Cast and Crew

Monday, April 26, 2010

Best Tulips of 2010

As I mentioned in a previous post, we recently attended the Skagit Tulip Festival. Below are some of the photo highlights from our tours through beautiful tulip fields. They speak for themselves.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Urban Farming in Translation

Before college classes got the better of me and my free time, I read several books about urban farming, eating local, etc. The Education of an Urban Farmer, by Novella Carpenter, was a fascinating find. Raising a garden on a vacant lot, slaughtering turkeys for her own Thanksgiving feast, and feeding pigs from the dumpsters of organic restaurants in West Oakland, California, was a little far out for the type of urban farming we do in our own home, but there remains a kinship between all types of urban farmers in the struggles and emotional desires that come with raising your own food. Below is a video interview with Novella.

**WARNING** Some aspects of this video contain graphic images of animal slaughter and butchering. If you're not comfortable, don't watch.

OBSESSIVES: Urban Farmer - on from on Vimeo.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Perfect Neighborhood, Part 1

Our neighborhood is the best. When you buy a house, they say that location is the most important thing to consider. But how do you test out that location without living there for a while? We spent a lot of time driving, walking, and riding buses in Everett before we narrowed down our possible areas, so we knew which important items on our list could be satisfied by each part of the community. North Everett won out over South Everett for its sidewalks, bus service, and sheer walkability to local amenities. But the mystery of finding the perfect block to live on can't be part of the above equation. Thus enters luck. Having neighbors you get along with is a product of this.

Our block (literally from one stop sign on the east end to the next stop sign on the west end) contains about fourteen houses. We know just about everyone after living there for two and a half years. Below is a description of events from last Sunday afternoon.

Rick, two houses down on our side of the street, has two daughters who spend time with him every other weekend. The younger, Emily, is about 9, the older is 14. Apparently they had been sneaking peeks of our chickens over the fence during their visits. We dropped off half a dozen eggs with Rick on Friday afternoon and invited him and his kids over to see the hens and chicks. Rick's girls got up and cooked those eggs for breakfast (a big surprise for their father), and were especially eager to visit the coop. When they walked into the yard, they caught sight of Ingrid first. She was foraging over by the compost, one of her usual haunts. We watched them scratch and peck and flap for a little while, then we toured the coop itself. Both girls were impressed with the nest boxes but slightly disappointed that no one had laid any eggs yet. I asked if they wanted to see the babies, and their eyes lit up. "You have baby chickens, too?" Emily asked. I took them into the garden shed and we stared into the brooder box, enthralled with the loud peeps from such tiny birds. Both girls were eager to hold the chicks but afraid to hurt them by gripping too tight (a common feeling when you're new to the baby chick gig), and they asked great questions about chickens in general. Emily apparently spoke of nothing but chicken facts for the rest of the day. Their parting gift was several small boxes of stale cheerios, which the new brood has enjoyed quite a bit.

This isn't the first time we've had kids over to visit the chickens. Co-workers, neighbors, and general acquaintances have stopped by with both of our broods to collect eggs, pet soft feathers, and inspect our coop made from recycled building materials. Our adventure is their adventure, too.

Stacy and Scott live next door to Rick. In combination with Rick and a few other members of the neighborhood, they're creating a garden in Rick's backyard. This is their second year, and they decided to plow up even more space for more plants. Last year they grew corn. I worried that they wouldn't get any ears of corn due to the fact that they planted a row, not a block. Corn pollinates with wind, so a block makes it easier for the pollen to transfer. I was so wrong. Aimee and I enjoyed several of their ears of corn. They weren't the biggest, but they were quite the achievement. This year they're planting corn, beets, leeks, potatoes, and bush beans. We're already bartering eggs for produce to come. Stacy and Scott frequently have people in the neighborhood hanging out in their front or back yards. They provide plenty of cheap beer, everyone else provides humor and company. We sat with them in the grass on Sunday. The weather was gorgeous and sunny. Scott wants to move to Montana, but his children live here in Washington. Both of them are reluctant to give up the neighborhood we share. We nodded and tipped our bottles back.

The neighbors on our block put together a couple of "events" each year. Halloween and the big summer yard sale are huge. Bonfires, beer, snacks, and great company round each ocassion out. The highlight is spending time with neighbors, who also happen to be really good friends. We watch each other's houses and pets, we nark on kids, and we band together to run out the drug-dealin'-no-good types. The combined efforts of this motley group rousted the final crack dealer from our street just last year. Bear in mind, there are four children under the age of six on this block. We want a clean place for them to grow up.

Donnie and Val live across the street from out house. Donnie is all talk. Honestly, some of the stuff that comes out of his mouth is downright ingenious in its fiction. Val, on the other hand, doesn't take his bs for more than a minute. Three of the chicks in our brooder box will be going to live at Donnie's house once they're big enough for the coop. He'll begin building it in the next few weekends, and he's been over to look at ours several times for inspiration. When we formed the idea of buying some chicks, his only request was for "perty, colorful birds." In fact, he really adored Ingrid, our Golden Campine. She's truly a beautiful bird, but her single comb and small body size make her a bit more work in cold weather. Instead, I settled on some hardy, friendly breeds that lay right through the coldest months. Donnie leaned over our fence while we were mulching the raised beds with chicken compost. "You addin' dirt?" I nodded and briefly explained mulch. Donnie asked about the potatoes growing in burlap sacks next. All of our garden veggies are in the front yard, like an edible landscape of sorts. He pointed at the onions left over from last year and marveled at their sheer size. I showed him the seed heads that were coming up. Before we finished, Donnie ran back to his house and retrieved a frozen bag of croppy he'd fished last summer, complete with a recommendation on how to fry them up for fish and chips. Last year he gave us venison. Donnie loves to hunt and fish. He also promised to bring home a ten foot long douglas fir beam from work for us. We've been gutting our upstairs and are ready to start the remodel. That beam will hopefully help restructure one of the windows which lacks a header.

Donnie and Val have been in their house longer than anyone on the block. They've seen a lot of trends come and go, and Donnie has a story about how he had a hand in every one of those changes. Val lends and borrows books with me. She doesn't seem to relate to many other people, so I try to be a good listener when she comes over. She's obsessed with Wicked and shares a kinship with Elphaba.

Brian and Jessica live next door to us. They're a young couple who bought a house about the same time we did, and they're recently married. Jessica is an elementary school teacher, and she's fascinated with all things science right now. She waved me over to her front yard just as Donnie was heading in for the night. A hoard of ants had flooded the sidewalk leading up to their front door. She felt bad about killing them, and she wanted to get video of the ants for her class. Donnie and I suggested she look on YouTube the next day, but today was a good day for spraying something noxious. Brian came out and handled the task. Jessica couldn't watch the slaughter. Instead, she leaned over our fence and talked to us about biology. "So my class set up these different environments with varying amounts of moisture to figure out what grows best in dry soil, moist soil, and really wet soil. But mold ended up growing in the wet stuff. Part of the lesson was about living versus non-living things, and the course book listed soil as non-living. One of the boys in the class asked me about it, and he reasoned that soil is actually alive. I told him I agreed. Was I right?" I spent a few minutes explaining that soil is a little bit of both, but that it's more alive than dead (so long as we're discussing natural soils). We then talked about the mold and bugs that appeared in the soil, even though it was bagged. She was very relieved when I explained that mold spores travel by air and that's how they get into bagged environments, and that some insect eggs and larvae are in the soil before you add moisture. The water brings them to life.

Brian and Jessica have turned out to be great friends, and we have a lot in common with them. Brian has helped me learn about fixing electrical problems in the house, and Jessica wrote an amazing children's story based on the great escape of Portia.

The goings-on of our neighborhood are constant entertainment to us, and we wouldn't trade this block for anything short of a real farm on acreage. Someday we will contemplate relocating for that very reason, but I know we'll be giving up this little bit of utopia.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bustin' Out of the Brooder Box

The babies are growing like mad. Seriously. This isn't our first batch of chicks, so I know what I'm talking about. Our older girls fattened up at a steady pace, but they took their time, one feather before the next. Not so for the new generation! We figure that the youngest (Dark Meat and Light Meat) are about three weeks old, seeing as we brought them home a little over three weeks ago. Winona and the three Sussex are clearly older, and we think the Sussex are probably two weeks ahead of their sisters. But really, at five weeks of age how many chicks look like this??
Meet Milla. She's the largest of the Speckled Sussex girls, and she's pretty much in charge in Brooder Box Land. Just check out that comb! And wattles?? At five weeks? She and the other no-name Sussex are getting pretty desperate to see the world beyond their plywood walls. They get a handful of weeds every couple of days, which leads to lots of fun, chasing, munching, and scratching, but it's not a fair representation of free ranging. It's already clear that these ladies will not like to be contained.

Sussex are a dual purpose breed, which means they lay great eggs but you can also raise them for meat. Prior to the major industrialization of the poultry industry in England, they were the bird to raise in your backyard or farmyard flock. They have a reputation for being calm, friendly, and hearty, qualities that definitely jive with our way of urban farming. Meat birds also have a reputation for eating tons of food and growing at a frightening pace. Milla is proving that to be true. While she won't be a chicken dinner in our household, we'll be using this opportunity to learn more about dual purpose chickens for our future farm. Ultimately we would like to have our own supply of meat birds in addition to layers. A single breed that provides both of those would simplify matters.
As for little Winona, things are looking up! You can see her bum eye in the picture above. Originally she could only open it part of the way. She can clearly see, and she frequently squints at me with that eye from the brooder box, but we were concerned that the muscles around it were damaged. Her recovery is at 99.9% now, and we think she'll be just fine by the time everyone gets moved out to the big coop.
She may look a little scruffy, but those big girl feathers will fill her out soon. This week we'll be raising the heat lamp in the brooder box by a few inches. Baby chicks need a warm, draft free environment in which to grow up. A heat lamp on one side of the brooder box gives them a warm place to cuddle and sleep, but there's also plenty of room to venture into cooler temps. Since our kids are a mixture of ages, we need a mixture of temperatures to keep them happy and healthy. As their adult feathers grow and replace their baby fluff, they can tolerate cooler, more varied weather. While most books say to decrease the brooder box temp by five degrees per week, I find it's easier to judge the temperature by the chicks' behavior. If they crowd under the lamp they're cold. If they steer clear of it, it's too hot. A good combination of napping, scurrying, and chirping means all is well.

This weekend we attended the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival. I'll post a few pictures of the tulips in a few days, but the other highlights of our journey included the following.

Golden Glen Creamery is a small, family owned farm in Bow, Washington. They produce milk in glass bottles, flavored butters, and several types of artisan cheeses. They keep gurnseys and holsteins, but with a total herd of about 80 cattle, they are very small in comparison to the large dairies in Washington State. We've been buying their whole, cream-top milk at our local co-op, and we really recommend their chocolate and strawberry milk! The cinnamon butter is heavenly on toast, and their aged cheddar is delightful on a whole grain cracker. Aimee and I toured their facility, and, despite the pouring rain, still had a great time seeing the cows, calves, and cheese-making ladies.

You can find Golden Glen products at PCC, some Whole Foods stores, and many small co-ops in the region. Want to see more dairy cows hard at work? Be sure to visit their farm on June 27th for their open house. We'll probably be there, too!

Hemlock Highlands Ranch is one of the only producers of Scottish Highland cattle. They're a very old heritage breed, hearty, tolerant, and docile. We got to pet a six week old baby, and he was twice the size of our biggest dog, Aengus! His coat was soft and long and pale, much like the bull pictured above. While we have already pre-ordered half a side of beef from another local farmer who raises grass-fed cattle and sheep, Hemlock Highlands will be on our list of farms to try out in the future.
Right across the road is Eagle Haven Winery, producer of several types of local wines. We were impressed by their Sangiovese (an Italian red wine), Apple wine (from their very own apples), and the exceptional Pinot Noir, also grown right there on highway 20. We bought a bottle of each and will likely return to buy by the case.

The bounty of Skagit County sure did surprise us this weekend. Our first forays into eating locally are going well, and the beginning of farmer's market season is right around the corner. It feels so positive to step into the tiny store on a family farm and buy milk and cheese from the very people who milked the cows and stirred the curds by hand. I'm looking forward to more discoveries like the ones we had this weekend.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Law and Order: Special Chickens Unit

Law and Order: Special Chickens Unit

In the criminal justice system, baby-chick-hurting offenses are considered especially heinous. In Everett, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad know as the Special Chickens Unit. These are their stories.

1932 PM, Garden Shed in back yard, Everett.

It was unintentional. I swear. I was checking on the babies (who we had only had for three days), and one of the boards balanced on the top of the brooder box fell in. Five chicks scurried out of the way. One got trapped under the board, and it struck hard when it came down. I gasped, then quickly removed the board and saw the damage. The poor little Blue Wyandotte was lying on her side, limp, barely squeaking her protest. I picked her up and cradled her in the palm of my hand. We had weighed her the day before, and she came in around 55 grams. Just to put this into perspective, the smallest eggs we collect from our Hamburgs weigh in around 42 grams. The biggest eggs, which are laid by Raquel, weigh in at about 58 grams, not including double-yolkers. This chick was tiny.

I figured I had broken her neck. I rushed into the mudroom with her, urgently yelling at Aimee to come lend moral support. I felt horrible. I had unwittingly killed a tiny baby in her first week of life. I gently stroked her little, fluffy body. We debated how best to dispatch her, and I wavered in my convictions. We had only just discussed slaughtering and butchering our own farm animals that morning on the dog walk. That part of me dissolved into guilt and anger at my own clumsy ways. Killing a healthy adult chicken who's had a long life of grass and sunshine is far different from haphazardly wounding a baby who hasn't had a chance to see the world beyond her brooder box.

Ultimately, we decided to let Nature take over. "If she's got any fight in her, let's let her fight," I said. Aimee agreed, and I think she was relieved to know that neither of us then had to "do the deed," at least not that night.

We set her up in a cardboard box in the brooder box with her own heat lamp, a tiny lid of water, and a miniature pie pan of food (we had just made mince pies, oddly enough). I felt that it was important for her to hear her sisters nearby as a comfort, rather than passing away all alone, even if she was in the house near us. I fully expected to check in the morning and find a dead baby chick. It was also decided that a wounded baby in the house would only prevent us (and mostly me) from being able to sleep peacefully. As a result, I slept clean through the night and awoke to a sense of dread for the brooder box inspection. Much to my surprise (though you all know what happened), little Winona was awake, peeping, and moving around in her box. She was weak, and she kept falling over to the right, but something in that little animal had refused to give up.

I promptly moved her isolation ward into the house, ultimately setting her up in the bathroom (where crazy dogs could not get to her if we left the house). Over the course of the next full day and night, she recovered enough to be reintroduced to the flock. I distracted everyone by also giving them a clump of dirt and weeds to play with, a tactic I will most certainly use in the future.

And so, Winnie is once again a whole chicken, despite my efforts to behead her. She still isn't quite right. Her balance leaves a little to be desired, she's a bit slower than the pack (though she darts around the box full tilt every so often), and her left eye seems to only open halfway. We're hoping that her extreme youth will help. After all, babies are growing so fast that healing happens almost overnight with many injuries. In the end, Winona has endeared herself to us in ways I cannot explain. She was originally destined to move to our neighbor's house with three of her sisters (one Brahma and two Sussex), but she will now be a permanent part of our flock. I can't bear the thought of letting her go after all we've been through.

Despite my attempts to be neutral, to refuse to get attached to new babies who won't be staying, sometimes little critters have a way of willing me into emotion. All I can say to the other five is, good freaking luck with me around.


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