Archives for category: farm life

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“Did you hear that?” I called from the kitchen.

“What?”

“The chickens are squawking. It’s not the rooster, it’s the chickens.”

“Hmmm. Haven’t heard that in a while…do ya think?”

We don’t use lights on our chickens in the winter. We could, and then they’d lay during the dark months. Of course, unless we invested in equipment and did a lot of experiments…those eggs would freeze, and be of no use. And, it cannot be good to have that output of extra energy for egg laying, when it takes so much to just keep warm all winter. So we don’t. We think of winter as chicken sabbatical.

After a bit, the squawking resumed.

“You hear that?”

“I’m going.” He pulled on his boots and jacket.

Sure enough, his investigation was rewarded with two fresh eggs, the first of the season.

He came in and proudly displayed the bounty.

I nodded. “Makes perfect sense.”

“Yeah, with the longer days…”

“Well, and the extra light from Day Light Savings.”

He had to squint, eyeing me, to see if I was kidding.

 

Six years ago we moved here to Michigan from Sonoma County, California. We considered staying there, but the costs were climbing so fast, we couldn’t keep up. The straw that broke the camel’s back was water. In the area we wanted, local wells were going dry. And those that remained were often contaminated. Michigan, which had been home to me in youth, with it’s abundant fresh water, looked like a good bet. Our friends were horrified.

“Michigan?” “Are you crazy?” As if California were the only enlightened place to live. Native Californians tried to warn Rick, “You know, it snows there?” Really, did they think I was trying to pull some fast trick on my native-Californian mate?

We’ve had no regrets. It is beautiful here. Even the snow is lovely (and Rick thinks so, too.) And now, as we watch the wildfires in Sonoma County, we know we’ve made the right life choice. Though, so far, safe from the blazes, almost everyone we know is in an evacuation zone right now. Had we stayed put, we’d have spent the weekend in a shelter.

The Great Lakes are overflowing. In the gamble that is climate change, there are winners and losers. California has too little water, and we have too much. Still, we’re not lakefront property owners. For us, the season’s heavy rains have not been problematic. The forests all summer were deep green and lush. We had a spectacular color season–which is fading now to “tobacco spit” shades. We made the right choice.

And, by the end of the week, we’ll have snow, you know.

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The Pips

It’s not that I hate dogs. I don’t. I’m not a dog person, largely because I am allergic to them. I’m probably allergic because I was mauled by a cocker spaniel as a tiny child, which naturally gave me a healthy respect for bad dogs, and no respect for bad-dog-owners.

Because that’s the real problem, isn’t it? Bad dog owners. People who think their dogs are just fine, and don’t understand that it’s up to them to keep their dogs in check.

For several years we’ve had issues with a neighbor about her dogs. They aren’t malevolent, but she has never trained them. She believes that her dogs should be allowed to run and bark all night. She says she’s doing the neighborhood a favor to let her dogs “run deer.” She bemoans the loss of the good old days, when one let one’s dogs run loose without recriminations.

The neighborhood does not agree. Despite efforts to deal with her personally (to no avail) almost every neighbor in a half mile radius has had her cited. Her dogs bark incessantly. Her dogs chase cars and bicyclists. They’ve been known to menace pedestrians. Her dogs spook the deer at one neighbor’s hunting camp. She once complained to me that, if she kept the dogs on her yard all the time, there was too much clean-up to do. (Read, I prefer if my dogs crap in your yard.) So you see, it’s not really the fault of the dogs.

A couple of years ago I had a problem because one of her dogs took an interest in digging up my freshly planted orchard trees. After all, the soil was freshly worked and made for easy digging. I informed her that if I caught the dog digging on my property (which is literally pockmarked with its regular digging efforts), I would call the Sheriff. I did, and did. I also told her that, since she was enamored of “the old days of dogs running free,” she should well remember that in those old days, a loose dog doing agricultural damage was usually shot on the spot.

My neighbor didn’t appreciate my straight forward approach. And that was all before Blondie.

You may recall that last year we got chickens. We named them, based on recognizable features they had as chicks. Only one, Blondie, retained her chick coloration into adulthood, so we had Blondie and “the chickens.” I know, it sounds like a 90s punk band.

Blondie was an excitable and flighty chicken. She would try to take to the air with the slightest provocation–a person approaching with treats, a crow overhead. But she lived, safely we thought, behind a six foot fence. Not that chickens cannot fly, they can, and do. But chickens are like bumblebees–curiously designed when it comes to sustained flight. All of Blondie’s impulsive bolts for freedom ended when she hit the fence.

Late one afternoon, I decided to check the coop for eggs. Winter egg production is sporadic anyway, and if you’re not timely, the eggs will freeze. Approaching the chicken yard, I was dismayed by the sight of countless dog prints in the snow, endlessly circling the fence. Apparently those dogs had been harassing the chickens the night before. I collected the one egg, and then looked around to see how the chickens had fared. There were only three chickens. It was like the Pips, without Gladys.

I checked all around the fence–no Blondie, only feathers. I knew. It was getting dark, so my sleuthing would have to wait until morning.

Saturday morning, bright and early, I revisited the scene of the crime. Obviously the intensity of the dogs’ engagement had set Blondie airborne. For the first, and last time, Blondie was free. Direct into the mouth of the waiting dog. I checked the tracks (against my handy-dandy little animal track identification chart. Clearly dogs, not coyotes. I followed the feather-trail, which was clearly limited to one set of dog tracks, as it made a beeline for my neighbor’s property. The trail ended at the road, separating the two parcels. On her side, I found no feathers. There were many human footprints in the snow, though–and my neighbor is not usually one to wander around outdoors in the winter. I surmised that she’d cleaned up the feathers. My evidence was, at best, circumstantial.

After the weekend, I called Animal Control. They know us–after all we’ve been dealing with them over the dogs for years. I recounted my story and my observations. As I’d suspected, they could not issue a citation based on anything other than an eyewitness account. (Really? Don’t they know the research on how flawed eyewitnesses can be?) I warned that if I saw either dog near my chickens, I would just shoot it, as is my right.

Our friendly Animal Control Officer implored me not to take justice into my own hands. “Use the system,” he said. “It’s better for the neighborhood.” I’m not sure about that. My neighbors might arrange a hero’s parade if I dispatched those dogs. Still, I want to work with them. So, since then, we’ve been watching. If we see the dogs on our property, we call it in.

And such was the case this week. The snow is melting, giving the critters of the world easier access. Rick looked out one morning and saw the dogs on the property. He called Animal Control. When the officer arrived, he took the complaint. He also acknowledged that the day Blondie last flew the coop, there’d been a welfare check on my neighbor. In that report, the Deputy had noted that there was a dead chicken in her yard, which he pointed out to her. I was right. She’d cleaned up the evidence. After taking our report, the Officer headed across the way to talk to the neighbor. I yelled after him, “Tell her the chicken’s name was Blondie.”

A Multi-Part Saga of Succession: Part 1

A.V. Walters

Any population lacking authentic leadership is in trouble. Without authentic leadership, any group can fall for the antics of power hungry posers, whose influences, over time, can only disintegrate group cohesion and direction. You know the type, charismatic thugs capable of whipping up an excitable crowd. Don’t say, “It can’t happen here.” It has.

And such was the case with our largest bee hive. It’s been a productive year, ample rain has fueled a pollen and nectar bonanza. We’ve been doing regular hive splits, trying to avoid last year’s swarming losses. Those bees have been keeping us on our toes. But in early August, we ran out of woodenware, the boxes, bottoms and tops that make up a Langstroth hive. By then, we’d split all the hives, but one and we didn’t have time to build anew. Summer’s like that. We still had plenty of honey supers–so we just kept adding “up,” giving them space to grow, and to store all the honey they were producing. We needed the honey, because all those split hives were going to need resources, heading into winter.

Finally, we were able to catch our collective breath and assemble and paint new hive parts, to split the big hive. But we were too late. When we inspected, we could not find the queen–she and her entourage had already swarmed. There were still gazillions of bees, enough for at least two full hives, but there were signs of trouble.

A queen bee reigns by virtue of her hormonal influences. Not only are the bees connected and loyal because of pheromones, but all those female worker bees’ reproductive urges are suppressed by the queen’s control. When a hive goes “queenless,” either because of swarming, accident or mutiny (yes, mutiny), the bees will endeavor to create a new queen with one of the recent eggs or larvae. This takes a couple of weeks, and in the interim, you’re at risk of a “laying worker.” Without the constant hormonal suppression of the queen, a worker bee can begin laying eggs–and exert a similar hormonal control on the hive. The worker is unmated, so she can only lay drone eggs and she does not have the full complement of pheromones. A rogue hive like this can be mean and unpredictable.

Our inspection revealed problems, there were eggs–but no fresh larvae. The laying pattern was erratic–sometimes two eggs per cell and eggs laid on the sides of the cells, instead of the bottom. These are clear indications of a rogue, laying worker bee. The laying worker bee can interfere with normal royal succession. She may kill the larval queen–or kill her on hatch. After all, who wants to give up newfound power? To save the hive, we needed to re-queen it, and quickly.

Since the hive was still huge, even having swarmed, we opted to get two queens and to split the hive into two before we re-queened. As it was so late in the season, we wanted  already mated queens. We needed them to get in, and get to work, quickly. We wanted to find Michigan, winter-hardy queens, to maximize the chances of surviving the winter. We tried to see this as an opportunity to increase our genetic diversity, instead of just the loss of a truly productive queen.

Online, I found just what we needed–and I zoomed off to pick up our new royals. Though  we weren’t happy about having lost the swarm, we were confident that we could make the best of the situation.

What? Did you think I was carrying on about something other than bees?

 

 

 

The Myth of Snow Removal

A.V. Walters

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For the traditionalist…

There is no such thing. When it is time for it to go, snow will go on its own. Until then, all we can do is push it around—out of our way. We should really call it snow relocation. “Snow Removal” is a big ticket item on many northern, rural budgets. For many, the face of government is one’s local township clerk, and the guy who drives the snow plow. For public road maintenance, the standard snow plow is the way to go.

Snow management for the homeowner, or small business, poses important questions. First and foremost is the basic question of egress and access—unless you manage snowfall, you simply cannot get from here, to there. Immediately behind egress and access is the question of safety. At what point does the danger of a slip-and-fall land on the shoulders of the pedestrian? What is the responsibility of a business for access safety? When in doubt, wear spikes. It’s an inexpensive measure of safety. (Just remember to remove them at the door.)

The farther north you go, the higher the level of social tolerance for snow inconvenience. We know how to drive and schlep in snow. Snow management falls into one of three categories—pushing it aside (plowing and shoveling), scattering (snow blowers) or compaction—the old fashioned method of just traveling on top of the damn stuff—making for layers and layers of slippery, which are the seasonal measure of geologic sedimentation. Snow-blowers and their ability to disperse the mess make modern snow management easier. You never have to have a place to store the season’s bounty. The biggest issues in determining your snow management method are amount, effort and space. How much are you willing to sweat for access, and where the hell will you put the stuff?

When I was a kid, snow was shoveled by hand. That’s what kids were for. Driveways were relatively short. (I’m sure you’ve driven by a lovely old farmhouse and sighed at how close it was to traffic. Roads have widened over the years, and old houses were built sensibly closer to the thoroughfare.) Mechanization has freed us from those old, utilitarian limitations. Now, it is not unusual to see the McMansion on the hill, with its thousand-foot driveway. Woe to them, should petroleum become scarce.

We have our own range of snow equipment. The snow-blower on the tractor can clear a five-foot swath in a heartbeat. We have a hand-push blower, which we almost never use, favoring the flexibility of the traditional snow scoop or the northern version (the yooper-scooper), which makes it easier to move the snow some distance. In the North, snow removal is the aging test of whether it’s time to move into town. At that point, either you move, family helps out, you pay for snow removal, or you rely on the kindness of strangers. Since my father passed, my brother-in-law has dutifully kept my mum’s driveway clear. Rick and I are young yet, and are nowhere near those kinds of considerations. But…

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The Yooper-scooper–available only in the far north, wherever premium snow implements are sold.

I never had children. I wonder if Rick’s California kids understand the mores of familial obligations in the North.

 

Food Fight

A.V. Walters

It has come to the attention of Big Ag that the fastest growing sector of agriculture is organics. 2016 saw well over four million acres under organic cultivation. The total organic slice of the American food pie was over 35 billion dollars. You cannot boast that kind of success without attracting attention.

Big Ag wants in, in a big way. Organic produce and products are, after all, significantly more expensive than “conventional,” chemically infused crops. It’s a “value added” product, without the trouble of adding value. In fact, these are high-end consumers who’ll pay more, but want less. Less chemicals, less guilt, and less health impacts from fertilizers and pesticides. Of course, there are a lot of pesky regulations related to organic certification. But American Business knows it way around regulations.

Recently the industry group coordinating with government regulators, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), held its annual meeting. Not surprisingly, over the past decade the elected leadership of the group has been shifting towards large-scale, corporate producers, squeezing family farmers out of the mix. Organic products are regulated by the USDA, the agency in charge of enforcing our National Organic Program (NOP.) In decades past, nobody much cared about the definitional details of organic agriculture. The industry was the backwater of hippy back-to-the-earth folks. Conventional agriculture only cared that the program made production and certification expensive and burdensome—so it wouldn’t compete with their monoculture view of farming. In it’s early years, organic farmers debated earnestly just what “organic” meant.

It’s not merely the absence of pesticides that defines the heart of “organic.” It’s about creating a food and commodities system that is sustainable, humane and healthy for both consumers and for the planet. During the 1980s, those same hippy farmers debated long and hard about what practices could be included under the organic umbrella, and what methods did not measure up to “sustainable.” The old organic mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant,” spoke to a holistic approach to farming, and to the planet, in stark contrast to modern, industrial and extractive farming methods. Organic farming promoted crop rotation, natural soil enhancement, composting, non-chemical pest management, antibiotic and cage free animal husbandry and regenerating the environment through gentle agricultural practices. By any definition, organic farming should build soil and animal health—leaving us with a more diverse and stronger ecosystem. It is a moral and philosophical rejection of the chemically saturated monoculture and confined livestock systems that dominate American food production.

Things went well, until organic became synonymous with money. The results of this year’s meeting illustrate where we’re headed. In the early days, when easing the burden for “transitional” farmers was important, some non-organic or synthetic practices were permitted, provisionally—to be “sunsetted” out of organic production within 5 years unless, by a margin of two thirds majority, the NOSB voted to reauthorize them. This year the Board voted that any 5 year exemption is automatically “rolled over,” unless the NOSB votes it down—creating a slippery slope of standards erosion.

One of the big debates this year was whether hydroponic growing systems could be classified as organic. Really? How could a “farming” system that grows produce entirely without soil (often completely indoors), fed exclusively on a mix of liquid fertilizers and nutrients, wholly outside of any natural system be considered organic? What happened to “feed the soil?” What happened to organic farming acting in concert with nature to make the planet healthier? The Board couldn’t agree on the hydroponic issue, and has kicked it over to the next meeting, when there will be an even larger majority of corporate board members on the Board. Can you see where this leads?

Just as troublesome is the failure of the USDA to enforce the standards of the National Organic Program. Large scale producers regularly break the rules, with no penalty from the government agency charged with protecting consumers. Small scale organic farmers are thus doubly burdened—with the high cost of certification, and then forced to compete in the marketplace by corporate farms that advertise organic, but don’t play by the rules. The little guys end up subsidizing the cheats. In the long run, failure to police the standards will only undermine the organic message—the cheats will kill the golden goose. Consumers, small scale organic farmers and the planet will pay the price.

I don’t have a solution. I recommend that you support your local organic farmer through farmers’ markets, cooperatives or CSAs, that you start your own garden, keep bees or even chickens. I think we need to get involved, not just in the politics of food production but in some hands-on action, to protect our health and the health of our soils, our water and our planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Working—

A.V. Walters—

I asked my landlady for the contact information for the farmer who leases the fields surrounding us. She reacted badly to the request—assuming, for some bizarre reason, that I would say something to him that would jeopardize her long-standing arrangement. She refused to give me his number, but told me where I could find him, half way across the county.

I had no such ulterior motives. I keep bees. He sprays pesticides. Though I have registered my bees with Fieldwatch, many farmers are not aware of it. I merely wanted him to give me a heads up when he plans to spray.

Before I could get contact information, the farmer showed up to prep the soil for corn. My landlady shot out to talk to him, like a bat out of hell, before I could get there. She was waving her arms and pointing at our property, jabbering. I walked out calmly to introduce myself. As soon as I was within earshot, the landlady lowered her voice, finally shutting up as I approached.

“Hi, I’m Alta. My husband and I have the parcel across the street.”

“Hi, I’m Dennis.” He reached out of the tractor cab and shook my hand. I handed him a slip of paper with my contact information.

“Are you putting in seed today?”

“No, just prep. The corn’ll go in tomorrow.”

“Good. If we know beforehand, we can close up the bees and avoid any pesticide issues. I’d appreciate if whenever you spray, or seed, you could give us a call, the night before.”

“Sure, I work with Julius the same way. You know Julius?”

I’ve never met Julius, but all the beekeepers in the area at least know of him. He’s a beekeeping institution and has mentored most everyone who keep bees in this county. “Don’t know him, but I’ve heard a lot about him. Good things.”

“Yeah. He’s a great guy.” He scratched his head. “I get the spray, but why do you need to know when I put in seed?”

