Chapter One: Keeping Your Chin Up
When I interviewed for the CHEF program (Cultivating a Healthy Environment for Farmers) at Findlay Market, I was asked what my biggest fear was regarding the work, to which I replied:
“Not getting things planted in time.”
As I write this, it is mid-May. My home garden is yielding radishes, salad greens and snow peas. I have peppers that have just been transplanted, and plenty of tomatoes and eggplant that will be transplanted soon. For my farm, seeds are finally being doled out amongst the teams. I have three large piles of composted horse manure and twice that volume of leaf compost waiting on site to be incorporated into the existing beds, and to help create new beds as we extend the farm’s arable space. Last year, the University of Cincinnati created the farm, complete with a hoop house, a swank tool shed with a rainwater catchment system, a raceway algae pond and the makings of a nice drip irrigation system. The reports I have received from both those who set up UC’s program, and from those who worked the space last year all expressed a certain amount of regret that their efforts fizzled with the end of the school year, yet they were all thrilled that we are using the space for the same purpose – and who we are working with.
I am farming this space with about a dozen refugees from Guatemala and from Burundi, who found the CHEF program through an outreach at St. Leo’s Parish, which houses the largest food pantry on the West Side of Cincinnati. When I was first informed about the sheer number of people (up to sixteen) who were to work our modest half-acre, I panicked. Sure, I can get enough fresh veg out of my home garden to feed my family, but how am I to raise enough produce out of the roughly one thousand gross square feet (my share of the plot) to financially support myself?!?
I don’t want this to be an exercise in futility. I WANT THIS TO WORK. Not just for me, but these sweet people who have been partnered with me – they deserve this opportunity to lift themselves from their current government-subsidized lifestyle. My experience with bio-intensive methods of growing tells me that it could work. My professors from college (Ohio University’s School of Theater – Production Design and Technology) should be happy to know that this is stretching and testing all of those skills that they drummed into me. I feel at home managing a work crew to achieve a common goal, and creative problem solving is second nature to me now. It is more and more evident that my knowledge on growing food, which I absorbed from my parents, is not-so-common knowledge for the majority of the people I am working with – so this mentor hat is a comfortable one.
So it comes back to me being able to keep a positive face and disposition even when confronted by a plethora of minor setbacks...like being told that there isn’t enough money in the budget to put a proper fence around the farm. I am working with some mighty religious folks, and they assure me that if I have faith, things will come together. They are happy to have the chance to work at this, and I should be, also.
But I’ll get back to you about the fence. I still don’t want to be raising a gourmet feast for Bambi.
Sunday, May 2, 2010
After the ulcer-inducing experience of trying to integrate the 8 “meat” birds with 3 mature laying hens a year ago, I swore to myself that I was never, ever going to do that again. Chickens are vicious dinosaur-ish critters, no two ways about it. They will eat anything they can catch and their social structure makes Greek life seem warm and inclusive.
We just don’t have the space on our property to maintain two separate chicken-housing structures, so when our latest batch of pullets outgrew the brooder, there were serious decisions to be made. I had adopted five mature laying hens a month or so ago, and I really did not want to give up eggs again for another five months, so I opted to try mediation. I did not immediately put the younger birds into the coop / run, but instead made a temporary enclosure for them in one of our raised garden beds that was not due to be planted until later in the season. Maybe if they were a little older and stronger for the inter-generational mix, there wouldn’t be as much carnage. The absence of boys in this batch should work for me, too, as roosters only care about a few things: jumping hens, announcing to the world that they exist, and fighting with other roosters.
On a mild Sunday, we decided to mix it up. We clipped all of the birds’ wings, and then let everyone out into the back yard. The older hens were more concerned with trimming down the grass than harassing the younger birds, so I thought this might actually work out. There was a little bit of head-pecking going on, but that was to be expected. Where else do you think the term “pecking order” came from?
Later that week, one of the older birds started acting lethargic, which instantly got me doubting my decision to create one big, happy chicken family. After doing some research and talking with the bird’s original owner, I started spiking the chickens’ drinking water with some cider vinegar. The older hen started to perk back up (she had most likely been suffering from sour crop), and then the two Barred Plymouth Rocks (from the younger brood) started exhibiting the same symptoms – so they got quarantined to the temporary enclosure. A few days later, one of the Barred Plymouth Rocks died, but the other one was certainly on the mend, so I let her back in with the rest of the flock. Bad idea. Later that day, we got back from taking our dog for a walk, and found the older hens pecking the head of the remaining Barred Plymouth Rock to a bloody pulp.
I was devastated. I was convinced that the death was my fault – I had moved her back too soon, and the other birds culled the weakest link.
Dave and I promised each other that if the violence continued at all, we were going to give away the younger birds. I talked to some more poultry people, and they told me that the losses we had sustained were minimal in the grand scheme of things, since illness can often wipe out an entire flock.
I am pleased to say that there have not been any further flock fatalities.
Here is some footage of the happy flock as of this week: