There is enough to do in the spring on a well-established farm; on a new farm, there’s also new infrastructure that must be built and systems to set up. Some of these things can be done, or at least started, in the winter, but others, like the crops themselves, have to wait for the ground to dry or the air to warm. So, the race has been on the last couple of months to Do All Of The Things and be ready for our first markets.
Little pigs become big pigs, big pigs become pork.
Our Berkshire-Duroc cross piglets grew into pigs through a rainy winter. They spent their time in several different forest runs at the front of the property, giving them lots to do clearing future yard area, and a bit of protection from the rain. They went in to Gunters in March, so there has been pork for sale on the farm again. While quite a bit rootier than the Large Blacks we had last year, we’ve been thoroughly impressed by the pork, so these pigs are definitely on our “Potential Breeding Stock” list. And once again, we were very pleased with our experience taking them to Gunters. It is a well-designed facility: every time we have dropped pigs off, we have had much more pig curiosity than stress, everyone needing little convincing to leave the truck to explore a new place. It’s never nice bringing the pigs in to slaughter, but want their lives to be as happy and peaceful as possible right up until the end.
The little Large Black cross piglets that arrived in February have now also grown into big pigs. They have been clearing an area for us towards the back of the property, and have been having a lovely time galloping around, basking in the sun, and scratching on logs.
A new batch of little pigs, these ones Large Black-Tamworth crosses, will be arriving at the end of May. We’ll likely switch from organic to non-GMO feed with these pigs. While we’d prefer to keep feeding them organic for a number of reasons, it is almost double the cost of non-organic feed, and we can’t sell the pork for enough to make the margins anything but very slim. There are a few options down the road for making organic more profitable – for example, sprouting unprocessed grains, supplementing with spent grains from a distillery, keeping our own breeding sows rather than buying piglets – but for now, we don’t have the infrastructure in place to be able to implement any of these options, and we need to get paid more than a parking meter for the time we spend with our pigs, so we’ll likely make the switch, for now.
How to make your chickens less annoying
Chickens can be massively annoying. I know lots of people love these strange dinosaurs, and while there are many things we very much enjoy about having chickens – and not just their eggs – I’ll admit they also often drive us to distraction. This was very true earlier this year. We had two Explorer Chickens who refused to stay in the chicken run. No matter what we did, they always figured out how to get out. And some days, a whole pile of them would get out. There were chickens everywhere, pooping on everything. Chickens on the newly milled siding. Chickens in the porch. Chickens under the truck. Chickens in the workshop. Chickens in the buckets of pig feed I’m filling. Chickens in the hole I’m digging. Chickens in the greenhouse pulling up the peas we just planted and taking a bite from each kale leaf. And when they weren’t in the run, they wouldn’t lay in the run, so we also got to have an egg hunt each day. We tried explaining that this was only appropriate behaviour on Easter, but, well, they’re chickens. They don’t really do explanations or appropriate.
So we made a plan for improving human-chicken relations. We moved them around the other side of the house to put some distance between them and the greenhouse, which helped, and got the deer fence up as another line of defence. That was the greenhouse more or less protected, but we still had at least two Explorer Chickens out and about, and a daily egg hunt. We were only getting one or two eggs a day from the older ladies, so we knew it was time to reduce our flock, as we can’t afford to keep chickens who aren’t laying. But I had never killed a chicken, and it had been a while since Sam had, and neither of us likes killing things, so we kept putting it off. Then one day we got back from running errands in Courtenay and the chickens were acting weird. There were two groups, one huddled under the coop with Franklin, and one in a corner with Winston. And then a raven flew off from the run with something in its mouth – a piece from a dead chicken in the middle of the run. Unusual, as ravens don’t usually attack full grown chickens, but not unheard of. Luckily, one of the older ladies. We discovered a second old chicken was badly injured the next day, so Sam took one for the team and ended her suffering. It seemed those two were the explorer chickens, as we didn’t have any more wandering after that, and the raven didn’t attach anyone else. That was the impetus we needed to finish reducing our flock back down to 11 layers, plus Winston and Franklin of course. Ten to fifteen chickens seems to be our happy chicken number. Human-chicken relations have improved considerably.
The two orange cats we got from the Comox Valley SPCA in February have settled in to the farm. They have been named Mort and Julien after the characters in the Madagascar movies because Mort the cat is entirely as annoying and endearing as Mort the bush baby. Mort spends most of his time outside chasing insects and imaginary creatures, leaping and bounding all over the drive, galloping the length of the greenhouse, and falling off things. Julien, when he finally came out from under the bathtub, turned out to be a lovely cat. Much more serious than Mort, but also very snuggly, and now loves to go outside at night on Cat Missions. We regularly find dead rodent presents outside the greenhouses, and have not seen any evidence of rodents in the greenhouses or feed storage area since the cats started going out. And, knock on wood, as of yet, no dead birds. Win.