“Most seeds, especially corn, are pre-treated with insecticides. Just the dust from those seeds can kill bees.”

“Yeah? I never knew. I’ll have to talk to Julius about that one. You new to bees?”

“It’s our second year—but we lost all our hives over the winter. We just installed our new bees this week.”

He nodded. “Julius lost a bunch, too. What do you think happened?” During this exchange, my landlady just stood slackjawed. I guess it wasn’t what she expected.

I shrugged. “It was a tough year. Bee losses generally for 2015 were forty-four per cent. I know one of our hives had varoa mites. But we also lost our strongest hive. You know, the warm winter is almost tougher on the bees than a cold one. And of course, we’re all struggling with pesticide issues. It’s tough to keep bees home.” I paused, “It’s a critical issue—bees are responsible for a lot of our food production.”

“Well, don’t you worry. Just like me an’ Julius, we can work together.” He smiled. “I like to eat, too.”

So, of course, I left a pint of honey on the seat of his truck. This is how it’s supposed to work.

 

Better Late Than Never–

A.V. Walters.

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Yesterday’s Barbed Wire

The day before yesterday, Rick and I went for a walk in the woods. There was a wind-storm over Christmas, and we wanted to see if any more trees were down. We wore our regular shoes. There was no snow. So, we busied ourselves, with some minor trail-clearing, before yesterday’s predicted storm. (It’s nice to remove the trip hazards, while you can still see them.) At least the additional trees that fell were already dead—this is normal winter renewal.

We also wanted to check on our “widow-makers,” trees that came partially down in the wind-storm last August, but that were caught in the surrounding trees—hanging, but not stable. These are a woodsman’s worst nightmare. They are extremely dangerous to clear, as you can tell by their name. We have several snarls—where a fallen tree smashes into its neighbor, and that one into its neighbor—and so on, until four or five trees are entangled. We’ve been slowly clearing them, hoping that winter would level them for us. No such luck, so far.

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Widow-maker.

Unfortunately, several widow-makers block, or threaten, our trails. One of them is further complicated by being bound up in some of the ancient, barbed-wire fencing. The trees have grown, embedding the wire deep into their trunks. A big maple, split at its base, leans heavily on a smaller maple, over our main access trail, both of them wired together. It’s just a matter of time, and wind, until the smaller tree splits or collapses under the burden. (Should the bigger tree fall fast, that entrapped wire could cut through a bystander like a hot knife through butter.) We decided at least to clear the wire. Tinsnips in hand, we do what we can.

Yesterday morning we woke up to a different world. Finally, winter has arrived. It’s tough to estimate, with the drifting, but I’d guess we got a good six inches of dry, fine, powder. It’s about time.

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What a difference a day makes.

Though the mild season has seen great savings in heating costs and convenience, it is disconcerting not to have a real winter. This new blanket of snow sets that to rights. It will also provide needed “chill” hours to our fruit trees and down-time for the bees. Not that the bees need super-cold temperatures, but it is hard on them to have warm weather with no blossoms. Now, they can huddle and give up on the search for pollen and nectar.

Now, one would think that, being late December, we’d be ready for winter. Were we that well-oiled, seasonal machine, we’d be waiting, ready, with the snow-blower already set up on the Kubota. Yeah, right. Instead, we flailed about in the snow, disconnecting summer implements and hooking up the blower. The reward is that the blower makes short work of snow removal. Rick did the driveway, parking area and paths at the house site, and the drive at the apartment—ours and our landlady’s, in a couple of hours. Altogether it’s over a thousand feet of plowed road and path, about ten feet wide.

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Suiting up.

We’re settling in now, to the slower pace of winter. Things need to be more deliberate. A trip to town requires clearing the car, first. Work on the house requires warming glue or caulking materials. You have to think ahead. We don’t mind. We have the necessary tools and we like the snow. Another snowfall like this one, and we’ll break-out the snowshoes.

 

 

Wrapping up the Season

A.V. Walters

 

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Post bucket

We’ve had nearly an extra month of fall. Tomorrow, though, temperatures are expected to tumble down to seasonal norms. We’ve been rushing around to take advantage of the extended season and to get a jump on spring, next year.

We garden in buckets. It’s habit, from California, where it solved some of our irrigation issues. It also kept the gophers out of the vegetables. We’ve kept it up here in Michigan for some of the same reasons–water, critters, and because our soils need a lot of work. The buckets let us amend most intensely where the plants will live. Before the next season, we pull the buckets and empty the amended soil and leftover roots back into the soil. It could wait until spring, but we had the warm weather, so I did it this week. It will make it easier to spread amendment over the whole garden area in the spring, but we’ll probably stick with the buckets for a few seasons yet. It is more work–but promises better harvests until we can get the garden’s soil into better shape.

It was also time to attend to the fruit trees. They needed an end-of-season weeding, and it was time to wrap their trunks before winter. There are two main reasons for wrapping the trunks of fruit trees. It prevents sun scalding. Winter sun can warm the trunk–expanding the bark and the moist tissues below–on the sunny side. The temperature differential can split the bark, endangering the tree. By wrapping the trunk with light colored material, you reflect the sun’s heat away. The other reason to wrap is to dissuade mice and other critters who’d be inclined to nibble at the baby trees’ thin bark. Mice can easily girdle, and kill a young tree. I knew I’d arrived to the task just in time, when I saw that one of the apple tree’s lower trunk showed the early signs of nibbling! Now all of the fruit trees are wrapped and ready.

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A tidy wrap to protect the baby tree.

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Lined up in winter finery.

Along the way, I noted some successes. Before we planted the trees, located in the fenced garden area, we dug amendment in deep–very deep. In prepping their planting holes, we went down four to five feet deep and at least that far across. We wanted to give them a good start, and since our soils are poor, it was our best chance to add nutrients to the soil for the trees’ formative years. It has already paid off. Because we were attacked early by deer, the garden orchard trees had both the fence and individual tree cages for protection. In spite of having been seriously nibbled by deer, the apple, plum and pear trees have all more than doubled in size. They’ve outgrown the cages! They look more like 3rd or 4th year trees than 1st season trees. We may even see apples and pears next year.

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The cherry trees–grown outside the garden fence–didn’t get as much care. First, they’re all cherry trees. This is cherry tree country. One of the pioneer plants in our sandy soils is the American Black Cherry. I didn’t think that the cherries would require as much soil amendment. I only dug the amendment in to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. I also thought that cherry trees would be safe from the deer. They’re bitter! No such luck. We must have voracious deer. They munched on the cherries, too. Immediately after, we gave them cages, too. But while the others have recovered and really grown, the cherries have recovered, but stayed smaller. For future plantings, we’ll keep the deep-amendment program.

It makes me wonder if we should dig and replant the cherry trees. It’s a lot of stress on a little stick of a tree. I’m sure we’ll debate it all winter. More likely, I’ll be researching organic methods of fertilizing–not as good as a nice deep start, but we shall see. Any thoughts on that?

What’s the Buzz?

A.V. Walters–

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I read all the science on it, and I find it frustrating that there is no consensus about just what is up with the bees. I’ve been a bee fancier for decades. My grandfather was a beekeeper and my interest was piqued as a little kid. However, my urban life didn’t favor beekeeping. When I finally moved to the country, in Two Rock, I was more than ready to keep bees. Then, I learned that my landlord was wildly allergic to bee stings. I liked the landlord—so, no bees.

Even going back two decades, the bees were in trouble. The culprits then were tracheal mites and varroa mites. These mites are still a problem for the bees but, in an otherwise healthy hive, a manageable problem. Now we have what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, with bee losses ranging from 25 to 50%, per year. They just fly away and abandon the hive, en masse. Science has yet to find the reason that the bees lose their sense of direction and wander off to die. In fact, it’s likely there are several reasons. We really are at a point where bees are at risk—and with them a substantial percentage of our food supply. One-third of what we eat requires bee involvement.

When North Americans think of our bees, they are generally European honeybees. They have been domesticated for thousands of years—and we brought them with us to America. They are not “natural” to our North American biome, but they are a vital component of our agriculture. There are plenty of native pollinators, but they’re not a big part of the way America produces food. And, that’s a very big part of the problem.

It seems to be lost on Big Ag that bees are insects, just like many of the other agricultural “pests.” Our industrial agricultural model—based on monoculture, is hostile to most insects and weeds. The dominant approach is to saturate the crops, and the fields, with poisons. There is an enormous “collateral damage” quotient in the dominant approach. Our foods are coated in pesticide residues, our soil and groundwater are being contaminated, our agricultural workers suffer from chronic exposure syndromes and we poison the bees, our pollinators. Some newer pesticides, neonicitinoids, appear to be particularly damaging to bee populations. Unfortunately, while the bees are dying, the “debate” continues whether the neonicitinoids are legitimate suspects. The makers of these toxins, Bayer and Syngenta, claim that proper use will not result in bee losses—taking a page from the tobacco companies’ old playbook on what does or doesn’t cause lung cancer. Denial can hold truth at bay for decades. After all, there are a great many factors at work.

Included in the mix are issues of proper beekeeping. The emphasis for professional beekeepers tends to fall into one of two camps—the pollinators and the honey producers—though the pollinators produce honey, and the honey folks’ bees are obviously out there pollinating, too. Both camps are guilty of not taking great care of their bees. Here, the big issues seem to be food and travel.

Like most of us, bees are healthiest if they have a diverse diet and a low stress lifestyle. Left to their own devices, bees will collect the nectar and pollen from of a variety of plants and will produce more than enough honey to feed the hive through the winter. The pollination industry interferes with the natural order by trucking the bees from place to place to pollinate specific crops. There is no diet diversity, the bees are exposed to high levels of insecticides on the crops they pollinate, and living on the road is hard on the bees’ navigation skills.

The honey industry is no better. In the quest for high honey production, the beekeepers strip the hives of honey and then winter-feed the bees with high fructose corn syrup or sugar—the bee version of junk food. (Not that the pollinators don’t use sugar diets, they do, too!) In both cases, bees are weakened, and then at risk for the various bee hazards, including the tracheal and varroa mites and pesticide exposure. There’s so much finger-pointing going on in the bee tragedy that the bees will be all gone before any coherent science can catch up. Indeed, I heard one beekeeper justify his poor practices on the grounds that everyone else does it, and the bees will soon be dead, anyway! (I wonder if he has the same attitude when it comes to raising his kids.)

Every single day I am solicited online for donations to “save the bees.” Most of these are seeking funds to fight the use of neonicitinoids which really are a big problem, but only a part of the problem. The challenges of beekeeping are a microcosm of the challenges we have in agriculture, anyway. It’s a problem of scale—diversity equals strength—monoculture equals weakness. The solution isn’t to pour on chemicals; the solution is to grow our crops and our bees in ways mindful of, and taking full advantage of, the rhythms and ways of nature. Organics. It can be done.

So this week, Rick and I have started to make our contribution to save the bees. A month ago, I took a beekeeping class. And we’ve invested in hives and beekeeping gear. Ours will be pampered bees. They will live in one place. They will have a natural and diverse diet—and in the winter, they’ll eat their honey, like bees should. We’ll enjoy smaller yields in the spring—after the bees have had the chance to overwinter. Small scale, “bees first”, management is the solution. We’ll do our bit to save the bees, while the bees earn their keep by pollinating our gardens and giving up a bit of honey. Win-win. And now, if we could just get these hives assembled….

 

Let's see, Tab A....goes into....

Let’s see, Tab A….goes into….

 

 

 

 

Feed The Soil, Not the Plant!

A.V. Walters–

It’s the organic gardener’s mantra. If the soil is healthy, the plants will be healthy. If the soil isn’t healthy, there’s little you can do for the plants, that isn’t ultimately bad for the soil. Chemical fertilizers are the equivalent of an IV drip. Maybe it will do in a pinch, but it’s no solution to the nutrition issue. Do things that are good for the soil, and you will be rewarded with a healthy garden. It’s almost that simple.

I’ve been soil building for over thirty years. Trouble is, I keep moving on and leaving my efforts behind. This year we will have a garden. Last year we didn’t have our well in, so it wouldn’t have been responsible to put in a garden. Instead, I took soil samples and sent them in to the extension office for testing.

The results were grim. Our soils are largely glacial deposits. Sand, and lots of it. We’re deficient in most of nutrients for which they test. Most importantly, there’s not a lot of organic material to hold what’s there. With straight sand, it’ll take a good bit of soil building before we have something to hold the nutrients and to hold moisture.

That said, it’s not a disaster. Our delays have helped. We’ve changed the location for the garden–our first pick didn’t have as much sunlight as we thought. Being here has let us learn more about the location, the winds and how the sunlight falls. This land hasn’t been farmed (conventionally or otherwise) in at least thirty years, so the good news is that there are no bad things in the soil. We just need to build it up. The fastest way to get that process started is to add compost, or composted manure. And we’re lucky. It’s easier to amend sand than it is to lighten heavy clay.

I watched last winter as the Amish farmers spread manure on their fields in February and March–really in the middle of winter. At first I was surprised, but thinking more, it made sense. The fields are frozen, so their teams (they farm with draft horses) don’t get mired in the muck from early spring rains. The composted manure doesn’t care when it is spread, it’ll freeze now, but then “activate” when things thaw, and the early rains will carry the nutrients into the soil. It’s an efficient use of winter down time. I knew then that I’d need to watch for a supply of composted manure, come February.

And, this past weekend, there it was. A craigslist ad for 100 tons of composted cow manure. I forwarded it to Rick. He laughed. Meanwhile, I went to the internet to get the weight to volume conversions and I did the calculations.

I assured him, “No sweetie, we don’t need 100 tons.”

“What do you think we need? Says in the ad that there’s a ten ton minimum.”

“We need fifty tons.”

He could hardly believe me. But if we’re going to jump start this garden, and if we’re serious about it, that’s what we need. There’s the garden, and then more for our small orchard. We’ll need to amend deeply in the orchard. (Thank God for the Kubota and the backhoe! Maybe, if it’s a light enough mix, we could use the snowblower to spread it!) (I wonder what Rick will say about that.)

You can see where I get the idea.

You can see where I get the idea.

Rick is a nice boy from Southern California. I don’t think there’s any way in the world that he ever thought that he’d be the kind of guy to purchase fifty tons of composted manure. He’s shaking his head. I’ve negotiated with the dairy owner for a good price. So, now we just need to find a trucker to haul it. This isn’t a case where owning a pick up will help. This is easier said than done. I haven’t yet been able to find a hauler. The primary crop in these parts is cherries. Cherry farmers use flatbed trucks (with stacked bins.) A flatbed won’t work for manure. I’ve asked around, so far with little luck. Once I disclose what I want hauled, I’ve detected a near-immediate, and serious lack of interest.

It may take a while or so to get this all arranged. That’s good, because in the interim, I’d like to haul all of the trees we cleared last summer over to the new garden site to do a burn. Nothing helps a new garden like bio-char. Winter isn’t just about seed catalogs and dreaming. Sometimes there are garden chores that are best saved for the dead of winter.

 

New Territory, New Toys…
A.V. Walters

In the early days...

In the early days…

No! Did I say toys? Tools, tools, really it’s new tools! It’s a whole new world of what one needs to do—snow, building, planting. First, after carefully reviewing the used market for almost a year, we got the Kubota tractor—which we we’ve needed for road grading, excavation, and will certainly need for snow clearing. Rick cut in the driveway and dug out the foundation for the cabin with it—it’s no toy.

Then, I saw a good deal on a log splitter, on craigslist. In Two Rock we heated with wood and we split it all by hand—both of us. Of course, Northern California doesn’t pack nearly as much of a winter punch as Michigan. We used to use about two cords of wood a year to keep toasty. Here we figure we’ll need about five. The log splitter was a good call. I used it, feeling like a bit of a traitor to my trusty maul and wedge. But in an afternoon, without breaking too much of a sweat, (though it is still work) I split about a cord. Wow. We already had chainsaws (when we met, Rick and I owned the same brand and model of chainsaw. Kismet!)

The generator/inverter was a no-brainer. So far, there still isn’t any power to the site. (Though it looks like next week the electric company will bring in the underground lines for power—with phone and internet piggybacking in the trench.) Everything needs power—nailers, sanders, lights, saws. So the generator can’t be considered a toy by any stretch of the imagination.

Back in the spring, we were looking at the costs of excavation—road, foundation, well line, septic. It was daunting. We’d already bought what’s called a back-blade (it’s like a big scraper) so, my next job was to look for a used backhoe attachment for the Kubota. It took awhile—It was my job to make it work financially—to make any purchase pay for itself with savings from what we’d otherwise be paying others. I also had to learn about what implements would fit on our tractor. There’s a whole culture of tractordom—sub-frames, hydraulic kits, three-point attachments and PTOs. Things need to match—and I’m not talking about accessorizing. I found one—and we finally hooked it up. It was quite a feat—first, installing a sub-frame, and then uniting two pieces of equipment that weigh tons. The conjoined parts look like a large, prehistoric insect. Usually, I’m not one much for mechanized things, but horsepower does have its advantages.

Rick immediately started digging the line for the well. He’s far more mechanically inclined than I am, within an hour, he had the levers and controls figured out, and he was trenching like a pro. I’m a little jealous. I want to dig, too. (Don’t worry, my turn will come.) In the meantime, I’ve become quite the craigslist maven. Hey, there’s still a snow-blower to consider. A 3 point snow-blower is a thing to behold—throwing a veritable fountain of snow 20-30 feet in the air. Winter is coming… they’re tools, after all, not toys.

