Cast and Crew

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Payoff of an Adventurous Life

Herding chickens is a little like herding cats.... Cats that can f*$#ing fly.

Yep. That's Portia. Again.

Portia surveys the view from the garage roof.

"Where is everyone else?" Portia asks. It sounds distinctly like,

"Should I fly to the safety of the ground where my adoring human will save me from the dangers of the wild world and deposit me lovingly into my coop (where I belong with the rest of my comrades)?"

"Nah. Let's explore the roof of the house! My human will never reach me with her garden hoe now!"

A bit of perspective. The neighbors thought this was hilarious. They didn't have to figure out how to get a #$%^&ing chicken off the roof of a two story house. And, for the sake of realism, don't forget to throw in a "buck-buck-buck-buckck-CAW!!!" every thirty seconds for good measure.

"Perhaps I'll see what Mount Baker looks like at sunset..."

Believe it or not, she really did climb to the apex of the roof, approximately forty feet off the ground. I yelled. I coaxed. I rattled a container of scratch. I begged. I pleaded. I shook my hoe. I tossed two buckets of water (nearly on myself). Finally, I realized that Portia was avoiding me. When I walked away, she flew down, then promptly got cornered inside the garden shed. My master plan worked.

The moral of this story is that a good chicken is a chicken with clipped wings. We will be investigating the act of wing clipping over the course of the next week. Enough is enough.

The title of this post was, however, about payoff. I present exhibit 26F:

Yes, that's right. Ingrid finally laid that egg. Three in one day! This is a record. Our flock is now in 60% compliance. Perhaps a little wing snip will persuade Ellen and Portia to step up.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Black Gold

The weather was cooperative enough yesterday that I was able to get out and toss some compost. This is the three bin composter we built last summer, and it's finally being put to some good use. The bin on the far left is a storage area for the last of the compost we ordered from Cedar Grove last year, for which Aimee has still not forgiven me. I bought about ten yards. Do you have any idea how many wheelbarrow loads that is? Anyway, the front yard got completely re-landscaped with the bulk of that, and a little was left over for future projects. I'll be building a few more raised beds this spring, so it'll get put to good use soon. The remaining scraps, trimmings, weeds, and branches in the fall were thrown carelessly into the bin on the right, where they proceeded to fester during my period of apathy. Last week we added chicken poo and bedding, tossed everything into the center bin, and threw a blue camping tarp over the top. It worked. Yesterday afternoon, I took my trusty garden fork out of the shed (which is the building directly behind the compost bins) and turned that pile of gold over once more. The trick to hot composting is getting the heat up and turning it weekly. I'm usually lazy about this process, but joining others in the One Small Change campaign changed my attitude. Plus, we have so much chicken poo to deal with, there's no other way to get rid of it all.

There it is, steamy and beautiful. My shoulders are sore this morning, but it feels good to know that I can, indeed, have some success at composting.

What's the difference between cold and hot composting? In cold composting, the pile of material is left to decay on its own, and you don't turn it. Let nature do her thing. The downside is that cold composting can take all year. Don't expect to use that pile in your garden until the following spring. If you're lazy (like I am), then this method might work well for you. Hot composting, on the other hand, likes attention. It can be turned over weekly or every few days. Weekly turning gives you the final result in one to three months, while turning every few days can give you a finished product in as little as four weeks flat. It's called hot composting because the internal temperature of your pile can reach 110 to 160 degrees. This high heat kills many weeds and weed seeds, making your pile safer to distribute onto young plants and seedlings in your garden. Would you like to learn more about composting methods? If you live in the Puget Sound region, the Seattle Tilth society provides classes throughout the year on this topic, as well as a whole host of other cool things. You can view their list of upcoming classes here.

The girls helped me get a little work done yesterday. You can see the lovely weeding job they did here behind the house. Their technique is extremely effective. They scratch the soil until it loosens up, then peck and nibble at green things and bugs they find. Sorry, worms. I want you in my garden, but the chickens have other plans for you. After watching this hard work for a few minutes, I decided to carry on with my idea to employ the hens where their work will be most effective in our long term landscaping goals. The side of the backyard next to the garage was planted by previous owners. They installed paving stones and raised beds, and it appears that they planted spinach and potatoes. As a matter of fact, we ate some of those taters our very first summer here. While I understand the desire to harness the potential of any yard, the spot we're talking about receives minimal sunlight, and it's trapped between a building and a fence. Ultimately, we'd like to pave the whole thing in with paving stones, throw in a gate on each side, and use the space to store the garbage and recycling bins.

I began a simple shelter for the girls last night as the sun was setting. It's made entirely from leftover scraps of wood and metal, so it cost nothing. Yay, recycling! Here it is without the roof. Today I'll be making a secondary nest box, again using scraps, that the girls can deposit eggs in if they feel the need. I'll also fence in this patch of weeds to keep the chickens in and focused on their new job.

The branch on the front of their home-away-from-coop should be a nice roosting pole, and they'll be sheltered from sun and rain, should the weather change abruptly.

Chicken tractor be damned! With uneven ground and restricted clearances all over our front and back yards, this shelter was the best solution I could come up with to keep the girls safe and happy when outside of their main coop. We'll find out today if it works.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The First Hint of Spring

It's not spring just yet, but it felt so warm and wonderful on Monday that we went out and enjoyed the sunshine. The first snowdrop of the season was waiting for us out front. We weeded and trimmed, the compost got turned, and the chicken coop got a thorough cleaning. It's been a terribly soggy winter so far, and the mud and muck in the backyard is quite discouraging. A little sunshine goes a long way this time of the year.
The girls got some well-deserved sunshine, and you can see Raquel (my, how she's grown!) happily scratching and nesting in the dirt beside the garage. We want to clear this area out anyway, so we've enlisted the help of the chickens in our task. They're terribly driven. I sat down for a while and watched Raquel, Portia, and Ellen basking in this little corner of the yard. They pecked, they scratched, and they stretched their wings out to catch a few extra rays of sunshine.
Everyone's combs are developing nicely, and if you look closely at Portia's (she's the little head on the right), you can see that she's got a little unicorn in her genetics. Yes, her comb has a definite peak. Neither of these two are laying yet, and they've been reminded of their schedule, so we're hopeful they'll get on board soon. You can't survive in this farm by looks alone, even with gorgeous wings like that.
On my way to take a few pictures of the compost bins, I startled Ingrid. She was keeping watch from a high perch, then fled the scene a little too quickly. The front of the compost bins is made of lengths of cedar fence boards, one of which was resting on the top of the one Ingrid had inhabited. Apparently she's not familiar with the "see-saw" principle of physics.

The compost, which did not get its picture into this post, is doing very well with the recent contributions from the girls. We may have enough to donate to the neighborhood veggie patch a couple of houses down. In fact, I'm afraid we may have more than our bins can handle. I feel positive about our decision to cancel the yard waste pick-up, but this whole composting thing is going to be a lot of extra work.

In egg news, Ursula and Raquel are both laying up a storm! Today I collected two eggs from one nest box. Both look perfect, and both landed in the right place. Way to go, girls!!

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Egg and I

Whilst walking the dogs this morning (in the dark, in the rain), we discussed the timeline for the remaining chickens on our City Chicken Farm to begin spittin' out the goods. I had originally calculated next Monday, January 18th, as their "due date," with the implied understanding that everyone would endeavor to be on schedule. Chickens, as some of you may already know, begin laying eggs at 22 to 25 weeks of age. This number varies from one breed to another, and each individual bird has its own timeline, as well. Lots of people have asked about when the girls would begin laying, especially now that Ursula (yes, it has been confirmed that all 14 of the most recent eggs collected are the progeny of our dear Urs) has set the tone. The egg I collected from her yesterday in the early afternoon was still warm. The other four have been cackling, eating everything in sight, and getting extremely bossy. I'm assuming they've read their calendar, and they know their time is coming. So, just in case any of you ladies are reading this (Ingrid, this means you), I have one clear message for you. .... ahem.....


Thank you.

After returning from our morning constitutional with the pups, Aimee peeked into the coop, whereupon she discovered this...

Aimee also found a second egg (actually, it was most likely the first) which was broken and in a sad state. Both had extremely soft shells. It's difficult to convey with a digital camera what these eggshells feel like,  but if you've ever touched reptile eggs, these are very similar.

The shell is pliable and soft, slightly leathery to the touch. They are clearly delicate, and the one above was rolled into my hand in an effort to keep it intact. Here you can see it beside Ursula's egg from yesterday. They're similar in size, but the color and pallor are nothing alike. Raquel's egg (for it is, indeed, hers) is nearly translucent. You can see the yolk glowing inside. Fascinating. Here's what we think happened. Due to the location of both eggs, we hypothesize that the first egg was actually dropped from the roosting perch. It landed in a splat along with everything else that drops from that location nightly. Have I mentioned birds are messy? The second egg was in the same location (not in one of the nest boxes), and both were being intensely watched over by the culprit herself. She wandered off to eat when I cleaned everything up.

We have two laying chickens! Three to go.

In other news, the farm here at work is coming along nicely. The guard goose is doing a good job keeping the sheep in line, the pigs are finally minding their own business and not harassing the horses, and the solitary cow is making good ground with her bale of hay. We're all looking forward to the spring tilling and planting.

If you're ever in my office, please feel free to rake the sand or feed the animals. Everyone is welcome on this farm.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Late New Year's Entry

Our New Year was one of mixed feelings, so I didn't write a post about plans or resolutions. Resolutions aren't my thing anyway. I like to make improvements as they come to mind, one day or week at a time, irrespective of the date. I read a number of blogs, however (and you can check out all the ones I follow regularly by clicking on the links on the left of this page), and I stumbled across a link to One Small Change. I liked what I saw, and I hope you'll read up on the concept, too. The idea is that changing one small thing in your way of living can have a tremendous impact on the environment around us all.

