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Earliest Signs of Spring

Winter has never been my favorite season. I do, however, have a better relationship with it now that I am involved in agriculture. The growing season gets busy and overwhelming, and winter encouraging me to rest, plan, and catch up on other parts of my life is good for me. I also do most of my presenting and organizing while the plants sleep. I value and believe in that work of outreach, teaching and sharing with others and am glad that NH winters give me the space for it.

But the cold pains me, the dark comes so early, and being cooped up like my chickens starts to frustrate me. I miss the green, the flowers, the sounds of critters calling to each other at night. So, I look forward to spring and appreciate signs reminding me it’s coming.

A Few of my Favorite Seed & Plant Catalogs

The arrival of seed catalogs starting in late December was the first. Right around the Solstice, when it is darkest but the light begins to grow, they appear. This prompts me to review my seed stock, look at our long range homestead plans and put together my orders. All gardeners love this task. My challenge every year is to be realistic and not over-order! How many trees can we really plant and tend to properly every year? I continue to research that question, and it does depend on the weather, but it’s often less than I convince myself of every January!

PV Solar Display – right side is most recent

The increasing light can also be tracked on our photovoltaic (PV) solar array display. This is our second winter with the system, and you can see the upwards trend of energy being made, with a few days off when snow covered the panels. Here in our forested area, we are entering the best season for making our own power. By February the sun angle and hours up has changed considerably since Winter Solstice, and with no leaves on the trees we generate lots of power. The panels also function more efficiently in colder weather.

Then, this week, seeds arrived!

Seed Packets from Seed Savers Exchange

This year I am excited about some of the heirloom varieties I found. After seeing the film “Seed: The Untold Story” – which I wrote about already for this blog – I decided to get more serious about saving my own seed, which means using fewer hybrid varieties. I won’t leave all of them behind – there are some great garden plants created by mainstream plant breeding (this is not genetic modification or engineering) which I’m grateful to have access to and that can eventually be stabilized into seed-savable plants. But there are also many old, stable varieties that I am thrilled to help continue the lines of.

Also, I had my eyes opened to the importance of New England Native American seeds by Dr. Fred Wiseman and the Seeds of Renewal Project. There are corn, squash and bean varieties that were developed over hundreds of years, selected for a level of hardiness that is unusual to find now and that we might really need as our weather becomes more unpredictable. Some of these varieties were the only to survive the Year Without a Summer in 1816. That kind of resilience is so valuable.  (Dr. Wiseman will lead a workshop in Portsmouth NH on April 1, 2017.)

The Pile of Seeds Grows!

Abenaki Calais Flint Corn came from the northern Vermont Abenaki tribe and is known to have survived 1816’s year long winter. Calais is for drying and storing to make flour, cornmeal, and cereal. I am new to growing corn. The first farmer I worked for felt that corn used a lot of space and took a lot from the soil for not much nutrition. I still agree with that for sweet corn, but the dry corn options offer a winter food with more nutrients accessible after home processing.

I began exploring dried beans a few years ago and love them. This is a crop that fixes nitrogen in the soil and offers a high-protein, long shelf-life food and has very easy to save seed. I was at first daunted by processing by hand, but have not found that as hard as I’d feared. In fact, sitting by the fire, watching a movie or listening to music while I shell the beans is becoming a task I look forward to. Others like knitting, I like bean shelling. I am especially enamored with beans that climb. Using vertical space gives me more growing room, plus they dry well up off of the ground.

True Red Cranberry Pole Beans

Some great varieties I’ve already been growing include True Red Cranberry Pole and Jacob’s Cattle Bush, both on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste. True Red Cranberry is a northeastern Native American bean, big and beautiful, and I’ve had great luck with it the past two years. Jacob’s Cattle is said to be a Maine Passamaquoddy heirloom, big and tasty.

This year I found some new climbers to try. They aren’t quite as local. Hidatsa Shield Figure Beans, from the Hidatsa tribe of North Dakota, and Turkey Craw Beans, from the VA/NC/TN area are both on the Slow Food Ark of Taste. Good Mother Stallard Beans, named for Carrie Belle Stallard of Wise County, VA, can be traced back to the 1930s. Sarah Mostoller in PA found Mostoller Wild Goose Beans in 1865 in the crop of a wild goose and her family grew them for 116 years before donating them to Seed Savers. Those Turkey Craw Beans were also found in a bird – the craw of a turkey – by an 1800s hunter.

I might also track down some Sweeney Bush Beans, which is a Canadian heirloom possibly from the Mohawk, or Kanonsionni, people. It spent some generations being grown out by The Sweeneys of Nova Scotia and my mother was a Sweeney, so I feel a connection to it. I know that Dr. Wiseman has experience with this bean, so I hope to hear about it from him at his workshop in Portsmouth NH this April.