Slash and Burn

A.V. Walters

We learned about it in grade school. It’s a “primitive” agricultural practice of cutting down the forest, burning the “slash,” any unused timber products, and then planting crops in the resulting ash-fertilized clearing. Typically, in areas with poor soils (mostly areas outside the soils-rich Pleistocene glaciation) agricultural use would be for a limited duration, until the soil was nitrogen depleted. Then the farmers move on and the cycle begins again. It was, we were taught, a short-sighted and damaging form of farming. Looking in the mirror, I think that that was Western agriculture’s pot calling the kettle black.

In most of North America, we are blessed with deep and rich topsoils, compliments of the ice age and biodiversity. Our European forebears were more lucky than skilled when it came to farming. Indeed, many of them practiced exactly the slash and burn techniques that my grade-school teacher bemoaned. How else, in a world of hand tools and oxen, was a pioneer family to clear an old growth forest for farming? Over time, excessive cultivation of dry or marginal soils, and the failure to rotate crops, brought us to an ugly truth—the dustbowl. Even without dustbowl conditions, 1970’s estimates showed that using American, post-war agricultural practices were causing the loss of up to six inches of topsoil, per year!

Some early colonialists brought with them time tested farming methods that fed and protected the soils, as you can still see in Amish and Mennonite farms throughout the Midwest. They considered themselves the stewards of the land. Studies have shown that the natural methods used by these farmers retain the topsoil and keep it loaded with organic material and beneficial bacteria. From these traditions, today’s organic farmers learned the mantra, “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Organic farming methods have been proven to fight soil erosion, build the soil’s ability to retain moisture (even in dry conditions) and foster a micro-biome that supports healthy crops.

We’ve sent a soil sample, from our property, in for analysis. We know we have some soil building to do, but it’s been lying fallow at least thirty years for a running start. We start with the premise that we’ll build the soil as we go. We’ll start first thing, next season. Ours is not a conventional approach

The GMO corn planted on our current, landlord’s property, is suffering. Its leaves are curling in; its growth stunted. I’m hardly heartbroken about it. We do not have a drought here. These sandy soils are “well draining,” which could be a pun if you wanted to irrigate. We haven’t had rain for just over a week—which shouldn’t make too big a difference in healthy soil. That corn doesn’t have healthy soil. Years of successive corn crops, over-tilling and outright chemical abuse have stripped the cornfield to its geologic base—sand dune. This soil cannot hold moisture. There is some stubble tilled in, but in the absence of “the living soil”—the bacterial component, the stubble cannot breakdown and feed the soil. (Though it may hold a little moisture.)

So, who is practicing slash and burn, now?

 

 

Killing Fields

A.V. Walters

The view out our window.

The view out our window.

We knew. We’d even talked about it. Our landlady rents the acreage around her house to a local dairy farmer. He grows corn to feed his cows. We stand at the edge of the lawn, where our clothesline is, and we look. There are no weeds in this cornfield. The farmer does not practice no-till planting. On a windy day, the sandy soil catches, and the air fills with an ominous dustbowl specter. Worse, he plants corn, year in, year out, without any crop rotation, depleting the soil of nitrogen and other nutrients. Why should he care? It’s not his land. Some people actually like the tidy lines of weed-free corn in formation. I find it sinister.

You see, I know that nature abhors a vacuum. Weed-free is unnatural. It means that her fields are sprayed with Round-Up. I live within spitting distance (literally) of GMO corn. Worse yet, the lower part of our property is downwind of it. It’s a little funny; for years I’ve been protesting and writing about the dangers of GMO and its impact on the environment, and now, I have a front row seat.

Yesterday morning was as still as death—unusual in our normally wind-whipped world. For that, I’m thankful. I’d gone out to the compost and heard, and then saw, a tractor headed up the road in our direction. I had a bad feeling. I sprinted back inside, gathering up a loose cat along the way, and closed the windows. Sure enough, it was the farmer coming to spray the field. I stayed in most of the day, canceled my plans to do laundry, and kept the cats inside—feeling a little trapped. But, my little garden is out there, on the side facing the field. If that Round-up went airborne, it’ll be dead within days

I know that this is the norm in agricultural communities. As a kid, I remember they’d spray the fields right by us, even as we walked to school. Even now, nobody thinks twice about it—it’s a way of life. Yet, there are studies galore showing the neurological impact of pesticides and herbicides on those living within a mile of sprayed crops. A new one came out this week showing the correlation (not causation) between the increased incidence of autism in the children of women so exposed. I have a friend who has Parkinson’s—the legacy of her childhood exposure to pesticides in California’s Central Valley. It’s not just her saying it—the medical studies bear her out. In my world-view, chemicals have become the problem in farming, not the solution.

My landlady thinks that my property—vacant for twenty-five years, overgrown and wild—is an eyesore. She was glad I’d finally appeared, thinking I would whip things into shape. She thinks that any insect or weed on her property must have come from the undisciplined wilds, of mine. We were at a function together when she informed me that she’d told her farmer how much I’d love to have him grow corn on my bottomland.

I recoiled in horror. “You said what?

“You know, get rid of all that scrubby pine and weeds—he pays well. We have good soil here.”

We are worlds apart. There are times when one should hold one’s tongue. Unfortunately, when it comes to neighborly relations, I forget about those times.

“Think again. I wouldn’t let that man set foot on my property.”

She looked like I’d slapped her. “He’s a good farmer—and what’s wrong with corn?”

So, I let her know what’s wrong with corn, at length—especially with the way it’s grown on her property. I’m afraid (but not totally regretful) that I even said that she stands by while he’s killing her soil. She looked injured. Well, she only knows what she knows. She grew up on a farm and better living through chemistry is deeply ingrained in her limited, world-view.

What will we say to the next generations? Maybe (just maybe) those of my landlady’s generation have an excuse. They just did what everyone else did, what the Agriculture People told them. My generation started out knowing better. We started out with Silent Spring and a glimpse of the damage done by “modern life.” Where did we go with it? From fertilizers, to organophosphates, to GMO/ Glyphosate, to neonicitinoids. How will we explain a world of dead soils and contaminated groundwater? How will we justify the loss of the bees? And this is just farming I’m talking about.

For much of my adult life, I grieved that I was unable to have children. I’m at peace with it, now—maybe it’s even a little bit of a relief. I have always tried to do my part—to garden within the rhythms of nature, to avoid products that do damage to the environment and to limit my participation in our throw-away culture. I look around now and realize that taking personal responsibility isn’t enough. We all need to do more, to tip the scales back in balance. So, there is a sense of relief that I’ll never have to look into my children’s faces to tell them we knew, but we didn’t do enough to stop it.

 

 

Okay, Work With Me Here…

A.V. Walters–

 

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

The unfortunate placement of this volunteer spruce begs the question.

It kicked on at 10:20 in the morning, and it got me thinking. It’s a beautiful day. Clear and clean, post-storm. It’s not hot out, though it likely will be later today. Upstairs, the landlady’s central air conditioner has kicked on, already.

I’m sorry to burden you with my rant, but more people need to think, to plan a little, in their trajectory on this planet. This is only partly about landscaping but it starts there.

I identify a particular brainless “yard pattern” with Michigan, though I expect it’s all over. You see it driving down any street or road, though it’s particularly noticeable in the country. Michigan is a fertile state. If it’s not planted or maintained, its natural tendency is to revert back to forest. So it’s a bit of a shock that folks will buy a place in the country, cut down all the trees, and put in a lawn. They plunk their house in the middle of it—kings of their environment. Landscaping? Well, it’s a border mentality. They plant along the lot-line. Daffodils, trees, whatever, regardless of aesthetics, they celebrate ownership with a string of ill-advised plantings whose only assignment is to state, “This is mine!”

A century ago, farmers were not so self-absorbed. Clearing land took a lot of energy, which they reserved for their fields. They oriented their homes to take advantage of the sun’s rays in the winter. They had adequate roof overhangs to protect them from the rain or heat of the summer, and—they strategically planted deciduous trees to shade them from the heat and still let the sun’s warming rays help them in the dead of winter. I lived in such a home in Two Rock, a turn of the (last) century farmhouse that never got too hot, because trees were planted to provide shade. In the winter, the sun’s low rays streamed in through the living room window to provide welcome warmth and light. In really hot summer weather, we’d close the curtains and windows to the sun and the daytime heat. When the evening cooled, we’d open everything up again to the refreshing breeze. No air-conditioning, just good, old common sense. In the seven years I lived there, and despite some really blistering heat waves, that house never went above 81˚F. Where did that wisdom go?

This house we’re in now has been here for some thirty or forty years, yet nobody has ever planted a shade tree to provide summer cooling. (Instead, there’s a line of spruces on the lot line, whose long winter shadows screen the sun’s warmth when it could be useful.) The house is surrounded by lawn, which, to look good, requires regular watering—with the electrical expense of pumping that water. There are plenty of windows, but no one ever pulls a curtain against the summer heat. Instead, before the dew is even off the grass, the air-conditioner fires up its relentless drone. In an era of global warming triggered by energy use, somehow the air-conditioning solution seems to miss the point. I can almost hear the planet sigh, “Work with me here!”

You can always retrofit with well-placed trees. Drapes closed in the daytime, especially in a home that’s empty while you’re off at work—that’s not too much to ask, is it? We have a regular steady breeze—so you can open the windows in the evening, smell the fresh country air and cool your home. We can work with nature, instead of against it.

Rick and I have selected our building site based on existing tree placement. We’ll have the summer shade even before we have the home. Those trees will lose their leaves and we’ll get some winter warming and light on the south side during sunny winter days. Window placement is designed to maximize light and sun, when it’s needed and to avoid unnecessary heat loss. In that way, it’s an old-fashioned placement. Sure, there’ll be a view—but not at the expense of energy. We can all do a little more, to use a little less.

That’s my rant. (Live with it – we all can!)

 

Good Enough Gardening

A.V. Walters–

Now, a good gardener would have done things differently. A good gardener would have had the soil tested and would have amended accordingly. This year, I’m going to have to be a good-enough gardener. The plants went into their buckets in a flurry of enthusiasm, an unexpected last chance to see things growing, and enjoy them on my dinner plate through the season. What can I say; it’s a done deal.

I’ve heard that the soil here is alkaline. (And the water is hard.) I suppose you could say that this little bucket-garden is a test plot. We’ll just have to see how things go. I fully expect to test the soil on our property, next year, and amend accordingly. So far, we’ve been pretty lucky. We planted in a good spot, which I picked for the southern exposure. What I didn’t figure on was wind. Wow. Like Two Rock, this place has wind, and then some, to spare. (The wheels are turning and I’m thinking… a good spot for wind power.) My little southern exposure turned out to be perfect, because the house also offers the garden some shelter from the wind.

I’m not joking about the wind. It’s a beautiful day, so I hung out the laundry. It hangs horizontal. By the time I finished pinning up the first load, the first things up were already dry. Whipping in the breeze, even the towels dry soft and everything comes up lint free. There has to be another way to harness that energy for good.

Today was watering day for our little garden, too. In Two Rock I was able to satisfy watering by topping off the buckets, twice, once a week. In Two Rock, there was no rain during the growing season. But, there was more clay to the soil, and that helped to hold the moisture

Here, it is largely sand. Even with Michigan’s regular rainfall, I think I may have to water a little more frequently—especially with these winds. The plants, in the ground for about a week now, look healthy and have started to take off. Everything has sprouted a round of new leaves, and the peppers and tomatoes have started to flower. I was surprised at how little they suffered from transplant shock. I’m looking forward to the results of our experimental garden.

With today’s gardening finished, I decided to take advantage of the wind and do “extra” laundry. You know, the stuff you don’t usually do—the throw rugs and some blankets, even my winter coat and the winter’s down clothing. They’ll easily be dry by evening. I’m letting the wind do the rest of my day’s chores, and I’ll get the credit.

Marshmallows or Popcorn

A.V. Walters–

marshpop

Surprisingly, it turns out that Rick is making the California to Michigan transition better than I am. I still have a foot in each world. I’m still on political and activist email lists for California and Sonoma County. I still check the weather for Two Rock.

I have an off-beat sense of humor. Sometimes it gets me into trouble. Sometimes it reveals an underlying sense of order that is just a little out-of-step with the “regular” world.

This was never more clear than, a decade or so ago, when I received a telephone call from my sister, whose home had just burned to the ground. (“Defective dryer wiring.”) She was near hysterical.

“It’s gone, everything…(sobbing)…”

“Everybody get out okay?”

“Yeah, we weren’t home—Bill was at the neighbors, when they saw the smoke…”

“Pets out, too?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s left… like, how high are the walls?

She broke down again, “Nothing. Nothing’s more than waist high. Just smoldering embers. (Sobbing) What am I going to do?”

Here, perhaps I should have paused to think. But I didn’t.

“I dunno. Got any marshmallows?”

Needless to say, it wasn’t well received.

From this, I’ve developed my theory of Marshmallows or Popcorn. It seems to me that any disaster has radiating circles of impact. If it’s your disaster, it’s Marshmallows. You are close enough to feel the heat; you’re the one feeling the loss. Someone else’s is Popcorn—you’re role is, essentially, an observer. It seems we humans make a spectator sport of disasters. Rick calls it the Rubbernecking Rule—you know, how you just can’t help but slow down and look at an accident. You read an obituary—and check the age. You hear that someone has cancer and the first thing you ask is, “Did he smoke?” It’s a way to handle loss that isn’t yours. Intellectualize. Engage from a safe distance. The psyche wants to understand and, at the same time, dissociate from the loss. That’s Popcorn. The news cycle essentially feeds on our addiction to Popcorn.

I read that there are very strong indications of an intense El Nino cycle, brewing in the Pacific. Ocean temperatures are significantly elevated. In any normal cycle, this could lead to drought conditions in California. Right now, though, California has already seen a number of abnormally dry years. Rick and I were discussing it, the double whammy of ocean warming and El Nino, and whether that fell into an underlying climate-change warming pattern.

Generally they report California’s water status in terms of snow-pack and reservoir levels. We know, though, that that doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s a short-sighted measurement that doesn’t reflect the impact on the environment, or what happens in rural areas, where folks and farmers rely on well-water. For them, annual rainfall is critical to recharge the aquifers. I thought about our lives in Two Rock and our life and friends back on the farm.

“What will we do with yet another year of drought?”

Rick looked over at me, “What do you mean, we?” He grinned. “I live in Michigan.”

So, we do the math: Time + Distance = Popcorn.

 

 

Spring has Sprung

A.V. Walters

We’ve been busy here in Empire. We’re gearing up to build—and hoping that the snow will melt in time for construction. Spring is making inroads into winter’s territory. Here in Empire, there’s a big patch of ground making itself visible in our front yard. Once it gets started, you can almost watch it by the hour. Yesterday, robins appeared. Neighbors whom we haven’t seen in months have started to take walks around town and in front of our house. Spring is here. (But the tapwater has yet to get the memo. It’s still 34 degrees. I can hardly wait for it to warm up enough so that I can turn off the water.)

Of course, Cedar/Maple City (only 15 minutes away) was the season’s big winner in the snow department. We went there yesterday—it took snowshoes to get us to the building site. Snow is still at least knee-deep there, mushy, crusty, difficult to maneuver snow. It’s a case of hurry-up-and-wait. We’ve fetched our tomato cages and buckets, in preparation of the bucket garden–but one look at the site and we just sighed. (We’ll need to fence the garden, the deer here are voracious.) I’m anxious to get back to my gardening.

I’ll report more as the situation develops. In the meantime, perhaps I can update the emu situation from Two Rock.

Meanwhile, Back in California…

A.V. Walters —

This, we miss.

This, we miss.

In California, they’ve had the warmest winter on record and the third driest. My California friends have raved about the weather (even while admitting that the drought is a problem. But hey, if you’re going to have a weather calamity, you might as well enjoy it!) Knowing I’m a gardener, they’ve sent photos of Spring, to tempt me from here, under my blanket of snow. Late rains finally brought the green back into the hills of Two Rock, and that’s good for—emus!

Green Hills for Grazing

Green Hills for Grazing

Emu Views

Emu Views

Yes, Emus! Back on the farm, Elmer’s daughter is raising four emu chicks. She wants them to be guards for her organic duck operation. The emus we reared last year are a little skittish around the ducks—and there were some duck injuries when raucous ducks agitated their delicate emu sensibilities. Ducks were stepped on. The solution is emus who have been raised with ducks. So that’s what Deb is doing.

Emus at the Feeder

Emus at the Feeder

Up Close

Up Close

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

A Quiet Moment in the Pen

So, our teen emus, Kelvin and Gatsby, will be stuck with sheep duty. That’s not such a bad gig, more turf, more freedom, better view. Nice work, if you can get it.

Emu Teens. You have to wonder, is botching the job the way out of chores?

Emu Teens. You have to wonder, is botching the job the way out of chores?

After some early garage and barn living, (Deb is not so crazy, as we were, to keep emus indoors) the new babies are settling in nicely.

Can we come out, yet?

Can we come out, yet?

Now, they stay with the ducks. Not that they socialize, but they are comfortable sharing space. Right now the emu babes are about the same size as the ducks. In the future, the emus will shoot up, no doubt surprising the ducks! They’ll serve as their guardians from predators. The teen emus were doing okay at the guardian job; during their tenure the duck losses stopped. Coyotes, foxes, and even hawks were discouraged by the emu presence. However, it wasn’t working because the emus themselves were injuring the ducks. Clumsy emus.

Ducks above, emus below.

Ducks above, emus below.

It’s nice to hear how things are back on the farm. We’re biding our time, waiting for the snow to melt. Then things will get very busy around here.

Emu Huddle--For these last pics, I asked Deb where the fourth emu was. Apparently, Number Four was occupied pecking at her red shoes!

Emu Huddle–For these last pics, I asked Deb where the fourth emu was. Apparently, Number Four was occupied pecking at her red shoes!

Training Cats

A. V. Walters

Who, me?

Who, me?

I’ve always had well-behaved cats. I train them as kittens. That’s right, trained cats. I’m from a large family where good behavior wasn’t optional. With kittens, I use a squirt gun to enforce the House Rules. It’s about boundaries. Some places are okay for cats and some are verboten.

Bob came to us as an adult stray. He is a genial cat, not bright but friendly. In fact, he is clueless. As a kid, I had a school teacher who, when confronted with less-than-perfect indoor etiquette, would demand, “Where were you raised, in a barn?!” In fact, it was a slur on the agricultural kids—the farmers and the French-Canadians. But I try to remember it as a cautionary guideline, with Bob. After all, he’s a twice-abandoned farm cat. And, as a matter of fact, he was raised in a barn.

When he first arrived on my door-step, Bob had no boundaries. He felt fully entitled to get up on the kitchen counters or the table, and help himself to whatever goodies were there. Well, something had to be done about that! I used a spray bottle and Bob learned. What he learned was that he could not go on the counters if somebody was around! Bob learned to be a sneak. So, we redoubled our efforts. To reduce temptation, we made a concerted effort not to leave anything out. Butter went into a covered dish. The dishes were mostly washed after a meal. Meat scraps went into the freezer (not the garbage) for disposal later. And we watched, like hawks, to catch him in the act. That was the tough part, because, as a sneak, Bob was good at quietly committing his mischief. The only notice we got was the thump of his feet hitting the floor, after his forays. He had a well-practiced innocent look. “Who me?” (Though, there were clear Bob prints on the countertop.)

For the most part, he’s well-trained, now, though there are the occasional lapses. The most egregious of his sins is his propensity to lick the cream-cheese frosting off of the carrot cake. After icing the cake, it needs to sit out for a bit to set up. Bob did it again, last night. Rick came in to a freshly iced, and licked, cake. We’ll need to be more diligent about putting the cake away—or covering it. And, well, it’s back to training… We can’t have cats mixing with cakes.

I’m glad that we’ve had such success with him. Most people think you cannot train a cat.

Emus in Absensia

A.V. Walters

Elmer called the other night—they have emu chicks. Mr. and Mrs. Emu are at it again and, with all the food we gave them over summer, and the mild winter, they now have a sizable clutch of eggs. Or had. Out of the original twelve, two chicks have already hatched and died. Stretched so thin, Mr. Emu has difficulty watching the new little ones—he’s still nest-bound.

So Elmer and his daughter kidnapped the one little guy they found still alive and plan to remove the rest as they hatch. Between cold nights and predators, little emu chicks have a rough go of it in Northern California. Hence, the call. Rick and I are the only ones on the farm who have successfully hand-raised the little guys, and they need help.

They’ve decided that more emus would be just the ticket to guard over their new venture in organic duck eggs. (You should see all the ducks, it’s pretty impressive.) Emu guards are not a bad idea. We learned, the hard way, that the emus in our front yard were, in fact, protecting the chickens.  And so, the questions begin. What do we feed them? (Finely chopped kale and apples, to start.) Can we give them chicken feed? (No, chickens are seed eaters. Emus are grazers and need green fodder.) How warm do they need to be? (94 degrees F for the first two weeks, tapering off 5 degrees a week, after that.) What about water? (Not for about a week, until they’ve mastered balance and eating.) Those, and more, are all questions that we had to find the answers to, a year ago—either through trial and error, or what we could find on the net. As it turned out, we did okay. We had no losses from the five we raised. I guess that makes us emu experts. (And, given some of the so-called “expert” advice we found on the net, we are!)

We haven’t been homesick since our relocation. We miss some of the people, but we are caught up in the possibilities of our new lives. This, though, gave us pause. We definitely miss the emus—and raising them was an adventure we really enjoyed. So, we stand ready to be emu emissaries. We’ll provide all the information we can. And, of course, we’ll worry.

 

 

So, Ya Takin’ Bob?

A.V. Walters

A Snaggle-toothed Bob

A Snaggle-toothed Bob

Among farmers, especially livestock farmers, I sometimes sense a certain… offhandedness—not quite callous, but a level of indifference, to the needs of animals that go beyond maintenance. I suppose one gets a thicker skin when you have to handle them all the time, in all kinds of circumstances—and they’re bound for the table, in any event. On our way out of Two Rock, I encountered this repeatedly in comments made about our move.

Granted, we were moving all the way across the country. And, that alone is an overwhelming enough undertaking. Still, repeatedly we fielded the question, “Ya takin’ Bob?”

Bob is what’s known as a barn cat, having been twice abandoned on our farm. Initially he was Don’s cat, but Don and his wife bought a house and moved into town. While residing here, they had acquired a little farm menagerie—two dogs and two cats. When they left, they picked one dog to take, and abandoned the rest. The other tenants absorbed Don’s leftovers. We shook our heads; even Elmer thought it wasn’t quite right. But, the critters all managed to find homes, of sorts, amongst the neighbors.

I’d have taken Bob in a heartbeat. After all, he had become Kilo’s best friend. My cat, Kilo (also a rescue cat), has a habit of finding feline playmates and inviting them in. I met Bob this way when I first moved to the farm—suddenly, I had two tabbies in my front yard, playing and hunting gophers, together. The two look alarmingly alike and, more than once, I’d opened the door for Kilo, only to find it was Bob I’d let in. Bob is a charming and social cat. He is sweet but dumb and, hey, good-natured and dumb isn’t so bad on a cat.

I was disappointed when another tenant beat me to the Bob adoption program. So, Bob moved to Stan’s, at the opposite end of the farm, and we saw less of him. For a while, we hosted Bella, Bob’s sister. She didn’t like Kilo, (or any other cat, for that matter) and took her leave to live with yet another tenant, so she could be an only-kitty. It was a matter of musical cats for a while. Then, Stan moved to another farm, taking Bob with him. I thought we’d seen the last of Bob.

Months later, Don alerted me to the fact that Bob was back on the farm! Don had seen Stan pull up in his truck and dump Bob at his old, former home. Elmer fleshed the story out more—he told me that Stan had called to see if he could return as a tenant. (When Stan’s new landlord learned he had a cat, he’d been given the option—leave or get rid of the cat.)  At the time, our farm had no housing available, so I guess the obvious solution was to abandon poor old Bob. (Personally, I think Stan’s landlord put the choice to the wrong critter.) The funny (not haha funny) part of this story was how incensed Don was about Stan’s treatment of Bob. Huh? If that ain’t the pot calling the kettle black.

Bob was traumatized by his sudden dislocation and disappeared for a few months. Then, one spring morning, a very skinny Bob was on the doorstep with Kilo. Bob had found a home. He’s been with us ever since. I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised, or offended, when hearing that we were leaving, each of our neighbors asked that question, “So, ya takin’ Bob?”

Of course we’re taking Bob! One doesn’t just abandon a family member. And, maybe there’s the difference between farmer and non-farmer. We have pets. Farmers have animals.  And yes, I wish I could have taken the emus.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Maybe Too Much of a Good Thing

A.V. Walters

We all want our food to be safe. We all think that one of the roles of government is to ensure a safe food supply. And they are trying. (Take that any way you like.) There’s regulation pending that would make it hard for organic and small farmers to sell produce. You see, growing food isn’t a spotless operation. It’s done in dirt. Major producers can afford the equipment (and use the chemicals) that give you that pristine, scrubbed, (and not nearly as fresh) produce. Small farmers and roadside stands can’t. It’s as simple as that. Note that most of the outbreaks of food borne disease aren’t coming from small sustainable producers–they’re coming from Big Ag. We need to amend the proposed regulations to provide exemptions for sustainable producers. What looks like a good thing actually favors Big Ag over traditional farming. For more information or to make a comment supporting change to the proposed rules, click on the link. http://salsa3.salsalabs.com/o/50865/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=12303

Reunited

A.V. Walters

We ran those two emu generations side by side, in adjacent fields for at least a month, wondering if and when it would be safe to put them together. The emu elders continued to be a bit pissy to the babes, reaching over the fence to nip and thwack them at every opportunity. But, earnest Gatsby wouldn’t give up; he was bound and determined to win those big emus over. When we came into the field to feed the adults, he’d run up to the fence line to greet them, only to be met with a hiss and a peck on the top of his head. We had to wonder, was there any recognition of kinship, at all? Not that I expected much of the Mrs., (After all, female emus have a cut and run approach to parenthood.) But the males are the nurturers, and will even adopt unrelated emu young. And, these were their own babies.

Maybe we waited too long to do the introductions. After all, Gatsby and Kelvin were now emu teens, complete with ‘tude’. (I know a great many parents who’d like to pretend that their teenagers aren’t related!) It wasn’t even essential that there be an emu reunion. Elmer has enough land and enough sheep (on both sides of the main road) to employ separate teams of guardian emus. My concern was that they meet, and be at least civil, so that if Elmer needed to put them together it could be done without fisticuffs.

By late July, the over the fence hostilities had lessened to the point where it was worth a shot. The adults were no longer starving—receiving daily rations with the babes since their move. They’d put a few pounds back on, and were much more relaxed. Still, mom and dad demonstrated clear interest in the lower pasture. You see, the baby emus were in an old orchard and the adults obviously coveted the easy availability of free, seasonal apple treats. Our emus had relaxed and learned, too. At least Gatsby had learned to visit at the fence line, just out of reach. Kelvin appeared to have lost interest in the big emus next door. We decided it was time.

One sunny day, we marched across the farm for the regular emu feeding. After everyone had finished their kibble and the apple treats had been generously distributed, Rick unceremoniously swung open the gate between them. It took a few minutes before they realized what was up.

Gatsby got it first. Emus! His head perked up with the recognition of this momentous change. Then, at full emu speed he headed directly for the grown-up emus.

Fearing violence, Rick and I stepped towards the fray, without any idea of what we’d do if there were an actual emu fight—wave our arms and shout, “Heel emus, heel?” I’ve been in the middle of an emu altercation—limping away with a broken toe, for my trouble, as a result. I had no interest in doing it again. At the last instant, Gatsby veered off and ran circles—what appeared to be joyous circles—around the adults. Emus! Gatsby was in his glory. Since the moment he first caught sight of the adults, he had wanted herd-status. And, here they were, at last!

For their part, the adults, while keeping an eye on that crazy Gatsby, had bigger plans. They headed straight for the apple trees that were now available to them. Kelvin hung back safely, and wisely, on the perimeter. Every now and then, Gatsby would cut a corner too tight and intrude on the personal space of the adults. He was rewarded with hisses and pecks—but, to our relief, no kicking. An emu’s kick is its best defense and offense. And, if an emu starts kicking, things are serious.

Dining in Peace

Dining in Peace

We stuck around for forty minutes, or so. Gatsby was still careening about the pasture. He was the happiest emu I’d ever seen. He’d run in big circles and then come back in to do smaller circles around the huddle of emus, who were quietly munching apples, under the trees. He didn’t even mind when one of the adults would mete out a hiss or nip, asserting who was, after all, in charge of this operation. Gatsby didn’t protest—he clearly wasn’t interested in dominance. He wanted unity.

Finally, after a protracted run, Gatsby quieted down and joined the adults. If he got too close, Mr. and Mrs. were quick to give him a whacking, so he’d temporarily join his sister, who was grazing in wide circles on the edge of the action. Kelvin appeared a little put out. She stayed close, but at a safe range from the group. They didn’t pay her any mind. Her best buddy, Gatsby, had completely thrown her over for the adults. She looked just a little lonely, but that was her choice.

Taking turns as lookout.

Taking turns as lookout.

 

Rick looked at me, “I think our work here is done.” And so it was. It was another step in the direction of emu autonomy. There’s the tug of parenthood, combined with the relief of demonstrated independence.  We stopped and picked some blackberries on our way back down the road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Settling In

A.V. Walters

The trauma of the emu relocation is wearing off. It’s been four days now, and my suspicions are bearing out on the source of the emu hostility. After a couple of days of ravenous eating, Mr. and Mrs. have relaxed about scarcity. With that, Kelvin and Gatsby seem not to be such an imposition. The cross-fence pecking has dwindled in frequency and ferocity. (In part because Gatsby’s staying back, a bit.) Not that I’m going to open the gate just yet, but things have improved.

Up on the hill, the emus have a great view. I’m not sure if they appreciate it. It’s just more stimulus for their already overextended brains. There’s a lot more noise up there, too. You can hear traffic, even though the road’s almost a half mile away. The young emus are startled by every new noise—their heads darting from side to side trying to get oriented. Down in the bottomland, a bull is bellowing. It’s been going on for days, must be that time. It’s pretty loud and it has the emus wide-eyed and wary. And then there’s the sheep; they’re not shy either. That’s something they’ll just have to tolerate. They are, after all, sheep protectors.

Gatsby is still smitten with the adult emus. I guess that is as it should be. When I visit (because that brings Mr. and Mrs. down to the lower fence) he is torn between visiting with me, or hanging at the fence with the big guys (who still treat him with a certain level disdain.) Sometimes he stands, ten or fifteen feet from the fence, looking at them, then at me, repeatedly, frozen there, unable to decide. Kelvin has no such problem. She knows where the food comes from. She’ll even herd Gatsby over for dinner—she’s a very good big sister. And finally, he’s eating. I know that things are better, because today, for the first time since they moved, I saw them dance and play. It was brief, but there it was, a glimmer of fun. And when I walk up the hill, when they see me, they come running. Not for any particular reason except they like to run. (I can tell because if something catches their attention, they’ll change direction and head off that way. They’re still just big, dumb birds.) They are broadening their territory—occupying larger and larger areas of the lower pasture. The emus are finally settling in.

This emu move across the farm is actually good for me. I need the distance, figuratively speaking, so I can let them go. They have to be farm emus, not pets, and I’m not always going to be here. I’m such a softie, though—I’ll probably end up leaving bags and bags of emu food when we go. Just the idea that these little guys wouldn’t be fed, when they’re really still babies, is more than I can bear. That distance is good in another way, too. Back and forth across the farm at least twice a day, I’m hoofing almost four miles. I can use the exercise.

And, it makes me look around. I’ve discovered two hawk nests. The blackberries are getting ripe. They’ve just cut and bailed the grass in the bottom of the valley—the squared bails in crooked lines along the work trail of the tractor. Even with most of the valley dry as dust, it’s still picturesque. Tomorrow I’ll scout out the blackberries. Maybe I can find enough ripe ones for the pie I promised Rick.

Empty Nest

A.V. Walters

Our avian stalemate was short lived. One of the chickens decided to break ranks. I don’t know the dynamics of chicken-chicken relations, much less chicken-emu exchanges. In any event, chicken-number-two decided to change sides and hang with Gatsby and Kelvin. She followed them around, even slept on the ground near them, in their corner emu haven. That shift changed her routine and she stopped laying eggs in her usual spot. Every day we’d have to go searching for her egg. The egg hunt caught the attention of the emus (though I doubt they had any idea what was up.) I’d be stalking around the yard, poking here and there, with two emus following so closely behind that if I stopped suddenly, they’d bump into me like some Laurel and Hardy routine. Just behind them was the emu-friendly chicken (following the emus) and the regular chicken, not to be totally left out, brought up the rear. What a parade!

The emus are amazingly social. They tried to play and dance with their new chicken friend, but she didn’t get it. Just keeping company was enough for her.

Feeling their oats, the emus proceeded to try to engage with the antisocial chicken, and it resulted in a spirited emu/chicken chase. They could not win her over—so it was a three-to-one club in our front yard.

 

The Emu Transit Trailer

The Emu Transit Trailer

And things would have remained so, had it not been for the arrival of the trailer. I’d talked to Don and Elmer about transferring the emus across the road—for training with sheep at the tutelage of emu-dad. Being a softie, I’d requested that they use a fully enclosed trailer. Emus do not like travel and do not transfer well. I thought the experience would be less traumatic if the trailer didn’t offer the view of the world whizzing by at high speed. So, out of the blue, Elmer arrives with a perfect livestock trailer—not one of the ratty open trailers he uses to transport chickens, but a real, fancy trailer. Apparently he borrowed it for an extra large load of sheep he needed to haul, and thought he’d take the opportunity to move the emus. There we were, without notice, for the fateful emu moving day. It’s probably just as well, because I’d have fretted over it.

 

Not liking that trailer!

Not liking that trailer!

Hmmmph! Smells like sheep!

Hmmmph! Smells like sheep!

With a minimum of trauma, and only a few tears (mine), the emu-youths were loaded into the trailer and off to new pastures, literally. For their initiation, we decided not to mix the young with the adult emus—so as to let them get used to their new digs first. Good thing, too! Those little emus were in total, “Where-are-we-now, Toto?” shock. They stood in the middle of a large pasture, slack-jawed at the openness. The only thing that captured their attention were the almost equally curious emu parents, gawking from across the upper fence. Emus!

 

Look! EMUS!

Look! EMUS!

The little guys set off at a trot to explore these new relatives. But blood isn’t thicker than water. It doesn’t come close to being as thick as food. The deck was stacked against the youngsters.

 

Maybe not so friendly

Maybe not so friendly

You see, our dry summer has been so dry that the summer grasses have browned early. There’s little nutrition in grazing this season. Even up by the pond, where the emus have been kept, it is pretty brown. Elmer has cut back on the number of sheep he’s running—keeping only breeding stock. There’s little grass to feed them and the cost of hay and feed (grain) reflects the dry conditions and scarcity. Usually, if the emus are with the sheep, they’ll supplement summer’s slim pickings with the sheep mix. But this year the emus aren’t with the sheep. Nobody bothered to check on the emus up in the high pasture and they are hungry. So the kids were not visitors—they were competitors for scarce resources; the emu-babies’ homecoming was punctuated with hisses and grunts from mom and dad. If the little ones got too close to the fence, they were rewarded with pecks on the top of their heads (Just like the chickens!) Sadly, this hasn’t dissuaded the little ones. They are eager to commune with other emus. Gatsby, especially, runs to the fence whenever the adults are in view. I think this relationship may be forged on the enthusiasm of youth.

 

Perhaps a little supervision is in order

Perhaps a little supervision is in order

I also think we can fix this. I think a few days of ample rations all around will bring out the better natures of those cranky adult emus. So it’s been kibble and apples all around.  Yesterday, Mr. and Mrs. Emu scarfed down ten good sized apples in minutes. The solution is Food-Aid. We’ll use food as the social lubricant. Today I’m going to slip in some sweet mix (corn and other goodies used for lambs) for extra calories. While the special emu kibble is a better dietary choice, sometimes junk calories are in order. I’m walking across the farm—about a mile—to the back pastures several times a day to provide extra goodies for the parents and company and play for the kids until they settle in. I am hugely relieved that there are two of them, and that they are such good company for each other.

 

Hey, watch your back!

Hey, watch your back!

Meanwhile, on the home front, we have answered a burning question in a sad way. We decided to keep the two chickens for a few days. We like the eggs and, though chickens are no social substitute, we were missing the emus. The unanswered question was whether emus were guardian animals for chickens. The answer is that just the presence of emus helps to guard the chickens. The morning after the emu relocation, we woke to just one chicken, and a lot of feathers. It took the predatory critters less than twelve hours to figure out that those chickens were unprotected in the front yard. We hadn’t even thought of it—that maybe the chickens were at risk without the emus. We feel a little guilty. Chicken number one was eaten—by whom we couldn’t tell. That was it. The other chicken was quickly returned to the relative safety of the barn and our home is now bird free.

Rick spent that next day scrubbing the porch and walkway, removing the temporary fences and returning our yard to normal, residential habitation. The cats are happy. They’ve been going in and out the cat door and re-exploring the front yard. When I miss those emus, I hike across the farm for an emu fix. It’s not the same….but it was time. Nature abhors a vacuum. Territories quickly adjust. But the emus will always have a special place in our hearts.

 

 

The Orphan Garden

Good Enough

A.V. Walters

The garden this year is an orphan garden. Though we planted it, and we care for it, it’s not really ours. We didn’t do our usual big production garden. We cheated and used older seeds (some of which never did germinate.) We transplanted volunteers and moved things around—so much so that now I’m not sure what’s what. Then, late in the game, one of the farm tenants dropped off two orphan tomatoes—of course, root bound, and those went in, too.

Still, watering and weeding it has been a pleasure. It’s that quiet, steady, work that inspires why I garden in the first place.

There’s a chicken in the garden this year—it happens sometimes that a chicken escapes the barn and sets up housekeeping in some corner. Usually nobody goes looking for them and they forage and do pretty well. This one likes snails. If I see that shiny, post-slime evidence of a snail on one of the plants, I root around in the bucket and find the culprit. I’ve been giving the snails to the chicken, and now she follows me around the garden. Somewhere over there, there are eggs, but I’m not looking.

The tomatoes (even the stragglers) are doing well and have baby green tomatoes hiding in a lacework of yellow flowers. The peppers are in bloom and the various squashes are all growing gangbusters. I just wish I knew what they were. I know there are pumpkins, zucchini, acorn, delicatta (my favorite), butternut and maybe crookneck squashes. I’m uncertain about the rest. The cucumbers (3 lemon and one regular) are filling out and reaching up for the sun. I think there’s a French melon plant in there, but only time will tell.

Unfortunately our hot spells have made the spinach bolt. We’re eating it up quick, before it gets too bitter.  We’ve also had some of the basil, and some early sprigs of cilantro. The radishes are almost ready, though they’ve been beset by bugs, we’ll still eat them. Even if this is all it is, it is good enough.

We didn’t plant this garden with the intention of a harvest. We may never satisfy our curiosity about just what’s in those buckets. We know we’ll be moving, but we don’t know when (or exactly where, for that matter.) We’re packing and checking our plans, Plan A, Plan B and Plan C (even Plan C.5!) We’re selling things that don’t need to go with us. And we’re waiting. The waiting is the worst. We have business to finish here, and we’re not in charge of how quickly that will roll along.

In the meantime, there are emus and chickens to feed and gardens to tend…

 

White Poppies

RR Edwards

 

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

Regular California Poppies

The obsession started the day I noticed an unusual patch of white-petaled flowers. They were among an irregular sea of bright orange California poppies—the only surviving descendants of a package of mixed, native wild-flowers that I’d sown a few years earlier.  There they were, White California poppies!

 

White Poppies

White Poppies

I’ve always loved our state flower, whose beacon of orange can be seen everywhere this time of year. In some respects, it grows like a weed—appears randomly, in small isolated patches, or covering whole fields. It spreads at will, thrives in most types of soil and, once the spring rains germinate its seeds, will continue to bloom through the dry months of early summer. But all this outward heartiness belies the sensitive side of this flower. You can look, but you cannot touch! Once established, it doesn’t like being jostled and will wilt and die at the drop-of-a-hat. As the state flower, they’re protected—you’re not allowed to pick them. But anyone who’s ignored, or been unaware of this law, is soon holding a drooping blob of orange and green, and that usually dissuades any future attempts at gathering. Though I’ve always believed this plant to be an annual (dying out completely, after dropping its seeds in the summer), I was surprised that a number of our potted poppy plants survived last winter, and went on to flower this spring. Who Knew?

 

A More Delicate Poppy

A More Delicate Poppy

I had never seen, or heard of a white California poppy. The only response my casual inquiries drew was, “Really?” Eventually, someone told me that it was a rare, but not unheard of genetic mutation that, over time, reverted back to brilliant orange in successive generations. That’s why you don’t see ever-spreading patches of white poppies. I can’t attest to the accuracy of this premise, but it made sense to me. I guess I could have gone on-line and researched the topic, but it made little difference to what had become my mission — to create a permanent strain of white California poppies.

I assumed that if I wanted to reinforce the mutation, I needed to find it in another, “unrelated” patch of white poppies. And so, during the travels of my daily life, I scanned my surroundings in search of other genetic outcasts. I finally found what I was looking for in an area I’d passed countless times—an embankment along a nearby freeway on-ramp. Now, I had to watch and wait for the white poppy petals to fall away, and the seed pods to ripen and dry. This was the same routine I was going through, in front of my home—anxiously waiting for the seed pods to dry, and collecting them before they burst and scattered their tiny seeds.

 

The Average Seed Pod

The Average Seed Pod

The average seed pod is about 3” long, about 1/8” in diameter, (though that can vary a lot) and tapers to a point at both ends. Its trick in spreading its seed is not unique, but it is unusual. When the seeds ripen, (they’re the size of large grains of sand) and the pods dry, the pod splits in half as if it were spring-loaded, and flings the seeds as far as several feet. The difficulty in gathering seeds is waiting long enough to be sure the seeds are mature, but picking the pods before they “explode.”

 

Nearly Mature

Nearly Mature on Scraggly Plants

When this adventure started, several years ago, I was able to collect several hundred seeds from my yard, but only a few dozen from the on-ramp location. (The difference, in part, was simply access.) A problem with the seed I collected was that I couldn’t ensure that all of them came from white-petaled plants. By the time I came up with my grand plan, the seed pods were already developing and had long since lost their petals, so there wasn’t a clear division of plants by color. Unavoidably, some of the seeds I gathered came from orange poppies.

Sprung and Unsprung

Sprung and Unsprung

That was a few years ago and it wasn’t until last year, after moving to Two Rock, that I had a chance to put my plan to work. I placed seeds in 6” pots, separating them into groups of “home” and “on-ramp” poppies. (I wanted to be sure that I could pollinate one group with the other.) When the plants started to bloom, I found that about half of them were white and the others were orange. I pinched off as many of the “undesirable” blooms as I could, and used a Q-tip to transfer pollen from one group of white flowers to the other. By this point I was second-guessing myself about my “scientific protocol” but it was, what it was.

On top of that we had to leave for about 10 days to attend a family memorial back east. I arranged for the neighbor’s son, (who we’d hired to feed the cats in our absence) to pick off the orange blossoms when they appeared. I explained to him the reason for the task, but perhaps it was all a little too esoteric for a 14 year-old boy to appreciate, because upon our return, I was greeted by a speckled patch of orange and white poppies. At this point, the experiment was out of control—the orange and white flowers had engaged in unbridled relations, and there was no telling what the color of their offspring would be. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! That’s why they call them wildflowers.) I decided to make the best of it, and continued to remove the undesirables. When the pods were ready, I harvested those seeds where I felt confidant of white-petaled-parentage, and allowed the rest to go on about their natural business, spreading their seeds. But I vowed to do better next year.

As I mentioned before, I was surprised that a number of last year’s plants made it through the winter, and they became part of what turned out to be a sizable patch of new poppies that came up this spring. Rather than plant any of the seeds I had gathered from previous seasons, I decided to work with what nature had delivered. What I hadn’t expected, and was pleased to see, was that most of the new flowers were white. And so I began, again, pinching off the orange blossoms and, when possible, removing the entire plant that was producing them.

Bounty

Bounty

Well, the last of the poppies are now drying up. (Due to our unusual weather, it was an early poppy season.) And I’m happy to report that I’ve collected an impressive quantity of seeds—and there’s more to come. Just how many seeds is hard to say. By weight, it’s a little over an ounce and a half. That may not sound like much, but there are thousands of them. But when I started this whole thing a number of years ago, I had no idea how changed my life would be.

So many tiny seeds!

So many tiny seeds!

The love of a wonderful woman and an opportunity to create something special together, are calling me and my white poppies to lands in the east. I’m not sure how I’ll do with snow in the winter and humid summers, and I’m less sure how my fine petaled friends will do. But, I’m optimistic (and that’s saying a lot, for me) and I think these two California transplants will do fine, just fine.

 

Breaking Just the Rules

A.V. Walters

It was hot today, hotter in town. Sometimes it might just be better to set hard work aside on so hot a day. But we had committed to prune and thin the oak trees at Rick’s house. (Sounds funny, because I think of this as Rick’s house, but I have to remember that he has a house, a family and a former life.) That house is listed for sale right now, so there’s a flurry of sprucing up going on. Rick is doing his part, too.

That yard is graced with elegant mature oak trees—a lovely canopy against the heat of the summer sun. It hasn’t been pruned in years, so the understory has a lot of dead branches. It makes the yard look a little like a haunted forest, so it really did need some help. We arrived, ladder, chainsaw, Japanese pruning saw and loppers, ready to bring shape, air and light back to these gracious oaks.

I’ve been an avid tree pruner for years and I grew up heating with wood, so chainsaw protocol is in my blood. There isn’t anyone in my family who isn’t comfortable with the working end of a splitting maul or a chainsaw. Rick is newer to the lumberjack world, but he’s a professional handy guy, a bricoleur by trade. So he’s no stranger to tools and safety. I don’t know how things all went so wrong, so quickly. But, we broke all the rules.

First, there’s ladder safety. The area where we were working was sloped. We started out right, I was spotting Rick, holding the ladder when he was working on high. Later, perhaps eager to finish on such a hot day, we split up. I started on the ladder, but climbed up into the tree and was limbing from above, using the pruning saw. Rick took the ladder, and was working, not far from me, using a chainsaw. He was watching me, because I have a reputation for being clumsy. He wasn’t crazy about me climbing around in that tree. But it was going well. In no time, our work area, the driveway beneath the trees, was littered with branches.

Maybe because I’m female, and never as strong as the guys, I’ve always felt pressed to do the same work—but my way. Instead of lobbing off a big branch, I make a series of small cuts. It takes me longer, but it’s safer. I’m always careful to first make scoring cuts so that a severed limb can’t swing uncontrolled on a bark tag. I always work well ‘inboard’ from my cuts. A big branch can swing – and especially if you’re on a ladder—it can be dangerous. Years ago, I did a short stint as a park ranger—the guys all laughed at my ponderous progress.

Though Rick takes bigger ‘bites” (lobs off more at one whack) than me, I’ve always observed him taking all due care. He’s usually better than me—ear-plugs for power equipment—gloves—I could learn from him.

So, maybe it was the heat.

There I was, in my perch in the tree. I looked over to ask Rick if he could spare the loppers. He was at the top of the ladder, just finishing a cut when the long, severed end of the branch twisted as it fell. I called out to warn him, but, with the earplugs and the chainsaw, he couldn’t hear me. The wider, spreading end of the branch swung slowly, towards the base of the ladder. I held my breath, but my worst expectation bore out as the branches swept the feet of the ladder sideways, and my Rick was in the air with the chainsaw. It was in slow motion, and if I close my eyes, I can still see it. He pushed the chainsaw away as he curled for the fall. It would have been a “good” fall, too if the ladder wasn’t on its side on the ground below him. He hit directly across the ladder’s legs, on one end of him, the back of his head cracked against the aluminum frame, bending it. In the next second, the backs of his legs hit, angled across the other side of the frame.

There was Rick, sprawled over the mangled ladder and I was stuck in the tree. I called out to him, but still he couldn’t hear me. I screamed for help. Rick couldn’t hear that, either. In that moment I realized how fundamental he has become to me, to my view of life, as we know it. It’s all about not giving up, and second chances.

Every male in my family has had some kind of accident having to do with chainsaws, or wood splitting or cutting. All have survived—though in a couple of cases, it was close. Mostly we learn from them—thankful that travesty didn’t turn to tragedy. Rick has just joined that “prestigious” club

I was getting ready to jump down, (Rick, now hogging the ladder with his body) when one of the house’s co-owners ran out to the driveway to see about the screaming. Rick was getting up and brushing himself off—looking dazed. He removed the earplugs and ordered her to stop right where she was—his glasses were missing and he didn’t want anyone to step on them. I knew he must be okay.

He’s pretty banged up—but it’s a miracle that he didn’t split his head open (or didn’t break something!) That’ll be the joke in the future—hard-headed. We actually stuck around and finished the job. I think I’m more rattled by the whole thing than him—but then, I saw it. We’ve both learned, and clearly, safety has just become more important. (I think my family needs to find a better initiation than chainsaws.)

And, maybe it was just the heat, but I’m feeling lucky.

Two Chickens, Two Eggs

A.V. Walters

In the best of circumstances, a healthy chicken will produce an egg a day. From time to time, or if under stress, a chicken will occasionally miss a day or two. When winter darkness comes, egg-laying goes. (It’s why commercial egg operations use artificial lighting.) Chickens will usually try to lay in a protected area. The chickens in our front yard have each picked a hollowed out spot under the redwood tree. We collect the eggs everyday. In fact, it’s one of the tasks that Rick especially likes.

What you don’t see, is extra eggs.

Yesterday, Rick found an egg just out in the grass, a yard or two in from the fence–no hollowed out nest–just an egg, sitting there. He picked it up and carefully set it aside. It wasn’t an especially good looking egg; it was a little dirty and mottled looking. Later, he quizzed me about the egg numbers over the past few days.

You see, we’ve been collecting two eggs a day. Rick figures we’ve been set up for another round of Farm Humor. That egg is a rotten-egg-bomb. Our front yard chickens couldn’t have laid it. The numbers don’t work.

We have a suspect. One Bad Egg. We don’t yet have a plan. We could just carefully dispose of this suspicious egg…or we could keep the joke going……

 

Remember, The Gift of Guylaine Claire and the award-winning The Emma Caites Way, are free ebook downloads through July 4, on Amazon.

Coop d’État

A.V. Walters

“Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss”

These chickens are aggressive. They made it absolutely clear who’s in charge in our front yard. Because the emus are so much bigger, we forget that they are still little kids. If ever there was a lesson that you’re as big as you think you are, this is it. Right from the get-go, the chicken-bully (as we call the more aggressive of the two) started harassing the emus. When they’d bend over to eat, she’d rush over and peck the emus right on the top of their heads! The message was clear—the chickens are in charge!

The emus have learned to steer-clear, and give the chickens a wide berth. At times, they can eat together, (if I make sure there’s ample chicken food.) But, in their meanderings, the two species have a different agenda, and don’t choose to keep company. They’ve made their peace, but it’s not friendly.

Bob, the cat, was hiding under the lower, redwood branches. He’d crept in, to check-out the chickens. The emus spied him and took off in hot pursuit. They split up and triangulated their attack. The poor cat nearly didn’t make it over the fence, in time. And that was Bob, a cat they know and like! (Well, like may be a bit strong, but they know he’s not a threat.) Were the emus defending the chickens? Or, having been demoted in their own yard, merely defending their dignity against an unsuspecting target? And, just what was Bob doing in the redwoods, anyway?

Bob, from a safe distance.

Bob, from a safe distance.

Rick had it in his head that he could solve the underlying animosities by swapping out the bully-chicken for a more self-possessed, well-mannered chicken. (We live on a chicken farm, so we have access to spare chickens.) My sister shook her head. Even from 2,500 miles away I could hear her tight-lipped nonresponse. (The woman has her own chicken issues, I tell ya.) Finally, not one to hold her tongue, she cryptically said, “Won’t do any good; it’s about pecking order.”

I hate to admit it, but I’m enough of a political Pollyanna that I actually like the idea that deposing one bully could solve the problem of tyranny. Apparently Rick does, too. We’re not naïve. We read the papers. Has there ever been any coup that didn’t just install the next bully? I was in no hurry to do the chicken swap but yesterday Rick put chicken replacement on our to-do list.

We stuffed the chicken-bully in a box, and walked over to the chicken barn. We let her out and she immediately blended into the crowd. As for the replacement, how do you pick? What do you look for? Essentially, it comes down to who you can catch.

Not as easy to catch as it looks

Not as easy to catch as it looks

We returned with the replacement chicken and put her in the nighttime cage, to let the two chickens get to know each other through the safety of the bars. The squawking started almost immediately. The emus perked up—trouble in Chicken World could only be good news for them.

It’s official. The new chicken is the “low hen on the totem pole” resident of our front yard. The formerly docile chicken has stepped up to bully role. She doesn’t much like the new chicken and she’s loud about it. We’ve gone from nasty to noisy. She woke me up this morning, at sunrise.

The emus seem to like it. With the Chickens occupied with their own disputes, the emus are left, more or less, in peace. And actually, it looks like the emus are enjoying spectator status. I feel like I should serve popcorn. Funny how I can hear my sister’s “I told you so,” loud and clear, from across the miles.

Post-script:

Not so easy, this chicken swap. The new chicken was just too…well… chicken. She sat cowering in the corner of the porch all day.

Chicken chicken.

Chicken chicken.

Rick decided that it wouldn’t do. Another chicken swap was needed. We captured her and returned her to the barn. Rick rounded up a bunch of chickens, and then, using portable fence panels, thinned until he had just the chicken! The Goldilocks of chickens, not too bold, not too chicken. This one is just right. We brought her back to the yard and she settled in immediately, friendly, without being deferential. I think this chicken combo will work. Who knew it would be so involved? Now we need to see how the emus react.

Relaxing by the pool.

Relaxing by the pool.

Don’t forget, The Emma Caites Way and The Gift of Guylaine Claire are available as free Kindle downloads on Amazon–July 1 thru July 4.

Not By The Hair of My Chinny-Chin-Chin

A.V. Walters

Today the goats got out. I don’t know how. I was on the back porch, talking on the phone to my mother, and looked up to see two goats staring at me. “Rick!” We rounded them up and brought them back to one of the old sheep barns where they’ve been staying, ever since one of Elmer’s tenants abandoned them. They herded pretty well over, but balked at going back in through the gate. One of them appears friendly, the other a little stand-offish. We were taking note of their demeanor, because these are the goats that have been recommended to us for our front-yard-emu-training efforts. These goats are full grown, but little.

There have been some strange goings on, of late, with gates and locks—and this goat fiasco fit right in. The gate was wide open. The gate peg had been laid neatly on top of the fence post, indicating that the goat escape was no accident. We need to get to the bottom of this, since there’ve been mysterious issues with our gate, and we don’t want the emus out on the road.

Getting the goats into their pen was a bit of a feat; once we got to the gate, they took one look and weren’t so interested in cooperating anymore. We had to trick them, with carrots as bait. (It turned out not the best goat treat. Who knew?) Once inside the pen I came to the conclusion that maybe these goats had been abandoned for a reason. Indeed, that was when “friendly” suddenly wasn’t. The more it became clear to them that they were being returned to the pen, the more aggressive she got.

Friendly Might Just Be Aggressive

Friendly Might Just Be Aggressive

She originally liked being patted on the face, but when confronted with a return to captivity, she started pawing and then butting. She’s only knee high, but a butting goat is no joke. You don’t dare turn your back on it. (Rick had noted the same behavior when he’d passed by their pen, about a week earlier.) Taking no chances, I decided to climb the fence to make my escape. Her shyer companion isn’t as friendly, but isn’t a butting problem either—she follows her more aggressive friend, but keeps her distance.

Shy Is Looking Good

Shy Is Looking Good

Finally we got them re-situated. It was a lesson learned. (No, not “Don’t look a gift goat in the mouth.”) We now know that we don’t want these goats in our yard. It’s enough that we have to watch out for emus and chickens (but not having to go down to the hen house for eggs, is a plus.) I really don’t want to have to defend myself from aggressive goats. The great goat escape was a minor annoyance but it’s one that will save us grief in the future. So, the verdict is in, No goats.

Who’s Chicken, Now?

A.V. Walters

Emus aren’t, by nature, guardian animals. They’re actually pretty skittish and, if you want them to guard a herd, they need a proper introduction. Emus are very social animals, but they need to learn who is part of their flock, so they’ll know who isn’t. Gatsby and Kelvin have been running-off anything that comes into the yard, such that we can’t always tell if they’re being nasty, or just overly-friendly. Sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference.

I once had a cat that seemed gregarious and friendly but, at that time, I didn’t have many visitors in my life. Then, when people would come over, the cat would disappear. It turned out that he was petrified of anyone but us. It’s taken years to get him to be comfortable around visitors and strangers. (Rick may argue this point because this cat will still scoot away from him, when he walks into the room.)

And so it is with the emus, they are very comfortable around us, and most of our friends. So, we thought that they were generally, friendly emus. And, well they are, but only within their comfort zone. When strangers come by, they can be a little nervous, and potentially dangerous. That’s the good news… and the bad news, about emus. If they know you, you’re family. If they don’t know you—you are a potential enemy.  As we’ve said before—they’re not real bright. It’s kind of a binary system, they’re either on, or off. If an emu is afraid, then you need to be a little afraid. You need to pay close attention if they start to hiss or huff. Because, not far behind that, is an instinctive, and potentially devastating, kick.

It’s not just with people. The emus are comfortable with our cats; they grew up with them. But they clearly make the distinction between ours and the feral cats from the dairy, next door. Those cats get run off (I suspect with some glee.) It occurred to me recently (when a visitor earned himself a solid hiss) that our emus needed finishing school, so to speak.  So, we decided to start small.

Since there is the possibility that the emus may be guarding chickens, it was a small enough place to start. First, we put an empty cage in the yard, for a few days—that garnered some interest—and soon enough, it became part of the landscape. Then, two days ago, we dropped a couple of chickens into the cage. The emus were wary, to say the least. They scooted around, wide-eyed at the new arrivals’ cackling. (They do seem to be particularly noisy chickens.) We gave it an overnight, and the following day, we opened the cage.

Here come the chickens

Here come the chickens

Now, these emus are teenagers. They’re not yet full sized, but they’re a lot bigger than a chicken. But when it comes to new experiences, they’re still just babies. The emus headed to the far side of the yard. Then, after watching from afar, they slowly inched closer to size-up the new invaders. The chickens are full-gown and about as bright as… well, chickens. They, in contrast, are totally nonplussed by the emus. The emus alternate between being cool about chickens, and being spooked. They walk around like it’s no big deal, but if a chicken corners them, Kelvin, in particular, reacts like her life is at risk. Even though she’s the bigger of the two, she is also the most jumpy. (Boy, does she take after her mother, or what?) For his part, after an initial nervous phase, Gatsby invited a chicken to “dance” (doing the characteristic, emu drop and roll.) The chicken was non-responsive—clearly ignorant of the emu rituals of engagement. I can only hope that the emus aren’t put-off. They’ve managed to share food dishes and yard without serious incident. So far, we’re calling it a success, in a measured sort of way.

Who's stalking whom?

Who’s stalking whom?

Clearly, it’s a good thing we recognized the need for this. These emus have some manners to learn before they head out into the world to take on their security work. We don’t want to raise thugs, after all. We’ll start here, quietly with chickens and, in a week or so, we’ll trade up to goats. Goats, you ask?  Well, Elmer has a couple of goats that were left behind by tenants (this is typical, Elmer) and they’d be perfect for hardening off a couple of flappable, emu trainees. In a few weeks, maybe they’ll be ready for sheep.

Breaking Bread

Breaking Bread

Rick nods to Elmer, noting that we have two cats, two emus, now, two chickens and soon, two goats. He says that if we start building a boat, anytime soon, people should pay attention to the sky.

chick-n-emu 4

 

Voters and Chickens:

Rights (or the lack of) and Repercussions

A.V. Walters

The Chickens have the floor…

Our emus may have to adjust to a different future that I’d imagined for them. It all goes back to a wacky election in 2008.

You see, in that year, animal rights activists put a referendum on the California ballot that would forever change the way chickens are kept on farms in our state. The measure was poorly defined, and the drafters were a million miles from anything in the world of chickens or eggs or economic realities. Still, the objective was to decrease the level of “cruelty” in livestock agriculture. Who could be against that? With some measure of bitterness, I note that that same election cycle produced another measure that stripped marriage rights from gay and lesbian couples in our state. Here we are, over four years later and to date we haven’t sorted out either one of these issues. Chickens given rights, people losing rights! Only in America!!

On the same-sex marriage issue, we are leaping into the future. In part because of the unfairness in the Proposition 8 law, the public dialogue has changed radically. One by one, states are stepping up (as well as the international community) to ratify human rights, ending discrimination in our antiquated, marriage laws. Sadly, in California the situation remains unsettled because actual law moves more slowly than public opinion (and that may be a good thing, sometimes.) This deplorable referendum has worked its way up through the appellate courts and into the highest court in the land. I can’t say the chicken situation is working out so well, either.

Everyone would love to know that the chickens (or eggs) they eat come from some warm and fuzzy, loving farm-home. Modern farming, especially livestock, isn’t warm and fuzzy. Large scale farming is even less so. Since the Chicken Rights referendum wasn’t specific about how chickens should be kept, litigation immediately ensued. (How ironic, a “what came first” thing—the rules or the legislation.) So, farmers waited for instructions. While we’re moving towards an ascertainable standard, the deadline for compliance looms, and many of the older farmers are just closing up shop. What is clear is that the chickens need more “personal space” and elevated wire cages may soon be a thing of the past.

Elmer’s been watching the issue since that election. He’s attended the poultry conferences and seen the new, demonstration equipment. He’s lived on a chicken farm for his entire life and has watched poultry and egg production methods come and go. “Cage free is the future,” he says, “And that’s what we had when I was a kid!” He shakes his head.

“When the cages came in, it was supposed to be the wave of the future. The elevated, wire cages solved a lot of the problems—the waste dropped through the cage for easy removal, the feed was delivered to the troughs along the cage and the eggs rolled forward on the wire chute for easy gathering. Since the chickens weren’t standing in their feces, a lot of the diseases we dealt with, in the past, just disappeared. It was clean and modern.”

The downside to the economy of scale was, well, the scale of it. The press for more production led to overcrowding, and some kinds of wire cages were harmful to the chickens’ feet. Now the consensus is that chickens should be back on the floor, they should be cage-free and should have material (greens, straw or shavings) for “scratch.”

The new law won’t solve the issues of scale and size, and disease becomes a bigger concern. Given the new (and still unclear) restrictions, and the high costs of labor, the commercial solutions offered are high tech and expensive. Nobody wants to see egg costs go to $6.00 a dozen—which we sometimes see here from organic “boutique” farms. The operations challenges remain the same, waste removal and disposal, food delivery and egg collection. The industry is pimping gorgeous equipment—rolling (conveyor) floor beds, automatic feed dispensers and egg collection, all the bells and whistles. And the cost for an operation the size of Elmer’s? Try a cool, half-million dollars. It’s so high, that the only way to make it work is to seriously expand production. So this law, while well-meaning, will drive small producers out of business, and create even bigger factory farms. Good news for chickens?

Elmer is experimenting. He could retire if he wanted but instead, he’s going back to “chickens on the floor.” He’s cutting and bailing his own hay and straw for scratch and bedding materials. He’s resurrected old brooder boxes from over sixty years ago (farmers never throw anything out.) He’s modifying his manure collection system, using bedding materials for absorption, and thus minimizing the frequency of full removal (as relocating the chickens for cleanup is stressful to the chickens.) In short, he’s going back to the kind of farming they practiced when he was a boy. He’s mindful that he’ll need to keep an eye out for any increase in disease and, even at this experimental stage, he’s seeing a increase in predation

Chickens in elevated cages are relatively safe from predators. Elmer’s barns are designed for cage operations, with open sides for ventilation. On the open floors, especially where the chickens are given some access to open-air yard areas, he’s seeing a return of raccoon losses and fox and coyote problems. Even with his small scale experimental operation, he’s losing a chicken a day. This too, is like the old days.

He asked me today if I thought emus could guard against raccoons. In an instant, I saw the writing on the wall (or the broad side of a barn door.) It burst my bubble— the image of our emus patrolling the open range with sheep. I don’t know how emus would react to raccoons—but they’d be good guards against foxes and coyotes. A quick online search reveals no firm information on the emu/raccoon dynamic. It makes me a little sad to think of Gatsby and Kelvin guarding a chicken barn. But, on a farm, we do the work that comes our way. So, we shall see.

A.V. Walters

Each year we have this same battle. The swallows arrive and want to build their mud-daubed nests under our eaves. I like them; they’re streamlined and beautiful, swooping in elegant arcs over the farm. I don’t fully understand the dynamic, but in their search for nesting sites, they’re attracted most to the protected areas just over our doorways. They’re almost as messy as emus (on a smaller scale) and, as beautiful as they are, I’m not inclined to duck and take cover whenever I enter or leave our home. One minute they’re endearing wildlife, and the next, they’re a strafing, dive-bombing hazard. They can nest anywhere on the farm except over my back door.

Elmer has a soft-hearted farm rule. Tenants are free to dissuade birds from building nests. (And so I’m out there like a maniac waving my arms, shouting, beating on the window and carrying on.) But if a bird pair builds a nest and lays eggs–they get to stay for the duration. We are not allowed to interrupt bird families.

Some years ago, Elmer was asked by some South American scientists if they could run DNA tests on the farm’s summer swallows. The scientists wanted to know if these Two Rock swallows were of the same family as their own Brazilian swallows.  Thrilled to be on the cutting edge of science, and to watch-first hand as the scientists captured, tagged and took blood samples, Elmer was the chief proponent of the Swallow Investigation. Sure enough, the DNA revealed that our summer swallows are the same ones that go all the way to Brazil.

It’s the same with most migratory birds. We think of them as our songbirds, swallows, warblers, hummingbirds or ducks, but really we share them with their winter neighbors. Even our Monarch butterflies are traveling visitors. The alarming part of that is that we cannot protect them. Habitat must be protected across half the globe to make the world safe for our migratory friends. That knowledge came as a shock to Elmer. The world got smaller with that knowledge. Elmer does his part with the nesting rule.

It’s that simple. One chicken farmer can make a difference with a rule, making it possible for the swallows to live and breed on the northern leg of their annual trek. We can decide to save a species by changing our behavior. Last year, Elmer put an owl house in the peak of one of the barns. Swallows, owls, a little information can go a long way to inform our decisions and how we move through the environment.

That doesn’t mean I’m going to let them build a nest over my door, but they are otherwise welcome visitors. They have as much claim to make a home as I do. And if they get ahead of me, build a nest and lay eggs, I’ll just swallow hard, and endure the inconvenience like I do for the emus. When it comes down to it, we’re all immigrants here and we can just make room.

(Oh, except for those noisy mourning doves–I don’t know what to do about them.)

Another Emu Day

A.V. Walters

The new garden is almost complete. Rick is working the last of the bugs out of the drip irrigation system. Three quarters of the plants are in, either as starts or as seeds. It’s a typical summer Two Rock day. It’s sunny and cool and the afternoon winds have whipped up. Over the weekend, in addition to the garden, Rick and I finished stripping the last of the diseased peach curl leaves from the peach tree. We’re in good standing with our spring/summer farm chores and it’s not yet Memorial Day.

With all our attentions elsewhere, the emus have been on their own. Their job at this point is to eat and grow into full size emus. If I sleep in, their chirping reminds me in the morning that it’s time for emu kibble. I wonder how long they’ll keep the chirping. I’ll miss it when they stop. They continue to lose their baby feathers and their striped markings. Rick and I can tell them apart, but nobody else can.

Elmer would like to tag them somehow, maybe with anklets—to tell their gender in the future. I’m not sure what kind of identification system would work, and still let them grow. I look at their dad’s feet and there’s a lot of growing to be done yet. I think they have a few weeks, if not a month more with us, before they’ll head out to learn the sheep trade. In the meantime they’ve become quite territorial about the front yard—keeping the feral critters at bay. They chase the dairy trucks, from the safe side of the fence. I wonder if the drivers notice…and wonder.

They’ll make good guardians, unless the predators come bearing apple treats.

The Last Garden

A.V. Walters

It’s hot in the valley. And dry. This has been on odd year. We had heavy rains in November and December—with an absolute deluge the first week of January. And that was it. Winter is our rainy season, but this year, it wasn’t. After that, we had a few light rains and one storm in the spring. The local farmers are nervous. Over all, the state isn’t experiencing water shortages. There was a heavy snow-pack early this year, so the reservoirs are full, but those that depend on local, well water may be pumping dust by the end of summer.

