Tuesday, November 22, 2011

It All Comes Back To Manure

We need all of our farmers.  I firmly believe that. Trial and error and ten years of trying to learn how to manage something  resembling a farm has taught me that no one can wave a magic wand and make a professional who can wisely manage natural resources, operate and maintain machines, fix buildings, design and construct infrastructure, supply field labor, deliver lambs at 1 AM,  fix a leaky kitchen faucet, push a teenager to get the  chores done and drive an 11 year old to hockey. We need all of our farmers because they know something about everything.

When I came back from the ACORN conference in Halifax last week, pumped full of information until it was leaking out of my pores, I called on a young farmer in my neighborhood to share the information I'd learned with him.  You see, one of the things I learned at ACORN was that this potent and highly concentrated input needs to be spread around.  It's no good just keeping it in a bag in the barn.

So we talked about soil and seeds and fertility for about an hour when this young conventional farmer said, "You know, I've been looking at it.  And it all comes back to manure". He'd just this year produced the best corn crop he'd ever had by loading up his soil with manure from his cows instead of buying in chemical fertilizer.

In 1969 an oil well blew out in the Santa Barbra Channel and flooded our beaches with crude oil.  It was an environmental disaster that created the first Earth Day. The students of the new environmental sciences, our "alternative" neighbors and people all over the world woke up and saw that we were making a mess and something had to be done about it.  Lines were drawn. The politics of the environment were born.  Many good things came of that movement but something went wrong.

Santa Barbara County is an agricultural area on the coast of California that also has fishermen and oil production. We have old cowboys from families that go back to the Spanish and Mexican land grants of the colonial era.  These families worked to manage grazing and pasture for beef and tended their lands responsibly for generations. They weren't ready for the kind of people promoting Earth Day in 1970. When the lines were drawn around the ecological movement, these "descendientes" excluded themselves and there was no effort made to include them in.  That was a mistake on both sides.

When I was 24, I volunteered to help work 350 head of range cattle on a family "brush ranch". I met a rancher  who was the descendant of people who had worked that land for 130 years. The owner had been educated at UC Berkeley.  This was not the red-neck cowboy I had imagined. And in fact I later learned that our University system had been supported by families like his so that their sons and daughters could get a first class education in their own state and bring that education back home to the farm and their communities.  It turned out that that old cowboy was the one who lost the family ranch a few years later. I know for a fact that he later died of a broken heart. I was at his memorial with his stetson, his riata, his work saddle and his family who no longer had the home their grandfathers and grandmothers built.   

The young farmer I was visiting last week was interested in the material I brought back from Halifax on soil science. We started talking about biological farming.  And we talked about an old man in our neighborhood, recently departed, who farmed naturally all his life.  Not because it was the thing to do, but because it was something he'd proven over a lifetime.  The young farmer and I talked about bringing up seaweed from the shore for mineral supplement to feed the fields.  And we talked about pellet fertilizer. The young farmer thought for a moment.  "The old man said, 'You don't need to put that "hail" on the field.  Everything you need is right here.  We never put that stuff on and we always had a good crop'."  The old  man put kelp and manure on his fields and rotated his crops.  "It all comes back to manure"        

We need our farmers. All of them. The young farmer and I have listened to and learned from "Los Viejos" - the old ones. When we lose a farmer we break the chain of generations of knowledge on the land.  And as the young farmer and I can tell you - it's a long hard row to hoe getting it back. But the old men still try to tell us, "Don't lose what we worked for. Nature is giving you everything you need right here".  

Monday, November 14, 2011

Occupy Soil - A Micro Revolution

I've just returned from the ACORN conference in Halilfax, Nova Scotia.  ACORN is the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network and it represents and embodies organic agriculture in the Maritime Provinces.

First of all I have to thank ACORN for the fine job they did to bring such a diverse group of people together to represent the organic community in our region.  I spent three days totally absorbed in seminars collecting valuable information, not only about how I'll work my  farm, but to see that more small farmers are putting local agricultural products and farming careers within reach of more families, individuals, partners and local communities.

And I do have to comment on the diversity of participants.  We're all aware of Occupiers and Tea Partiers and the social and political differences rabidly promoted by our spectator media.  But this gathering included those who defied those definitions and divisions.  I met an evangelical Christian, a home schooling mom, a Libertarian, a small business owner, a wealth manager looking for a change in life, a dogged small farmer in pursuit of agricultural profits, a young person interested in shaping their own alternatives, an artist who was engineering his own technology solutions, a "hippie" looking for independence from corporations.  These people of diverse ideology were not in opposition to one another, nor were they actively protesting anything.  They were embracing the means to take peaceful action with their own hands. It was civil. It was orderly and it was radical. We weren't there to protest the status quo. We're already changing it literally from the ground up.

And speaking of ground.  The seminars on soil biology, plant health and permaculture left my eyes wide open. I had previously read Gary F. Zimmer's book, "The Biological Farmer". And this summer I was browsing in Michael Phillips book, The Apple Grower, both of which provide detailed information relating the science of soil biology to plant health.  But Av Singh's presentations at ACORN really bridged the gap for me between science and field experience.  His description of a holistic approach based on science plus farmer observation and experience made my day.  He gave me the scientific keys to unlock what I see in my own fields.

Now.  There's more than one way to do just about everything.  And I was very interested in the seminars on organic standards and allowable inputs.  But the magic happened when a theory I hadn't really understood was explained.  Everything your plants need to be healthy can be found in a biologically healthy soil system.
The key - is making everything available to your crop - at the right time.  This is master level stuff.

But think of it like this.  If you drink too much on Saturday night and your system is out of balance, you won't be at your best on Sunday morning. Which, by the way, is why airline pilots aren't allowed to fly with a hangover.  Now, you can treat the symptom by taking a few Tylenol, or you can work on putting your whole system back into balance and decide not to put too much alcohol into your system again. You can imagine what's going on in our soil body when we don't keep it in balance.  We're trying to grow plants in soil that has a hangover.  

Going for optimal soil biology is probably the hardest way to go about optimal plant health.  It's so much easier to dump in some organically allowed inputs imported from who knows where and call it good.  But then we're just practicing the same bad medicine that got us in trouble in the first place.

So yes, I learned some things about why our crop yields aren't what they could be.  And yes, I 've learned how to apply organic corrections to my soil.  But I'm motivated to face this new challenge of growing healthy soil from start to finish because I know that the only "sustainable" agriculture comes from the micro-biological level up.

Tip O'Neil is famously quoted as saying, "All politics is local". I guess the same can be said for soil.  
Our land has been farmed for 200 years and I'm now 52 years old.  Our short term goal is to take a living from our farm.  But our long term goal is to leave good soil for the next farmer.


Sunday, November 6, 2011

A Conversation With Coyotes

I walked the lane from our home, almost a quarter mile to the gate that opens on the pasture closest to the house and peed on the gate posts.  Then I walked along the fence line to the gate that leads to the next field above the house and peed some more.  I was leaving a statement for the coyote pack that counts our farm as their territory.  Don't cross this line. This is mine.

That's what I did as we put our first batch of 50 pastured chickens into pens on the pasture.  And we had no trouble from coyotes.  But when we put our second batch of 50 on the pasture, we lost them all.

Coyotes aren't native to PEI. Like us, they are CFA's (Come From Away's) who are variously accepted, tolerated, hunted and trapped.  We know there is a an active pack in our neighborhood.  They make themselves known on a regular basis in an interesting variety of ways.  Coyote is a sensible dog.  In native lore he is, "The Trickster". He is part fool, part shape-shifter, part devil.

When the pack is in our area, it moves, not in a bunch, but as a picket line through the woods.  Rabbits and ground animals beware,  if coyote flushes you from cover, the pack will finish you and a wild celebration of howling will mark victory.  About 4:00 AM some days ago I heard a scream that sounded like a child in pain in the woods.  It was followed by the celebratory yip and howl of a coyote who had just taken down a good sized rabbit.  My dog, Annie heard it too.  If you've ever heard a rabbit scream, you know what I'm talking about.          

In the days that followed all was quiet.

Then, last night there was the sharp yip and howl of a lone voice just behind the house in the woods. It was an announcement. "I Am HERE!"   But "here" was a little too close for me.  So I walked into the dark and gave a series of deep throated barks at intervals.  As I moved up to the tree line I pinpointed it's position.  Coyote shouted back.  Now not so certain and then giving ground back into the field behind the trees.
We never saw each other.  But communication was being made and it was plain enough. I was saying,
"STAY AWAY!" And he backed off.

After quiet was restored, I went back into the house and went to bed.  About 20 minutes later, I was paged through the closed windows of my room by a faint high wailing that sounded like a cell phone in my sleepy state.  I got up to open the window and heard coyote's latest broadcast now very close to the edge of our field.  I barked back which set my dogs into a few minutes of growling and boof-ing at the intruder. Then we all settled down and the night was quiet again.

Last summer, I read Farley Mowat's 1963 book, "Never Cry Wolf". He details his experiences living with  and observing a wild wolf pack in the far north.  He learned the rules that determine the territory of the hunting wolf packs and observed the disciplined social behavior that guarantees survival of hunting groups and preserves peace between them.  It was his book that encouraged me to take the initiative of communicating with my wild canine neighbors by marking my boundries.

I have two dogs.  I love dogs. And I understand dogs.  The canine in the wild is not the babied simpleton we raise as pets.  It is a canny, wild hunter.  It belongs to a society that has rules and it understands a lot about its environment. And I'm convinced, after thousands of years of proximity with man,  it knows exactly who we are.

This morning I walked the lane from our home almost a quarter mile to the gate that opens on to the pasture closest to the house.  I was getting ready to move the horses out to graze when I saw a little green tootsie roll on the ground in the gate way.  Right on the line I had peed last summer. It was a message from coyote.

We knew coyote in suburban southern California.  He would come out of the fog draped foothills to patrol the empty streets before dawn with a scornful swagger surfing for cats and backyard bowls of free dog food. But here on PEI this local wild dog had left me a note full of animal protein, fur and slim white bones. And the message was, "Chill out man! I know where your boundry is! No need for threats, bro."        
We lost our second batch of 50 chickens on the morning we were planning to take them to be processed.
Something tore through the poultry wire and tore up the the backs of the birds between their wings (a relatively small bite mark), leaving them dead and dying on the ground - but none were taken or eaten. We never knew what got them and I didn't find clear tracks.  But the holes in the wire, the size of the holes, the size of the bite marks and the fact that the birds weren't killed for food told me it was probably raccoons that did it.

Coyote is a trickster. And he's a hunter. But the message he left me said that he's well fed on wild game. He knows where I've marked my ground. And he assumes that he's free to hunt the wild hare that would destroy my garden if the population was left un-challenged.

I have to agree. Even so, this evening I walked the lane from our home up into the fields and "refreshed" my marks.  I offered a howl into the woods that went unanswered.  And I went home satisfied that I had answered coyote for tonight.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Small Plot Organic Grains and Local Farming Gains

While some farmers have "gone big", we've decided to "go small". We're working with small equipment, heirloom seeds and our neighbors to meet our needs on our terms.   

Here's a short video I made in September while cutting our barley with an old International Harvester sickle bar mower and our John Deere tractor.  (UPDATE:  hahaha - blogger and youtube don't like my .mov video! So, think of it as a briefly animated still and imagine a really great video! - JQ)

In north america, grain production has gradually evolved from being part of the small mixed family farm into  a major element of industrial agriculture. Farms now produce hundreds or even thousands of acres of grain with huge energy, tilling, spraying, harvesting and storage costs.    

It costs a lot of money to operate a modern grain growing operation. We don't have the resources to build the farm infrastructure for industrial grain growing. I'm not sure we would want to. But we were encouraged to believe we could meet our own needs with a book written by Gene Logsdon of Ohio, by making traditional homestead grain farming part of our farm crop rotation. The Book is titled, "Small Scale Grain Raising: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing and Using Nutritious Whole Grains for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers.

The point is that while most small organic farms focus on niche vegetables or high value produce, small grain plots can create big benefits on small mixed farms. The book opened my eyes to the amazing yield potential of small plot organic grain farming, the market potential of  growing grain for our animals and selling good whole grains directly to consumers.

Space Requirements

So how much space do you need to produce a bushel of grain? (Notice that bushel weight varies, though each weight is considered a single bushel measure)

Some examples from the book:

Corn = 10' x 50' = 56 lbs
Oats = 10' x 62' = 32 lbs
Barley = 10' x 87' = 48 lbs
Wheat = 10' x 109' = 60 lbs

I don't know about you, but 56 pounds of dried corn turned into meal would pretty much meet my household needs for a year.  Same with 60 pounds of flour.


We have no grain drills or combines. We broadcast seed, harrow it into the soil and harvest by mowing and then hand thresh on the barn floor and winnow in the barn yard. I've found some good ideas for do it yourself small threshing and cleaning equipment on Youtube.  This is not as easy as using heavy equipment...but the yield costs less and the bank doesn't take a cut.  Plus we get a hand made, hand graded and selected product.    

There are a wide variety of home mills available for turning whole grains into cracked grain or flour.  We aren't there yet.  But once we get better at growing and harvesting it would make sense to buy a mill and sell whole or milled grains in household quantities as a value added organic product at the farmers market.

Let's Talk Beer...

So, a guy could grow his own barley and small batch malt the grains for brewing.  In our case, we selected a two row barley that grows well in our climate.  Two row is easier to grow and this variety serves as a malting barley but can also be used for feed grain. While it is not as good as other barley for animal feed, it will serve as animal or human food and most importantly, the basis for beer. And 48 pounds of barley from a plot the size of a large suburban yard will make a lot of beer.

Working With Neighbors

We bought in our organic chicken feed this year at a about $35.00 for 50 lbs from the local co op.  It cost us roughly twice as much to buy organic feed over conventional feed.  We broke even on our meat chickens.  We've contacted a local organic grain grower and are planning to work directly with the producer to buy what we need.  This is important.  We'll continue to grow small plots of grain because of the direct farm and eventual market benefit.  But we've learned that it's better to go to local people who specialize in a product and support their effort rather than try to carry everything ourselves.

Next up - Using a Home Made Flail on the Threshing Floor 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

This Shining Moment in the Now

I've been at a loss for words for many weeks.  Susan and I have been harvesting, getting the kids back to school and one started in hockey.  We've been cutting and splitting cords of hard wood  for the kitchen stove that will warm us in the winter months to come.  Susan has been collecting seeds to save and doing the painting chores we've been putting off. One day soon I'll be putting a new roof on the leaky old barn.  Every day slips by so quickly in the moment to moment activity of mowing fields, repairing the tractor and hauling in material for compost.  I first heard Garrison Keillor read this poem by David Budbill on The Writers Almanac back in 2005.  A copy now lives on our refrigerator and it perfectly describes Autumn days here on the farm.  I thought you might like it too.

       - JQ

This Shining Moment in the Now

When I work outdoors all day, every day, as I do now, in the fall,
getting ready for winter, tearing up the garden, digging potatoes,
gathering the squash, cutting firewood, making kindling, repairing
bridges over the brook, clearing trails in the woods, doing the last of
the fall mowing, pruning apple trees, taking down the screens,
putting up the storm windows, banking the house—all these things,
as preparation for the coming cold...

when I am every day all day all body and no mind, when I am
physically, wholly and completely, in this world with the birds,
the deer, the sky, the wind, the trees...

when day after day I think of nothing but what the next chore is,
when I go from clearing woods roads, to sharpening a chain saw,
to changing the oil in a mower, to stacking wood, when I am
all body and no mind...

when I am only here and now and nowhere else—then, and only
then, do I see the crippling power of mind, the curse of thought,
and I pause and wonder why I so seldom find
this shining moment in the now.

(Listen to Garrison Keillor read this poem on NPR's, "The Writer's Almanac." 
- requires Real Audio player)

(Update)  Coincidentally IBSPEI is having a Social Forum on Weds., Oct 19.  

IBS/Prince Edward Island Social Forum
‘It’s the Poets Who Really Know What Time It Is’
Wednesday October 19, 7:00 p.m.; 114 Upper Prince St.
Pete Seeger said, ‘There is a time for every purpose.’
In the, Dead Poets Society, John Keating said, ‘There's a time for daring and there's a time for caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.’
William Faulkner wrote, ‘It is the poet's duty is to write about things that have not yet begun...... sometimes while there is still time not to do them.’
Jim Munves said, ‘It’s the poets who really know what time it is.’
Tonight (Wednesday, October 19th) we invite you to bring your poetry (an original or an old favorite) to share. Something that reflects what time it really is.
The Institute for Bioregional Studies Ltd. (IBS), invites you to join our Social Forums. Since 1995, IBS programs have engaged concerned citizens to discuss issues and exchange of ideas in the hope that such activities will be a catalyst for community growth, social development, and action.
Each forum begins with a potluck dinner, followed by a presentation and informal discussion.
For more information, visit our www site at: www.ibspei.ca or write to us at ibs_pei@yahoo.com  

Friday, July 15, 2011

We Recommend The Sandbar and Grill - Panmure Provincial Park - PEI

Angela Ryan is the owner of the Sandbar and Grill at Panmure Island Provincial Park, PEI.  She's not only a local entrepreneur she is a natural hostess.  Anyone invited to sit down at Angela's table knows what I mean. In fact, Angela's island hospitality is one of the reasons I'm here.

Angela hosted the B&B cottage on the shore in PEI where we stayed in spring, 2000.  We were trying to decide whether to buy the farm near Poverty Beach in Murray Harbour North.  As we returned to our cosy cottage to discuss it, we found a note on the door.  Angela invited us to her home for Easter Dinner with her family.  Islanders might not find this unusual. But we urban people, a bit shy by nature about strangers, were surprised.  What do we do?  We accepted of course. And we were treated to a lovely family gathering where we were included as friends and guests.  Needless to say we bought the farm.  Not sure at all that we were doing the right thing.  But trusting everything above that we were indeed welcome in a place where we could make a new start.

Angela has hosted us to many meals and family gatherings since then. Including an informal but lovely 20th anniversary supper for Susan and I where we re-spoke our wedding vows on the shore and Angela had a mini wedding cake, flowers, champagne and dinner for us.  It does sound too good to be true, but that's just how she is. She is a romantic and she loves to see people be happy.  Susan and I erased a terrible row we'd been having and left knowing we were fated to be together for another 20 years - for better and worse!

So now this excellent cook and supreme hostess has her own restaurant with a fine yet unfussy dine-in and take-out menu licensed to serve cold regional beer and fine wines with personal service.  Take it from a man who has lived the good life. I've dined at 5 star California restaurants and eased into beach side haunts from Malibu to Carmel. I've been up and down the West Coast from Mexico to Oregon and across the US from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast and the Carolinas on up to Boston . The Sandbar offers the perfect combination of simple, tasty and well prepared fresh local food served down home style.  Just right for a relaxing supper at the beach.                
You'll find a seafood chowder that makes New Englanders glad they found out about it.  Lobster pot pie, steamed PEI mussels, famous the world over, but fresh from the harvest in local waters and much more. If your young ones are like mine and only a fine grilled cheese sandwich will do, the kitchen will gladly comply to make your family meal delicious and peaceful. A romantic dinner for two can be served inside or out  and family style is always welcome.  

We're proud to be included on the menu at the Sandbar, and Angela shifts her menu to use our best fresh ingredients.  So if you stop in and order chicken, you'll be getting our organic, pasture raised chicken which we delivered fresh to her.  She serves our organic salad greens, broccoli, baby carrots and more.  Whatever we have, she says "I'll take it" and she works her magic on the daily menu specials.

Angela told me, "I want to do everything fresh and local."  And unlike many chefs, she has the skills to work with whatever we bring her to make exceptional fresh meals.  If she owns a can opener I think it spends a lot of time at the back of the drawer.

And desserts?  She makes her own.  You'll want to try the pie.  Blueberry of course (her husband, Greg, is one of the island's top blueberry farmers)  and butterscotch to name two.  When the apples come in this summer - don't hesitate to order apple pie.  And of course, you can always pop in on a hot summer day and have an ice cream cone made with pure cream from PEI's local dairy farmers.

A note for those who like to travel. I was once given a tip to drive 1500 miles to  the Cozy Corner BBQ restaurant in Memphis, Tenn.  I took that tip and was never sorry I made the drive. That's real Memphis BBQ.  And that's what makes touring great. Finding local gems. So this is my tip for you. If you're traveling and you want some authentic local flavor on your visit to PEI, the Sandbar and Grill  on Panmure  Island is the place to stop.      

From California to Tennessee to Boston, Mass. and PEI.  This is what makes life good.  Fresh local ingredients, grown by people who love the land, served up hot by a friendly woman and her staff who know how to cook. They love to make people happy. So no matter where you're from, you'll be down home.

UPDATE: I've added some helpful links in the text to help you find your way.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Philosophy of Lawn Mowing and the Sweetness of Summer.

Happy Canada Day! Summer is finally here on the island!  Warm temps, gentle breezes, mosquitos and black flies and of course GRASS.

Coming from a place where grass grows in the spring rain of March and April and then goes golden brown for the long, hot, dry, summers (unless irrigated with imported water) I still find it amazing that it grows like crazy here. Acres and acres of the stuff! Big beautiful lawns and well kept yards are a source of local pride and regular mowing on PEI.  You'll observe the Provincial flag even features trees and grass.  I make note that the lawn tractor is missing from heraldry. Surely an oversight.  But the flag does include the Royal Lion of England. So we welcome the Duke and Duchess, William and Kate, to our fair island this week! No doubt there will be a frenzy of mowing to prepare each and every venue for their visit.  In fact, there should be a photo-op of the duchess riding a lawn tractor in shorts, a tank top and a big floppy hat.

In the days before mowing machines your yard literally had to be cut by hand with a scythe. So a small yard with a kitchen garden made sense.  The rest of the ground was turned over to livestock and cropping.  Animals stayed close by and fed on the grass.  Easier to manage and watch over. And more productive too.  Large expanses of closely cropped grass are an artifact of a time when sheep grazed about the manor home (where your daddy or mine mucked out the barn and mum washed the clothes of His Lordship). It was a sign of wealth. Having good land not planted to the margins with food says, "well mate, you must be doing alright". Perhaps that explains our desire for a suburban lawn watered by a river 300 miles away or 2 or more hours a week driving a  mowing machine.  We're all just sort of keeping up appearances - at a huge cost. Weird, isn't it?