As a lover of stories, knowing the journey these seeds took before arriving in my mailbox delights me.

All this researching and dreaming keeps me connected to the gardens through the cold months.

In about a month I’ll take the next step: seed starting. Onions and leeks are first, in late February. To me, that’s really the start of gardening season. It will be here before we know it.

Winter in NH

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Planting Seeds: Start Where You Are

“Where do I start?” This question was asked of myself and 3 other panelists after a showing of the film “Seed: The Untold Story.”

Christmas Lima Bean

Christmas Lima Bean

The Music Hall in Portsmouth NH screened this new documentary earlier in November and I was privileged to be on a panel for discussion following it with Andrea Cadwell, founder of Seeds of Community, Evan Mallett, Black Trumpet Bistro Chef/Owner and Heirloom Harvest Project Co-founder, and Erik Wochholz, Horticulturist and Curator of Historic Landscapes at Strawbery Banke Museum.

My quick summary of the film is that there has been a tremendous loss of diversity in our food supply, and a loss of control over seeds by those who actually grow food, brought on by the transition of seed out of the commons and into the realm of corporations. It also showed some of the dangers of conventional agricultural practices of pesticide and herbicide use, and geneticially modified food. The information in the film was disturbing, but the accounts of communities who are reclaiming their seeds and protesting the abuses of corporations was inspiring. And the photography was beautiful.

Back to our question – Where do I start?

Tiger Eye Bean

Tiger Eye Bean

This is an especially great question to contemplate when the topic is seed, because a seed is a start in itself. In every seed there is the possibility to begin life again for the plant that created it. If it gets what it needs to kick off and support the process (cold, fire, or simply soil and water, for instance), it will grow. All the directions it needs to become just what it’s meant to be are there. I have been farming or gardening for 20 years now, and I never fail to feel awe, gratitude and joy when a seed I planted sends up a shoot and down a root. Every time feels like a miracle, like magic.

For us humans, we struggle more with figuring out just what we’re meant to be and do. I can’t know what your answer is, of course, but here are my thoughts in response to being asked the question after the film last week.

First of all – it doesn’t really matter where you start! Even when you think of a seed, you can ask was the seed the beginning or was the plant that made the seed there first? It’s a circle, like so much in nature, and just stepping into the flow of it is what’s important. Which brings me to a question for you: what appeals to you, what do you feel called to or inspired to do on this subject? That’s a great place to focus.

True Red Cranberry Pole Bean

True Red Cranberry Pole Bean

There are so many ways to be a part of this movement to take back our power. There has been a tendency in our society these last 100 years or so to decide that if something takes a lot of work, we’d be better off to have someone else do it for us and call that freedom. In some cases it just means we have to do other work in order to pay someone to do the original task for us, often with lower standards and less care. Other things have become so cheap that I guess we do get extra free time – which a lot of people spend watching TV or on Facebook (I don’t mean to judge – my life has some TV & Facebook as well!). I believe this amounts to trading away our real sovereignty and control over our lives.

So, on that personal level, do grow a garden, keep small

My Garden Soil

My Garden Soil

livestock, or go beyond that and become a farmer! We need more small-scale, deeply sustainable food growers. Use your yard, a community garden, or look for larger areas of land. Any food you grow will be fresher than almost anything you can buy, and won’t have the transportation footprint of supermarket options. What you don’t grow, look for locally at farmer’s markets, farm stands, CSAs, and sometimes healthfood stores. Learn to build your own soil – a dwindling resource that we are totally dependent on. I teach permacultural soil building techniques through Seacoast Permaculture if you are local. And, yes, save your seeds! For what you haven’t saved, turn to ethical seed sellers to buy from such as Fedco, High Mowing. and Seed Savers Exchange.

However, the problems we face are beyond one person’s ability to change. Join with others and make change on larger levels.

You can join groups working to educate about these issues and bring back these skills such as Seacoast Permaculture, Slow Food Seacoast, Seacoast Eat Local and NOFA.

Christmas Lima Beans

Christmas Lima Beans

You can get involved in efforts to change legislation like GMO food labeling, pesticide use, and supporting small farmers. A few options are NOFA-NH, Just Label It, The Pesticide Action Network, and March Against Monsanto.

There are also groups who are challenging the rights of corporations to patent life, and to have so much political clout. Seeds and food are not the only issues in which huge entities organized solely to make profit are deciding our future. NH has a history of challenging this problem, led by our own Doris “Granny D” Haddock, who walked over 3,200 miles across the United States to advocate for campaign finance reform at the age of 88 years old. Her work is carried on now by The NH Rebellion.

I should say that all of these groups are non-partisan. Regardless of how you feel about the recent election you are welcome in them!

