Fox in the Hen House

In order to keep egg production up we needed to bring in younger chickens. The current ones are 3 years old and laying has dropped. We were without eggs for a couple months late last year. Unfortunately there is a capacity limit in the coop to be sure each hen has plenty of space to be happy and healthy.

Another coop would be a major expense that would perpetuate the tight margin we have on egg sales. Since we have not purchased the goats yet it was decided to move the older chickens in the barn. The corral was lined with 2X4 inch fencing and logs and blocks lined the gate opening to prevent digging. We were told a fox was picking off chickens in the neighborhood right as we completed the project.

Even though we were trying not to spend more money, we purchased a solar panel powered electric fence with 4 wires climbing up the outside of the corral. We were able to get behind the purchase as there are some future projects that the fence could be used for.

The chickens love their new spacious home. Unfortunately I met the fox multiple times over the next few days. First I caught it taking out the rabbit population in our back yard. Since it was always a love hate relationship with the bunnies I was disturbed but not emotional about it. I saw first hand how foxes hunt. They are proficient climbers and will scale a 6 foot fence with ease. They are sly, fast and quick to take their prey down. Viciously they don’t stop at one animal. If there are multiple animals to prey on they take down as many as they can, take one and then come back for the rest at their leisure.

There was one section of the chicken’s corral that a fox could get past the hot wires if it jumped rather than climbed, and we believe that’s exactly what happened. The fox killed 4 hens, injured 2 and gave 1 a heart attack. We can tell it was a heart attack due to the rigid extension of the body. We’d seen it before. The fox only took one hen away which was one with a broken toe so was clearly easy to catch. Interestingly it didn’t come back for the other hens. We wonder if the fox got shocked from the wires on the way OUT and it may have made an impact. Regardless, it still made it’s way in so the next course of action was to put a scarecrow in front of the weakest section. It was enough to make both of us do a double take thinking someone was on the property so it had to capture the foxes attention.

It was over a week after the hit that I happen to catch the fox rushing the corral gate as if it was going to make a flying leap over it. I screamed so loud it glanced over, saw the scarecrow, turned tail and ran away so fast we couldn’t find where it went. That was the last we saw of it.

The 2 injured girls luckily recovered after a week and it appears we only lost the worst of the layers so we are still getting just enough eggs to cover our current customers. Once the new chicks come of egg laying age we will be in good shape for sales again.

You can see a video of the fox on the Farm’s You Tube Channel:

Planting Onions

One of our downfalls that’s plagued us is our inability so far to grow and store large onions. First year we had scallions. Second year we planted onions but they only grew to the size of scallions because we had them planted too close to the Black Walnut tree. Black Walnuts release a chemical that stunts other plants. It’s a survival technique we found out 2 year after we bought the farm. Last year the onions got only a little larger than golf ball size and when we tried to cure them they dried up!

We’ve read all the recommendations on how to grow onions and tried variations of them without full success. We decided to try the most extreme strategy which is labor intensive, but supposed to result in the largest possible onion so we hope it works this time.

It appears the deeper you plant onions the SMALLER the bulb will be. That seems counter intuitive so I didn’t believe it until we tried various ways without good results. To get the bulb larger, you plant more shallow, then as the bulb starts to surface you keep covering it with a rich blend of compost and soil. Mounding on top of the onions over and over again can be difficult in an environment like ours due to high winds and torrential downpours which just pull the soil back down.

Digging trenches into the bed will allow us to plant the onion sets shallowly and then taking the soil from either side of the row, slowly covering the bulb as it surfaces. The trenches will also capture and funnel water directly to the plants which is extremely important for onion growth as well.

This is really a test. If we get large onions this year then we know how to grow them for customers. Until then, we will keep trying!

Take a look at the onion bed on the farm’s YouTube Channel:

First Broccoli in a Tunnel

The snow finally made way to nice weather which mean the overgrown broccoli transplants I had re-potted because they got too big can finally be planted into the ground! With the continued cooler weather it became clear that the plants still need protection for night frosts so we went ahead and put up a tunnel over the row. We are happy we did this because we had a few days of snow and the cover kept the plants from being impacted by the cold.

We were in the middle of laying and covering the subsurface irrigation drip lines when the weather turned bad so we still have some work to do before the beds are fully ready to plant. We focused on planting the one row of broccoli first since they had gotten too big to stay in their pots anymore.

We really wanted to get an early start on the broccoli because its a cold weather vegetable. Every year we planted it later during the same week as the tomatoes. The the weather go too hot. Unfortunately this resulted in the broccoli being ready to harvest late in the fall when it started to cool down. We decided planting earlier may result in bigger yields. Let’s see how this year goes!