In the field
Our plan for clearing our first field has changed many times for many reasons. This past fall, we were finally able to burn the stump piles made by the back hoe last spring, but then it quickly got too wet to get back on it with a machine to rake out the burn piles and root rake the whole thing. As the rain poured down over the winter, we anxiously watched for a break in the weather long enough to get on the field with anything bigger than our boots. As the planting season drew near, we started to imagine alternative ways to get ourselves on the field in time to start our season. In the end, we ended up with a lot more manual labour than we had hoped, but happily, only about two weeks behind the schedule we had set for ourselves. We managed to get a borrowed tractor on on the field to drag out the burn piles, and that was good enough for our BCS to take over and do the rest. We couldn’t get a root raker on it, so we’ve moved many, many barrow loads of wood and rocks. But we’re getting there. Sam has finished ploughing everything and shaping beds, and more than half the beds have been limed and composted. Seeding and transplanting is happening almost on schedule, the irrigation is in (this dry hot spring meant it was a race to get it on in time to save some wilting newly transplanted turnips), and we’re getting to bed before midnight most nights. And we’ve discovered only a handful of mistakes in our scheduling (like seeding three times the onions we needed….).
In the shop
We have a beautiful new lean-to on the side of our workshop now, giving us a designated covered spot for washing and packing produce. We’re pretty excited about the space, and using mostly materials salvaged from the house, it was inexpensive, which is a very good thing this year. It is a thing of beauty. I’d like to share the credit for it’s prettiness, but it was all Sam who designed and created it. I used a nail gun for the first time to put in maybe ten nails. Now we just need to find a few minutes to set up and organize the space.
A new cooler is in the works too. It would have been nice to have it up and running for our first market, but luckily, an extra fridge and the cool nights we’re still getting should tide us over for another few weeks until all of the beds are planted and we have a couple of extra minutes to put towards it.
In the greenhouses
We’ve been experimenting with shoulder season crops of salad, kale, lettuces, chard, radishes and peas in most of the greenhouse space. After a first successful crop of salad, the second has been dragging its feet. This hot spring has meant it’s already too warm in the greenhouse for salad mix and radishes, and it’s been a mission to get enough water on them, so they have been slow. And the race is on to see if we get any lettuces at all, or whether our heathy greenhouse wireworm population finishes them all off first. We’ve tried distracting them with potatoes, but that just seems to mean they have a side of spuds with their salad. On the other hand, the kale has been outstanding, and the peas are coming on strong. If the flowers are any indication, we’ll have a bumper crop of peas in a week, and then everything will be out in less than two weeks to make room for the tomatoes.
The greenhouses have been overflowing with starts, with pallets full of seedlings squeezed into every available space around the spring crops. We’ve had mixed luck with our starts this year. Looking at our only partially germinated trays of flower starts, it’s obvious we’ve done most of our learning with vegetables so far. If the market is there and we decide to continue with flowers, we’ll need to invest some time and pennies in learning how best to grow them better. Our first trials with 128 plug trays took off… and then quickly and pathetically stalled. Not enough nutrients in our mix we think. Luckily, everything has taken off as soon as it has been planted in the field, but we’ll need to add something nutrient dense like worm castings to our mix to make the 128s work properly next year. Some heat in the greenhouse probably won’t hurt either.
The tomato starts are blowing us away. We are experimenting with potting them up in 4″ soil blocks instead of pots. While it takes a fair amount of time and soil to make the blocks, the tomatoes are strong and healthy, and ready to be planted out already. We’re growing three cherries this year, a sauce tomato, an outstanding orange heirloom we grew last year, and trying a full size red hybrid. A new greenhouse area is prepped, making room for an additional 50 feet of tomatoes and 100 feet of cucumbers. The sweet pepper starts are also looking pretty fantastic. We’ve made a little make-shift heat tent inside the greenhouse with row cover and a little electric heater that seems to be doing the trick to keep our heat crops happy. The real test will be when we get the finicky cucumbers underway. We’ve deliberately pushed them back this year, knowing how busy the spring would be and how quickly they throw in the towel if the night temperatures aren’t high enough.
Must get back to it. Six more weeks and we reckon we should have all the full season crops in the field and the cooler and new greenhouse built. Maybe then we can take an afternoon off, if the weeds aren’t threatening to take over by then!