The past two weeks they’ve been cutting hay. Sometimes, especially here, where we can have drenching fogs, the farmers can get two cuttings, in the spring. Last year it was cool and very foggy—so, we saw three hay harvests. This year, they’ve cut the first time, and it’s dry and yellow underneath. One cut is all they might harvest this year. That means when the summer heat hits, and all the grass goes, (first to gold, then to brown) they’ll be using up the limited hay supply for the dairy and beef herds.

Like I said, the reservoirs are full. Water managers around the state got their snow-pack early so there’s no hew and cry over it being a drought year. In an odd twist of fate, the cities have water, but reservoirs that supply them don’t help the farmers. And, they don’t recharge local aquifers on which the rural areas rely for well water.

Changes in our lives have us wondering how long we’ll be here. I’ve loved Two Rock, and it’s been good to me. But it’s time to move on to build a different future. (Maybe somewhere where there’s water!) So I wasn’t sure this year whether I should put in a garden.

I have been in charge of the farm garden for going on seven years. If we plant it—and have to leave—would someone step up, and care for it? This year was to be a banner year. Over the past few years, the main garden has been shaded by a line of trees Elmer planted to stop erosion from the dairy next door. If ever there was evidence that livestock can damage the land—the field next door is a clear example. The land drops two feet at the edge of our garden—right at the fence. The cows line up and watch me while I garden, and because of the drop we’re nearly at eye level as I bend to dig or weed. It’s a little weird. In any event, late last season Rick spent a couple of weekends pruning and topping that line of trees. This year the garden finally enjoys as much sun as it did when I first arrived.

Early in the spring I asked Elmer how he felt about putting in a farm garden. He hemmed and hawed and finally said we should. We discussed the dry winter and I said that this year we were ready with the drip irrigation. (Rick set it up last year and it was a huge relief in the workload.) I told Elmer I’d get to the garden once he’d plowed. Usually he plows in April, and then again in the first week of May. That digs under any weed seeds that might flourish in the fresh, loose soil. This year he didn’t plow. And, I waited.

Finally, I figured he’d changed his mind. He did plow what we call the “orchard garden,” where he and his girlfriend plant their personal stuff, but he didn’t plow either the main garden or the long garden by the chicken barn. I saw that he’d plowed and tomatoes appeared by the orchard a couple of weeks ago. In the meantime, spring has rolled to summer. It’s hot and digging is getting difficult. With all this dryness, we are getting an early start on the hardpan layer in the soil. It’s a curse and a blessing, that hardpan. If you wait too long to put the garden in, the digging is near to impossible. But that same hardened layer keeps the soils underneath moist. If you water smart—you can do a garden with very little input. That’s the theory behind our bucket gardens. (See https://two-rock-chronicles.com/2012/07/04/the-proper-planting-of-buckets/)

Getting Ready

Getting Ready

Without a word, Elmer plowed Friday night. Late. I woke up Saturday and realized that I needed to put in a garden. I’d already become accustomed to the idea of no garden, so this is an adjustment. The plow didn’t go deep enough to deal with the hardpan, so digging-in the buckets is a lot of work. If you don’t loosen the soil under the buckets, the roots won’t get beneath the hardpan into the moist earth below. So today I dug in enough buckets (and gopher-shielded rings and corn rings) for a modest garden. It’ll host eight tomato plants, half dozen peppers, four cucumbers, some zucchini and yellow crook-neck squash, a couple of winter squashes, beans, some lettuce, spinach and herbs, and corn. That’s enough for the farm tenants, since most don’t cook much and fewer avail themselves of the garden. I’ll plant with seeds and some starts, this week. I’m not planting the long garden this year.

Digging-in

Digging-in

 

 

Gopher proof rings

Gopher proof rings

 

I don’t know if we’ll be here for harvest. (But, we should be able to enjoy some of the early offerings.) With the drip system, the garden will trickle along, with or without Rick and me. It’ll be like a ghost garden. If that’s the case, I can only hope my farm neighbors will enjoy the harvest. (Assuming someone will water it, said The Little Red Hen.)

Ready for plants

Ready for plants

A job worth doing…

A.V. Walters

It’s ringing in my ears—I’m alternating between, “A job worth doing, is worth doing well,” and then there’s, “Lipstick on a pig.”

It’s always a challenge—matching the effort you put out with the task at hand. Arguably, one ought do their best, right? But what if the task is not that critical? What if “good enough” actually is?

We all know people who are so angst ridden about perfection that they can’t get anything done. Perfectionism can be a curse, one that often prevents some people from getting anything started in the first place. Anything! And, we all know the scourge of slap-dash. Personally, I hate undertaking something that comes on the heels of slap-dash, because it means you need to undo before you can get it moving in the right direction. Finding one’s way between the two extremes, and doing so in a way that’s appropriate to the task, is a lifelong balancing act.

My current project is refinishing an old oak bathroom vanity. It never was a “joy to behold,” just a serviceable, oak vanity, sold at home improvement stores all over the country when “golden oak” was the remodeling flavor du jour. Rick’s helping, too and I think he’s as torn as I am about it. It’s been stored in a barn for a decade or two, so the old finish is almost falling off. It’s a situation where the bad news is the good news. This finish is so bad that it’s easy to remove. We’ve just spent the day sanding. So I ask you—do we take it to perfection?

The vanity will be used in the home of a charming, senior couple who live happily on a fixed income. There’s nothing extra in their budget for big maintenance projects—they’re perfect candidates for the non-profit “fix-it” organization, Rebuilding Together, for which we volunteer. The vanity was an after-thought and is beyond the scope of the original project. So now, we’re scrounging and doing it as cheaply as we can. I searched Craigslist for a couple of weeks—unable to find a replacement cabinet in the size we needed and for what we wanted to spend. It has to be that size or we’ll have to redo the floor, too. Sigh. Anyway, after weeks of looking I finally found this vanity—not on Craigslist, but right under our noses, in one of Elmer’s barns! It was a hundred yards from us the whole time. It’s the perfect size and even matches the existing accessories and trim. Who knew?

I talked Elmer into donating it to the cause, and now we have to refinish it. We’ve sanded off what was left of the old finish and removed the water stains. Now we have to put the new finish on it. Just a coat of varnish?  Really, to do it right, we should first put on a coat of “golden oak” stain. Not only is that an extra step but, by staining it first, we risk revealing any problems in our sanding and bad areas in the neglected and abused wood. How far do you go to make something (that wasn’t wonderful in the first place) look as good as new?

Of course, we’ll stain it. I hate to say it, but we’re going to put in more time than the original manufacturer did making the damn thing.

But then, there was that moment, when it was clear we should replace the vanity. The wife looked anxious, she didn’t want to be any trouble, after all. Then she reached up to the seventies-vintage mirror/medicine cabinet (which has the ubiquitous “golden oak” finish) and said almost wistfully, “Maybe one that could match this?”

It’s no longer the style—that color. But the fact that it would be truly appreciated makes all the difference. So, we’ll stain and seal it, over the next few days. Then we can go back, install it, and finish the rest of the job.

Just needs the top.

Just needs the top.

Beware of Emus!

Emus and The Great Outdoors

A.V. Walters

I have a friend who, when her last kid headed off to college, remodeled the newly vacant bedroom, making a sewing and project room for herself. After twenty-two years of putting every one else first, the house, and her life, underwent extensive renovation. It was a shock to the kid when Thanksgiving rolled around, and the room had been, as the French put it, “repurposed.”

Last weekend we came home from a grueling day of volunteering on a day that had started out nippy, but quickly warmed to blistering. The night was clear and warm, and the emus had spent the long day outside. I went into their little bathroom retreat to do the daily clean up before letting them in for the night. Needless to say, it was, as usual, filthy. We looked out at our frolicking prehistoric birds and decided it was time. I fed them outdoors, an odd ritual because they’re grazers. Outside they are surrounded by food, but it made me feel better to give them their kibble. They haven’t been inside, since.

Her neck has lost almost all markings

Her neck has lost almost all markings

Emus and The Great Outdoors

He still has his baby speckles

I spent a full day cleaning out their room. Rick vacuumed and mopped areas where they’d been and I washed out everything from the back entry clear through to the front door. Emus, no more! The final act was to take the sign down from the bathroom door. It was liberating to return the house to mammal-only occupation. I’m glad we did it, and we’d do it again, just not inside!

The emus seem very happy in the front yard. It’s a big area, and a perfect emu training ground for the open pastures with the sheep. Outside, they look smaller but every now and then I note the changes. (The effect is exaggerated because we haven’t weed-whacked since the birds have been out front.) Their heads can easily reach my waist (and curiously, pluck my neatly tucked-in shirt from my jeans.) Initially they cowered in fear at any new thing. Now, when the loud and lumbering dairy truck goes by, they chase it along the fence, as though their patrol activities had actually run it off. Yesterday a feral cat jumped over the fence and, with apparent glee, the emus gave chase. Nothing in that cat’s experience had prepared it for the charging birds. A possible dinner had now turned into two, possible diners! From the birds’ perspective, they’ve been hanging with cats for their whole lives, but none had ever been game enough to give them a real run for their money. Our cats are smarter than that. (Well, and a little intimidated.)

He goes into the emu roll!

He goes into the emu roll!

The emus still like to hang out with us humans. I sit and drink my morning coffee on the front steps. I give them kibble morning and evening, though they could really survive only on the greens out front. They hover, looking for treats, a stroke on the neck, or gently pecking at any speck or spot on our clothes. It’s emu grooming—I guess it means we’re family. They like to tug softly on the ends of my hair. They are particularly fond of pecking at the contrasting wrist-bands on one of Rick’s shirts. The other day one caught a glitter and, in a flash, snatched one of my earrings! Thank god it didn’t taste very good and she spat it right back out. I’d hate to consider the alternative retrieval methods.

Scruffy!

Scruffy!

These days, the emus are looking teenage-scruffy. They’re losing their baby feathers (and with them, the markings by which we’ve identified them.) Underneath we can glimpse the sleek dark feathers to come. As chicks they looked like Scandinavian rugs but now, they look a little moth-eaten. We can still tell them apart, though. The presumed female has gotten much larger. More than that, they have distinct personalities. The female is more assertive, while the presumed male is reserved and gentle. He eats constantly, a nibble here, a nibble there, and barely touches my hand when I give him treats. But, she wolfs down her food! (Just like her mother!) So much so, that sometimes she needs to go and get a drink of water to wash the bolus of kibble down that long neck. Our gender assumptions are based, in large part, on the personality traits of the emu gender reversal. We shall see, well down the road, if we are right.

 

Mr. Emu  (Dad)

Mr. Emu (Dad)

Sometimes I’ll look at my stats and see that someone has found my blog based on a particular search. Maybe I know the answer–but it isn’t really clear in my blog postings. Then I feel like I’ve let that searcher down. This morning there was a search “baby emu falls down, rolls and gets back up.” Where are you searcher? I imagine that you’re expressing concern about your baby emu, that maybe you think there’s some terrible neurological problem. Fear not! Come back, come back. I have the answer. Your baby emu is playing! Yes, that’s right, we call it the emu dance.

Have you ever noticed that when creatures play (including us) they mimic adult behaviors (behaviours if you’re a Brit or former colonial)? Kids build forts or play house. Kittens roll and tussle–chase things and pounce. Emus dance. After all, without arms there’s not a lot of variety in the play department. That “drop, roll, and run” is a prelude to an emu courting dance. If your baby emus is doing it, it means she/he is happy. They are playing in the only way an emu knows how. (Often, immediately afterward they’ll race around at high speeds–running is another emu talent used in play.) The really fun part is that sometimes, they’ll do it to music! It’s a sight to behold. They love music, especially if the music has whistling sounds or flute solos–high notes that sound like Papa emu’s whistling tones. Also, if you can whistle, it a great way to summon your emu, because they are already pre-wired for that sound.

I hope that emu questioner comes back–there’s no need to worry. (Next time, think about posing a question in the comments area.)

 

Now, for the meantime, I’m back to my volunteer work.

 

 

 

It’s that time of year again…that time when we roll up our sleeves to volunteer as amateur builders (well, I’m an amateur, but Rick’s a pro) and spend a couple of weekends fixing up the homes of seniors and those on fixed incomes, so that they can remain comfortably in their homes. Rick and I are House Captains on a big project this year–so for the next week or so, there may be scant activity on the blog. Bear with us and our aching muscles. We have an entire yard to transform, two porches to rebuild, a bathroom to remodel. wiring to upgrade, a chicken coop to build, a garden to put in, fences all the way around….it will be transformative for all. But don’t worry, it’s not just us. This organization (Rebuilding Together) recruits a zillion volunteers for the ‘big day.’ Our project alone will probably have 40 volunteers who show up, work gloves in hand, ready to pitch in. (And we’ll need them.) On a large project like this, one day isn’t enough, so Saturday we met with 15 volunteers to set the fence posts. We cleaned up a lot and cut down some out-of-control trees (so there can be sunlight in the garden.) One of our volunteers yesterday was 83! (He’s worked on several of our projects and he works so hard he puts the kids to shame.)

This week is planning and logistics. Then, next Saturday our army of fresh-faced, muscle-flexing, angels will descend on the site and, by days end, our exhausted crew will go home with amazing images of before and after dancing in their heads. It’s incredible what you can achieve with good will, doughnuts and coffee! See you soon when things are under control and Rick and I can return to our own dreams of building a future.

Don’t worry about the emus–they’re thigh high now and spending their days munching away on the greens in my front yard.

They Grow-up So Fast

A.V. Walters

When the two baby emus made their run for it, we realized that the small pen in the back yard was too small. Still, they could have said something, instead of just making a jail break and heading out for the highway. A growing emu needs room to stretch its legs. (And, we can appreciate that, because if there’s one thing a emu has, it’s legs.) There’s a balance; too little space and they get bored and nervous, too big a space and they are intimidated and cower in a corner.

IMG_0750

IMG_0740

So, with the help of some folding pen-panels from Elmer, we secured the front yard.  Now they have a forty by eighty foot area with trees and bushes, and grass almost as tall as they are—enough for any growing emu. They seem mollified and haven’t made any further escape efforts. (Not that we’re giving them much opportunity.) They roam about eating the greenery, and have decided on a favorite corner for their hangout. The new digs won’t eliminate fence running (that’s an emu fact-of-life) but it has stopped the neurotic pacing. Also, the emus seem very much in tune with the sounds of our voices (even when we’re inside the house) and that appears to give them some reassurance that they are not alone and unprotected. (I know, I’m anthropomorphizing again, and being an overly vigilant parent, but when I talk on the phone, in my office, they gather at the steps outside and munch away quietly. If I move to the living room, they munch away under the window, there.)

Huh?

Huh?

It’s still too cold at night for a complete outdoor lifestyle, though that’s coming soon. It might have happened this week, but I’ve been down with a bug. When I’ve got chills and fevers I’m less inclined to banish the babies to the elements. Now that they’re in the front yard—we need to parade them through the house, morning and evening to get them to their little emu warming station in the back bath for the night. It’s quite a production—much emu cheerleading banter—to get their enthusiasm up—followed by a mad dash to the destination (front door or back bath.) The emus will follow you if you walk fast or run. But they’re not smart. If they’re distracted along the way they’ll forget the objective and then wander around the house, which, given their messy proclivities, is not a good thing. Rick is much better at it than I am. They really get that cheerleading vibe from him and follow at a clip. I spend more time in emu roundup mode, rather than leading.

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They are destination happy. Once outside, they barrel around in circles at full speed.  And, full speed is impressive. Their legs have grown and they can really move. Standing around, they’re knee-high, but when they do their happy dance, they come up to mid-thigh. An adult emu can run 30 miles per hour. I haven’t clocked these little guys, but they outrun us.  The “lawn” is hip-high on them (shin-high on us) and, running, they look like they’re speed-swimming on a sea of green. All this cavorting and dancing I take as a sign of healthy, happy emus. In the evening, they’re eager to come back in and canter after us to settle in under their heat lamp to relax after a long day of emu vigilance.

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Most of their food now comes from grazing, putting a welcome end to the endless chopping of their early days. We still give them apples, as treats. It pays to have something they want, to get their attention. At some point we’ll have to move these guys to the pastures, where the sheep are—and we’ll probably need those treats as bait. There’s a tension to how much we handle them. There is one kind of contact they tolerate and, if they’re relaxed, actually seem to enjoy—they like having the front of their necks stroked. (We’re suspecting that neck contact is important to them. If the chicks are nervous, they’ll pace and crisscross each other with their necks. Also, the few times an adult emu has displayed what might be considered affection, it “caressed” with its neck.) But, we have to remember they are not pets. They need to develop a tolerance to human contact without making them dependent, so “training” is not an option. (Besides, they’re not that bright—think of the term ‘bird brain’ in the context of a 150 pound, flightless locomotive.) Still, it’s fun and gratifying to step out on the front porch and immediately have two emus hurtling in your direction to see what fun or treats are in store (and because they like to be near us.) In fact, I think I’ll go check on them, right now.

Apple treats, anyone?
Apple treats, anyone?

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-Jig

R.R. Edwards

I had just turned onto our road, after a trip into town, and about half way down the half-mile stretch to the house, I spotted a couple of odd creatures standing in the road. As I got nearer, it became obvious that they were, in fact, some kind of bird. At first I thought they might be a couple of escaped chickens and, as I got closer I saw that, in fact, these were escaped birds. But, to my amazement, these weren’t chickens making a break for it—they were our adopted emu chicks, on the loose and halfway to the highway! The last time I’d seen them, they were in the yard, running around the enclosure we’d set up for them.

For a few seconds I just sat there, a bit stunned and unsure what my next move should be. They stood there, staring back, just as unsure about their next move. When I inched the car forward, the chicks answered the question for me—they started heading back down the road in order to put distance between themselves and the mysterious, iron beast that had blocked their path.  So, following their lead, I began my very own, emu round-up, behind the wheel of my trusty steed.

The emus were surprisingly “cooperative”—they kept scooting along at a relatively brisk pace and, only once, did one of them threaten to take off, across an adjacent pasture by squeezing through the fence. Fortunately, he kept moving in the right direction and, when the fence ahead of him ran out, popped back out, onto the road. When we arrived where the road split, (straight, the road took you to the neighboring dairy, and to the right was our place) I managed to steer them in the right direction. Now that we’d arrived at the house, the next trick was going to be getting them either back into their pen, or into the house.

At this point I had to hope that “Mother Nature” (in a twisted sort of way) would take over, and that the chicks’ bond to me was strong enough to overcome their confused and somewhat panicked state. I got out of the car and slowly approached our feathered charges, afraid that all my work would be for naught, and that they would bolt. But, as soon as I called to them, their little heads spun around and they came running up to me, cheeping away. They were clearly thrilled to have been found by a “parent” and would have happily followed me, anywhere. Since it was lightly raining, and they looked a little soaked from their adventure, I led them inside where they could huddle under the heat lamp to dry out.

After telling AV, “Guess what who I saw standing in the road,” I realized how lucky we were, in so many ways. Once they got out of their pen, they could have headed in any direction. We’re surrounded by miles of open pasture, and once out there, they would have been next to impossible to find. The fact that they’re “fence runners” kept them on the road, between fences, but they had covered a quarter-mile, in a relatively short amount of time, and had I been back much later, they might have made it to the main road and hitched a ride to just about anywhere. Or, when confronted by me on the road, they could have “flipped me the bird,” and taken off in any direction. (And, these little guys, at the tender age of 1-month, can out run me!) All kidding aside, we lucked out that our little birds are home safe. I would have assumed that, once out of their pen, they would have stayed around the house, looking for us or a way back inside. But like most youngsters the thrill of adventure dulled their sense of self-preservation, and down the road they happily trotted. Clearly, the trials and tribulations of parenting (and youth) are universal.

 

 

Easter Emus

A.V. Walters

It’d be quite a joke, wouldn’t it, to give someone an emu chick for Easter? Precious and cute and the size of a teacup, they’d have no idea what was coming. It’s Easter and our two remaining chicks are a month old. They’re the size of small geese. Cleaning up after them is quite a chore.

The good news is that they are gaining body mass at an amazing rate and soon they’ll be fully outdoor birds. Already they spend the bulk of their daytime hours outside in a kennel enclosure. They’d much prefer if we spent the day out there with them, but, after an initial panic, they settle in and spend their days munching on grass and doing the emu dance. At this point they’re too big to be prey for hawks, so I can relax, go inside and get some work done. We know that in the wilds, they’d be out and about already, but we are protective guardians and want them to be fox-proof before we put them out in the pasture.

Since they get so upset if we pick them up, this week we’ve reverted to herding them. Their first trip down the nine steps to the back yard was quite an adventure (it looked like emu snowboarding) but now they take the steps like pros—nothing to get excited about, just out for a stroll. We still run them in the kitchen at night (and give them apple treats.) Mostly I continue this because it’s so fun to see Rick do the “excite the emus” run. He’s raised kids, so he knows the universal language of baby talk. It is universal—even emus respond. I can’t tell who’s more adorable, the emus, or Rick with the emus.

For a few weeks we lined the interior of their little tiled room with newspapers. Not only was that a messy affair, but we don’t take a paper. We are fully digital in the news department. At first Elmer provided some, but country folk are stingy with their newsprint. Everybody uses newspaper to start their woodstove fires. When I found myself snitching the free papers from the stands in town—well, something had to be done. I’d started rating them by their absorbance—not the measure of print-worthiness to which most writers aspire.

Rick solved the problem. He bought a roll of heavy craft paper and cut numerous templates of the floor—emu carpet. Now I pick up—and then every couple of days just roll a layer off and dispose of it. Like I said in an earlier post, Kids, don’t try this at home.

And that emu dance! It’s quite a sight now that these guys are thigh high. (It’s even more impressive with the adults, because, as you might have guessed, this dance is the early training for emu courtship.) I know that we have happy emus when they do the emu kicking roll, dance steps and then hurtle around the enclosure at breakneck speeds. (I’m really understanding that expression, now.) I’m hoping for rain today because the emus love water, and I’ve heard that they dance in the rain.

 

Pictures later

 

 

Country Fresh

A.V. Walters

Even while I lived in the city, I hung onto my rural roots. I gardened and produced most of my summer fare from a postage stamp-sized back yard. I canned jams from the plum tree, and I hung my laundry out in the sun, to dry. So, it should come as no surprise that, when I moved to the farm, not only would I want to continue these patterns, but there’d be some room for expansion. But when I explained my plans to Elmer, he seemed a bit alarmed. Not at the gardening, that made perfect sense. And, like a lot of country folk, he fully supports canning. The problem arose when I asked Elmer to put up a clothesline, of all things!

He squirmed at the notion, “Why the heck would you want to do something like that?” I was ready with my environmentally friendly, power-of-the-sun, low-carbon-footprint, Pollyanna diatribe.

“Well, we have a lot of wind, you know. It whips up the dust, and all. So, you’d want to be sure to bring it in before the afternoon winds start up.” He didn’t sound convincing, and it seemed like a strange response—a little wind would be exactly the ticket. In what better environment could there be to dry laundry? (I’d failed to note the almost-complete absence of clotheslines, in the area.)

Elmer never did help out with getting that line up, and given his reaction, I didn’t press it. After a while, I bought the materials and installed it myself. And, he was right about the wind and the dust. If you left the laundry out, late in the day, you’d have to wash it, again. But our mornings were still, and my line was set up to take advantage of the morning sun.

One morning I pulled a fresh towel from the line and headed into town for a swim. (There’s nothing like a vigorous work-out in chlorinated water to clear your head.) As I walked back into the changing room, I caught the unmistakable stench of cow manure. I laughed to myself and thought, somewhere there’s a farmer in here, for sure.

I’ll have to admit, here, that when you’re exposed to something a lot, you become, well, desensitized and… I live next door to a dairy. So, when I grabbed my towel, I almost choked. That farmer was me! And that certainly explained why they don’t hang their laundry out. Oh my! And that was the end of my energy saving foray with country laundry.

Someday, I’ll live somewhere with a different background aroma—and I’ll go back to the clothesline. (Rick said he thinks he knows the perfect location.)

A Little Bit of Wild…

A.V. Walters

Emus are not domesticated creatures. They are ancient creatures, virtually unchanged for many millions of years. We cannot own them, though we may “keep” them. They are not really pets. Nowhere is this more clear than when one tries to transport them. Try to put them in a box, and they panic. They thrash. They can even fight to the point of injuring themselves. There is no such thing as a portable emu. They do not respond to the instruction, “Hey, just chill!”

Even carrying them from their indoor, night-time home, to the backyard is telling (and trying.) This should be routine by now, but every single time, they kick and fight and squawk. Our first emu pioneers, The Royals, made their trip in a big box. On arrival one had managed to kick himself into a royal limp. It’s minor, and will heal, but it speaks to the difference between a domesticated animal and a wild one. We can keep company with the wild but we cannot bend them to our will. Last night, when outbound emu number three was loaded into a kennel for his trip to its new home, he fought like a ninja (but without the grace.) It’s a little heartbreaking to see, and makes for a traumatic farewell, even when they’re off to the best of new homes.

In this case, the emu we knew as DotDash, will be a guardian/companion animal to a new flock of sheep. We were duly impressed with the new keeper, a diligent 16-year-old girl who is building a flock of prize sheep. She’d done her research and found that an emu guardian was a sustainable and viable way to protect her investment, both emotional and financial. She’s familiar with chickens and other livestock and I queried her about her commitment to an animal that will live about thirty years. She had considered it, and sees agriculture as a lifetime commitment for her. So, an emu fits the bill. I asked, “What if you go away to college, what of the emu then?” She was ready for it. Emus are low maintenance. Her parents (who have fifty acres nearby) are already committed to the sheep, so an emu actually helps that dynamic. And she won’t go far away.

I worry that we don’t have many young people interested in farm living. Almost all the farmers and ranchers I know are at an age when most people are talking about retirement. It’s not an easy life but one that comes with many rewards. In the absence of an investment by our youth, where will we get our food? From corporate farms? What kinds of stewards will they be of our precious farmland? What do they add to a farm community? So, how could I not honor this young lady’s venture into agriculture? She embodies everything I think we need in a new generation committed to the land, even if it puts her out-of-step with her social cohorts.

We spoke at length, and I think she understands the compact that we have with emus. She respects that her new emu charge is wild, and that in that wildness is a trait—protection from canine predators—that walks in step with her needs with sheep. So off he went, kicking and peeping to a new life. I think both of them—the emu and the girl, will do very well; there’s a little bit of wild in each of them.

Two Down…

Announcing, The Royal Emus

A.V. Walters

There are many considerations in the placement of an emu chick. One must determine the environment in which it will live, and its intended work, so as to match the temperament of the bird to the life it will enjoy. And so, today we bid a fond farewell to two emu chicks who will go on to a particularly cushy lifestyle. They will be The Royal Emus, who have actually gone off to live at a castle.

Soon to be 3

Soon to be 3

It was a tough call to make. Not the suitability of the placement, but which chicks to send away—one of the emu emissaries was our favorite. We called him C3, because of the markings on his head. He was not only the youngest, but also the most independent of the lot. He was the one always ready to stir up fun, in a very emu way. When emus play, they drop to the ground, roll over while kicking, and then jump up in a frisky dance followed by running in circles like maniacs. If any of the other chicks is up for it, they’ll repeat the performance and the bunch of them will run around—smashing into one another like bumper cars. C3 was the main instigator of the high-jinks. He was also one of the most gentle of the bunch. He (she?) and the other youngest (whom we called Sleepy) seemed like the best personality matches for this particular gig.

They will get menagerie duty—being visited and guarding the menagerie of animals at an upscale vineyard in Napa County. It’s a good gig, one I’d take in a heartbeat if it were offered to me. And they’ll get to live at a castle—and so, royal emus. We don’t know what their formal names will be (we’ll just have to wait for the coronation, like all the other commoners) but, once they’re grown, you can have an audience with Their Highnesses at Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga. You’ll find them ambling through the olive orchard, or looking regal amongst their subjects, the lesser critters—sheep, chickens and peacocks (who really think they’re special.) As for us, well, we took a discount on the price (an inducement to take two, instead of one) and got a bunch of wine thrown in, just the thing for celebrating our first (and probably only) successful emu raising and placement. (A lovely 2008 Cabernet, fitting to the occasion.)

This sure beats the assignment for one of the other inquiries we received. They wanted to know if our emus could guard their sheep from mountain lions. They’ve apparently lost 24 goats, this year, to lions. (I’d say there’s a very healthy, and growing, lion family there.) We quickly hit the internet to find that emus are no match for lions. At best, they’d maybe slow the process as the lions worked their way through the emus, before moving on the other animals. But the words, “Tastes just like chicken,” kept ringing in my ears, so we enlightened them as to the facts of nature, and declined their offer.

We’re now left with three. Elmer only wants two, but he says he’d keep three if the alternative meant having to send one off to a lonely life. (Of course, that’s easy for Elmer to say, he doesn’t have three emus in his bathroom!) Still, it made us feel better, because we felt the same way. We only want the best for our little emu chicks—even the ones who have gone off to a luxurious life of fame and fortune, leaving us peasants behind, to clean up after their three siblings.

Funny thing is, we’ll probably visit.

Indoor Emus?

Kids—Don’t Try This At Home

A.V. Walters

We really don’t have much in the way of options in this. We are renters. We don’t have easy access to a barn or a shed or other outdoor structures that we don’t mind being trashed by five of the messiest creatures on earth. Still, these emus are technically babies. They still need to have an environment that is heated until they reach a body mass that is large enough keep themselves warm. We put them outside now for several hours each day. It’s a shorter run if it’s cloudy, or if, like today, it’s raining. I’m watching to see when they start to tremble, at which point I’ll haul them back in and put them under the heat lamp.

While they’re out frolicking, I take the opportunity to clean their little room. I’m so relieved that it is a tiled bathroom. Even then, I line it with newspapers everyday, so that I can just roll up a day’s worth of filth, and dispose of it. You cannot believe how much “trash” is generated by five emu chicks! They’ve almost tripled in size since the first day we took them in, at the beginning of the month. They’re growing, eating and you-know-what, at a prodigious rate. It’s not surprising—an emu reaches adult size and weight in about a year. By comparison, it means they need to grow the human equivalent of a year’s worth, every month. They are now knee high, without much of a stretch. (And that means that their “mess” extends up the walls, that much higher now.)

It raises the issue of how one measures emu growth. Their flexible little necks complicate the equation. Extended? On tippy-toe? (And yes, they’ll stand on tip-toe to look into the trash bin, to peck at any odd spot, or over a low enclosure.) The knee-high average is just standing with no effort at extension. I suppose the best way would be to weight them, but they’re so wiggly that I can’t figure out how to get them back on the scale. Just weeks ago, when we weighed them in at teacup size, it was a relatively easy proposition. I can’t imagine doing it now.

And, fast! They can run. Together they move like fish in a school, (well, a school of kindergarteners) en masse with sudden, inexplicable and semi-choreographed changes in direction. They also dance and play—a series of hops, often preceded by rolling over and then followed by a group mad dash in every direction, knocking each other down if at all possible. It keeps up laughing.

With any luck, two will have a new home by week’s end. The first potential adoption fell through when the gentleman realized how fast they’d grow, and how hard it would be to relocate them for his scheduled move in eight months. “Maybe next year.” Ha! Do you think I’m going to do this again? But now, there’s a much better prospect in the works. Every now and then, when I worry about how to adopt-out emus, I realize that it’s not really my problem. (Yeah, I know. If it’s not my problem, then why am I up to my knees in emus?) I’m just a renter here, and these are Elmer’s emus, after all. Well, you know, I could just move away…

Hearth and Home

A.V. Walters

It’s a strange underpinning to the season of renewal, an almost depressing release of the winter norms, that comes before the longer days and warmer weather can step in to ease the transition. You see, in winter we endure the long, dark days with the light and warmth of our woodstove. There is a center to our home, as we cozy up each evening in front of the fire to rehash the day, or play Scrabble, or just sit and read. When it’s warm, the fire isn’t necessary for heat, but we miss basking in the golden light of the flames. There’s an intimacy to it and a ‘place’ where we belong in the winter evenings.

The day-time temperature in our home now ranges around 64˚ (F)—that’s about what we heat it to, in the winter. Somehow though, especially if it’s gray out, it doesn’t seem quite warm enough. And we’re not sure where to sit in the evening—the living room suddenly darker, without the glow of the stove. I confess we’ve lit ‘cosmetic’ fires—small fires with just enough warmth to keep the “hearth” in “hearth and home.” The cold glow of a computer screen just isn’t the same, even if it does spell a certain increase in productivity.

Both Rick and I seem to be experiencing a similar winter withdrawal. We wonder whether this is common, or just us. The rhythms of spring and summer, gardening, long evenings outdoors, sometimes chatting with the neighbors—beer in hand, aren’t due for at least another month. Now, with daylight savings, the days are longer but not yet appreciably seasonal. Mostly, it just makes us feel tired.

We theorize that, in many homes, the cold blue glare of the television has become a poor, substitute hearth. Modern folks have opted for entertainment, rather then the primal satisfaction of day’s end in front of the fire. Do they even know this? Do they ever think about the crackle of kindling, and the random dance of the flames? We certainly don’t miss television, but we yearn for a more fully realized shift of season to help direct our energies away from our now-empty patterns of winter.

I confess that I’m filling some of the void with evenings of baking—tonight, a flourless, almond based chocolate extravaganza. Summer may find us, eventually, garden-ready, but a bit rounder.

Tomorrow someone is coming to look at two emu chicks. We may be down to three! Elmer wants to keep two, so my emu responsibilities are quickly being resolved. It’s been a long and interesting adventure.

Posted: 2013-03-17, 3:03PM PDT

EMU CHICKS – $100 (petaluma)

Pets or as guardian animals for sheep or goats. They also make a great 4-H project.

Approximately 3 weeks since hatching, these critters are at a perfect age to bond with new owners–or to begin the orientation process for bonding with your herd. They still require some hand-raising but are now comfortable outside, unattended. The price will increase from here–to reflect the additional effort in hand-raising.

These are outdoor birds! They’ll grow to over five feet, and over one hundred pounds. They require a fully fenced enclosure. Properly raised they are affectionate and curious. They make good companion animals (horses, sheep, goats, etc., and have completely adjusted to one of my cats.) They are not generally dog friendly (as they see them as predators.)

When threatened, an adult emu can have a nasty kick–which is why they are so effective as guard animals for a herd. They are grazers–eating mostly grass and greenery. In the dry months you must supplement with ratite mix. As long as they have ample water, they make a low-maintenance outdoor pet. As pets they can live decades, a little less as roaming, working guardian animals.

If you are interested in an emu chick respond with your name and telephone number. Applicants will be screened and must have a stable, rural living situation with ample range area for an emu.

Available for pick-up only.

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