Friday, January 20, 2012

Good Fences, Good Neighbors

Yesterday was the second installment of an ongoing fencing project at Red Tail Farm, intended to protect a blueberry patch from the marauding deer that snack on the bushes' tender, bright red bark. While Teresa and Brent have invested untold hours visiting other farms to inspect their fences, mapping out and designing something to suit their needs, and then digging holes for the corner posts, we just drop in as part of the brute force squad. (This is funnier if you've ever seen us: I'm a scant five feet tall and Dean disappears if he turns sideways.)

On January 1, the sky was blue, the sun shone, and we pounded fence posts. Metal struck metal as we rung in the new year and hoped the neighbors' recovery from the previous night's celebrations wouldn't be compromised by our clamor. Yesterday, despite the chill -- temperatures never did rise above freezing -- we sped through the task of reinforcing the corner posts with angled bracing and strung the top wire, then shared a hearty lunch in their cozy, strawbale farmhouse.

Beyond mustering Robert Frost's chestnut about their value for preserving neighborly relations, I didn't know the first thing about fences before we started farming. But since our orchard came with one in serious need of maintenance to keep the deer from transforming our dwarf apple trees into fodder, we started learning fast. A tip from my uncle, an old hand at stretching the fences that contain his beef cattle, transformed the labor-intensive project and a dear friend became our go-to third set of hands (see the results of our labor this summer, above). Now in a pinch, Dean and I can tidy up a 100-foot span by ourselves in just an hour or two.

When you're committed to a loan-free farm business model, there's a lot you learn to do yourself. In Ithaca, we've basked in the warm embrace of knowledgable and generous farmers with expertise that vastly exceeds ours. Not only have they invited us to learn by doing at their places, they've welcomed our participation in cut-rate collective orders for seed and supplies and even swapped their own labor in lieu of cash. Around here, Frost's take on fences deserves a twist: good neighbors make good fences -- and farms.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Don't Believe the Hype

We still love our birds -- don't get me wrong -- but they haven't exactly been living up to the accolades I posted late last week. Temperatures plummeted to the single digits over the last two nights and even daytime conditions haven't risen above freezing since sometime early Friday morning. The hens have been cranky the entire time -- it's a toss-up as to whose complaints about the weather have been more intense, but it looks like they're kvetching more than us.

They also seem intent on laying eggs and returning to their collective huddle around the feed trough as quickly as possible. Instead of sharing a single nest and leaving one of their broody sisters to keep things warm as they do when weather is a bit milder, they've taken to dropping the eggs helter-skelter throughout the coop. Despite reasonably robust insulation, a great big window aimed at the sun to increase passive heating, a 100-watt red heat bulb, and a deep-bedding system that generates heat as it composts, their house is still a rather chilly place to just leave eggs lying around.

But we're not complaining -- regular visits to check on the hens insures that we farmers bundle up and venture out into the wintry wonderland, despite the occasional flash of wintertime blues that make it tough to climb out of bed and tackle a daunting to-do list. I've long appreciated the declaration of a friend who now has young children to stave off her own inclination toward seasonal torpor. Several years ago, she culled most of her aging flock, but kept a few through the winter: My hens, she declared by way of explanation, are the reason I get out of bed in the winter.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Eggsellent news

Back when we were investigating which breed of chicken would suit Tree Gate Farm, wintry weather was a significant consideration. Lightweight bantam breeds may be significantly cheaper to feed, but they require some serious pampering to survive a Finger Lakes blizzard. By contrast, our hearty Black Australorps willingly wander through several inches of snow and don't complain any more than we do.

A bonus: their glossy black plumage and red combs look gorgeous against a white backdrop. This morning, as fat white flakes drifted downward, they looked especially glamorous. In the absence of the snow cover typical for this time of year, the hens have reveled in easy access to fresh pasture and big, fat grubs in the orchard for two months longer than usual. Not only have they reduced the population of pests likely to wreak havoc come spring, the birds have made our customers very happy. "It tastes like there's cream in the scrambled eggs," said one. "It's like I put butter on the ones I soft boiled," said another. Having already sold out of meat and potatoes, it's a delight to offer up a carton filled by the Tree Gate hens.

When temperatures plummet, we have yet another reason to appreciate our beautiful birds: They go broody -- just like the farmers. While the notion to nest could vex a larger producer, our hens' inclination to keep their eggs warm until we come collecting makes winter farming a little easier. On days when eggs left unattended might freeze, a hen keeps them cozy til we arrive, sparing us multiple trips to the nesting boxes.

Recently, we've invested that extra time researching better record-keeping systems, working with an illustrator to develop a graphic identity for the farm, crunching numbers to calculate the number of seeds we should plant in the year ahead, and spending time with friends. Perhaps most exciting, we've been scheming about a few new ventures slated for launch late in 2012. Stay tuned . . .