For those of you who don't know me in real life, I'll share a few details of my connections. I work full-time for a very large part of King County, which is already a large government organization. King County is one of Washington State's largest (and best) employers, and Metro, the county bus system, makes up a big component of the whole. I started out driving a city bus nine years ago. My experiences were good, bad, and everything in between. A little over two years ago I moved into Supervision, and I couldn't be happier (unless a farm was involved). I currently teach operators how to drive buses, I help them qualify on routes, and I answer countless questions. Metro currently employs around 4000 people, and I come into contact with a very large number of those people on a regular basis. Apart from those things which I do at work that fall into the category, "My Job," I also take pride in setting good examples for others to follow. Below is an excerpt from work yesterday.

Four supervisors, including myself, were out in a van reviewing routes for one of the classes we teach. We stopped at the nearby 24 hour Starbucks and went inside for a break. Each of the other three members of the group purchased a beverage, and two purchased food. Names have been changed, but not because anything bad happened.

Ryan- You're not getting a drink?
Me- No, I ditched coffee a couple of years ago. (Casually sips tea made at home in recycled mug.)
Sue- I'm so hungry (wolfs down egg salad sandwich), and I didn't bring anything with me today.
Me- Yeah, I always pack something. I can't go without food.
Sue- I should do that (looks ill after eating too quickly), but I'm bad at planning.
Me- I use a computer program that helps me plan out all my meals, and it's easy to stick to.
Ryan- Is this the thing that gives you a GPA on the meals? You mentioned it before.
Me- Yep. I love it. I get a better variety of things to eat, and I don't make as many irrational decisions about food while I'm out. I feel so much better having a meal plan.

I'm not against Starbucks, I just don't want to spend my money on something like that when I can plan ahead. I like feeling good. "Sue" later asked me for a link to the program so that she could possibly try it out.

Lots of people at work ask me about the food I snack on, the chickens in our backyard, my obsessive behavior of leaving the lights off in my office, etc, and it gives me a chance to talk to them about new ideas which might make positive changes in their lives and in our shared environment. I feel like that influence is important.

In response to the One Small Change idea, I'd like to mention a change we've already made for this month and the remainder of 2010. We decided to change before I even read about the challenge, but I think this fits nicely with the theme. The City of Everett provides garbage, recycling (bottles, cans, paper, cardboard, and newspaper), and yard waste. We started yard waste in 2008 and put that bin out in the alley every week. It began as a way to get rid of grass clippings and the sod we were tearing out of the front yard to make way for landscaping and raised beds. Last year, 2009, we constructed a three bin composter in the back yard. It's time to put that composter to work! The compost from the end of the year has already been turned over into the center bed, and a new bed has begun (thank you chicken poo!). I've never done hot composting, primarily because I'm lazy, and I know it'll decompose if you leave it to sit long enough, but this year will be different. Everything we trim, cut, mow, and prune will be composted on site, bringing us just one step closer to sustainability. Yard waste has already been canceled. There's no going back now.

One last thing. Yard waste in the city is a fantastic resource. There are rules about what you can and cannot put in the bins, and everything they collect goes to a city composting facility. If you live in an area which provides this service and you do not have the space or dedication to compost, call your local garbage and recycling company and ask them about yard waste.

When asked about composting, Jodie answered, "It's better than ending up on the grill."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Holiday Presents That Last

The first issue of Hobby Farms has arrived, and I was downright giddy last night as I poured over the glossy photos and enticing titles of articles on each page. This makes me feel a little more normal, a little more connected to the other "Hobby Farmers" out there, and one step closer to being on that real farm someday. Issues arrive every other month, so I have lots of time to read, explore, and absorb until the next copy arrives.

We've also been inundated with all the seed and greenhouse catalogs that we associate with the dead, grey role of winter which January plays, and I'm really looking forward to sitting down with them next weekend. There's something entirely therapeutic about descriptions of bountiful snap pea harvests, prolific tomato plants, and corn that you can hear growing in the night. I may not order much, but I'll read it all.

On the chicken front, we are all recovering from the loss of Norma Jean. It's strange to see only five chickens huddling around the morning treat bowl of lettuce, cucumber ends, bell pepper seeds, and plain yogurt, but we're happy that our remaining flock is healthy and well-adjusted. It turns out that gluttony was the killer of our little bird. She ate too many meal worms the day before she got sick, and the overdose of protein was lethal. Just when you think you've got nature figured out...

Yesterday we collected the sixth egg. Each one is a little bigger than the previous one, and now they are being laid IN the nest boxes. Hooray! While we originally thought it was Raquel doing all the hard work, Ursula was busted nesting in the box twice, and each time a small, perfect egg was found immediately afterward. She spends her sweet time in there, too. I feel like I should give her a magazine or something.

And, last but somewhere firmly in the middle of the mix of life as we know it, school started for me on Monday night. I'm enrolled in English 101 and Math 099, and my night classes have not yet conflicted with work and vice versa. This is the first quarter of many to come, and I'm hopeful that everything will go well. It feels fun to go to college, especially looking around the classroom at the teenagers who are scared out of their wits at the thought of dividing fractions. I don't expect big challenges for a while yet, and much of the first few quarters of class will be catching up from 15 years of not being in school, but it still feels fun.


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