Our two "hay burners" burned through last years hay harvest over the winter.  And they are more than willing to go out on the grass every morning.  They really don't care where the grass is, so we've taken to moving the electric fence every few days to where the grass is rich and then turn them loose to do what they do.  Which is eat...and excrete.  It's a lovely combination of feeding, mowing and fertilization in one step. And as I reported last time, the chickens too are doing their part in the war on grass, bugs and spreading fertilizer as they go.  You can't beat mother nature for operating in a closed system.

Even so I just can't seem to stay off the lawn mower.  I just can't help noticing how nice things look when they're all trimmed up. But you know, I think I will put sheep on the front lawn around the house this summer - just to try them out on the job. It's funny that the mower works until it's empty and leaves wasted grass and energy behind.  The animals work until they're full, taking in energy and leaving behind valuable fertilizer for greener grass. It just seems more sensible to let the animals do the work and earn their keep. Besides,
it's picturesque as hell.    

And speaking of picturesque, here are Toby and his buddy Owen making ice cream on the front porch for Canada Day.  We bought  lobster suppers at the Murray Harbour North Community Hall and then enjoyed home made vanilla ice cream made even sweeter by the hand cranking of children.  Making home made ice cream in an old freezer is a ritual passed to us by our parents and grand parents.  It now passes to our children as part of the celebration of summer!

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Free Range Chicken? Pastured Poultry is Better.

From Mother Earth News:

What is the true definition of free-range chicken?
The United States Department of Agriculture offers this definition:
FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING: Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.
But “allowing access” doesn’t mean much. A small door in a barn with thousands of chickens technically gives chickens an opportunity to go outside, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll have access to grass (it may only be a concrete slab). For chickens to produce the most healthful and flavorful eggs and meat, they need to be able to eat a variety of green plants, seeds and bugs. Unfortunately, you can’t tell how the chickens live by reading the package in a store. I’d encourage you to find a local farmer who raises poultry on pasture.

Read more: http://www.motherearthnews.com/ask-our-experts/free-range-chickens.aspx#ixzz1QQfyp8hk

This is a picture of a cornish cross hen who is free ranging - on our pasture!  It doesn't take much imagination to see the difference between this and the legal definition of "free range chicken" where birds may leave a barn of thousands of birds to range "freely" on dirt or concrete.  To allow our chickens to range like this while protecting them from the local foxes, raccoon and coyotes, takes a special operation and creates unique benefits to our chickens and customers. This is what most people think "free range" means.  But often, it isn't.  We respectfully leave it to individuals to decide whether or not they eat meat.  For some we offer a fine variety of organic produce. For others we offer a method of raising chicken that produces a truly natural product.         

The birds arrived a day old from the hatchery in mid May and were kept in our barn under heat lamps and cover until they began to grow, then they were allowed more space to range on the dirt floor.  Our cool, wet spring kept them in the barn longer than we'd planned, but we felt the nights were too cold for the young birds to be outside with no heat source.  These chicks were given fresh grass cuttings and dandelions (salad) along with certified organic feed and a plate of light sand/gravel from our fresh water creek, along with fresh well water to drink. Annie appointed herself guard dog of the birds and took a genuine interest in their care.  (for those who are skeptical, let me just say our dog "mothers" everyone).                

So what are the benefits of pasture raising chickens? Well, these birds followed grazing sheep and horses who spent a short time (no more than three days) on each fenced section. When we put the birds out several weeks later, these small grasses were going to seed.  So the birds have free choice - prepared organic feed grain or wild grass seeds and greens, bugs, slugs and whatever else comes their way.  They are kept in a pen on the pasture day and night and are moved to fresh grass every morning.  They leave behind lots of high quality poop....that will grow more grass.  And since they don't live on the same ground every day, they always have clean ground on which to graze and rest.  We have fewer than fifty birds in a pen that is 12 x 10 so there is no crowding, plenty of roof cover and we even adjust the side covers for wind break or ventilation as needed.  There are studies that will explain the naturally low fat/ lower cholesterol and flavorful meat that this method produces.  We just think it's better to raise healthy animals naturally for food. 
And so, here are our pastured chickens foraging freely as nature intended.  We started with a small batch to make sure we could give our best to our chickens and our customers.  We're adding a second run this year for the fall. We'll put a few in our freezer and will be selling the rest fresh on the day they are locally processed.   If you'd like to place an order on Prince Edward Island, Canada, please visit John Quimby on facebook.


Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Harvesting a Local M.E.A.L. - It's Time to Farm!

It's Time to Farm
I planted seeds this week.
Spring is the most optimistic season.
Seeds are faith and hope and life in the future.
Planting made me feel righteous and peaceful and quietly determined to thrive.

A Local M.E.A.L.
Last week, many of us were inspired in Charlottetown by the combination of speaking about and listening to others discuss local food and our commitment to a way of life that serves everyone on this island.  A Local M.E.A.L.(Meet Eat And Learn) was a very satisfying serving of networking, tastes of local food and 10 presentations by and for all of us who like to eat locally and live well!  Please follow this link for more: http://alocalmeal.wordpress.com/. A video of each presentation will be made available through the link.
Here's mine:

A Local M.E.A.L. - John Quimby from nick battist on Vimeo.

I'm excited to mention as a follow up to "A Local M.E.A.L". that I am working with my son's fifth grade
teacher to create a presentation called "Farming in the Classroom" which will feature 3 hands-on project
demonstrations related to local food production and farming. We will be planting and growing seeds in a local school. We will be integrating the results of these student projects into our spring planting on the farm so  students will know that their work is included directly into our farm and will produce food that is available to their families. We want to teach that they aren't just consumers, they can be farmers too!  I'll be sharing more details and photos. This is really an exciting opportunity.      