Maine Yellow Eye Beans

Maine Yellow Eye Beans

I hope this gives you ideas on where you might be able to step in and make a difference on sustainable food and diversity. The great news is that any of these steps are fun, and fulfilling. They’ll improve your health and life. Sure, it takes some work – but don’t most things worth having?

It’s worth noting that this film looked at food plant diversity, but the same situation is faced for livestock breeds. I encourage you to research that, and maybe that will be their next documentary!

ADDENDUM: I didn’t feel like the film did a great job of precisely explaining some of the terms used in reference to seeds. I thought I’d give you a few definitions, especially if seed saving is something that you now want to try your hand at after seeing this beautiful film:

Heirloom: a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community. All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms.

Open pollinated: seeds that will “breed true.” When the plants of an open-pollinated variety self-pollinate, or are pollinated by another of the same variety, their seeds will produce plants generally identical to their parents. Saving seed from these plants is accessible to all farmers and gardeners.

Hybrid seed: seed produced by cross-pollinated plants. This can occur naturally, but in our commercial seed stock, hybrids are created by human intervention. The positive side of this is the phenomon of hybrid vigor which makes these crosses vigorous and high yielding. However, the seed produced is genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years, which leads to a dependency on seed companies. Hybrid seeds can be stabilized, however, becoming open-pollinated varieties, by growing, selecting, and saving the seed over many years. Hybrid is NOT the same as Genetically Modified, which bypasses nature’s species boundaries through laboratory means to create plants which would never occur naturally.

You can learn more about seed types here.

Hop McConnell Speckled Corn Harvested

Hop McConnell Speckled Corn Harvested, 2016

Hop McConnell Speckled Corn Growing, 2016

Hop McConnell Speckled Corn Growing, 2016


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Spring Brooding on Brooding

Brood: verb, gerund or present participle: brooding

  1. (of a bird) sit on (eggs) to hatch them.
  2. to think or worry persistently or moodily about; ponder

I have been brooding (“pondering” but not really moodily!) on brooding (“sitting upon eggs to be hatched”) this spring since it has been our poultry’s most broody year yet!

When we first started chickening in 2008, we loved the idea of letting them raise their own next generations. It seemed more natural and more energy efficient, both electricity and human energy-wise. Also, we had misgivings about some of the big hatchery practices and wanted to move away from that model [note: I tried to find an article for you that would give some details on hatchery practices in a way I thought was fair and reasonable and didn’t demonize chicken-keeping in general, but haven’t found one yet.  Here is a good discussion of some of the issues. The one exception I know of and do recommend, because it isn’t truly a big hatchery although it is mail-order, is Sand Hill Preservation Center].

Our first flock was a mix of Dominique and Speckled Sussex chickens, IMGA0197which we did as a joint project with our good friends, Steve and Rhoda. At the time they had land, which we did not, and we were available to help chicken-sit when they traveled, which they needed. So, it was a great collaboration!

We started with straight-run, which means you get whatever gender you get. Again, this seemed most natural to us. We would later eat all the males but one, who would take over as the protector of the hens and fertilizer of the eggs thus making it possible for the flock to raise more birds from their own eggs. Both of these breeds were considered sometimes broody so we thought we had a chance.

For a couple of years we did have a Speckled Sussex go broody. IMGA0233We called her “Broody,” I’m a bit embarrassed to say! We didn’t take great notes back then, but the first year she raised 3 or 4 and the next year was about the same. Some were males, of course, so we ended up with a few new hens this way. This was clearly not going to be enough to keep the numbers up in the flock as we planned on a turnover of 2-3 years for the hens.

Research gave us ideas for how to encourage brooding and how to get more chicks out of each hatch. Leaving eggs was the main advice in terms of getting them to sit. Then being sure the eggs all started incubating under her at the same time would help with getting more to hatch. If the eggs hatch over too long a time period she will have to abandon the unhatched ones to take care of the new chicks.

We still weren’t having much success. We had a few hens start to brood, but not see it through. We went back to ordering chicks to keep our Chicks-4numbers up.

Around 2012 we had a really bad experience with a lot of sickly chicks. Most had been shipped to us, but a few were from a local store. For weeks, every few days there would be another dead chick, and we learned about all sorts of nasty chicken diseases. It was so depressing and pushed us to take the plunge and – buy an incubator! We’d had it with shipped chicks from questionable conditions and wanted to start getting more serious about breeding our own, for ourselves and hopefully offering some for sale so others could also get more local with their stock. If the hens wouldn’t cooperate and do it for us, then an incubator would do the job!

2014 was the first incubator year. We did two rounds. On June 15th 12 out of 18 eggs hatched and 4 months later we had 12 healthy birds. On July 12th 17 out of 39 eggs hatched and 4 months later we had 15 healthy birds. We were much happier with this experience! ChicksHatch-June2015They really seemed so much stronger and happier having not endured the stress of 1-2 days in the mail.

In 2015 we did two more incubator chicken hatches. We again had good results, with the earlier hatch being the most successful – June 5: 33 out of 43 hatched; July 6: 21 out of 48 Ducklings-June2015-2hatched. Egg fertility went down for the later batches. We also tried duck eggs since we’d been keeping Indian Runner ducks for a few years and they are notoriously unbroody. The ducks were way less successful, but we did end up with 5 (out of 21 eggs, though) ducklings, better than nothing. This year, 2016, we went with one early hatch, setting 48 chicken eggs on April 16 which led to 30 chicks in the brooder by May 8!

However, as we are getting more adept at incubating, our chickens are suddenly taking an interest in doing it themselves after all. In spring 2015, we had 2 hens get that broody look – lots of time in the nest boxes with a trance-like look in their eyes. We tried to move both of them to their own areas, but that made both of them get up, shake themselves off, and tell us “never mind.” Not long after that, however, a chicken went missing. I searched their yards, the nearby woods – no sign. I figured, oh well, some other critter ate well that day, our contribution to the wild. But 21 days later – peep, peep, peep! She had made herself a BroodingHen-2015-3great nest in a pile of brush in the middle of their largest yard where no one – not me or any predators – found her, giving her the time to hatch out 8 babes. We scooped them all up and moved them to one of our chicken tractors so she could raise them with a bit more safety. Wow, she was skinny when we caught her!

We’d hoped this would be a trend, and it seems so – this spring gave us 4 broody hens out of our flock of 11 chickens. Each one we moved into their own smaller coop to brood in peace. One of them changed her ChickenWChicks-3mind when moved, but the other three stuck with it. The first hatched out 6. The second only hatched 3 – but this coincided with the incubator hatch so we gave her 3 more chicks to raise for us, which she happily adopted. The third hasn’t finished her 21 days yet, so we’ll see.

Still not enough to give up the incubator, but maybe we’ll get there yet!

So, here’s where MY brooding comes in: What are we doing differently that is finally giving us all these broody hens? The two differences I can note are changes I made because we had an egg-pecker this past winter. At least one of the hens was pecking eggs, and I didn’t want to encourage that or let her/them get into eating their own eggs. So, I bought a dozen ceramic eggs and I put up nest box curtains. The ceramic eggs are supposed to be frustrating and maybe a bit painful for them to peck at, and the curtains keep the eggs less visible and thus less of a temptation. Also, our chickens definitely preferred the farthest, darkest nest box, and we hoped the curtains would get them to spread out to the others and maybe they’d encounter fewer of each others eggs.

My theory is that having the constant presence of an egg or two in the boxes, and having the boxes darker, thus seeming safer and more private, gave them the push to brood.

One other factor is that we did get a new rooster from a more local source through the NH Poultry Fanciers back in 2013. It could be that he brought in a line that is more inclined to broodiness. Two people who bought chicks from us last year also had broody hens this spring, so this could definitely be a factor.

As a very unexpected bonus, our oldest Indian Runner duck also went broody! Runner ducks are considered “poor to fair” in their brooding and mothering abilities, so we’d never counted on this behavior from them.

We got our first ducks in the summer of 2012 in order to help me with a terrible slug problem in the garden. Any eggs or meat were a nice bonus, but just eating the slugs makes them welcome here! This grey DSCN5097Runner is from that original batch, so she is now 4 years old. She never showed any interest before, but about 6 weeks ago she started hanging out in the nest box and HISSING at us when we looked in on her. After a few days of this, I decided she really meant it, and started collecting eggs for her. I gave her 9 eggs, but definitely did not count these chicks before hatching as I remained skeptical.

To my amazement, on May 22 there were ducklings! DSCN5980It took until May 27 to finish up, but there are now 6 ducklings in there with her! The last one almost didn’t make it – she’d already gotten up from the nest to chase around her babes and get on with things so we took the last 3 eggs out of the nest. Steve left them by the compost for me. I always open up unhatched eggs to determine what went wrong – infertile or early death or almost made it. The first two eggs I whacked with a shovel to get through the super-hard duck egg shells – unfertilized. The third I whacked and the thing went crazy peeping back at me! I was quite horrified, but that shell had been too hard for it to peck out of and I was only trying to crack it so didn’t impale the little thing. I peeled it back a little to be sure it had a breathing hole and returned it to the nest where it finished up the work and got out and DSCN6009joined the little family. I was pretty terrified that it would be maimed or limping and I would have been the cause, but it really seems fine, just smaller than the older ones who had a few days of eating already! Ducklings grow crazy fast – a 5 day difference in age is absolutely noticeable.

Final numbers and gender are still not finalized, but we know it will be our most successful hatching year yet, thanks to all these fabulous mamas!

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