Friday, October 15, 2010

How to Teach an Old Hen New Clucks

So maybe that's not exactly how the saying goes, but what can I say? I'm a chicken freak.

After much hand-wringing and a "where-to-begin" mentality in starting this permaculture conversion, I succumbed to an aspect of my personality that's been either help or hindrance when it comes to starting a project. More specifically it involves the various purchases I make towards that end. Depending on the desirable or undesirable outcome I refer to it either as the "karmically correct" purchase, or the "it was on sale" excuse. Only time will tell if this particular action was help, hindrance, or maybe even a bit of both.

The other day I went to Oak Lawn Garden Center. I had intended to look around and ask about special ordering some stuff for next season, but instead drove drive off with four fruit trees (two apples and two pears).  It really wasn't my fault that such an impulse buy occurred. I mean, could I help it that the "50% off all trees" sign was so conveniently placed about 100 yards away from the parking lot and around the corner from the privacy fence? At any rate, knowing that it was better to plant trees in the fall rather than spring, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to get that first fruit tree guild started. Okay, that first FOUR guilds started. Was it my fault they had four desirable trees instead of just one? Don't judge me!

So I've been spending the past several days with a shovel and a steady supply of Tylenol as I try to dig through the absolute worst "soil" I have ever seen. I put the quotations around word soil because there really isn't any. Less than 1/4" of topsoil that is a light, sickly brown. Immediately underneath that? Pure clay that is so compacted there is quite literally no evidence of earthworm activity. Not one single air pocket. It takes me an average of 9 hours and about fifty two uses of the F word to get the hole dug. As I do get the trees in the ground, I'm employing sheet mulching, a method of building soil from nothing. I am trying this for the first time under the guidance of the book Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway.

Sheet mulching is a beautiful simple way to build soil where there is none. I thought I'd give you a quick run-down with some photos of how this is done.

The most time consuming part is getting the materials together.

You will need:
  • Enough cardboard to cover the area, making sure each piece will overlap by six inches. Remove any tape or staples.
  • Water to the site
  • "Green" manure such as grass clipping or old produce
  • Finished compost enough to cover about 1 inch of your area
  • Bulk mulch such as straw or hay. Bark mulch can be used, but keep in mind the woodier the mulch, the longer it will take to break down. Traditional wood bark mulch will take years to create soil.
  • Optional: Bark "pretty" mulch if you have picky neighbors, or desire the more polished look after the good stuff's been put down.
Unless the ground is moist from rain, you'll need to give it a really good soak first and let it sit overnight. Ideally you want the soil to have a "damp sponge" consistency throughout. Then you'll start building your sheet mulch almost like a lasagna. Layer as follows, making sure to water each layer until dampened all the way through.

  1. Green manure, about 1" thick. Water.
  2. Cardboard, overlapped by about six inches to keep the weeds from growing through the edges. There must be no open areas for light to penetrate. Water.
  3. Green manure, about 1" thick. Water
  4. Bulk mulch, about 2" thick. Water as you go, because you'll be surprised at how much it would take to water all the way through a finished layer.
  5. Finished compost, 1" - 2." If you don't plan on planting the area right away, you can get away with adding soil at a 1:1 ratio. Water
  6. Either more bulk mulch or your "pretty" bark mulch. I chose the pretty bark because it's...well...pretty.
Now when I plant the jonquil bulbs around the trunk of the trees (they are great deer deterrents and happen to be my favorite flower) all I have to do is dig through the bark mulch to get to the compost layer beneath. Will it work? I have no idea. Ask me next spring. On to the next project!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

There Goes the Blogorhood...

For some time now I've subscribed to Community Chickens, a Mother Earth News publication devoted to my favorite feathered friends. I've found it to be my first go-to guide when I'm looking for new ideas or anything else poultry related.

Recently the call went out for bloggers with chickenthusiasm to submit samples of their writing to become one of their "Community Cluckers," volunteer bloggers for the online site. I couldn't resist giving it a try, so I threw my cyberhat into the pile.

 I'm happy to report that either my writing is considered interesting enough, or perhaps the editors are desperate enough, but either way they've accepted me to be a Community Clucker!

 So look for scintillating tidbits from yours truly to grace (or deface, depending on your opinion of my writing) the Community Chickens site soon! Now if I can just come up with some ideas...

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Permaculture: An antidote for Eco-Cynicism?

For some time now I've suffered from a terrible and debilitating syndrome. Okay, not really. But it's a supremely dramatic start to a blog post if you ask me. Anyway, after much thought I finally gave the syndrome a name. Eco-Cynicism Syndrome.

Though it has only been within the past few years that ECS has really taken hold, there were two major factors in my life that made me vulnerable to it to begin with. My passion for the natural world was the first, and my education in Wildlife and Fisheries Science was the second. A little bit of knowledge and a lot of love for our precious natural world can be a dangerous thing in times like these.

I realized I had ECS when I simultaneously reached my midlife crisis, realized my education only served to remove the veil of blissful ignorance that obfuscated the damage our planet was suffering, and reached the end of my  "hope rope" that the human race would ever turn from its soulless doctrine of greed that has overtaken it in favor of a truly sustainable existence based on cooperation and community rather than exclusion, isolation and mindless consumption. In short, I was dangerously close to giving up on us as a species entirely. There didn't seem to be any point to living with sustainability and conservation in mind if there would soon be nothing left to conserve.  My resulting emotional state was one of general malaise, hopelessness and cynicism towards the ability or interest of my fellow humans (with a few exceptions of course) to make any effort towards real and lasting changes that could mitigate the consequences of global climate change, or to accept any responsibility for it.

I spent the last several years trapped in a vicious cycle from the depths of ECS to an overwhelming compulsion to be as environmentally and socially conscious as I possibly could in a frantic effort to somehow "make up for" those who did nothing. Lately however, there was a rapid slide towards hopelessness and the temptation to go off grid not only in the sustainable living sense but also in the complete hermit sense. I was almost ready to shut the gates to our farm and start hoarding seeds and food in preparation for the inevitable societal collapse once the population at large realizes that Peak Oil is no longer a theory, but has in fact already occurred.

Needless to say, my head has been a gloomy place to live in. I kept an optimistic face on as often as I could around others while this inner nihilism ate away at my spirit. When a friend of mine at Oak Hill Farms brought up his interest in permaculture, I nodded politely and thought no more of it. I was too emotionally drained to hear yet one more way I needed to change my lifestyle to be more green when I still have to choke through the haze of my neighbors' burning household garbage, industrial pesticides and herbicides. Fortunately for me though, the curiosity eventually took hold and I stumbled across a few podcasts discussing permaculture that included some of the most influential figures in the movement. Who would have thought it would turn out to be the tonic I so desperately needed.

In learning more about permaculture and its code of ethics (care of the earth, care of people, and limiting your use of resources and sharing of surplus), I came to a drastic realization that may very well change the way I view the natural world and my role in it.  I realize now that though the philosophy of conservation may seem on its surface as the only way to approach natural resource management, it is not. In fact, it could very well be completely misguided at best, and completely ineffective at worst. The conservation model is at its heart a cynical one, seated in a primary philosophy of "not enough." We must have Resource A to survive, yet we teeter on the brink of permanently losing Resource A forever due to misuse, overuse or simply running out. Therefore, the conservation ethic tells us we must do all we can to slow this degradation and permanent loss as long as possible. This leaves a tickle in the back of the mind that our efforts, however noble, will at best postpone the impending crash of Resource A followed by the inevitable domino crashes of Resources B, C, D, E etc., until the entire system collapses in upon itself, leaving behind a dried up husk for a planet. 

How cheerful! No wonder I was felt like I was in a rut. Fortunately permaculture offers up an entirely different world view, one of restoration rather than conservation. Yes, when it comes to natural resources, permaculture operates under the belief that we can fix it, and we can make more.

It's a concept so simple that I can't believe it's not on the tip of every human tongue. Everyone's harping on about organic this and that, and that's all well and good, but how many people realize that organic is now big business, and as an industrialized monoculture it is just as harmful as any other factory farm?  How many people understand that organic certification movement has resulted in a lower quality of life for some farm animals (due to refusal to treat sick or injured animals for fear of losing certification)? Permaculture works solely on the principles of doing what is right for every component of the natural system from soil and seed to knife and fork. Organic is just one tiny part of the bigger permaculture picture. The bigger picture is one of an entire ecosystem working in a natural way to not only preserve our natural resources, but to actually make them healthier and add to them. When was the last time you heard something so optimistic about our environment?

As I read and learn all that I can and slowly make the conversion of our farm to a full scale permaculture farm, I hope I'll be sharing a few success stories amidst the frustrations and failures that are an inevitable part of trying something new. So stay tuned!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stretching the Wings

In continuation of my earlier blog post about the importance of Farmers Markets I am working on a new post about my newest project, Permaculure. It's still in my head working its way out, so all I can say at this point is that I'm thinking about the post. I hope to have more info within the next day or two, so I hope you'll stay tuned.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Salmonella: Which Eggs are Safe?

In the midst of a massive nationwide egg recall, I have had many people at the market say how glad they are to be buying eggs from pasture raised chickens so they can rest assured that these eggs are "safer" from salmonella than those of the large factory farms. I can assure you as an egg farmer of happy healthy pastured chickens that nothing could be farther from the truthIn fact, one of the safest methods of producing eggs would be to put a hen in a cage by herself with no bedding or access to other birds. Obviously this would be incredibly inhumane and impractical, much like keeping your child padlocked in her room for her entire life would most certainly keep her safest from sexual predators. At some point a person must weigh the cost of safety and security against a life well-lived.

Consumers are often lured into a false sense of security by equating the labels of "organic," "natural," "cage free" etc to safety. In all reality, the way a hen lives her life has very little to do with the presence or absence of salmonella. What does make a difference is the handling of the egg from nest box (or conveyor belt if in a huge battery cage McFarm) to your table. Responsibility is shared from farmer to processor to shipper to store to customer. Certainly the fewer the steps in between the farm and you can often give you the advantage, but an irresponsible farmer at the Farmers Market could just as easily sell you a carton full of salmonellosis. So here are a few steps from store (or market) to table you can take to do all that you can to insure the eggs you eat are safe.

  1. If at all possible, buy local from a local farmer. There are three big reasons this is a good idea. First, you can ask the farmer face-to-face what sort of safety practices they have in place. And if they can't give you a straight answer, WALK AWAY. Second, if (heaven forbid) there were a salmonella outbreak it would be smaller and more easily tracked and managed than with a multi-million egg recall covering nearly every state in the union.Third, farmers at markets tend to care about the people they feed and the critters and plants they do it with.
  2. Do not buy a carton with a cracked or broken egg in it. Never mix and match eggs from the store, and never allow a farmer at a market to make any switches between cartons to replace cracked eggs. The entire carton should be thrown out. 
  3. Do not let eggs get warm. Keep them refrigerated. Yes, it is true they do not do this in Europe, but in America all eggs must be washed in a bleach solution (50-100ppm in water) before they can be sold. In Tennessee it is illegal to sell eggs not washed in this manner, end of story. Any Tennessee farmer who brags that they only use organic or eco friendly wash or does not use bleach is breaking the law. It's a stupid law that I disagree with and I never do this for my own eggs, but I comply with the law with all eggs I take to the market. The washing method so stupidly insisted upon in Tennessee does help kill pathogens on the egg shell at the time of gather, but it also destroys the natural antibacterial protective membrane (bloom or cuticle) that covers the egg when it is laid by the hen. Without this protective layer the egg is now more susceptible contamination by pathogens. European countries do not use bleach egg washes and therefore have more confidence in not refrigerating their eggs. Side note: This is how I do things at home. I just knock any detritus off the shell and voila! Breakfast! I have been doing this every single morning for four years now and have never gotten ill from one of my eggs.
  4. If you wash your eggshells off before cooking, do so with hot water only. Heat causes the interior of an egg to swell, pushing pathogens out. Cold causes the interior of an egg to shrink, pulling contaminants in.
  5. Wash your hands immediately after cracking eggs open. Soap and hot water. It is extremely easy to contaminate your refrigerator or counter tops by "just putting a few things up first" before washing your hands. 
  6. Thoroughly wipe down your counters and anything else that may have come in contact with eggs while you were preparing the food.
  7. Cook eggs thoroughly. This means no sunny side up, no soft scrambling. Yolks must be solidly done, and scrambled eggs must have no liquid left. Never lick the cake batter or cookie dough, and kiss Mom's famous hollandaise goodbye. Or like me, accept that there is risk in life and enjoy it to the fullest!
What I do want to point out here is that there is no specific food we can avoid to protect ourselves from food-bourne pathogens. Anyone who follows the news of food recalls can see they are on the rise, and hello vegans, it's not just animal products. In fact it was organic spinach that caused the deadly e. coli outbreak of 2006. As of today there has been a salmonella outbreak in connection with the veggies used in some Northern Taco Bell restaurants. The answer is not to never again eat The answer is to change how our food is produced. Until the USDA and FDA have finally gotten back regulatory power no industrial food will ever be safe. Some of us believe that is the way things should be, that we should move permanently away from the huge industrial complex of factory farms and back to locally and sustainably produced agriculture. Don't take my word for it. Take a peek at the clip from Food Inc., my favorite documentary on the subject of food production. Clip.

    Saturday, July 3, 2010

    Farmer's Markets are Not Just a Place to Shop

    If you have a Farmers Market in your area, do not miss out on this experience. They are all too soon closed for the season and we're forced back into the antiseptic aisles of megastores for the tasteless items trucked in thousands of miles and sprayed with hormones for artificial ripening and then laughingly referred to as "produce." But for a brief interlude we are the fortunate few who can savor the real produce of our land. Real produce is that which is planted in soil with love, carefully watched over and guarded with ferocity, and harvested with pride and a sense of accomplishment to be shared with those who are not as fortunate as we are to have the honor of working our land.

    As we embark on our first-ever season as vendors of two local farmers markets (Court Square in Covington and Collierville Farmers Market in Collierville), we expected to meet other small farmers and people interested in a more sustainable way of life. But what we did not expect was the number of people who stand at our booth for long periods of time talking with us. I can always tell when someone is about to tell me a story or share a recipe. The face goes slack and relaxed, the eyes twinkle a bit, and the corners of the mouth curl up in a half smile. Often an index finger points to me as they begin the ritual of "the story." It begins with a statement like:

    "My grandmother used to have chickens, and the way she kept critters out was..."


    "I used to see those kinds of cucumbers in my Nanny's place, but haven't seen them in years!"


    "You know what I like to do with this squash? I like to slice it thin, toss it up with a little olive oil..."

    THAT is why I keep going to the Farmers Markets, and that is why I do this work.

    I wish I could effectively write about how profoundly this experience has affected me and the way I wish to continue to live my life and do my work. But to even attempt to do so would be like trying to describe the taste of Mrs. Sarah Walton's blueberries after she and her husband planted several bushes together over 25 years ago in a brave experiment just to see what would happen. How do you describe such a miracle in typeface? You don't. You just count yourself blessed to be one of the few people on this earth who has the good fortune to be able to say "I know exactly what they taste like because I just picked a gallon of them and when I popped a few in my mouth they were still warm from the sun and tasting of jonquils."

    Do I make a huge profit doing this kind of work? Well, it depends on your definition of profit, doesn't it? If you are asking if I can take a world cruise each February off of my earnings, then no I do not make a huge profit. In fact, this first year I will be lucky to break even. But if by profit you mean that which I gain from hearing these precious memories long pushed into the back of a person's mind and soaking up practical knowledge passed down from generation to generation and not found in any text, then I am the richest person alive. 

    Sunday, June 20, 2010

    So what do I do with all these cucumbers?

    For those of you who visited us at the Court Square Farmer's Market, you probably noticed the heirloom variety "Smart Pickles" we had for sale. Perhaps you had one of our free samples and were wondering just how we make our pickles. Let me assure you that it is RIDICULOUSLY easy. Forget the canning jars, water baths, burns and scalds. You can have fresh pickles in your fridge with less than thirty minutes of prep time. The most time you spend is slicing cukes and onions!


    6 cups (about 2 pounds) thinly sliced cucumbers
    2 cups thinly sliced onion
    1 1/2 cup white vinegar
    3/4 cup sugar
    3/4 teaspoon salt
    1/2 teaspoon ground tumeric
    1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper (more if you like more kick)
    1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper

    In a glass bowl, put 1/2 your cukes on the bottom, layer with 1/2 your onion and repeat so that you have 2 layers. Combine other ingredients in a saucepan, bring to boil. Cook 1 minute, then pour over the cukes and onions. Let cool, then cover and refrigerate.

    And that, my friends, is IT. The recipe says it's best to let them sit in the fridge for 4 days, but I never can wait that long and scarf them down by the first 2 days. They will also store fine in the fridge for a month, but then again, they probably will be eaten long before that!

    I am still pulling cucumbers like crazy, so there should be plenty at the market this coming Tuesday. We'll be gone before noon though, as hubby and I are giving a presentation for the Exchange Club on disaster preparedness. Maybe we'll see you there.

    Monday, June 7, 2010

    From the Garden

    Now that we are actually harvesting for the first time, I've started experimenting with stuff from the garden. I know that sounds fairly simple to most folks, but to a newly converted city gal it's big news. Plus, we actually have extra of this stuff to sell at the Collierville Farmer's Market this week. Which is awesome! More money = bigger and better hen house and more chickens.



    Cook spaghetti until *al dente*. Meanwhile, heat the garlic in the olive oil until it smells fragrant, just a few moments. Toss in the herbs & remove from the heat. Do this right away as herbs can burn easily. Drain the pasta & toss in the pan with the garlicky herbs. Season & serve, but do not add cheese as it only interferes with the herby flavours. Be sure to add enough salt & pepper, however. VARIATION: Omit the basil altogether. Replace the sage with any of the following fresh herbs: marjoram; oregano; thyme; rosemary or tarragon. Conversely, reduce the amount of sage & add a little of all these herbs.

    This can be a side dish with a protein, or you can just add your protein to the pasta. Details below.

    Protein variation: For extra protein you can saute whatever you are using in olive oil, adding some more herbs (to taste) at the very end. Again, only add the herbs after the protein is actually done cooking. Toss herbs with the protein, chop protein up into cubes or strips, and toss in with the pasta.

    Friday, June 4, 2010

    It's heating up!

    We're not just talking temperature here! Of course, that's the most obvious. Temperatures were soaring into the nineties even before June started. We are not amused.

    As for the rest of the farm, boy is it going wild! We went to the Collierville Farmer's Market for the first time two weeks ago with only fresh herbs. We came home disappointed. All day there, I made $1.00. People are apparently intimidated by fresh herbs. Our partner farm, Oak Hill Farms, did great though. So it was fun keeping them company. Next week should be a little more interesting, however. I have several things starting to produce, so I hope to make at least a little bit of money. This will be very welcomed as we start to expand the egg business. I did have many people ask me about eggs and our pay-what-you-can philosophy inspired by the SAME Cafe, but since the eggs are spoken for before they are laid I was unable to offer any at market. This is fine with me, as I'd rather keep it quiet and more personal. I didn't go into this to get rich, anyway! But we do need to increase our income before we can take on any new clients, so that's where the veggie sales come in. We are now supporting over a dozen families under financial strain and we would like to be able to do more, but without an income to offset the costs of more chickens and a new facility, that will be impossible.

    Which brings me to my point, the shameless solicitation for help. We still want to provide free eggs to all who need them, but that means we need more hens. We've had a tremendous response, and are now starting to have quite the waiting list. This year we have added twenty more hens (give or take, depending on how many of our chicks are pullets) to the flock, which will put us to capacity at the facility we have now. I suspect that even these new additions will not be enough to meet the demand for our eggs both from those who can pay for them and those who cannot. So we are looking into expanding our flock next year even further, ending up with around one hundred hens. But here's where we need help. We need donations of time, knowledge, money or both to help get this project funded and finished by next spring.

    I've broken it down for anyone who is interested to look at. Of course you can email me for more details.

    1. Money: Obviously building a new chicken house takes money, as does finishing our ramp up from a small to medium operational egg farm. I'm working on a paypal link, and I encourage anyone and everyone who likes the idea of  pay-what-you-can eggs from pastured chickens to pitch in. 
    2. In-kind donations: I'm currently working on a wish list of items we need. When I finish I will link it. I will also include links on the merchants we use for supplies. We gladly take donations in the form of gift certificates!
    3. We need volunteers to help with farm chores. In order to volunteer you must be able to work outdoors in all types of weather either in early morning or late afternoon/early evening. You must be over 18 years of age, and able to lift and carry thirty pounds safely. You must be reliable, as working with animals mean they depend on you. If you do not show up, the animals suffer for it. If you cannot come for shifts, you must inform us ahead of time so that we can make arrangements for our animals. If you don't like working with animals, we can always use help in the garden, and gathering berries and apples for market.
    In addition to the Collierville Farmer's Market, we will be at the Court Square Farmer's Market in Covington on Saturdays from 8-11. It is located just off the square under the water tower. The Grand Opening is on Friday the 18th, and we will be there then as well.

    Speaking of Farmer's Markets, I need to get outside and get the blueberry bushes sprayed with sugar water or else the birds will get more blueberries than we do!

    Be sure to check out our new videos on the You Tube Channel. The buckeye chicks have hatched and are adorable!

    Now I'm off to look into prefab hen houses and see just what sort of expense we are talking about. Shudder.

    Tuesday, May 11, 2010

    New blog on oil started

    Since I plan to be spending a lot of time on the subject of the oilcano and training to join the Oiled Wildlife Response volunteers I thought it would be a good idea to start a blog just dealing with that one issue rather than clog up Cluck-n-Neigh with stuff you may not be interested in. The blog is called Of Pelicans and Petrol, and you can find the link in our "Links" area. Or  you can just click on the link here.

    I will do what I can to document the experience in hopes to give you a more "inside" look at this incident. It is my fervent hope that in the end, we'll all discover that all this fuss was just a big old waste of time.

    Now back to our regularly scheduled programming!

    Saturday, May 8, 2010

    Update on attempts at oil spill volunteering

    Wow, who would have thought I'd get quoted in a local news paper from so far away as I've gone on this ridiculous journey to find a way to volunteer in the gulf. I have finally procured training by sneaking in to a veterinary clinic in Dade County. They are happy to have me, and my training for oiled wildlife response is the 16th of this month. All that's left now is the HAZWOPER, and that has still been blocked at every turn by either incompetence or deliberate obfuscation by the fine folks of BP. Interesting factoid: BP has been required to pay for the training for all volunteers who respond. I would suggest they might be trying to keep costs down by keeping volunteers out, as a result. But that would be cynical of me.

    Thursday, May 6, 2010

    Chicken Little was Right

    In his definitive work The Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold warned that the greatest tragedy in learning about the natural world is never again being able to turn a blind and ignorant eye to the damage being done to it. Being a typical bleeding heart and a wildlife biologist with an almost unhealthy attachment to the brown pelican, wetlands/marshlands habitat and the Florida Keys in general, this has been kind of a tough week emotionally. The Deep Horizon oilcano continues to spew unabated as I type this entry, Tipton County is still a disaster area due to the flooding, and I've been feeling helpless. 

    A few days ago as we finally began to dig out of the muck as a community, Michael and I put our zombie squad hats on and went out to help as best we could with whatever resources we had. It did wonders to help us both feel better. But even with this, the gulf crisis loomed in the back of my mind. Since I'd felt a little better helping out in my own hometown, I thought, why not volunteer for wildlife rescue/recovery efforts in the Gulf? I discussed it with Michael, who supported the idea wholeheartedly. Rejuvenated, I began researching how to proceed.

    Here I sit, 48 hour later, dumbfounded. Though I don't know why I should be. I can describe the cleanup/rescue effort in one word. Clusterfuck.

    According to my research OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires anyone working in an oil spill area to have Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) certification. This class training is expensive (around $350.00), and no funding is available to pay for volunteers to take the classes. But the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which is coordinating the rescue/recovery of wildlife affected by the spill along with the Tri State Bird Rescue, makes no mention of this certification on their application for professionals volunteering their services. Instead, they stress the 4 hour HAZCOM certification. Did that mean they are accepting just HAZCOM, which is cheaper and quicker to get, or do we need both to satisfy both agencies? Just to be sure, I thought I should get clarification. I got the phone number for the BP/Horizon National Volunteer Information Hotline from USFWS thinking that would be the best way to clear up the confusion. Boy was I ever wrong.

    You'd think they'd have, oh I dunno, information about volunteering requirements, being the national volunteer information hotline and all.  I mean, is it too hard to give someone a FAQ worksheet to read from? If I’m the first person to ask "What are the requirements towards volunteering" then we really are in trouble. The woman could only say "you have to be certified to work with the wildlife."

    "Well that's fine," I said. "I just need to know what certifications I need specifically so that I can go ahead and get started on training. That way I'll be ready to respond quickly if and when the time comes."

    I could almost smell the smoke coming out of her brain through the phone line. She had NO IDEA what certification actually meant.  I tried to clarify by saying "Well, do you mean we need a state sanctioned wildlife rehab license, or maybe OSHA certification for working with hazardous materials? Anything like that?" She put me on hold for about five minutes and when she came back, she still couldn't answer. She just said "They said to tell you that you need to be certified first."

    And THIS is the BP/Horizons info hotline on how to volunteer. The NATIONAL one. Sigh. We are doomed.

