Animals

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Roosters are the boon and the bane of the farmyard. As protectors of the hens, they are fierce contenders. Face off with a rooster asserting his territorial rights and you quickly learn the meaning of  “macho.” We have knocked roosters ass over tailfeathers in such confrontations, then had to run away after an even more determined counterattack.

Clyde was that kind of rooster. He let you know he was a master of the universe–his universe–from his first early morning wakeup calls to his defence of his flock. You didn’t mess with Clyde on his turf if you knew what was good for you.

We are using the past tense here because the coyote that nailed Clyde Saturday night apparently didn’t get the message. When Louisa discovered the remains, all that was left of our rooster was a sad little pile of feathers. Louisa was crestfallen at the death of a kindred soul.

We would never have called Clyde a friend exactly, but he did earn our respect. You know New Hampshire’s license-plate motto, “Live Free Or Die”? Well, Clyde managed to do both.

Which raises a broader philosophical question that we are currently wrestling with around here.

If open-pasture grazing for Clyde and his hens–instead of being cooped up in a smaller enclosed run–means you are also prey to predators, is freedom worth the price? In other words, suppose the slogan was, “Live Free and Die.”

We are well aware that this goes beyond chickens, but we’ll stick to the issue at hand for now. We sell most of our hen’s eggs at a nice little profit. But now, with Clyde gone, we have to decide whether to get another rooster and keep the flock at its current size–about 100 hens–or cut back, keeping the remaining hens in our more confined upper chicken run, and skip the new rooster. We’d be trading some profit for some peace.

Around here, this is not all that philosophical. Last night, for instance, when the interns  went to lock the hens and other birds into their houses for the night they were startled by a large barred owl that came swooping down out of the trees. The owl was casing the henhouse. It was a dramatic entrance, but it would have been curtains for a stray chick.

In a similar situation the late Clyde would have shooed his hens under the cover of a tree or under the henhouse or some other protection. (If you need a better picture of what we are talking about here, consult the April 28 post, “Farm Guide” for an aerial view of the farm and its various sectors.) Then Clyde, tough guy that he was, would have probably challenged the owl, and maybe driven it away.

On the other hand, experience has taught us that Clyde and his ilk–that is to say, roosters in general–can be a pain. Last year, when one of the interns went into the chicken yard to gather eggs, the rooster jumped him and ended up sitting on his chest. Roosters, with their testosterone overload, seem to get in everyone’s face and they never shut up.

Some women we know would say this is a gender situation not necessarily confined to barnyards–or roosters. That’s another philosphical debate we’ll skip. We’ve got enough on our plate right now.

Any ideas?

Persephone

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Louisa’s turkey and chicken pen sometimes has a frenetic air to it, with chickens squawking, eggs laid hither and thither, turkeys wandering around, and everyone pecking at everything and making a racket. Maybe it is just so many loudmouths in one spot, or perhaps it is the everpresent threat of a marauding hawk or eagle swooping in for a quick kill that keeps things on edge, but chaos seems to dominate.

But something odd has been happening in the pen lately–the place seems steeped in serenity. (Reminds us of an editor we once knew who concocted a headline for a slow news day: “Tranquillity Ran Rampant in Yonkers Yesterday.”) The turkey hens are gently rolling their eggs in the henhouse to keep the pre-hatchlings happy. Chocolate, the lone Tom, is leading the young turkey poults on expeditions around the pasture and spelling the hens on the eggs. Even the chickens seem to have calmed down a bit now that summer is showing its face.

Of course, a couple of days of sunshine in June and a bit of peace and quiet doth not always a summer make, and we’ve certainly fallen for this dodge before, so we’re not breaking out the flip-flops just yet. But if this be summer, bring it on.

The latest news is a new pair of goslings that Louisa has added to the fowl pen.

Newcomers

 The young geese seem to be fitting right in, pecking lazily around the yard and mingling peaceably with the rest of the birds, making sort of pre-gooselike honkings at passers-by. We’re not sure of their sex yet–they’re still in that fuzzy asexual stage–but we’re hoping that eventually they’ll breed and add to the farm’s feathered collection. Already, their honks have changed the tone of the pen’s music.

Meanwhile, the rest of the farm is preparing for our annual garlic-peeling party tomorrow evening. Despite the gloomy note of our previous post the party is on. We have about 16 rows of hard-neck garlic left in the field. Louisa and the interns will pull those plants at the last minute and pile them for peeling in the yurt meadow. Rebecca and the interns are already hunting up their favorite garlicky recipes for the accompanying potluck, and our local musicians are tuning up to entertain. By sundown, we expect both the garlic peelers and our barn loft will be stuffed.

Hardneck Garlic

The thing about garlic is that it is both strong and delicate. This crop was planted last fall and over the winter we’ve lost about a third of it to bad weather and mould. Most of our guests will go away from the garlic peeling with seconds–bulbs that are fine to eat but have taken up too much moisture to hang in the barn and must be used now. The rest we will haul up into the barn loft where it will hang in the rafters and dry. As it does it will gain strength, reaching its peak potency by the fall and winter.

There is something civilized and reassuring about gatherings like this, with neighbors and friends, grownups and kids, all sitting in a big circle on the meadow on hay bales and blankets, spending an early summer evening working on something so tangible while trading news, gossip and recipes. There will be music and tables loaded with good food. For us, the season tends to divide itself with these events, almost as much as by the weather and crop cycles themselves. 

We are not always such a harmonious bunch of course, and to be sure this year’s cool, wet spring has created its own set of frictions and frustrations, both down in the turkey pen and out in the field. But warmer weather and the promise of filling the barn loft with bunches of garlic that have passed through many patient hands seems to smooth things over and bring out the best in everyone.

We’d like to believe this sense of peace and harmony will hang around for the rest of the season. But like the weather and the crops, nothing can be taken for granted around the farm.

This week, we’ll be happy with a single wondrous evening of rampant  tranquillity.

Persephone

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We’re a quarter of the way through Persephone Farm’s 2010 season and already there is a lot of catching up to do. What’s happened to Chocolate, the randy turkey? How are the new lambs doing? Which intern is wearing the tiara as the top Farmers Market seller?

We’ll start with Chocolate. When we left him, he had been introduced to the five lovelorn turkey hens, who immediately lined up to make Chocolate’s aquaintance. We’re happy to announce that Chocolate is now a proud papa-to-be. The hens are taking turns sitting on two clutches of eggs–about 80 in all–in a pair of nests in the rear corners of the turkey house.

But the bad news is that Chocolate is a lousy dad. He pushes the hens off the eggs and walks on them. He gobbles and distracts the mamas. Why? Who knows, but Louisa was running out of patience and it looked like, impending fatherhood or not, Chocolate’s days might be numbered. I suppose most of us would be a bit disconcerted at the prospect of fathering 80 kids, so we cut him some slack. Chocolate was exiled to a pen full of chickens, well away from the nesting turkeys. He’s not happy about it and spends a lot of time complaining but he’s escaped the chopping block. The chickens look at him like he’s nuts.

Chocolate in exile

And the lambs, well they seem sort of bemused by all of this. But it’s hard to tell. They watch, they graze, they move a little bit, then they graze some more. Maybe that’s how it is when you are a lamb. You never know what life will toss onto the pasture next door, so the best thing is to put your head down and munch some more grass. 

Our experiment in putting the lambs into enclosures for rotation grazing  has run into some problems too. The idea was to preserve the pasture by penning the lambs inside an electric fence within the pasture–both the keep them in one place and protect them from coyotes–then shift the whole fence to another part of the pasture after they mow down the grass. The problem is they keep busting out of the electric fence and gamboling all over the place. Of course, lambs are supposed to do that in the spring, and it certainly is more interesting than eating grass all day in one spot.

On to the tiara. Each week, Rebecca takes an intern to the Farmers Market. And when the totals are added up at the end of the market, the intern with the highest sales figure gets a cut of the take and is entitled to wear the farm’s ceremonial tiara until someone hits a higher number. Ok, it’s kind of goofy, but it keeps things moving along after a day of pulling weeds. So far, Greg and Caitlin are the tiara-holders–they worked together week two, befitting their unitary status.

Caitlin the Queen

No one remembers where the tiara came from, but it’s been around here for years and has passed through many hands. Sales at the market have been pretty good so far this year, despite the economy, so the crown will probably change hands a couple of times before things wind down. Meanwhile, the tiara rests in Greg and Caitlin’s yurt for safekeeping. Or maybe they’re afraid it will melt if they wear it in the rain.

One more item, for now.

Cleo, the lone pea hen, is still flying solo. She tried hooking up with Chocolate, and the chickens, and Rebecca’s Volkswagen van, and pretty much anything else around here that moves. Her mating methodology seems to be an odd mixture of stalking a potential target, then imitating her late mate–Ramm–by spreading her tail feathers and displaying, while issuing male peacock mating calls. Everyone finds this strategy a bit perplexing–Chocolate and the chickens included, no doubt. Going to be a long spring for Cleo.

Tune in again for the next installment: Rebecca gives a lesson in over-the-top tomato transplants.

Persephone

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As the late Cosmo editor, Helen Gurley Brown, used to say, “Sex sells.”

And here you are, reading, right?

Louisa named our new Tom turkey “Chocolate”. She found him on Craigslist and he arrived at Persephone Farm last week looking big, brown and very randy.

Chocolate is a strutter, all right. He did a lot of huffing and puffing when we put him into the turkey yard, pretty much ignoring his audience of Louisa, Rebecca and Mondrian. Then he headed straight for the five lonely turkey hens.

Those hens hadn’t seen a male turkey since Thanksgiving, and they were ready for some serious action. They preened and clustered around Chocolate, rubbed his neck with their necks and cast coy turkey glances in his direction. Then they lined up—one, two, three, four, five—squatted down, and that was the end of any coyness. Chocolate hopped to it, and after a few minutes he was one tired Tom.

Watching something like that can be, um, distracting. We never did get a chance to run back to the farmhouse and grab a camera. (Chocolate’s turkey orgy would certainly have been good for a couple of hundred thousand YouTube views.) We’ll just have to leave it your imagination, and Mondrian’s description.

Observing turkeys doing what turkeys do speaks volumes about the sexual drive that seems to be rampant around here these days. From Louisa’s turkey yard, to the swallows in the barn rafters, to the 50 new chicks that we just installed in our homemade brooder in the barn bathroom, there’s a whole lot of shaking going on. Dylan Thomas, the wonderful Welsh poet, called this mysterious power, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”.

We don’t spend much time these days quoting Welsh poets around Persephone Farm—or watching turkeys at play either, for that matter. The to-do list of startup chores Rebecca posts each morning in the packing shed gets longer every day and time is precious. But sometimes at this early point in the season it seems like the whole place is a little like Spring Break in Ft. Lauderdale.

Take the greenhouse. It would be hard to imagine a less sexy spot—nothing but pea shoots and tomato plants sitting in pots, right? Ah, but if you look closely you’ll see that same force at work in there.

From cotyledons in greenhouse flats, to Chocolate in the turkey pen, the farm is alive with an awful lot of prurient activity at this time of year. We love to have people come visit Persephone Farm, especially with their kids, so we can show them around and explain where their food comes from and how things work in the natural world. But perhaps at this time of year we ought to put a note on our sign at the front gate: “Warning, this farm is x-rated.”

Persephone

When we started discussing the idea of writing a blog about a season on Persephone Farm, a few years back, we were still on the cusp of the local food movement. The term “locavore” wasn’t on anyone’s tongue and microfarms like ours were off the industry’s radar. We had 25 laying hens and our Saturday veggie sales at the Bainbridge Island farmers market sometimes were skimpy enough that we ate the leftovers through the following week. By June, when our CSA began, we were still scratching for subscribers. We did select a terrific pair of young interns that year—out of a handful of serious applicants.

How times change. The opening-day lineup of our loyal market customers grows longer each year, recession or no. Our farm’s livestock inventory is now 130 White Leghorn and Golden Sexlink chickens, five heritage turkeys and five sheep. We’ll be expanding again this year—and that doesn’t include Cleo, our resident pea hen, or the farm cats, Selmo and Oberon. Our CSA subscriber list is filling up fast and it is only March, and we picked this year’s four new interns came from more than 100 applicants. The last time I Googled “locavore”, there were 452,000 entries.

With all this going on, we figured it was time to get to it and invite people to come along as this year’s farm’s season unfolds. So here we are with a brand new blog. We plan to keep everyone up to date on what’s happening on our little farm—the good, the bad and the really, really dirty. You will get a chance to see what it is like to start from scratch—quite literally from scratch as we dig the furrows that hold the seeds, that grow the plants, that become the meals for the hundreds of people we feed each season.

Tom Posey friend of Persephone

You’ll get to know everyone around here, from the newest arrival, Mongo,  an exuberant mixed-breed husky/shepherd, who arrived last week with one of our interns and promptly chased Cleo onto the chicken-coop roof, seriously wounding her pride and barnyard status, to Tom Posey, one of our CSA subscribers, who showed up years ago to pick up his first box of produce on a Wednesday afternoon, and has come back every Wednesday since then to help out, getting dirty and sweaty along with everyone else. Tom even brings beer to share when we are done for the day.

We’ll introduce you to the farmers, Rebecca and Louisa, and to our interns, Greg, Caitlan, Joel and and Mondrian. We’ll show you around the place—the lavender patch down near the gate, Louisa’s orchard, where the plum trees are already in bloom and the apples are starting to bud out. You can visit the gardens where we grow 53 kinds of veggies and watch as we harvest salad greens so delicate they have to be picked at dawn, before the sun gets at them. If you stick around you can watch while we pluck a chicken and sample the new tomato crop. We’ll introduce you to our neighbors, Wise Acres Community, who include some world-class chefs and musicians, and with whom we share a meal every Monday evening. You can sit in on our garlic-harvest party in July, watch our apple pressing in October, and help choose this year’s farm entry for the annual Bainbridge Island zucchini race.

Along the way, we’ll spend some time chatting about more serious things like the economics and politics of food—subjects that are reshaping what we grow, where we buy it, how we eat it, and how it is changing our lives. Turns out, microfarming like we’ve been doing here for the last two decades, has suddenly become the hottest part of agriculture—the world is catching up and we’re right in the middle of…you got it…a trend. Don’t just take my word for it, ask Michelle Obama or click on the Farmville website, where 72 million vicarious farmers checked in last month.

So welcome to “The Season.” Be prepared to get some virtual dirt under your fingernails. It should be an interesting and exciting year for us all. We’re glad you are here, hope you’ll stick around and tell more people about us.

Persephone