Here's a Really Good Find!
I've mentioned before that we are increasing the number of open pollinated varieties that we buy, plant and harvest seed from.  Our goal is to always be able to grow non GMO, organic food from our own seed bank.
And I recently found a great resource online.  600 organic/open/heirloom tomato varieties are being offered at: http://www.tomatofest.com/  Our order was filled and returned promptly and I'm pleased now to refer them to you for this spring.

What's So Great About 600 Tomatoes?
As I browsed the choices I realized we could have exactly what we wanted for each of our seasons and customers. I got a small but super early variety (55 days) for our visitor and restaurant customers plus canning for our own needs. A flavourful French slicer for fresh summer eating,  An East German cherry for salads, the dusky and smoky Cherokee Purple for exceptional flavor, and a legendary Italian sauce tomato to mate with our garlic, basil and oregano in pasta and pizza sauces. And Gary Ibsen and Dagma Lacey threw in a bonus package of "Black Cherry" tomatoes for us to trial.  That's the beauty of bio-diversity friends.  You can find a seed for every need.

Local Organic Eggs and Chicken
I also placed orders this week for chicks to raise into laying hens and fresh meat birds this summer.  This is new to us and I'm relying on Joel Salatin's, "Pastured Poulty Profits" to guide us through brooding and pasturing our very small flock this year.  We are certified organic and so our chicken and eggs are already approved to be the only organic product I know of in our neighborhood.  But this is our first attempt!  So we'll need your support when the time comes for us to accept orders for organic eggs and chicken.  If our customers will help us by investing with us, we'll be a regular supplier of fresh, local, healthy, pasture raised, inspected by ACO and certified organic product. We're working for the gold standard in pasture raised meat birds and eggs.

Our chickens will be the primary customers for the organic pasture we nurture and the organic feed grains that we grow here this year.  All of this requires a substantial investment in seed, livestock, machines, time and labor. And we're adding time to teach our children to be part of the work raising chickens for your table. So a new generation will be learning how to grow feed and raise high value food while earning a share of the profits from our neighborhood poultry business. In other words, we're one of several small family owned businesses recreating the small mixed farm model that fed generations of PEI families and trained generations of good PEI farmers.

Your support,  through buying our product,  means that you are investing in your local food security as we keep and carry a small family farm on PEI into the next generation.                        

News Links:

Food Inflation Kept Hidden in Tinier Bags


JQ's Final Thought:
Demand-Side food security requires that consumers believe someone or something will always be able to deliver a sufficient and uninterrupted supply of food at a price they can afford over their entire life span.
Supply-Side food security means that you know and support a variety of local producers who put healthy, natural food on your table for generations.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Connecting The Dots: Climate, Energy, Global Markets and Food Security

This spring we'll be tackling some pretty heavy decisions to increase and sustain productivity on our farm.
I'm looking ahead to a lot of work and investment to grow, market and hopefully improve our ability to serve a few more of our neighbors in PEI.  It feels good to know we have the chance to add a bit more fresh food to our local supply from our very small farm.

In the mean time I'm reading more and more alarming news from a variety of sources on the current state of affairs in our world.  And I wonder again, as I often do, about the disconnect in the media between the dots (and sometimes "dotty") individual news headlines. It's the big picture that should be getting our attention.

This thread started for me when I heard a news item on the radio letting me know that my local fast food restaurant in Eastern Canada would not be able to serve me tomatoes or peppers because of unusual cold weather in California and Mexico. Hmmm.  

That item hit the news on the same day that oil prices broke 100 a barrel again. We know that the price of oil will continue to rise through spring and summer (driving season) and we know that this will impact consumers and producers alike. We also know that as long as petroleum prices are high, we simply can't grow our way out of economic trouble by using cheap energy to do most of the work. Hmmmm.

We also now know that the same financial houses that created the mortgage backed securities that caused the recent financial panic (a pox on them all!) have also created long term investment strategies in basic food commodities on a global scale. The result has been rapid increases in the market price for staple grains and cooking oil and these increases have hit consumers in the rear pocket and the stomach.
"Beginning in late 2006, world food prices began rising. A year later, wheat price had gone up 80 percent, maize by 90 percent and rice by 320 percent. Food riots broke out in more than 30 countries, and 200 million people faced malnutrition and starvation. Suddenly, in the spring of 2008, food prices fell to previous levels, as if by magic. Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has called this "a silent mass murder", entirely due to "man-made actions.”
 - Johann Hari
Hmmmmmmmmm. Pretty ominous.  But we still don't see the whole picture.

Here is how I connect the dots in these three otherwise unrelated stories. First of all, the shortage of tomatoes and peppers.  This is the second year in a row that there has been a shortage of tomatoes caused by changes in average climate.  Last year (also in the first week in March) it was reportedly caused by frost in Florida. This year, it's frost in California and Mexico.  This is a direct result of climate change.  Argue all you want about normal variables. Farmers don't like risk and they know what the normals are. The fact is that this year and last saw major climate related impact on food crops in the US, Australia, Russia, and Pakistan. And even though a few peppers on your sandwich or a tomato on your burger might seem trivial it is in fact a climate change food shortage in your face. The farmers who lost crops designed to put a tomato on your Whopper will now be calling in their bankers, their crop insurance and their governments for help to avoid bankruptcy. Some probably won't survive losing their investment.

Today's increasing energy costs are about to make the situation worse during the growing season in this hemisphere.  Most people probably don't know that the chief ingredient in our food supply is oil.  Our dependence on fertilizers and chemicals, farm equipment, livestock feed milling, water pumping, trucking, air freight, cargo ships, processing, packaging, refrigeration, storage and delivery are all tied directly to the price of oil.  This dot in the matrix is a big one. Food prices are going up in North America. Major grocery chains are already announcing a 5% increase here.

But why are food prices going up so fast when market supplies in oil and commodities are sufficient and demand is relatively stable?  Let's check in on those wacky, irrational investment markets again:
According to a study by the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, index fund speculation jumped from $13 billion to $260 billion from 2003 to 2008. Not surprisingly, food prices rose in tandem, beginning in 2003.  Hedge fund manager Michael Masters estimated that on the regulated exchanges in the U.S., 64 percent of all wheat contracts were held by speculators with no interest whatever in real wheat. They owned it solely in anticipation of price inflation and resale. 
So there you have it.  Climate change, energy costs and global commodity speculation are now playing havoc with your ability to afford, "what's for dinner". The risk of economic disaster for global food producers is tied directly to wobbles in the global climate.  And market speculators in oil and commodities are engaging in risky behavior that would make an Amsterdam sex worker faint. The "invisible hand" of the market is dope slapping us with lower wages, higher food prices, a wobbly climate and general nausea caused by a growing sense of insecurity. It's a combination that is already driving stable governments and solid financial institutions off a cliff.

So what can we do about it? Well I don't think the answer is some crazy Communist agrarian revolution where we move hedge fund managers to the farm and make them eat kale. I believe that there are healthy free market alternatives here and around the world that you can invest in. And your investment will help stabilize the big picture.  This is the final dot.

It's time to go and meet your local farmer. Buy into your local commodity market. Stop exchanging a higher portion of your income on low value energy dependent processed and packaged food "products". Live like rich people do. Look to make your profit on the higher quality and higher value food available directly from a wholesale producer. Make an investment in shopping and learning to prepare better meals for yourself. If the current system does not sustain you then don't sustain it. Stop feeding your food dollars into speculation and greed. Start eating healthy meals produced by people you know who will be there when you need them. You'll feel a whole lot better!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Shopping for Food Security - Part 2

Looking for ways to grow local, sustainable, small farms in PEI

Shopping for Food Security - Part 2

In the last blog post, I explained how organic farmers seek and plant organic seeds grown by other organic farmers and how that has increased the supply and diversity of organic seeds available to farmers and gardeners.   I explained that we are also starting to buy, plant and save open pollinated seeds to create our own seed bank at Dunn Creek Farm.  And I closed by promising to explain how food shoppers can protect and expand healthy diversity in the market.  The simplest explanation is that farmers grow seed for the food you buy. If you choose variety and diversity in your diet, you are supporting biological and genetic diversity in the field and in the market.

Thomas Morrison was kind enough to forward his writing on the topic of food diversity and security. I'm pleased to include him as a contributor.

The Importance of Biodiversity in Farmers Markets

Doug Band and the CGI (Clinton Global Initiative) as well as US Ecologist Gary Nabhan have recently come out as strong proponents for crop diversity. Nabhan’s position is that in order to keep the idea of diversity at the forefront of our society, we must apply it to biology of crop diversification. †His theories of promoting sustainability through grocery shopping have become popular. In a recent interview Nabhan said, “in other environmental issues we tell people to stop something, reduce their impact, reduce their damage.” His article Coming Home to Eat published in 200l can be cited as influencing the popularity of green culture, the local food movement, and the increased appearance of farmers markets all over the country.

A host of other organizations have begun to promote sustainability through the act of conservation. Bill Clinton, Doug Band and the CGI (Clinton Global Initiative) have set their sights on emission reduction projects throughout the country. In order to do this, they have partnered up with Donlen, GreenDriver, and Environmental Defense Fund with the purpose of reducing commercial fleet emissions by 20% in the next five years. †The Earth Day Network has brought together local and national conservationist groups and green enthusiasts to participate in an open forum. This forum serves as a space to incite discussion and dialogue on new ways to create a sustainable planet. Individuals can reduce their carbon footprint, create less waste, and stop the unnecessary wasting of water. Gary Nabhan strongly suggests as members of society we take a larger look at the state of our planet.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization produced a study with results indicating that a quarter of crop diversity is left and a dozen species provides 90% of the animal protein consumed around the globe. More over, roughly four crop species supply half of the plant-based calories in the basic human diet. Nabhan theorizes that growing food locally will have a massive impact on our planet’s sustainability. The “eat what you conserve” theory says by eating the produce that we are attempting to conserve, we are simultaneously promoting the granular dissemination of a vast amount of plant types.

Agriculturist Marco Contiero adds to the theory by saying, “biodiversity is an essential characteristic of any sustainable agricultural system, especially in the context of climate change.”
According to Conterio, since individuals raise and harvest our own crops and plants, we should purchase the crops harvested and produced by other local growers. If individuals buy food grown and harvested locally, the large carbon footprint associated with the transnational transportation of food is no longer a problem. Both arguments require an active effort toward conservation and sustainability. As the spring approaches, visit your local farmers market to get all the best in seasonal fruit and vegetables. Visiting your local produce stand is also a great way to promote biodiversity, support your local economy, and experience the delicious regional food varieties.


Monday, February 21, 2011

Shopping for Food Security - Part 1

The farm sleeps under a blanket of snow as we plan our seed orders.     

A Word About Seeds.
The French word for seeds is semences.  Yes indeed the French have brought our fundamental need for thriving procreation to the very ground under our feet. Earthy hmmm? Even in the garden, the French are intimate with making food and, of course, making love.

Well then, let's consider what the world would be like if only 5 percent of males were eligible to impregnate all of the women. What would be lost? In fact that is what we're facing in our food supply today. Seed diversity and the basic needs of humanity are overlapping in some interesting ways.

Organic Farmers Cover the Cost of Seed Diversity. 

Each year we're obligated by our certification process to buy organic seed whenever possible.  Ordering organic seed supports organic farmers.  But there's more to it than that. This requirement also drives the market of supply and demand to preserve non GMO and non hybridized varieties. This gives us a larger, wider and more dependable supply of clean seed to buy and plant. Organic farmers are investing in having a bank of seed genetics in the market.

Organic Seed is Harder to Find and Usually More Expensive.
One complaint from consumers of organics is that the product is more costly.  This is true in the short term.
We can prove that fresh, clean, nutritious food is more valuable. But higher seed cost is directly related to what it costs to grow, harvest and market that value. As more organic producers enter the market, prices should come down even as food value improves.

Open Pollination and Seed Saving
An open pollinated variety of plant will breed true from it's own seed. So if you plant an open pollinated variety of beans or squash or peas, you can save the seeds from this year and plant more next year.
Open pollinated plants are not owned under patent law, they don't revert to earlier strains and they are proven under specific climate and soil conditions.  When we order organic open pollinated seeds, we can grow 2 marketable crops - produce and seed - and have clean seed to plant the following year. There is natural selection in this process. Seeds that are sound and strong thrive.  Those that aren't, don't.  You should know that not all organic seed is open pollinated.  At Dunn Creek Farm we are making a business decision to open a savings account with our own seed bank.    
Seed Diversity = 600 Tomato Varieties, Not 5. 
When we shopped for tomato seed this year, we found a grower offering 600 hundred varieties of heirloom, organic tomatoes that he and his partner produce themselves.  Some had been staples in American seed catalogs a hundred years ago.  Some had been locked behind the Iron Curtain for decades.  All had been common in market gardens in a variety of regions and conditions.  Few are being commercially grown today.       

The Hazards of Limited Diversity
When you see tomatoes in the supermarket, you are seeing about 5 varieties now commonly grown for market.  They are red.  They are firm.  But they are not selected for taste or nutrition.  There are better tomatoes to be found.  But you probably can't find them in your market. And that's not all.  Now that most of the people of the world are dependent on a handful of grains, vegetables and plants for survival, it's not hard to imagine that a plant pandemic could detonate like a bomb in the global food supply.  We need a viable market to keep the alternatives on hand. And this is where today's consumer comes in.  In part two, we'll consider how the grocery shopper decides how much bio diversity there is.  

Some of our Seed Sources this year:

Hope Seeds - Organic Vegetable Seeds & Organic Garden Seeds
Vesey's Seeds

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Old Year Resolves into New - Useful Plans and Projects for 2011

It's Sunday.

I like to set aside time on Sunday to be a "book farmer".  I try to keep up with the information that comes to me in the books we've collected, the magazines and news letters that come in the mail and the blogs I read for insight and inspiration. Sunday is also the day people here go visiting. I've just set down my reading to put a stick of wood on the fire. And now I'm ready to enjoy a long overdue visit with you.

Have you seen this?

I first read Anne and Eric Nordell's artilce, "Weed the Soil not the Crop" in the Summer, 2006 issue of Small Farmer's Journal (a similar article with the same title, written by the couple, is currently available at: Acres USA).

I started experimenting with their ideas as best I could using my tools and know how (both of which are limited) back in Spring 2007.  I was just re-reading that article today and refreshing myself on their approach.
I can say that the parts of this method that we incorporated as directed worked well for us. And I was reminded that we aren't finished mixing these ideas into our work.  I've been wondering how to begin writing our farm plan for 2011.  This is a great place to start.

You Can Build These Stackable Drying Racks! 

Many of the things we harvest in Fall need to be dried before they can be properly stored. Space for drying beer hops or seed corn or baking beans or wild rose hips is at a premium in our house. Could you use some extra space to dry herbs or your own garden produce too? Well, maybe winter might be a good time for you to try (and improve) this project made with hand tools and regular dimensional lumber.

I borrowed several good ideas to make this design work. In particular, I liked the idea of making a rack size that would fit into an oven. They can easily be stacked over or near an air vent too, making double use of your heating or cooling system.


24"x16" Stackable Drying Rack - Materials Per Tray:
2  24" 1x2 for frame
2  14-1/2" 1x2 for frame
4   4-1/2" right triangles (I used 1/2" plywood) as corner braces
4   5" 1x2  for legs
4   2-1/2" 1x2 rack spacers for legs
8   box nails (screws would be good too)
16 shingle nails (or screws)
Staples for fastening screen to frame (I used a staple gun - tacks could work too)
24" x 16" plastic window screen

I started by pre-cutting enough pieces for several trays.  Then, using a flat surface and a square I drilled pilot holes and then hammered in two nails in each corner.

After squaring the frame again, I used a blade to cut the 4' screen down to 24" by 16". Since 24" is half of four feet, I could use the nice factory cuts on either edge of the screen.  Then I stapled it to the frame.

To give the tray frame strength and help secure the corners, I used the triangle shapes mounted over the screen and nailed them directly to the frame with shingle nails.        

I fastened a rack spacer in the exact center of each leg, then mount the legs right tight up to the frame.  This is what makes the trays stackable, so be careful how you measure.  To make all the legs lineup in the stack I built the first one and then eye-balled all the others to match it. I'm no finish carpenter. This was my attempt to create a simple and inexpensive design that serves a useful purpose.  These racks do create a large amount drying area in a small space.  And they do look nice enough for Susan to allow them in the kitchen!
Notes and Suggestions
You may want to choose a more natural material than window screen. And be aware that stapled plastic screen will not support the weight of a curious cat plus whatever it is that you are drying!
The bottoms can be strengthened by trussing them with wire, fishing line, string...whatever material you
are comfortable with.  A cover might be a good idea too

So Long 'till Next Time!
Thank you for stopping in to visit.  I hope we'll be getting together again soon.