See the broccoli on the farm’s YouTube Channel:

2019 Garden Row Preparation

As you can see we still have snow after the Bomb Cyclone a couple weeks ago but it’s warmer and the soil moisture level is perfect for bed preparation. First action is to remove any weed block still covering rows and also any watering drip lines still buried. Then we pull out any left over plant material left from last year. Then it’s ready for row building.

The Grillo has been worth it’s weight in gold. What used to take 3 weeks takes less than 3 hours! It was purchased last year and took a little getting used to but this year only required 45 minutes of run time to build beautiful, smooth rows. The soft soil resulted in higher rows than we wanted but they will probably shrink during the resting period. The resting period should be a minimum of 1 week and a max of 3-4 weeks. After that weeds start to take over and make it difficult to maintain.

After the rows were built we used a rolling hoe to create a furrow to re-lay the subsurface drip lines. Before covering the drip lines we tested them to be sure they were still working. A couple of the drip lines in the carrot beds were damaged. Most likely from digging out carrots! Sometimes it’s difficult to know where these hoses are buried until it’s too late! Luckily we had extra line from last year and replaced it.

We ran out of working time so were not able to cover the rows with weed block. Crossing fingers weather improves the next few weeks.

Garlic was planted in October last year and is coming up faster this spring so a good sign that the bulbs will be bigger this year! We also have broccoli transplants that have been growing inside that are now too big for the soil blocks we planted them in. We had to transplant the plants into larger pots, waiting for the weather to get better. We wanted to get an earlier start with the broccoli this year since it matured so late in the season last year, potentially losing us customer sales. Growing these transplants earlier gave us an extra month so we’ll see how it goes.

Now all we can do is wait and hope the infamous weather in our area cooperates so we can start fully planting soon!

Watch the Grillo in action on the farm’s YouTube Channel:

Bomb Cyclone March 2019

While most farmers in the U.S. have already started planting, we have once again been delayed due to a massive snow storm. This one made national news. A bomb cycle is a weather event when the pressure drops significantly more than usual causing high speed winds and in this case an extreme temperature drop and many inches of snow. We stayed home from work to be sure we didn’t get stuck trying to get home to take care of the animals. That happened once before we got the chickens, thank goodness.

This storm resulted in a white out and many people were stuck on highways for over 24 hours. We ended up with a 5 1/2 foot drift 40 feet in length that blocked our road. Note the snow height on the far side of the tractor in the picture.

While the man of the house was plowing out the 1/2 mile long dirt road, the lady of the house was shoveling snow off the walk ways, including the path to the coop. You are probably asking yourself, “don’t you have a snowblower?” We do have a very large one but the snow was so wet and heavy it’s not able to do it’s job! They say people can easily have a heart attack shoveling snow and I agree, especially under these circumstances!

It will take a while for this deep snow to melt but the moisture should really help when we finally get to bed prepping.

Get a glance at our view of the bomb cyclone from inside our house on the farms YouTube Channel:

2019 Crop Plan

It’s that time again! Time to finish planning what we are going to plant this year! We are already behind buying seeds.

Overall new strategy for this year is to have less of everything, but more variety! We always have customers asking for things like spaghetti squash, parsnips and okra but we now a row of these will never sell through. This year we are going to combine multiple items in a single row so our customers who want something like spaghetti squash can have it, but it’s not using too much real estate.

I know you can’t read the plan above and you can already see an edit swapping out 2 of the rows so let me elaborate. Of course we will still be growing our best selling items carrots, beans, beets, salad mix, zucchini, cucumbers, pumpkins and tomatoes. We will start to sell a few items we have tested and feel are good to go including garlic, butternut squash, broccoli florets, radishes and sweet peppers. Items that we started growing last year but are still being tested this year and may be available include acorn squash, okra and a skinny heirloom celery.

We are testing new items this year and may have them available. This includes onion, spinach, turnips, parsnips, spaghetti squash and Loofas! Yes….Loofas!

We have already been selling basil which customers love, but want to offer more herbs. We will also plant oregano, dill, cilantro and parsley. We also plan to research drying techniques so we don’t lose any of the delicious herbs at the end of the season.

Finally, we would really like to offer fruit but have not had much luck in this climate as of yet. The apples, pears and Italian plums have only grown in years where the is no May snow storm. And when we’ve had good years the wildlife ate most or like last year the hail took them out. I’ve purchased some agriculture bags to cover some select fruit off the trees this year. We tested raspberries last year but they did not do as well as we hoped. We are moving them to a spot with more shade and will let you know the progress. We also have rhubarb which has not been happy with the 2 different spaces we tried to grow it so will be incorporating it into one of the healthy rows to see if it picks up. New testing this year will be container gardening of strawberries. This will allow us to cover and prevent birds from eating them and be portable to over winter them in a shed. Let’s cross our fingers that we may have fruit for sale this year.

We hope this variety will be more successful for sales. Now off to order seeds!

Winter Feeding the Bees

We are starting to get used to the challenges of keeping bees in the volatile weather of the high plains. We purchased 4 new bee packages in the spring and two of them either swarmed or combined with another hive. We still call it a win. The two existing hives were doing so well we were able to get 7 jars of honey their first year! It was much lighter in color and taste but it was nice to see how productive they were.

Since this is the bees first winter we wanted to give them a little extra help. We found a recipe online for a fondant you can make for bees for over wintering them. Fondant is preferred over sugar water as it keeps the moisture level down inside the hive. Moisture mixed with cold weather equals frostbite. Fondant is made out of sugar, water and a little apple cider vinegar for probiotics. You cook it just as you would cook candy, pouring it onto trays of parchment paper once it reaches the correct temperature. Once hardened you lay the slabs on top of the frames inside the beehive.

You can watch us deliver the fondant on the farm’s YouTube Channel:

Preserving the Excess

There will always be excess crops after the end of harvest sales. After donating we preserve some for using in the winter.

Tomatoes are my favorite to save for use. Canning tomatoes is labor intensive. Tomatoes have to be cleaned, peeled and in some cases de-seeded. In our case we don’t mind the seeds as long as we’re not making tomato sauce or paste. With tomato sauce you just puree and cook until the thickness is correct. For paste you need to cook even longer. I always lose my patience and stop at the sauce.

Pickles are much easier. Refrigerator pickles can be made by simply slicing cucumbers into spears and putting them in jars with pickle juice made from a simple flavor packet. They only last a couple months this way but if you only have a few it’s a great way to do it. Regular canning of pickles isn’t just for cucumbers. We also pickled beans.

We prefer not to pickle our beets. We like the sweet cooked slices as a side dish. Beets are almost fully cooked until they are easily pealed. After peeling we cut the larger ones into thick round slices and use a vacuum sealer to freeze them in a single layer. Small beets are frozen whole. When we are ready to eat them we let them fully defrost before lightly microwaving them just enough to warm them up. Overcooking makes them rubbery.

Freezing carrots does not require any cooking. Just peel and cut into thick slices, vacuum pack and freeze into single layers. We drop these into stews and casseroles. They aren’t good eaten by themselves. The texture doesn’t hold up.

Finally, we cook all the pumpkins, puree them and freeze them in one cup quantities. That measurement is usually the amount used in a pumpkin bread recipe. Two cups makes a pumpkin pie. Containers are better than vacuum seal bags. When ready to use, defrost them and pour into a sieve to let any excess liquid drain out. I’ve made the mistake of not draining and had a very soft pumpkin pie.

I hope this gives you some ideas on how to save your fresh veggies. The next thing we are working on for next year is drying herbs to sell as seasoning. We can’t wait to try it out.

Last Harvest – Pumpkins

After pulling up the pumpkins in spring due to cross-pollination and then cleaning them out due to the hailstorm, they now went through snow which devastated the plants. But look! We still managed to get over 50 pumpkins? That’s 3 growing cycles the plants went through in this areas short growing season! Clearly squash plants like our environment!

Pumpkins are the last item to harvest for the 2018 growing season. Nothing else survived the October snow except our wintering over carrots which are now in a covered tunnel. If you didn’t see the post on the tunnels you can see how well they wintered over last year. Search on tunnel.

So what are the sales figures for the year? Let’s just say we lost this year. The hailstorm took it’s toll. The bees swarmed and either left or died last year so we are not able to harvest any honey this year. The new bees we got in the spring need to build up their stores for the winter.

I also need to personally take the blame on lost sales on eggs. We have had these chickens for over 2 years and I didn’t have the heart to get rid of them to bring in fresh new egg layers. I had convinced myself that they would continue to lay enough to cover our egg customers and I was wrong. Not only did they slow down they also started laying strange shaped eggs and started to have physical difficulties. Kind of like a woman in menopause, but unfortunately a chickens egg laying system can be fatal when they don’t work properly and that was the case here. We are starting to lose chickens to old age issues. Lesson learned. New chicks are in order for next year.

See what’s left of the garden on the farm’s YouTube Channel:

Falling Tomatoes

The hail storm must have damaged the Florida Weave string that was holding up the tomatoes. A month after the storm we woke up to this.Tomato plants falling against each other and back over the next row of pepper plants. After finishing the clean up after the hailstorm mess now the tomatoes are giving us a hard time.

It’s so late in the season an extensive fix just seems like a waste of time. Besides, the plants were already starting to die off before winter hits. At this point we just took a look around and used whatever was available to lift the tomatoes off the ground just to get them past the final ripening of the green tomatoes.

A few old tomato cages and T-posts later the plants were pushed up just enough to survive the fall. We still managed to get quite a few tomatoes which made it well worth the effort. It’s not pretty but still paid off.

See video on the farm YouTube channel: