Chickens at work

Chickens at the feeder

The Shaver Red Sex-Link laying hens are doing fine in the fairly chilly chickenhouse, eating up a storm, looking and sounding healthy and happy, and producing away. They’ve been in artificial light days for the last couple of months, about 16 hours made up of daylight extended by a 60W bulb on a timer that’s on till 11pm. I’m curious whether at least some of the girls would really stop producing for the winter if the light dropped below 15 hours for even a single day. I don’t actually want to see it happen, but what if there’s a power failure? Hmmm… Kerosene lamp? In any case, fall egg production has so far stayed steady at about 20-23 a day for the 25 girls… Chickens are easy, you don’t have to know a lot to raise them casually, but there is a lot you could know. And of course, the more you know, the less you need! My winter chicken reading is Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma

The Omnivore's Dilemma

Since I mentioned buying this book a while ago, I might as well wrap it up! I recently, finally read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, an investigative reporter’s full-on indictment of modern food. It came out in 2006, but with all of the praise and recommendation I’d heard from people around me and online, it almost felt like I was waaaay behind a life-changing, or at least, EYE-OPENING, experience. In fact, I’d read excerpts and heard Pollan speak on radio and TV, and I had a pretty good idea of what the book would be like: HIGHLY ENTERTAINING and densely packed with condensed bits of accessible scientific explanation, intriguing and disturbing facts, and involving eyewitness accounts. OD definitely delivered on all counts.

I read it over a couple of days, a real page-turner! For a week afterward, choice nuggets of often alarming info swirled in my head. And then, the details started to fade. It’s now a couple of weeks later, and a few choice bits remain. I really like the idea of being driven by the complementary opposing forces of neophilia and neophobia (kinda like the angel and the devil, sitting on each shoulder…), and that we humans developed big, powerful brains in order to figure out what to eat (something like that). The description of grass farming was absorbing. Mushroom hunting sounds…extreme! And so forth. Oh yeah, and we’re feeding ourselves crap!

The one big downside of this sort of intensely involving overview, covering so much territory in just 400 pages, is that you can’t absorb that much in a practical way. So, you’re entertained in an agri-suspense/thriller/horror style. The result: if you weren’t already convinced (I was…), you’re now likely quite certain that our food industry and the food it produces are both…horrifying (that’s not good!). You also hang on to some interesting facts that you didn’t know before, maybe stuff that you’ll go on to explore. And perhaps all this will fuel some significant personal action (that would be good).

All in all, OD is engagingly written edutainment, and I’d recommend it as a good read. As for its life-changing impact, the mileage no doubt varies.

Backstage at the farmers’ market: harvest bins

Harvest bins

Rubbermaid storage bins are the main harvest containers again this season (I suppose that’s a plug for Rubbermaid, unintended, it just seems like they’re the only company in the plastic storage bin market!). They’re inexpensive (around $8 each), hold a little over a bushel, and the lids fasten well. They’re easy to clean, and they stack well, loaded and covered, or empty. And they’re durable. I somehow ran over one with the Kubota compact tractor, pulled it back in shape, and it’s in service again. They’ve changed color this year, the new ones available around here are a kinda tacky metallic blue, but that’s no reason to give ’em up. We have about 25, along with a dozen or so green bushel trugs…so I guess that’s the cap for the maximum harvest haul for now! Today at market, there were about 15 of ’em full… Balanced on the edge of one is a stack of three selected gardening books, brought to market for customers to check out…

Exploring down below…

Lettuce root system

These technical drawings of a lettuce root system are from Root Development of Vegetable Crops*, first published in 1927 and now in the public domain. This is an incredible book that I just discovered. The text is like a complete gardening course delivered from underground. The drawings record direct observation, the result of years of root excavation. Over 30 (North American) common garden veggies are covered, a chapter each. I can hardly describe how satisfying and…enlightening it is to simply look at page after page of painstakingly drawn root systems! Here, the top two pictures are lettuce at two months and then at three months and flowering. Each square in the grid is one foot. The little side-by-side illustratation shows 3-week-old seedlings, grown on the left in loose soil (nearly 2′ down!!), on the right in compacted soil (and to think, I have 3-week seedlings in tiny plug sheet cells, 2-1/2″ deep!). One look at this and your mind expands!
*I downloaded it from the fantastic Soil & Health Holistic Agriculture Library, an online repository for dozens of excellent books, mostly from 1910-1960, and all entirely free—there are many organic farming classics, tons of great, practical stuff!

Books! Seed! Orders arrive…

Seeds and books

Better than Christmas! The first half of the first big seed order, and my first book order in months, both arrived today.

Seed every year comes almost entirely from three companies: William Dam, Veseys and Terra Edibles. The first two are both bigger, family run companies, one definitely slicker and more marketing-oriented, with a series of color catalogs through the year in addition to their main one, all kinds of enticing special offers involving free shipping, a call center with almost no waits, y’know, the works. The other is definitely more…”indie”, with a single annual catalog, a written commitment to untreated seed only, and a busy signal more likely than not right through the order season: keep calling till you get through. The third is a tiny company specializing in heirloom seed, grown in-house or directly sourced from small growers.

The cool thing about all three is that you’re actually dealing wtih the owners, right to the top. Even in the case of the slickest one, when a seed potato order was a WEEK late last year, the prez himself called to apologize. And I’ve had great, informative chats with various people from all. It’s another small satisfaction, knowing to a degree from where and whom your seed arrives.

The book situation is a little different: (, in my case). It seems like a sprawling, faceless, digital megacorporation, and I long ago stopped keeping track of who bought out who, but as far as I know, it’s still…OK (like, not like Facebook). And it’s downright depressing/futile to browse a small-town bookstore if you’re looking for specific titles (of course, they can always order in, so I do it myself instead).

Anyhow, the few titles (selected from a long list of must-reads): The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener: A Guide to Growing Your Garden Organically (based on a recommendation), The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals (finally…eek! :), The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution (hmm, high hopes for this one, based largely on a Charlie Rose PBS (US public TV) interview with author Alice Waters; I WILL cook more, but we’ll see if this helps…), Micro Eco-Farming: Prospering from Backyard to Small Acreage in Partnership with the Earth (I have NO IDEA how this came to the long list, I forget, but I did mark it with a bunch of stars…). And then there’s the Linux Pocket Guide, ’cause with blogs and web sites, like tiny farms, it’s usually best to know your way around the territory…

Off to start some rosemary really late, and read!

The seed…

Seed stock: Dec 2007

Keeping up with the early start, I got out the seed from its storage chest to take a look. With the tiny farm’s growing HISTORY (hey, Year 6, coming up!), keeping the seeds sorted for freshness is an ever more…serious consideration. Old seed won’t work, and there’s always lots of carryover from year to year. For this garden’s veggie selection, seed life in cool, dry storage conditions falls into three categories: nice and long (around 5 years, for brassicas, cucumber/squash family, lettuce, tomatoes,…), medium (around 3 years: beans, peas, carrots,…), and SHORT (1-2 years, for onions, corn, parsnip, parsley,…not too many here). Luckily, this is all book info, not gathered from painful personal experience! But I listen closely, ’cause one of my biggest garden nightmares is THINGS NOT GERMINATING… There are enough reasons why gazing happily on those newly seeded, semi-straight rows might be the greatest satisfaction they ever offer, and dead seed shouldn’t be one of ’em. My first germination test last year seemed to bear out the wisdom of others: normally-stored seed is not forever… So, it’s checking packs and taking dates!

Fill your head!!

Growing for Market

My box of back issues finally arrived. Reading through it may cause my head to explode (so many things to try, so little time :), but I’ll take the chance! This is the entire collection, seven years worth, of a fantastic market gardeners’ monthly newsletter called Growing for Market. Tiny farming lies in a kind of information nowhere land between gardening and large-scale agriculture. Most of what I do is straight from gardening methods, but the scale is a little…bigger, with things to do and problems to solve that just don’t happen in even a very large personal garden. Meanwhile, commercial farming info is all about tractors and agrochemicals and acres of one crop at a time. All wrong. So where do you learn the best way to stake 500 tomato plants, or how to keep veggies fresh for half a day at a hot outdoor summer market?

Continue reading Fill your head!!