One of the things I really enjoy about living on the farm is the change in seasons. After a long cold winter, and many days of mucking about in the rain and mud doing chicken and turkey chores, it is so exciting to have that first feeling that spring is around the corner. Even before the first spring bulbs poke up through the ground, the birds and the bees provide the first signs that spring is in the air.
It is always a thrill to see the bees make their first appearance outside the beehives on the first sunny days in January and February. This past winter was an unusually cold, snowy, and wet winter, and I waited anxiously to see if all of our beehives would make it through until spring. Bees can survive the cold weather we get in the Pacific Northwest just fine. It is the wet weather, and in particular the moisture inside the hive, which poses a greater risk to them than the cold. When I get the hives ready for fall, there are a few things I do to vent moisture from the hives and try to prevent condensation from occurring in the hives. Even though the hives are not very active in the winter, I do check on them after every cold snap and snowstorm to clear snow away from the hive entrance and to clear dead bees away from the bottom of the hive so that the dead bees don’t block the entrance. It is normal for quite a lot of the bees in the hive to die over the winter, and every time I brush the dead bees out from the bottom of the hive there will be several dozen. At times I’ve seen a large pile of dead bees right outside the hive entrance after the bees have done a bit of housekeeping themselves and removed the dead bees from the hive. Even though it’s normal to see a pile of dead bees outside the hive, it does make me worry at times, and so it is with baited breath that I anxiously await the first sighting of bees outside the hive. The bees made their first appearance in mid-January this year, on an unseasonably warm day, and there have been a few other days since then when the bees have also been out. I am happy to report that all three of our hives have survived the winter thus far.
The behavior of the chickens and turkeys provides another clue that spring is around the corner. As the days start getting longer, the chickens start laying eggs again. Many of our ladies are approaching old biddy status, so they are taking a longer vacation from egg laying than they did when they were younger. From early November through January, we were only getting a few eggs a week from the few hens that laid during the winter, but by the end of January many of the ladies were starting to lay again. The chicken yard, which had been pretty quiet during the winter, was now filled with the sounds of the “egg song” as the ladies leave the nest box and announce their proud achievement. Our roosters and Ringo the turkey have begun enthusiastically courting the ladies again thanks to the annual spring rise in hormone levels. The turkey hens should begin laying eggs by March, and soon we will be inundated with their jumbo sized, beautiful cream colored eggs with brown speckles. Turkeys do not have as long of an egg laying season as chickens (which is why turkeys are not used for commercial egg production), but we got approximately 175 eggs from our two turkey hens last year, so we should have our hands full with the eggs from five turkey hens this year. Their eggs are delicious when eaten just as you would eat chicken eggs for breakfast, and they are also great in baking. I am really looking forward to having turkey eggs again, and this year I will also be selling them along with chicken eggs. As the weather allows, I’ve been getting the garden and greenhouse cleaned up and ready for the start of gardening season, which thanks to my birds and bees I know is right around the corner!
At the end of summer, I always look forward to fall, thinking that it will be nice when things slow down and it’s not so busy at the farm. Then fall arrives, and I realize that I’m still just as busy as ever! Getting the garden cleaned up for winter is always quite a chore, but luckily we had some sunny days that I took advantage of to pull out and compost all of the warm season veggie plants that are done for the season. I chopped up and piled them in our jumbo sized compost area in the garden, mixed with layers of the pine shavings and poop from the big chicken coop clean out. The squash plants that always have powdery mildew by the end of the season go into the “B” compost area which is really just a hidden pile of things too big to chop up or diseased stuff that gets tossed behind the cover of a blackberry thicket. We had a large harvest of spaghetti squash this year, which for some reason is the squash I’m most successful at growing. The butternut and acorn squash got off to a slow start, and they never caught up enough to produce anything. Most of the pumpkin and gourd seeds that I saved from last year grew into odd-looking hybrids this year, elongated two-toned fruits that don’t look like anything I’ve ever seen before. But I grew them mostly for fall decoration and chicken treats, both of which they still accomplish nicely. I planted garlic for next summer, and I spread compost in the raised beds, so most of what I wanted to do to get the garden ready for next year is done. The pickles are finally made. I made a little bit of everything this year – garlic dill pickles made with lemon cucumbers, regular cucumbers, green beans, and rhubarb. We even managed to find an afternoon to go mushroom hunting and came home with enough to sauté the extra and put them in the freezer.
We finally joined the ranks of people who have two refrigerators and added a second refrigerator in the garage. In the summer, the refrigerator is crammed full of eggs and vegetables, and by the end of the summer freezer space is in short supply. We now have the luxury of an extra refrigerator to make harvest season a bit easier next year and also give us some extra space for a turkey or two that will in all likelihood be going into the freezer this fall. After putting so much effort into growing and putting away food in the summer, fall is the time we get to enjoy the fruits of our labor and eat delicious home grown and preserved things all winter long – roasted tomatoes, marinara sauce, tomato soup, roasted anaheim chilis, kale and chard, potatoes, onions, garlic, leeks, squash, pesto, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, jam, pear butter, applesauce, zucchini bread, honey, and let’s not forget the home-canned tuna. It’s almost time to wind down for the season, and I am sure looking forward to a bit of winter relaxation!
Summer is winding down here at the farm, and as I write this I am sitting by a cozy fire in the wood stove watching the rain clouds move in. I am glad that I took advantage of the sunny day yesterday to pick as many mostly ripe tomatoes as possible before the rain causes them all to split. As the days grow short, the list of end of summer chores grows long. I harvested all of the good size Anaheim peppers in the garden a few days ago – 7 dozen in all! I will roast and freeze them for making chili rellenos throughout the winter. I also made up a big batch of tomato soup that I need to can this weekend. The pears that we harvested several weeks ago have been removed from the fridge and have finally ripened, so I need to get around to making the long-awaited pear butter. I traded some eggs with a friend that had a much better lemon cucumber harvest than I did, so I can make my famous lemon cucumber garlic dill pickles after all this year. Last but not least, I still need to can some of the bounty of kale in the garden. I may or may not get to it, and if I don’t I know some feathered ladies that will be happy to help us eat it throughout the fall and winter.
The ladies are winding down with egg laying for the year, and most of the chickens have begun to molt. Twitchy and Ruby are having a contest for the ugliest chicken award as they both are going through what is called a “hard molt” when most of the feathers fall out all at once. These are two of my friendliest ladies, usually the first to come running over to me for treats and lap time, but as I enter the chicken yard with my camera in hand to document their sad appearance for the blog, they skulk around the outskirts of the group as if they know they have taken on a somewhat ridiculous appearance. One of our grown turkey hens, Prudence, is still laying an egg about every other day, and I am hoarding her jumbo sized eggs in my stash of eggs to get us through the fall and winter. Eleanor, our other grown turkey hen, has been broody for about six weeks now so she is not laying eggs. Her babies are now fully grown, and despite being too large to really fit comfortably, several of them hang out with her in the small chicken coop that they were raised in, keeping her company. The chicken coop in the upper pasture needs a thorough cleaning before fall sets in since the ladies will be spending more time indoors once the rain and winds arrive, so I like to give it a good scrub down and replace all of the shavings to get it ready for fall.
The bees are winding down the summer too. On sunny days they can still be seen out and about in the fall aster and the last of the fall-blooming flowers. I have several bee balm, echinacea, and calendula seedlings that I started from seed in the greenhouse that are ready to be planted into the bee garden to give them more fall flowers for next year. There is a ton of garden clean-up to do, and of course there is always a big pile of compost waiting to be spread on the raised beds that somehow I never quite get around to. In another month or so, all of the chores that are going to get done will be done, and those that don’t won’t, but either way we have accomplished quite a lot this year and are feeling quite fortunate to have had another bountiful summer at the farm.
I had a lovely day at the farm today. It was the kind of day that doesn’t come along every day, but when they do, it makes me so thankful for the opportunities to see nature close up that we have at the farm. I was in the garden doing some planting this morning. I had been holding off planting a few things until the latest heat wave passed, so that my transplants wouldn’t get as wilted and sad looking as my chard and spinach did when I planted them right before the last heat wave a couple of weeks ago. We have been hearing quail around the farm for the last few weeks, but they can be somewhat elusive. Other than a quick glimpse of them as they briefly landed in the front pasture before quickly flying off, I had not gotten a good look at them this year until today, my lucky day. I was up in the garden just getting started when I heard a quail calling, and I looked up just in time to see a pair of quail flying low over my head. They landed in some short alder trees right outside the garden fence and continued calling and flitting about in the trees. I fancied myself in a David Attenborough documentary, the one where he is narrating as the bird of paradise male flits around above his head doing his elaborate courtship dance.
A little later, the rufous hummingbirds were at it, two brightly colored red males chasing each other about the yard and garden, dive bombing each other in a dispute over territory no doubt. After I had been up in the garden awhile and gotten most of the planting done, the little banty hens decided to come up and check out my progress. Millie was first on the scene, inspecting the spinach bed and thinking maybe it was time to start sampling the fresh spring greens. I had to eject her from the spinach bed in the interest of saving the still quite small plants. But she got the better of me by spotting the first ripe strawberry of the season and getting a few good pecks in before I saw what she was eating. By the time I got over to her to attempt to steal it away from her, I realized there was not enough left to share so I let her have the rest of it. I am a sucker for a cute face after all. By this time, Salt-n-Pepa had made their way up to the garden and were eager to scratch about in the freshly turned soil that I had just planted the leeks and onions in. I had to eject the ladies from this bed too, because even though they are tiny, they can do a lot of damage with those little feathered feet in a hurry! I grabbed a few kale leaves and coaxed them back down to their coop to eat their treat.
I went back up to the garden in the afternoon, and this time I had my camera with me. Much to my delight I saw the quail pair were back. I watched them as they scurried back and forth under the raspberry and blueberry bushes, and then the male was so kind as to fly up on the fence and pose for some photos. A bit later in the day I saw them again in the driveway, the male appeared to be pecking about in the gravel for tasty treats and then the female would come running over to the male to claim the treat, much in the same way that I’ve seen roosters and hens display this same behavior. I am hoping that the quail pair nest close to the farm and raise up a batch of little ones. That would sure be a nice addition to our feathered friends here at the farm.
I always get a bit nostalgic at the end of the year, and looking back at 2015 it was quite a memorable year at the farm. Without a doubt, the most exciting thing to happen at the farm was the addition of turkeys to our flock. We bought four turkey poults from the farm store in April and soon fell in love with their curious and adorable ways (Turkey Lurkey). We had a very enjoyable three weeks of raising them in the house before they became so big and adventurous that they had to move outside to their coop. All four of the turkey poults grew up to be Turkey Boys, and although they were truly a stunning sight to behold when they were all strutting at the same time, by the time they were three months old they had started to fight, so I rehomed three of the four boys. I bought two young turkey hens from a farm a couple of hours away, and now we have what will hopefully be a happy trio of breeding turkeys consisting of Ringo, Dear Prudence, and Eleanor. The turkeys have quickly become among my favorites of the farm family.
We had our hearts broken a few times this year when we lost Coco Puff, Ramona, Squeeky, and Lil’ Red Rooster. I think Coco Puff died from a reproductive disorder (Farewell Funny Lady) as seems to happen all too often with pet chickens. Squeeky died in a freak choking accident while we struggled to help her but were unable to. I’m not exactly sure what the cause of Ramona’s death was, but something seemed to have been ailing her for a while, and one morning I found her dead in the coop. Lil’ Red Rooster went missing in November, and we assume he was taken by a hawk. We went into Lockdown mode on the farm after Lil’ Red’s disappearance and a coyote sighting on the trail camera. We implemented extra security measures including installing automatic chicken coop doors on the two coops in the front pasture, so now everyone is locked into their coops safe and sound at night whether we are here at dusk to close the doors or not. We bought two silver laced cochin banty hens (Little Ones) to be Millie’s new coopmates after we lost Coco, and I’m glad we did or else Millie would have been quite lonely after having lost both Coco and Lil’ Red. Next year I am planning to get a silkie banty rooster, the same breed as Millie, and maybe we’ll let her raise up a batch of banty chicks.
We had a productive year in the garden (Garden Goodness), preserved lots of food for the winter (Putting Food By), learned how to use the pressure canner (Eat Your Veggies), and had our best squash season ever (Squash-a-rama). The ladies supplied us with plenty of eggs throughout the spring and summer for ourselves, our family, friends, and neighbors, laying an all time record of 20 eggs a day on several occassions! Our two bee hives also had a very productive year, and we harvested several pounds of honey (Honey Days). I bought myself a third bee hive for my birthday present this year, and next spring we will do a hive split to establish a colony in the new beehive. We undertook a major pasture renovation project this fall (Fall at the Farm), by rototilling, seeding, and moving the girls off of the upper pasture. By next spring, the upper pasture should be fully revegetated with grass and nutritious legumes for the ladies. Amidst all that happened this year at the farm, we also tried to remember to take some time to enjoy the Simple Pleasures.
Fall has arrived at the farm, and we have been busy trying to finish up our outdoor projects. I’ve picked the last of the summer veggies, planted the garlic, and started preparing my new pumpkin bed for next year. I did the final bee hive inspection of the year which involved removing a few frames of honey from the hive that stored the most honey this year and putting them into the hive that didn’t put away as much honey to make sure that both hives have enough honey to get them through the winter. I also put a piece of burlap covered with pine shavings in the top of the hives to help absorb condensation and keep the hive from getting too moist over the winter. We also got a huge truckload of 30 yards of wood shavings delivered to spread in the muddy areas over the winter. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my chicken keeping adventures, it’s that rain + chicken poop + bare ground can be quite a mess and is not healthy for chickens, and now with the addition of the turkeys we have a noticeable increase in poop! With an especially rainy winter predicted for this year I’ll need to keep on top of manure management, and the huge pile of wood shavings will be an important part of keeping the pasture in good condition.
We added a new project to our fall chores this year, which was rototilling and reseeding the upper chicken pasture. It’s been 2-1/2 years since we started using that pasture, and the constant scratching and pecking by the chickens has definitely taken its toll. The grass has been overgrazed in areas, weeds that the chickens don’t like to eat have become established, and there are lots of bare areas with deep holes from the chickens dust bathing. We decided to move all of the ladies off the upper pasture until next spring or summer when the grass should be reestablished. Half the ladies will remain in the upper chicken yard where there is a large coop and secure run, as well as a smaller temporary pasture that we set up for them. Our favorite ladies will stay up above, these include Rhoda, Raquel, Rosie, Ruby, Twitchy, Squeeky 2, Buttercup, Reina, Grace, and Violet’s chicks from last summer – Rosalie, Dusky, and Midnight (you may notice that Ramona is missing from this list, and I’m sorry to say that she passed away a few weeks ago at 5 years of age from an unknown cause).
We moved the other half of the ladies, basically the unnamed ladies, and Brown Rooster down to the lower pasture where Ramon, his ladies and the turkeys live. The lower pasture has the coop we built for the turkeys that they do not use, and we decided this could easily accommodate half of the flock from the upper chicken yard. The lower pasture is not quite as secure as the upper pasture in terms of predator protection, so we decided to move the chickens that are not quite as friendly down to the lower pasture. There have been a few sparring matches between Brown Rooster and Ramon, but nothing too serious, and I’m hoping that they can learn to avoid each other and coexist over the winter. Interestingly, the turkeys seem to be acting as peacemakers of sorts and tend to break up some of the rooster interactions. Time will tell, and I am keeping a watchful eye over everyone to make sure that this experiment is a success.
It’s been a year since we moved to the farm full-time, and what better way to celebrate than by counting down the reasons I love living at the farm.
17) the beautiful walk to the mailbox
16) the starry sky at night
15) snow days
14) fires in the wood stove
13) forest views
12) hearing the tree frogs
11) tending the honey bees
10) garden bounty
9) summer sweets
8) lil’ red rooster
7) my greenhouse
5) wild things
4) the little things
1) and of course, more chickens!
We’ve been snowed in at the farm for five days due to 18 inches of snow that just won’t melt, so what better way to spend the time than sitting by the wood stove and thinking back on all that we’ve accomplished in the last year. Looking back at my blog, it’s easy to see that 2013 was definitely the year of the rooster. When we started our chicken flock, it wasn’t long before I realized that we had too many roosters. Although I was quite fond of each and every one of them, by February it was time to say So Long, Ringo. I rehomed Grayson shortly thereafter, and that was soon followed by losing Henry to a predator attack (R.I.P. Henry). That reduced our rooster tally to three which was a big improvement, and things began to settle down a bit. We let Momma Millie set on some of our own fertilized eggs, and she hatched out two adorable chicks, one of whom would become our green-egg laying Good Girl, Grace. The other turned out to be yet another rooster who started off a bit of a trouble-maker (Where’s Brown Rooster?) but soon became our Back Door Rooster Man and was later promoted to King of the Castle.
This year we built a Greenhouse and Beehive, and in April we installed a package of 10,000 bees in the beehive (The Bees are Here!). The garden season got off to a great start thanks to the new greenhouse, and by May I was pleased to announce The Veggie Garden is Planted! By September we had our first Bit ‘O Honey, which was followed by a busy late summer and fall in the garden due to a Whole Lotta Canning Going On and a Rainy Garden Wrap-up.
We lost a few of our favorite ladies this year. Sweet Pea 2 was the first to go up to the Chicken Farm in the Sky in May, followed by our saying Goodbye Sweet Sussex in June. It wasn’t long before roosters were back on center stage as the ladies began to look a little worse for the wear due to a bit too much Rooster Love, so we moved Reuben and Ramon into Bachelor Pad #2 in the lower pasture. By July we were again faced with The Rooster Dilemma as it became apparent that four of the six adorable chicks we spontaneously adopted from a friend’s grade school classroom had grown up to be roosters. When the roosters were six months old, we took a big step toward self-sufficiency and decided to harvest them and make Coq au Vin.
We moved to the farm full-time in October, and now we get to enjoy all of The Little Things that make country life so enjoyable. December turned the farm into a Winter Wonderland due to record setting cold temperatures and a dusting of snow, and it was during this time that we lost Sweet Pea 1 and Sweet Pea 3. Despite the sadness over losing the Sweet Peas, I have to admit that it was a very good year at 5R Farm, filled with new experiences, a bountiful garden, many joyful days, and a few sad ones too. As we begin 2014, I look forward to the many more wonderful adventures that I know are sure to come.
It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.
– Arthur Conan Doyle
It’s been a month since we moved to the farm full-time, and it’s been one of the best months of my life. There are so many things I love about living in the country, and I feel so fortunate to be able to enjoy the farm every day of the week now, not just on the weekends. There are the obvious things that most people probably associate with living in the country – the beautiful scenery, the peace and quiet, and a sky full of stars at night. There are the things that I write about on my blog – the adventures that go with tending a flock of 30 chickens including a few too many roosters, having a large garden, a greenhouse, and a beehive, and still having plenty of space to expand our menagerie and garden over the years to come. But in addition to all of these things, it’s also the little things, the things that don’t make it into the blog, that make life at the farm so enjoyable. I thought I’d share a few photos documenting some of my favorite little moments around the farm.
Sometimes I take a break from the farm chores and the never ending to do list and take a walk around the farm and enjoy the beauty that surrounds us. It reminds me why we work so hard at the farm as well as how truly fortunate we are.