    Anyway, I left a message for them to call me back with a list of certifications they need us to have so that I and others could at least get started on training so that we can be ready to respond quickly. She must have thought I was from Mars to be thinking that far ahead. But seriously, it seems silly to be sitting here on my thumbs and my framed Wildlife and Fisheries degree coupled with over 20 years of husbandry experience from red legged taratulas to red pandas to camels, a willingness to pay for my own certifications and still be considered unqualified to bathe a bird in dishwashing liquid when the worst oilcano in our nation's history is looming. But hey, that's just me.

    I did do a bit of research on my own (imagine that BP, people who can LOOK STUFF UP. What a concept!) HAZWOPER certification classes are very expensive and there is no funding available to pay for them. A person on their own will have to come up with around $350 for that one certification alone or to try and find a group discount situation.  What was that again about BP footing the bill for volunteers? Must have lost the memo on that. 

    Know what I think? I think Chicken Little is now running around shrieking "I told you so! I told you so!" Only this time he's covered in oil and there's no one to help him get it off. All the volunteers are still waiting for the next certification class.

    Tuesday, May 4, 2010

    Zombie Apocalypse in West Tennessee

    I think Mother Nature just made my point for me better than I ever could in a blog, don't you? It seems she added quite the little punch to my blog post last week about self sufficiency with a massive storm and record breaking regional flooding. It has been said that the waters may have reached a 500-1000 year high, and we don't doubt it judging from the devastation we've witnessed. Thank goodness we weren't injured or suffered any damage. Many many others were not so fortunate. Authorities are recommending that we hold off on helping so that a "more coordinated" effort can be facilitated by FEMA and the Red Cross. Estimated arrival time has been as long as two weeks. TWO WEEKS.

    In the meantime, families are digging, barefooted and gloveless, through the wreckage of their lives now covered in muddy sludge composed of dirt, agricultural chemicals, roadway runoff and raw sewage. Do you think they should wait for two weeks before anyone steps up to help them? What if it was your family in this situation? Could you take care of yourselves for 2 weeks if you'd just lost everything but the pajamas on your back?

    One of our special projects for some time has been the development of a midsouth zombie squad, and if ever there was a need for us, it is now. Michael and I have been getting more and more involved in the organization known as zombie hunters. It's a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people on how to survive the eminent zombie apocalypse. Because in their words, if you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, a hurricane's a breeze. Think of us as the Red Cross, only on a small enough scale to actually accomplish something quickly. Like, say, survive. After all, what good is having a nice veggie garden if there are zombies rapidly (or maybe slowly depending on the subspecies) approaching?

    More to come, I've got dinner plans!

    Saturday, April 17, 2010

    Self Sufficiency is NOT an option: Lessons learned from hurricanes, Lyme Disease and feral cats.

    Several of you have asked me to blog an update on the feral cat bite and subsequent comedy of errors that followed as I attempted to get post exposure prophylactic rabies vaccinations. I promise I'll get to it, but what's more important is that I share what I've learned first hand on now several occasions about self sufficiency and being one's own advocate. Because this is vital to all of our well being on any number of levels and in any situation.

    Many of you who are good friends have heard Michael and me talk at length about our firm belief in self  sufficiency, survivalism and sustainable living and why it is crucial to be prepared to take care of yourself in case of emergency or disaster rather than rely on a governmental agency to come to the rescue. It has sometimes been the source of amusement and bemusement to some, who occasionally give us a bit of a good natured poke as wacky survivalists. We grin and bear it, but we also keep the seriousness of the issue in the back of our minds even as we poke fun at ourselves. Michael's health care odyssey following an infection of Lyme Disease taught us both the importance of self reliance and trust in our own intelligence and ability to find out for ourselves rather than simply relying on someone with a badge or a piece of paper proclaiming their expertise. Had we not done this, we would have just bought the original diagnosis of ALS and Michael would not be alive today. This is not hyperbole, it is fact. Due to this experience, both of us knew full well how easily complacency and apathy kills.

    I'll give you a funny, yet very good example of this. When a newly elected president is about to take office, he/she is given a sort of "grand tour" of the White House including the security features, to familiarize them with their new home and what to do in the event of an emergency. When President Jimmy Carter was receiving his tour, a secret service agent was filling him in on all the details of what to do if he had to be evacuated. The agent in charge was concluding the tour, and wanted to reassure the new president as to the readiness of the secret service to keep him and his family safe.

    "Mr. President, you can rest assured that in the unlikely even that you have to be evacuated, Marine One is always on alert, 24/7, and is ready to take you to any of our safe locations at any given time."

    "Really?" Carter raised his eyebrows, impressed. "Okay, let's go. Right now."

    Now, here's the scary part. They couldn't pull it off.

    Though this is an amusing anecdote, it doesn't make it any less illuminating. Obviously the problem was addressed immediately and supposedly now they really are ready, but the question remains. Are they? Has it been put to the test? If the Presidential detail of the Secret Service, whose entire purpose is to protect one family over all others, was unable to perform under pressure, how do you think a mid level government agency is going to prioritize saving your family in the event of a massive emergency?  One word. Katrina.

    Just recently I had a debate with a dear friend of mine during the evacuation of Hawaii for fear of an approaching tsunami. Watching the news footage of the massive traffic jam as people tried to get to their designated safety zone, she asserted that the entire evacuation process was ill planned and should have gone more smoothly and quickly. There should have been buses available to take people to safe zones as opposed to everyone in their own private vehicles trying to get onto the same roadways at the same time to get to the same destination. If not buses, then helicopters to ferry people to safety. I pose this question to you, dear reader. If you were in a total evacuation situation and you were told to "sit tight" and wait for a bus or chopper to take you to safety, would you really sit in your living room with your kids and wait for the government to send you the promised ride, or would you get the hell out of dodge any way you knew how? A lot of people in Louisiana waited for buses to get them out of New Orleans. They have a special word for them. Victims. Fatalities. Missing.

    How about a closer-to-home example. You are reading this blog right now. Suddenly, your desk shakes. Next thing you know, the building is coming down around you. Earthquake!  Let's say you are fortunate enough to get out of the building before it collapsed. Now what? Where are you kids right now? Remember, you can't call them on your cell because all circuits are busy as other unprepared people frantically try to reach loved ones or EMS (exactly what happened on September 11). Do you have a plan to meet up with your family at a specific location? What about a backup place if you can't get to the first one?  Let's be optimistic and imagine you are all at home, and all are thankfully uninjured. What's for dinner? Electricity's off, obviously. For how long? Hours? Days? Weeks?  How long can you feed your family without electricity? If you are one of those people rushing through the grocery aisle every time they call for snow, I'm guessing not long. What about water? If you can't use the tap and have no electricity to boil water, what then?

    I'm being melodramatic to prove my point, but hopefully it's made.

    Look, here's the thing. I agree that our government should have agencies and facilities to meet our needs should disaster strike. I agree that as taxpayers, we should be assured a certain degree of safety guarantees from the agencies that we ourselves fund with our tax dollars. These people are paid to be prepared for any eventuality and I agree that they should be. I agree that our government should be better equipped to handle disasters, as should all governments.

    But they aren't.  And no matter how loudly you complain about how something should be doesn't magically make it so. So what are you going to do about it? Complain and wait to be the next victim? Or do something about it? Sure, you can contact your Senators and Representatives and insist on transparency in our disaster agencies. You can insist they be better prepared. Fine. But the fact remains that no one can wave a magic wand and make these sweeping changes overnight, and disaster doesn't wait until you are ready. That's why they call them disasters. Until they do come up with the nifty magic wand to fix all our ills, what are you going to do in the meantime to protect yourself and your family? If the unthinkable happens right now, are you ready?

    ...was that my desk trembling?

    Tuesday, April 13, 2010


    I'm blogging out of a sense of helpless frustration and impotent anger today. Throw in a dash in incredulity and a pinch of blind terror while you're at it and you've got the recipe for Claire's emotional state.

    I've blogged extensively about my frustrations with the number of feral dogs and cats in our area and it seems that my karma is to deal with the problem more directly than originally thought. A few days ago I was bitten by a feral cat sitting atop our brooder and stressing our chicks out. I grasped it behind the nape of the neck but was unfortunately not centered enough. The animal managed to reach behind and deliver a nasty bite in my right hand, which immediately began to swell. Michael sprang into action, forced the punctures to bleed (not pleasant) and started me on Amoxicillan that night. We attempted several times over the next few days to trap the cat so that we could test it for rabies, but never saw it again.

    This morning Michael found the body of the cat that bit me. It has been dead for approximately 72 hours. The incubation period of rabies is 2-6 weeks in cats, but transmission is possible for up to 2 weeks before an animal is symptomatic. Meaning if the cat bit me before showing symptoms and then later became symptomatic and died, it's possible that I was infected.

    Just in case you've been raised by rabbits and therefore are unfamiliar with rabies, here's a primer:

    Though it is extremely rare in the US with only about 15% of humans exposed to rabies through an animal bite ever contracting the disease, it is considered 100% fatal once symptoms show up. A few have survived, but so few that they are considered statistical outliers. If you start to show symptoms, all they can do is help you make sure your affairs are in order and try to make you comfortable. House is not going to swoop in and save your ass. You are dead. The recommended protocol, or so I thought, is to take a "better safe than sorry" approach when bitten by an animal of unknown health. Sure, the odds are extremely slim that I will contract rabies even if the kitty in question was infected. But let me tell you if you were in my shoes, I can bet you'd be fairly concerned. As far as odds go, rabies is not something you want to be left holding the proverbial short stick with. Because if you are one of those unlucky bastards to come down with the disease, it's a particularly gruesome way to go. Having a strong desire to avoid that outcome I called the Tipton County Health Department. 

    Cue circus music.

    10 AM: Call TCHD and speak with a nurse. She tells me that a sample must be taken of the cat's brain to determine if it was rabies that killed it. I point out that the cat is dead and has been for a few days. In order to test the brain for rabies, a brain sample must be taken from a live animal and frozen. The virus does not live longer than 24 hours after an animal has died. But rather than take my word for it, she refers me to their wildlife officer/restaurant inspector (I am not kidding). He's out of the office, so I leave voice mail.

    1:30 PM: Thinking I might as well just get it over with, I call my doctor to set up an appointment to get prophylactic rabies shots. Better safe than sorry, right? The staff and nurses were very concerned and told me that I should get the shots immediately. Unfortunately rabies shots are administered only through our Health Department due to reporting regulations and whatnot. They recommended that I call the Health Dept back and insist on getting the shots. They remind me that once symptoms start, the disease is 100% fatal. Thanks for the reminder, it had completely slipped my mind.

    1:45 PM: I called our vet at Munford Animal Hospital to confirm that there's no need to keep the cat's body because the sample is no longer viable. Veterinarian confirms this, and tells me I should begin treatment for possible rabies infection immediately. They remind me that once symptoms start, the disease is 100 % fatal. Thanks for the reminder, it had completely slipped my mind.

    3:00 PM: I call the Tipton County Health Department back and tell them I have still not heard back from their Rabies Officer and would like to go ahead and set up the injections just to be safe. The woman on the phone tells me that the Health Department doesn't give rabies injections, that I have to go to my Primary Care Physician. I tell her through gritted teeth that I was told by my Primary Care Physician that I can only get the shots at the Health Department. The woman (obviously) puts the phone against her chest and calls out "HEY, do we give rabies shots here?" Call is transferred to the nurse I spoke with earlier, who then tells me that they are very selective in who they decide to give the shots to.

    "Wha-a-a-a-a-a-???" I stammer out. "But I thought the recommendation was prophylactic treatment anytime someone gets bitten by a wild animal and they cannot locate it for testing."

    She actually responds "I know, you'd think that, wouldn't ya?"

    We disconnect, I am speechless.

    3:30: To get a second opinion (because I'm still incredulous), I call the Shelby County Health Department. I explain that our local health department seems to be a bit less concerned than everyone else I've spoken with concerning my situation. They agree that it is strange that I'm being put aside, and remind me that I should probably start treatment as soon as possible, as a better safe than sorry scenario. They remind me that once symptoms start, the disease is 100 % fatal. Thanks for the reminder, it had completely slipped my mind.

    What's most annoying is when health care "professionals" point out that I really should be taking this seriously, yet no one seems to be interested in actually doing anything about it other than reminding me that I should be taking this seriously. Hence my gobsmackedness. So now I have to wait until tomorrow mid day, where they will decide if I should get the shots or not. If I come down with rabies, I am going to go down to the Health Department and BITE EVERY FUCKING ONE OF THEM. No jury would convict me. And besides, even if they did, I'd be dead before it ever went to court. I wonder if any of my victims would be granted a series of prophylactic rabies injections, or if this would be the start of the rabid zombie apocalypse? There's a zombie movie in here somewhere. RABID ZOMBIES!

    I can just picture it. As the fluorescent tube lights blink on for the first time of the day, a lone Health Department bureaucrat sits down at her desk, blurry eyed and sipping weak coffee from a mug that reads "Chocolate, men, coffee - some things are better rich." She taps her keyboard, and the screen saver of a desperate kitten hanging from a tree branch with the saying "Hang in there, it's almost Friday" is replaced by her Facebook login screen and the spider solitaire game she's been working on since last week. Today is the day she breaks her losing streak, she just knows it. A strange groaning sound comes from behind her.

    "Oh come on, Millie, it's not funny anymore," she rolls her eyes and bends forward, squinting at the line of cards in front of her. 

    In a flash, an preternaturally strong arm yanks her chair back, toppling her out of it and into the floor. Looming over her stands a disheveled woman in old Carhartt overalls covered in chicken poop, groaning and foaming at the mouth. The woman wheezes as she reaches down towards the terrified bureaucrat:

    "Whyyyy didn't you give me the shhhhhhotsssss...."

    Fade to black as the screams of the doomed bureaucrat fill the air.

    Don't say I didn't warn you.


    Saturday, April 10, 2010

    El. Oh. El.

    I forgot to put this video up on the blog that our friend T from Oak Hill Farm made from our video of a hatching. So for your viewing pleasure I offer you

    Friday, April 9, 2010

    The Sky Will Stay Where it Is, Regardless of What My To Do List Looks Like!

    After receiving a nasty cat bite from a feral cat that was setting up shop on top of our brooder I had to table my plans for the new chicken yard until I can use my right hand again. It's still going to happen...oh yes, it will...but just not right away.

    Which brings me to today's lesson in nonattachment, or as I like to call it, "shit happens." I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about everything going to plan, on time, and perfectly. Reality is somewhat different, however, in that none of those three things ever come to fruition. There's an old saying that applies here: If you want something done, it can be done quickly, cheaply, or well. You can pick any two.

    After getting myself completely worked up into a frazzle about all of the projects that I need to get done but for one reason or another are not yet done, I had a bit of a revelation. There's only two of us here on the farm, and on any given day one of us is unable to work on the farm due to illness, other duties or any other of the myriad ways that things can pop up that need our immediate attention. There's enough work out here that we could have a staff on ten and still not get everything done. Yet I berate myself on an almost daily basis for not doing just that. This is illogical and it's not something I can maintain emotionally. Contrary to my neurotic belief, the sky is not going to fall if something doesn't get done absolutely perfectly and immediately. Farm life is not a good life for we list crosser-offer types. Things come up, weather changes, a cat bites the shit out of me. All of these things are out of my control, and getting myself worked up does nothing but make matters worse. So my  new strategy is to try to let go of this psychotic need for perfection, re-prioritize my projects into what's most important and time sensitive, and celebrate the successes I do have.

    What I do have is happy chickens who score off the charts according to the laying hen welfare assessment study I've been using as a guide. My priority is to keep it that way. All other projects will just have to be done next year, or partially done as I have time or inclination. It's not easy to walk by a moonscape of a front yard because I don't have time to plant something pretty, but it's just mud and it's not the end of the world to have an ugly yard. It's not easy to walk by the vegetable garden that begs to be planted despite the rows of standing water in it due to heavy rains. But we are not going to starve to death if we don't get veggies in the ground, and seeds can keep until next year.

    Will I immediately breathe a sigh of relief and never obsess about my inability to on my own get the work of ten young men done in about ten minutes? Most likely no. But at least maybe now I will have moments of clarity and perspective.

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010

    Welded Wire, Thou Hast Twarted Me With Thy Nonstretchiness!

    I admit defeat every so often, and this is one of those times. In preparation for our new additions to the flock, I decided to add another chicken pasture so that we could be sure that everyone gets to go out every day rather than be forced to share one yard and therefore alternate their days outside.

    Our first pasture was put up last year using welded wire, which is great poultry fencing provided you do not have to cover a sloped area. And guess what? The entire yard is sloped. I pushed, I pulled, I begged, I cursed, I wept, I tantrumed. A mere two months later I had the project finished.

    Well not this time, bub. I have too much on my plate to waste days and hours trying to stretch unstretchable wire down a slope and I'm fresh out of frustrated tears thanks to the feral dogs and cats trying to invade us like fuzzy kudzu. I had a brainstorm today and it comes in the form of cattle panels.

    Tomorrow I'm going to Tractor Supply to pick up twelve of them $19.95 a pop. True, this pretty much blows my budget until oh, say, the end of time, but at least the yard will be done and be usable in a timely manner which is more than I can say for any of my other current projects! It's time for me to have the pleasure and satisfaction of something being finished, and to me it's worth the expense just to have that brief moment of pleasure.

    I have visions of happy chickens frolicking about in their new yard wearing tiny versions of Maria's novice habit from The Sound of Music and clucking out "The Hills are Alive!" I hope I catch it on video. Maybe I could sell it and make up for the dough I'm about to shell out on those panels...

    Tuesday, April 6, 2010

    This. Means. WAR!

    Okay, so I know I talk about compassion a lot. I know I kind of go a bit on and on about the sanctity of all sentient life. But there is a caveat. I swear by the Lords of Cobol that if I was suddenly granted the powers of a god complete with endless knowledge of the karma of changing the ecology of the world and knew that to do so would cause no harm to the system, I would rid the world of every stinging wasp that chases me out of the barn. Simultaneously, POOF go the fleas that torture the dogs and the ticks that nearly killed Michael. Everything else can stay, fine. But all you aforementioned creatures from hell consider yourself on notice.

    Yesterday I was chased out of the chicken coop yet again by a mad swarm of carpenter bees. If you are unfamiliar with these denizens of evil, they look like bumble bees but lack their docility. Their stings are brutal, Michael is deathly allergic, they attack me and my poor chickens who cannot escape them, and therefore they should all die die DIE!!!

    Okay, so maybe I am a tad bit overzealous. I know I need to do a few Avalokitesvara practices over this issue. In the meantime, I've ordered thirty, count them thirty guineas to be shipped ASAP from Cackle Hatchery. Ten will go to our friends at Oak Hill Farm, and the remainder will stay here to join the two lavender guineas I now have, the only two surviving out of our first bunch of 28 we got three years ago (the others fell prey to feral dogs and owls, an unpleasant but natural part of farm life).

    Guineas are an excellent natural predator of stinging insects, ticks and other pests. In fact, our guineas have been known to wipe out an entire nest of yellow jackets the very same day they discovered it. They would stand at the exit hole and pounce on each hapless yellow jacket that exited until there were none left. Within one afternoon I had fat guineas and no yellow jackets. Guineas are so voracious in their search for bees that it is recommended that anyone hoping to keep honeybees should avoid guinea fowl like the plague. A few guineas will destroy an entire colony in a matter of hours. Since Michael is so allergic to bees the chances we'd ever keep honeybees is oh, say, the equivalent of me voting as a Conservative Republican.

    Plus, guineas are an endless source of amusement and annoyance that is hard to resist. They are loud, ridiculously stupid, and resemble upturned WWI German Picklehaube helmets with legs. Seriously, look at a these two pictures and tell me it's not true: Guinea, and Picklehaube. Now, imagine what it's like to see 15 Picklehaubes screeching and running willy nilly across your pasture. How is that not hilarious?

    I have a cute little video of one of our guineas that you can see here as well. They are just...funny. And they eat the insects that are the bane of mine, my husband's and my chickens' existence. SCORE.

    Thursday, April 1, 2010

    Happy Hatch Day!

    I was awakened by the strangest sound this morning. In my sleep-fogged brain it took awhile for the sound to register, but sure enough it was peeping! Yes, dear reader, it appears we have our first hatched chick at the Cluck-n-Neigh! Of course only time will tell if our other guys hatch (it could be up to 24 hours), and if any or everyone will survive, but judging from the now incredibly loud peeping we may have at least one. It's going to be a long day of me hovering and compulsively checking the incubator, but in a good way. :)

    We now have several videos up on our You Tube channel, and I promise to add more later today. As for now, it's time to disc and add the soil amendments I finally found yesterday. I'm hoping to get at least a row or two planted today.

    Update: We couldn't resist putting up our first annual peep show. Take a peek here. Maybe you'll get lucky and see something really exciting.

    Wednesday, March 31, 2010

    Welcome to Covington, where organic farming practices go to die.

    Ok, so maybe living on a farm opens one up to finding humor in some odd situations and circumstances. After all, it's not like we have a lot of water cooler gossip or a strange person in the cubicle next to us telling us "I believe you have my stapler." After four years of spending the majority of my time dealing with the issues of poultry, ponies and veggies it seems that my world has shrunk just a bit. Thank GOD.

    Last year's garden was a success (almost, until I made a tactical error in leaving town for a few days), so we decided to put a larger one up this year. Because we broke ground on an area never before planted, we knew a soil test was in order. We got the results and recommendations for amendments back last week, and the search for an organic source of 15-15-15 commenced. Interestingly enough there was not a recommendation for lime. In this area of the country the soil is so acidic, the joke is if you bought a bag of lime here and had it sampled, the UT Extension office would recommend you add lime to it. I suppose starting from scratch with a fallow piece of land that was the secret. I'm just happy to have one less thing to add! I was grateful to be living in an area that is habituated mostly by farms because I just knew that finding my 15-15-15 would be a snap! I felt so sorry for all you "city folk" who probably have to search far and wide for an organic source of fertilizer. Some of you probably even have to resort to ordering it online, thus negating and environmental offset you hope to gain by gardening organic by having to have it shipped across the country. Such a shame! Tsk tsk tsk.

    I popped in to our local Stockdale's Farm Supply, a subsidiary of the Farmer's Co-op and made a bee line to the gardening area. To my surprise, they carried no organic fertilizer of any kind! They do carry organic pest controls though, so good on them. In looking around at all their other soil amendments I noticed that there were no organics at all. It was no huge shock, as Stockdales caters to the local farmer, and this particular farming community is not exactly at the forefront of the organic movement. Change comes slow to places where life is slow. Just ask President Obama. But I digress. Next stop was Home Depot. As much as I prefer keeping my dollars in the local community, sometimes I'm left with no choice. I needed some organic potting soil anyway and knew they carried it, so it was not a wasted trip.

    Now I don't know what things are like at your Home Depot, but let me tell you in ours it is looking pretty grim. We suspect they are going to go under any day now. What tips us off to this is there is no new merchandise coming in, the parking lot is almost always deserted, and every time we go in there are no less than five employees waiting at the front door to assault you with a manic "HI! WELCOME TO HOME DEPOT! WE ARE SOO GLAD YOU DROPPED IN! WHAT KIND OF HOME PROJECT ARE YOU WORKING ON TODAY? MAY WE HELP YOU FIND SOMETHING? PLEASE? PLEASEPLEASEPLEASE?"

    I may have exaggerated that....a little. But not much. So in I go, this time happy that I can oblige them by actually having something they could help me with. I smiled back at the first attacker and said sure, I was looking for organic fertilizer. The helpful employee chirped merrily that they sure did have fertilizer, in all shapes and sizes and for any, any ANY GARDEN!!! I smiled back again (in case you ever visit Tipton County you should be aware there's a smiling requirement) and followed the aforementioned chipper employee to the garden section, where she pointed out the Miracle Gro.

    Now, there's not-quite organic, and then there's Miracle Gro. Though they do have an organic line, their more well known products definitely take a "better living through chemistry" approach. Sure, you might get a pumpkin the size of a VW bug so long as you aren't concerned about sustainable agriculture, but more importantly, why?

    Anyway, I reminded the employee that I was looking for organic specifically and was met with a blank stare. Eventually I just said thanks, and I could take it from there. Of course there was not anything available fertilizer wise, but they did indeed have organic potting soil for my potting projects. I went to the check out line and told the cashier I wanted ten bags of organic potting soil. The cashier was all too happy to ring in the potting soil. The Miracle Gro, of course. So I reminded her I wanted the organic potting soil. Blank stare before she actually said:

    "I don't have a button for that. We must not carry it."

    Now, considering the fact that I had just walked past the stack of organic potting soil in the gardening section, I just smiled (albeit this time through gritted teeth) and said I'd get them to ring it up in the gardening section.

    As I walked for the third time past the slew of employees I was again barraged with "WELCOME TO HOME DEPOT! WHAT KIND OF PROJECT CAN WE HELP YOU WITH TODAY?!?!?!?!!"

    I managed to not point out that I had just walked through their gauntlet not twenty seconds ago, and certainly had not come up with another project in the meantime that needed their urgent attention. But it was tempting.

    By the time I got to the gardening center my patience was at an end. I approached the garden center cashier and told her I wanted ten bags of the organic topsoil. And...I swear I am not kidding...she looked up from the bag of organic potting soil that she was using to transfer seedlings with and asked her partner:

    "Do we carry organic potting soil?"

    After much explanation and my nearly frantic gesticulations towards the stack of organic potting soil I was standing beside, I was rung up for my ten bags of Organic Choice Potting Soil. Brought to you by the fine folks guessed it...Miracle Gro.

    Oh, and that organic triple 15 fertilizer? Never found it. I did find a cocktail I will be mixing myself. Of course, I had to go all the way to Memphis to find it. It seems the only way an organic farmer can get their soil amendments is to order it online to be shipped thousands of miles, or drive to the "big city" we've all moved away from.

    I suppose today qualifies as one of those "I wish I was David Sedaris" days. There's a Pulitzer prize winning humorous essay in here somewhere.

    Sunday, March 28, 2010

    Volunteers, anyone?

    First off, I promised to share both triumphs and embarrassment as I write this blog, and boy do I have an embarrassment.

    Maybe it's my impending senility or my uncanny ability to wreck a bowling ball with a bucket of grease, but I managed to dig up and destroy the internet cable we had buried in the yard while planting the raspberry bushes. To Michael's credit, he did not curse my face anyway. Rather, he maintained his calm and spent the day running a new wire. I sure hope our raspberries come in gorgeous, because I'm going to make him his very own raspberry pie.

    We're still awaiting the first peeping sounds from our eggs in the incubator, and I find myself obsessively peering into the window every time I walk by it. I wonder what the dogs will think if/when they do hear little peeping sounds coming out of if. This will be a great experiment as I have three groups of youngsters coming in to the farm in three different methods. I intend to watch closely to see which birds are the most successful. This should help me determine the best ways to maintain and grow our flock.

    Method 1: Incubation from fertilized egg, imprinting and hand rearing.
    Method 2: Allow broody hen to incubate, hatch and raise chicks on her own (obviously the most natural method).
    Method 3: Ordering chicks by mail from our favorite hatchery, Ideal Poultry in Texas. We have 24 birds (Buff Orpington and Barred Hollands) coming in May.

    Now on to the nitty gritty and shameless call for free slave labor:

    The demand for compassionately produced eggs is without limit, it seems. And there are certainly enough people in our area who could use the free eggs to help ease the ever-increasing financial burden of feeding their families. To meet this demand we need a new/larger chicken barn or an addition to the converted shed we are using now. If you or someone you know is a good carpenter/handy man type interested in a little volunteer work building it we'd sure love to have the help.

    Unless we are able to maintain a larger flock the ideal pasture conditions we strive for, this year's hatching will be our last until after our senescent birds die off. I won't toss Henny Penny into the pressure cooker just because she's a bit long in the beak. I figure she's done her job for us, so we should take care of her when she needs the favor returned. This limits the size of our operation due to the cost ineffectiveness of this practice but it is the more compassionate practice, and that's the entire point of this project anyway.

    Thursday, March 25, 2010

    Shooting stray/free roaming pets is NOT our idea of a good day.

    Some people have phobias of flight, snakes or crowds. My phobia is dogs in pain. I simply cannot deal with a dog's suffering. The sound of a dog's cry causes a visceral reaction that I have no control over. From that first "yipe" sound, the bottom drops out of my chest and I simply weep openly and uncontrollably. Those of you who know me personally know this is saying a lot. I am not a weepy kind of person by any stretch.

    The past few days have been extremely difficult for us. No sooner had I finished my last entry about the dangers of free roaming and feral dogs when there was a commotion outside by the chicken house. Peeking out the windows, I saw the same pack we've been having problems with on its way to the hen house. Michael, who had heard the commotion as well, grabbed his rifle and headed outside. As he did so, he called to me "Are you in the house?" Because I was still getting my shoes on, I told him yes. Thinking I was going to stay in the house, he went to do what we had agreed must be done. Knowing my nature when it comes to dogs, he hoped to spare me from the sight. What a good man I married.

    Unfortunately I suppose I wasn't thinking. When I got my shoes on, I grabbed some peanut butter to bait the trap to capture one of the dogs and take it to the shelter. I guess the reality of the decisions we'd made and what Michael was about to do just hadn't sunk in. I rounded the corner just as Michael took the shot. It was a very quick death, but unfortunately it was not the instantaneous one that Michael intended. Rather, it took one more shot. But in those moments between the two shots, there was the screaming.

    Have you ever heard a dog screaming his last? Have you ever seen it jumping and twitching as it tried in vain to escape the bullet that had created the fatal wound? Not just an obviously wild looking beast either, but a dog that would look perfectly at home lying on your couch with you and watching television or chasing a ball you've thrown. It is a mental picture and a sound that will haunt me for the rest of my life.

    After a few days spent in the emotional equivalent of the fetal position I decided to spend some channeling this negativity into some attention grabbing and trying to do all that I can to help stop these tragedies from repeating themselves. I wrote a letter to the editor of our local papers, but since we do not pay to subscribe they will not accept it. I'm not big into the waste of newsprint (sort of defeats that whole sustainability idea don't ya think?), so I gave it a pass. Instead I will contact those few people I do know who have press access and see if they have any interest. Perhaps I can talk some local civic clubs into accepting me as a speaker on the issue. Whatever it takes to raise awareness anywhere and in any way. After all, this is not just a local issue. A national geographic article as long ago as 2003 reported the feral/stray dog problem as a national crisis.

    Farmers who shoot dogs are often portrayed by well-meaning but uninformed animal lovers as heartless profit-driven sociopaths whose main source of entertainment is the suffering of any living being other than themselves. I once fell prey to such an ignorant way of thinking myself. It's easy to do when one lives in the suburbs and and is blissfully unaware of the difficulties and very real dangers farmers and ranchers face from feral dogs. After all, what could a defenseless dog do to a grown man? A dog that looked just like the dog asleep on my couch could never be a threat, could it? Let me be clear. A pack of stray dogs, however cute, is indistinguishable from a completely feral pack. They are often mixed breeds and may look deceptively like the family pet. But this is not Fido, or a little lost helpless doggie. This is a wild animal that will kill livestock (or your beloved pet) not even out of hunger, but in the spirit of play. Just last year, a Georgia couple was killed and partially eaten by stray dogs that a well-meaning neighbor had been feeding. Even closer to home, last year Michael personally witnessed a pack of dogs attempting to pull a child off of his bike. Fortunately he intervened in time and saved the boy (though the boy had to be stitched up).

    I can only speak from our own personal experience, but I can assure you that shooting dogs is the last thing we want to do! We are not the canine's equivalent of the bogeyman, anxiously awaiting our next opportunity to have a little fun by killing an innocent animal. We simply have no alternative. If you can find one that we haven't already thought of and had to abandon as not viable we'd love to hear it. Here are the alternatives we've thought of and had to scrap, and the reasons for scrapping them:

    Alternative 1: Talk to the owners. Reality check: We did, they don't care. Nothing was changed. Dogs continue to breed freely, come onto our property and try to kill our chickens our chase our horses. Chasing large livestock may seem like harmless fun to the uninformed. After all, what kind of damage is one dog pack going to do to a 1900 pound belgian draft horse? Consider these headlines. Dogs maul, kill horse. Dog Pack Kills Two Horses. Rottweiler Pair Kills Pony. Not to mention that if my horses got run into the street by a pack of dogs and were hit by a car what sort of injuries the driver would sustain (often such accidents are fatalities to both horse and driver).

    Alternative 2: Trap the dogs and take to the shelter. Reality check: Our shelter is not a no-kill shelter, and those we have taken have been immediately destroyed. In addition, it is not open 24/7, and we have so many dogs coming in that we would have to have a full time holding area to keep and feed them while waiting for the shelter to open. All so that they could be destroyed anyway. Frankly, I think that scenario of being trapped and hauled into a strange building filled with the smells of terror, piss and shit before having a needle shoved in the arm is much more cruel than a shot to the head.

    Alternative 3: Find no kill shelters and take the dogs there. Reality check: Last year when we trapped two puppies starved nearly to death in one of our pastures, we tried this approach. Not one shelter in the neighboring 3 states would take them. Even if they would, it is not my full time job to be a dog taxi. Would you be willing to quit your job and spend your days driving dogs from state to state to find them shelter? Well that's great news because I will offer you a room in our guest house and you can get right to work. You see, I can't do it myself because the hours I would spend in the car being a dog taxi are hours my animals are unattended and vulnerable to the rest of the packs coming in. We did keep one of the puppies, by the way. Her name is Jinkies, and she's currently asleep in Michael's arms.

    Alternative 4: Find a local animal rescue to take them in. Reality check: We did that. None of them would take the animals, but "encouraged" us to be fosters. We already have 3 dogs (two of which, by the way, are rescued strays). We do not have time, energy, money or room to take more. What was even more disturbing was the instant email inundations I got from these organizations begging me to give a home to yet more dogs they were trying to place with forever homes or at least find temporary shelter. I've had to drop myself from all their contact lists and Facebook invites because I am doing quite literally all that I can do. I cannot do more, and it breaks my heart.

    Alternative 5: Find a home for them ourselves. Reality check: Great idea! Thanks for stepping up! How many do you want? And when can you come get them? Point made.

    So as you can see, there is not a lot of choice here. The only way to stop the senseless killing of dogs is to stop the problem at its source. It is a multi-faceted problem fraught with ignorance, impractical thinking, apathy and genuine callousness. It is not one that we farmers and rural homeowners can fix ourselves. So rather than blame us or vilify us for having to make such painful choices, how about working with us to stop it from continuing? Here are a few suggestions on how you can help.

    If you are a cat/dog owner:

    1. Spay or neuter your pet. If you cannot afford to do so, there are low cost clinics sprouting up all over the country. Local readers might be interested to check out the West Tennessee Animal Rescue organization, which has a spay/neuter clinic like this. Some even have free days. While you are waiting for this day, never allow your animal the opportunity to breed. If you cannot afford or unwilling to utilize these options, you should not be a pet owner.

    2. Never buy a pet. Instead, adopt from shelters. If you have your heart set on a purebred for whatever reason, there are purebred rescues by the hundreds. If you have any room in your home or heart for more than one pet, every rescue organization out there is literally desperate for people willing to offer temporary homes for animals awaiting permanent adoption.

    3. Do not allow your pet to free roam unless you have large amounts of land and are willing to accept the consequences of death by car, coyote or stray dog pack (common even in cities) or other landowners. Understand that if you allow your dog or cat to free roam, you are legally liable for any bite your pet inflicts on other animals or people regardless of the circumstances. You should also be aware that free roaming pet and feral cats are the single biggest cause of damage to small wildlife populations. In Britain it was estimated recently that cats alone are responsible for the deaths of over 70 million small animals and birds.

    4. No matter what your reasons, never abandon a pet. Always take it to the shelter to be adopted out or humanely euthanized. Besides the obvious reason that it is cruel to doom your pet to death by starvation or being ripped apart by predators, to release your pet into the wild is only adding to the already unmanageable problems of stray and feral dog packs. These packs are becoming larger and more aggressive and are now responsible for several attacks and fatalities against humans.

    If you do all of the above but want to do more:

    1. Write your local government to encourage enforcement of leash laws. Where leash laws are not in effect, encourage them to be created.

    2. Do not, repeat, DO NOT feed stray dogs or cats. You are not doing them any favors by allowing them to continue to breed more and more and get larger and larger packs. If you have any doubt of this, re-read this post or do some research on the ecology of feral domestic animals. If you see strays, call animal control to have them removed and humanely destroyed. A much better and more effective way to spend your time, effort and money would be to volunteer at or donate funds to your local shelter. Consider that the more financial help they receive, the more animals they can give a safe and secure environment until forever homes can be found.

    3. Do whatever you can to raise awareness to the dangers of dumping animals and feeding strays.

    Sunday, March 21, 2010

    Free-ranging pets are a nuisance and a danger.

    Yesterday my husband was out doing some farm chores when he discovered that one of the neighbors free-ranging dogs had chewed and pushed its head through our wire chicken fence in an attempt to get the chickens. Fortunately either something interrupted it, or the chickens got so far back into their yard that it couldn't reach them. It left empty handed. However, the hole left behind was just the perfect size for all of our birds to get out and wander out into the horse pasture where they were completely vulnerable. Again they were fortunate that the discovery was made in time and we managed to do a bit of chicken herding to get everyone back safe and sound.

    Due to the stress of the day, however, the birds have been put off of their laying. Since we are not a profit driven business (we give our eggs away) and we are not depending on poultry for our entire food intake, this is not a terrible thing (except of course that the birds are obviously stressed). What does make this a terrible thing is the position this puts us in. We've trapped and returned one of the dogs once, explaining the situation but no changes were made. Now we chase the animals away on an almost daily basis. We have no recourse now but the bullet.

    The state of Tennessee (and many others) gives us the legal right to shoot animals on our property regardless of whether or not they are attempting to harm livestock (though these animals obviously are). But legality is not the issue here. What IS the issue is my anger at having been put in this position. We love dogs with a passion. All of our own dogs are rescued animals who live pampered lives filled with love, chew toys, nutrition and the best veterinary care available. I cannot even hear a dog's cry without bursting into tears. Yet so many others think nothing of letting packs of dogs run around creating havoc. We've attempted to find homes for many of the feral dogs that have wandered on to our property, and have even been successful once. But if we tried to do that with every dog that wandered on to our property we would have to stop farming entirely and make feral dog/cat rescue our full time (though nonpaying) job. We simply do not have time to catch and ferry animals to different rescue organizations throughout the Midsouth (because all the rescues in our area were completely full at our last attempt, and our shelter was euthanizing animals immediately upon intake due to overcrowding).

    It is not the responsibility of others to keep your animals off their property, it is YOUR responsibility to keep your animals ON your property. The same is true of cats, by the way.

    Yes, it's horrible to shoot a dog. But it is even more horrible to have to be the person to do it. It's an image that haunts me, even if my husband has to pull the trigger (I simply can't do it). But is it acceptable to have my beloved chickens ravaged to death? Is it acceptable for someone's grandchild to be trampled by a 1900 pound draft horse trying to escape a dog nipping at her heels? I'd say those two very likely scenarios cause much more pain and suffering than a bullet to the brain of the dog or cat. So save your criticisms of farmers for trying to protect our animals that we love from YOUR animals that you neglect. If your dog or cat is shot on our property, you have no one to blame but yourself.

    Thursday, March 18, 2010


    Today was one of those really weird days that started off as if nothing was ever going to get done, and then suddenly did a crazy Ivan into several things actually starting to pull together. It was one of those much needed days when more things got crossed off my ridiculously long to-do list of projects (yes, it really is an entire page of college-ruled notebook paper) than had to be carried over into the next day. I was beginning to become so overwhelmed by the list itself that I was tempted to just throw the covers over my head and give up, proclaiming myself a complete failure as a homesteader wannabe.

    First off was my ridiculous attempt to get our soil sample off to the UT AG extension office in town. Yes, the box instructed me to turn it in there, but the agent told me that this was incorrect and that I needed to send it off to Nashville through the postal service. This would not have been quite so annoying if I wasn't reading the instructions that read "Return sample to your local extension office" on the freakin' box. Not to mention the fact that I had just come from the post office where I'd had to stand in line for a good 20 minutes anyway. All in all I think I spent about an hour and a half just standing in different lines in the same building. Not an easy thing to stomach when daylight is burning, a day without rain is precious, and I've got eighteen point nine bazillion other things to get done. But I sucked it up, breathed deeply, and stood in line. Again. Then screamed and screamed my frustration in the car on the way home.

    Oh and did I mention that I had to explain to the agent how to tell if a hen was broody? He'd gotten a call from an area resident about that, and not only did he not know, but it hadn't occurred to him to oh...say...LOOK IT UP FOR HER. I graduated from the same Ag Campus that he most likely did. How is it that I know how to find stuff like that out as the result of my education, where as this professional agriculture extension agent was completely clueless? But I digress. Again.

    By the time I got home I was determined to get at least ONE thing crossed off my list other than that blasted soil sample that should have taken 10 minutes but took almost the entire day. Off I went to work on the salad bar for the chickens. What I call the salad bar is really just a small box pen that juts up against the chicken yard. Every few days I move it to a fresh patch of green grass and open the door I've created in the fence so that the chickens have access to it. It's a great way to keep your birds in nice new green grass regardless of what a great job they do in denuding their fixed pasture. Anyway, within minutes I had it moved to a nice fresh patch of grass and my hens were happily scratching in virgin soil. I could feel my tension starting to release. Not only that, but as I was finishing up I heard the unmistakable sound of the UPS truck in the drive. Lo and behold it was the greenhouse plastic being delivered, only three weeks late following the collapse of the warehouse at Northern Greenhouse Supply (with our order inside, of course). Suddenly things were looking up even further.

    By dark it was time to move our broody hen and her two newest eggs to her maternity ward, a small chicken tractor that we use if we need to segregate anyone. For the next three days I will collect all the fertilized eggs laid and place them under her. This is her first attempt at motherhood, so it's quite the adventure. After I got my broody gal settled, I went in to candle the four eggs that I had already pulled and put into the incubator (still intend to put up the peepshow cam, it's on my to-do list!). And there they were, little squirming blobs, the beginnings of new chickens. Hooray!

    So as I close this post (I can cross yet another thing off my list in doing so), I'm waiting for our first You Tube video to load. I got our channel opened up just this evening and have been working on trying to post some stuff ever since. Hey gimme a break, I'm technologically challenged and stressed out. Don't make me add "snatch so-and-so bald" to my list.

    Anyhoo, the YouTube channel is called ClucknNeigh so that should be pretty easy to find. I hope to have some videos up as links very shortly. I've also put a link to it in our Links section of the blog. And now I can cross that off my list.