an inbred line of animals healthy, you must cull relentlessly for fertility, thriftiness, and hardiness. Most people don’t. Beginner chicken owners are better off with a common breed purchased from a large hatchery, where egg-laying productivity matters, unless you want to have to coddle your chickens along for not much return.

If you truly want chickens who can thrive free-ranging with minimal human intervention, look for a flock of farmyard mutts. Local predators will have done the culling if the farmer didn’t do it herself.

7) The very last brutal disillusionment I have for would-be chicken owners: hens are loud. A hen’s egg-song is often just as loud as a rooster’s crow, and goes on for a lot longer. A hen will yell the characteristic “BWOCK BWOCK BGAWK” for as long as five minutes straight without ceasing. There are individual variations, of course, just as there are individual variations in pitch, length, and volume of rooster crows. But you should probably let go of the idea that you’re going to be able to keep chickens in an urban or suburban setting without your neighbors noticing.

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In love with dirt, or: Becoming the Fungus Fairy

One of the amazing things about my life is the amazing people in it. Today I got a package of fungus spores from Bountiful Gardens (along with some seeds I had also ordered). These two things are intimately connected.

My friend Gowan, you see, is a Horticultural Oracle, and a great gift she has given me is to share her love of dirt.

Most of us don’t think to much about the dirt, really. It’s there, the plants grow in it and we walk on it, and some things burrow through it, but mostly we fail to appreciate that dirt is not a dead and inert mass of decayed organic matter and pulverized rock and whatever minerals are leached out of the rain. It’s a ginormous organism, teeming with life. Macro organisms like earthworms are there, sure, but also micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi, that work together with plants to make plants healthier and more efficient at extracting nutrients from soil and putting nutrients into soil. Beneath our feet are entire worlds.

Conventional farming kills these tiny, complex worlds. The plowing and harrowing and tilling break up the delicate networks of micorrhizae, expose tender bacteria to ultraviolet light from the sun and the drying air above ground. We plant our crops in soil impoverished by the death and destruction of the soil organisms, and as a result end up having to drench them in chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

So here I am with a back acre that was denuded of topsoil a decade or two ago by a rapacious former owner, goats and chickens to feed, and the excellent guidance of a Horticultural Oracle to lead me on my way. In hand I have packets of seeds — legumes, vetches, grasses — and packets of soil organisms. Also, I have a steady and reliable supply of chicken and goat manure, along with their used bedding, which is working on becoming compost (with help from the chickens themselves). But it would take a lot more compost than I’ve got to get the back acre turned from a desolate wasteland of thorny brush and invasive trash pines into good forage for the critters, hence the seeds and spores.

The goats have done a magnificent job of clearing away what dead growth there was and pruning back the pine trees until the plants that are there could get some sunshine. The chickens did some loosening of the soil surface but not enough, so I cheated and got my neighbor to run over the naked bits with his tiller just this once, so that my seeds and spores wouldn’t just slide off the compacted surface of the clay at the first rain. The chickens, helpfully, have been going over the tilled areas and breaking the big clumps of soil up, and also pooping and then tilling that into the soil for me, so there’s little pockets of plant nutrition here and there.

After this Saturday, the poor chickens will lose their liberty for a while. Hopefully I will sell off all the spare bantams, and then the chickens will be confined to quarters so that I can go traipsing through the tilled bits of the back acre, scattering seeds and spores and water without being followed by mob of ravenous feathery beasts intent on snarfing down my precious seeds. After that, it’s up to the seeds, the spores, and the good Lord’s inclination to give me lots of sunshine but just enough rain to germinate the little buggers. By springtime, it is entirely possible that the blighted back acre will be well on its way to an accelerated recovery of topsoil, helped along by the application of extra compost when available and deposits of used goat bedding and fallen leaves from the oak trees. With grace, the dead areas will turn green with clover and vetch and grasses and brassicas, and once the plant life is mature enough that it’s no longer primarily water, the goats and chickens will be turned loose to devour and turn the greenery into more compost, which will decay there on the dirt and provide food for yet more plants.

Some day, I may even be able to look back at that acre and see a pasture of amazing rich forage with nearly entirely recovered soil, and I won’t need to monitor it as religiously for a need for another application of seed or spores. All because Gowan shared with me a love of dirt.

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Eat Like The Nobility: Memories of J

So Miss May gives us about 3 quarts of milk a day. This maybe doesn’t sound like a lot if your house features several kids who like milk, but for two adults it’s more than plenty. This leads to me getting creative with the milk, because with such a surplus there’s no harm in experimenting, and it won’t go to waste — if nothing else, we can compost it and use it to grow nommy vegetables.

My latest Dairy Experiment had people looking at me funny when I brought it up, but when they actually tasted it they were forced to agree that it was pretty divine. It reminds me of my friend J, not only because she took me out for ice cream when I visited her, but because she has this perfect voice when she wants to: low, smooth, and soothing. I am pretty sure that J could convince me that it’s perfectly fine for rabid weasels to gnaw my leg off, because that’s what kind of voice it is. She can turn this amazing vocal apparatus on and off at the drop of a hat, going from “don’t mind those rabid weasels” to expressively joking about how the rabid weasels are coming for you. Actually generally she’s just a pretty amazing person. But her Don’t Mind The Weasels voice reminds me of chocolate. Also, she knows where to find the best ice cream ever.

You’ll need an ice cream maker and:

3c fresh experimental goat cheese, made from two gallons of fresh goat milk and 1 packet fromage blanc starter & 1 packet chevre starter. If you can’t get this, you can substitute cream cheese.
2c or so fresh goat milk. If you don’t have your own goat, you may substitute half and half from the store. Or heavy cream. Ice cream is NOT the time to worry about your cholesterol levels, ok?
3/4c white cane sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
1c cocoa

Mix the 3c of cheese with milk until you get a smooth, kinda but not really liquidy texture. I tried doing this in my blender. My blender now hates me and I ready to check magic bullet vs nutribullet. Unless you have a heavy-duty blender, you should do this in a bowl with a spatula, instead. Once you have a nice smooth kinda but not really liquidy texture from your dairy products, go ahead and fold in the sugar, vanilla, and cocoa. Mix well. Adjust the texture one last time with any last-minute additions of liquid milk.

Then stuff as much of the mixture as will fit into your ice cream maker, and leave it there until it becomes a delicious smooth creamy chocolatey amazing frozen treat. While you’re waiting, eat the leftovers that didn’t fit in the ice cream maker with a spoon, or possibly use them to ice some cupcakes if you happen to have any naked cupcakes sitting around.

Wait for the heat index to climb into triple digits, break out your amazing treat, and enjoy. I suggest having it for dinner, because that’s the kind of carefree life I lead, what with not having children to raise.

PS — TomorrowThursday the goats will make the call on the Soap Giveaway. Did you tell me which soap of Kate’s you’d like to try, yet? You have 2036 hours to get your entry in! (Edited because I realize I’d said the goats would pick on the 26th, leaving entries open through the 25th)

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Keeping Fertility on the Farm

So I’ve been reading Mini Farming by Brett Markham, which is kind of an amazing book because it manages to take small-space intensive agriculture, which is a subject that I find absolutely fascinating, and turn it into one of the most godawful boring things on the planet. Seriously, Mr. Markham may be great with plants but his prose is seriously dry and plodding and tedious. How, I ask you, can you make compost boring? How is that even possible?

But one thing he said really resonated with me, which is this: keep the fertility on the land. When you grow a plant, there’s a lot of it you don’t harvest. Think of pea vines: you eat the pods, but then what do you do with the vines? Or corn, what happens to the stalks after you harvest the ears? These plants have taken nutrients from your soil, and wasting the part you didn’t eat just means you’re depleting the soil that much faster. Which is one reason we compost: to turn plants back into dirt, which will grow more food for us.

Once you start composting everything, you start seeing everything as soil nutrients brought in or going out (review post on modern composters). We don’t grow most of the feed for chickens and goats, we buy it. And then we compost the goat and chicken poo. Voila, a net gain of soil productivity, a transfer from the farmers who grew the grains that make the feed or who grew the hay to us. Then again, we also run the plants we grow through the goats and chickens whenever we can before composting. The goats in particular will help things along by breaking down the cellulose of the plants in their amazing rumens before we put it on the compost pile in the form of goat poo.

This is probably a slight loss of fertility from the soil, transferred from dirt to plants to animals to compost and then back to dirt, but on the other hand it does ensure that whatever we grow in our soil feeds us even if we don’t eat it directly ourselves, by nourishing the beasties who provide us with milk and eggs and meat. Om nom nom. And there’s always those imports of soil nutrients in the form of goat and chicken feed to think about.

Our garden is also small enough right now that we are going to have a kind of amazing surplus of compost when it comes time to dig more through our beds, which is nice because it means we will also have some to spare for some of the more blighted areas of the back acre. The back acre is where the goats are pastured and the chickens we allow to free range (because we’re mostly OK with the fact that they might get eaten by something not us) go, and it would be nice to be able to grow good fodder for them back there, which they will then deposit in the form of manure, which will melt into the soil, which will grow more fodder, and the amazing cycle goes on. (review website on modern Permaculture).

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Andrea’s Top Tips for being a Crippled Homesteader

A lot of the homesteading movement is geared toward people who are not just non-disabled but, well, pretty active. I do OK some days, other days (like today) I spend 6 hours asleep in the middle of the day while waiting for the painkillers to kick in. Exciting. So anyway, I thought I’d share the ways I cope, and if there’s any other crippled homesteaders out there who want to chime in, feel free! It’s not like I’ve figured EVERYTHING out.

1) Know your limits.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially if you’re like me and your limits vary from day to day. Some days I get around with no mobility aid, other days I only get around courtesy of vicodin and a wheelchair. But you need to know, basically, what you can regularly do so that you can scale your homesteading efforts appropriately. Two goats are easier to care for than many goats; a trio of bantam Leghorn hens will be easier to care for than a flock of ten standard-sized egg layers; a garden needs intensive heavy physical labor maybe twice a year and the rest of the time it’s pretty light. Perennial vegetables like asparagus and long-lived things like fruit trees and hazelnut bushes can take much of the heavy work out of getting food from your own space if you have the time to wait for them to be productive and are willing to lose some to the birds and animals every year.

2) Know what’s really important to you.
For me, it’s about minimizing suffering while still enjoying ice cream and pudding and tasty, tasty tomatoes. So we’ve kind of gone whole-hog (or at least whole-goat and whole-chicken and whole-garden). But I’m lucky in a big way which we will discuss momentarily, and maybe you’re depending on your own variable resources. So my suggestion is say “Fuck that” to the people who act like your efforts are worthless if you haven’t gone totally off-grid, and pick one thing that’s really important to you and do that. If you want to stop supporting industrial egg production, go for a little PVC chicken tractor and a trio of bantam egg-layers, or even a pair of big egg layers. If you have the land and want to take a swing at the dairy industry, a pair of Nigerian Dwarf goats may be just the thing. If you are seriously into amazing tomatoes and hate the labor conditions on commercial tomato farms, you could go nuts with container-gardening tomatoes.

3) Enlist help.
As I mentioned above, I’m lucky — because I have a big muscly husband who likes gardens. This means that I can have my organic garden because I have someone around who will dig over the beds as needed. Once established, the garden beds do not necessarily need digging-over, but our native soil is crap. As in, there is no nitrogen in it whatsoever. As in, yes, we tested the soil and the nitrogen reactant? Did not react. That means that if we want to grow things, copious amounts of compost must be added to the dirt, and that requires much digging.

You may not have a big muscly husband who can be persuaded to dig you some garden beds on-demand, but! Do you have a neighbor with a roto-tiller? A friend who will help out setting up your container garden? Someone who will carry 50lb bags of feed from your car to your storage area in return for eggs from the chickens who will eat the feed? It is kind of amazing, I have discovered, what people will do for fresh eggs. They will do even more for fresh goat cheese, if you are inclined to have goats and make cheese.

4) Be willing to not be perfect.
Doing everything you need to do to have a self-sustaining organic farm that provides all your needs? Requires that you be able-bodied and have a shit-ton of time on your hands, let me tell you. Also you will need to be independently wealthy. Let go of the idea that your agricultural efforts must be perfect. Your garden does not have to be pretty as well as productive. It does not even have to be maximally productive, if what you want from it and what you are able to do mean that you will not be working your plot of ground intensively. That’s OK. No, seriously, it is.

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I still can’t say I’ve killed a chicken.

If discussion of butchering and processing chickens (although nothing graphic, I promise) is likely to bother you, you should probably stop here. I’m even sticking this under a cut tag, although some feed platforms don’t honor those, hence this warning up top.

Continue reading I still can’t say I’ve killed a chicken.