Said our two-year-old. It does indeed sound like autumn, and feels like it too. One Saturday evening after market we joined friends on the beach to watch the sunset, basking in the warm evening. The next morning, we nearly put the fire on. And like that, we transitioned from summer days and warm evenings to the chill of autumn. In a refreshing change from last autumn, where three weeks of summer were followed by rain that didn’t let up until June, autumn so far has been a string of stunning crisp sunny days, punctuated by the odd welcome rainy day replenishing some much needed moisture. A carpet of golden needles and crispy leaves is growing on the ground, and shortening days and frosty mornings are pulling us into earlier nights and later mornings.
A Rocky Start, A Strong Finish.
Unseasonable cold combined with our own mistakes (most notably, applying some carbon-heavy compost that inhibited plant growth) and some persistent invertebrate pests to make for a nail biter of a spring. We tilled in several of our first plantings of early crops, almost lost the kale to bolting, and spent many evenings picking slugs and leaf miner damage in the waning evening hours. We didn’t harvest our first lettuces until nearly July. We started to consider the possibility we might have to walk away from the season and make some money another way.
Luckily, the weather turned.We figured out our compost problem. We found a few pest solutions that worked. The kale and chard rallied. The second planting of beets thrived under the row cover. The lettuces started to head up.
The summer was dry, but between our new pond and a couple of pond top-ups from a generous neighbour, we had more than enough water. We grew some beautiful carrots and garlic, and had successful first time crops of fennel and daikon radishes. After a few rotations, we figured out how to grow crisp delicious kohlrabi and bok choi. We logged a few wins over last year, including reducing the earwig damage in our cabbages with diatomaceous earth, growing salad through the hottest part of the season, and managed not to kill quite so many cucumber starts. While we lost our squash, tomatoes and cucumbers early this year, perhaps because the plants were so stressed as youngsters, we have had a much broader selection on offer this fall than last. We started an honour stand on the farm, which has been very well received and supported, and added some new customers to our Wednesday wholesale delivery docket.
But, not to worry, we also made our fair share of mistakes to learn from this season too. One of our greenhouses performed poorly last year, and we chalked it up to inadequate watering and compost in the soil. This year, the same greenhouse performed poorly even with heavy compost application. Since our soil test this past spring was a composite across our entire field, it didn’t catch the problem; a separate test will be done on that greenhouse this coming spring. We have a list of pest and disease control research to do this winter – we lost most of our brussel sprouts and storage cabbages to aphids, had undersized onions due to a fungus in the leaves, and saw the return of a larval infestation in our late beets, despite rotating our crop. And, we’ll have to figure out how to get our eggplants and peppers under cover next year if we want to see them before September (which we do).
Now that autumn is here, we’re carefully watching the forecast and covering crops as temperatures drop, trying to harvest as long as we can. The heat crops are finished, save for one planting of beans, but we have another couple of weeks of lettuces, and some cabbages, cauliflower, beets and broccoli that we’re keeping an eye on. In the meantime, we’re ticking fall chores off the list. Winter experiments are going in – just some purple sprouting broccoli and sweet onions to over-winter – and the greenhouses are being prepped for winter crops of kale and chard. We’ve got our seed garlic set aside, with grand plans to get it in earlier than last year (i.e. before December 6th).
Winston and his (hopefully many more) ladies
Currently, we have one rooster, Winston, down from three in the spring. Three was too many. In the early spring, Winston, our smallest rooster, got ousted from the flock and relocated to the carport, where he lived for a couple of months until we found one of the other roosters a new home. While we’re not that keen on chickens around the house, we did rather enjoy Winston’s company. He is a gentle, friendly rooster who enjoyed hanging out with us while we worked, and would run down the driveway to greet us, a hilarious mess of gangly legs and flappy wings. Two short weeks after we found one rooster a new home and Winston rejoined the flock, Franklin the big rooster started to look peaky, and quickly succumbed to chicken cholera, a disease which seems to particularly affect roosters. Somehow, little Winston, never got sick, and stepped up as sole rooster of our small flock. It took a little while for the ladies to get used to the new arrangement (it was complete chaos for the first few days) but things settled down. Soon after, several hens went broody.
Last year, our hens hatched six chicks, five of whom were roosters. The one new hen was killed by a raven this spring. Accordingly, we were a little reluctant to let the hens sit on eggs this summer (they don’t lay when they’re sitting on eggs), a feeling heightened when we discovered that one of our broody hens appeared to be killing chicks as they hatched. We scooped up the two surviving chicks and stuck them in a small run with our best mother (“Mohawk Chicken”), and as an afterthought, added another broody (not chick killing) hen and the remaining unhatched eggs to see if anything came of it. In the end, we had five chicks. Not a great showing. Until…
Two weeks later, we were headed to bed when we heard the sound of a yelling chick through our open bedroom window. We wondered if one of the chicks had somehow escaped and got stuck outside the house when we shut them up for the night. Sam went out to investigate. The sound, it turned out, was not coming from near the nursery run, but instead, from a salal bush near the main chicken run. We discovered a rogue hen asleep on a nest in a salal bush, with one very newly hatched chick who had fallen out of the nest yelling loudly near her. We pushed the chick back under her and went to bed, not really expecting it to make it through the night.
But these heritage mutt chickens are hardy beasts. The next morning when we went out to check on them, Rogue Chicken had one very healthy fluffy chick under her, two more freshly hatched, and several more hatching. So we relocated everyone, including eggs, to a safe den by the nursery run. Within a couple days, Rogue Chicken had been joined by a total of 11 fluffy chicks, bringing our total hatched for the summer to 16. We’re still waiting to see how many turn out to be roos, but if we’re lucky, eight new ladies will join Winston, along with possibly a second rooster to help him with his rooster jobs.
We continue to enjoy having pigs, and this summer was no different. The group of Large Blacks we had this summer from Five Sisters Farm was our favourite group yet. It was hard to say goodbye. We were a little less fond of the five somewhat flighty and crazy Berkshire-Duroc cross pigs we had from Harriot’s Hog Haven, but they did an admirable job clearing brush, and the farm has been quiet since they left.
For the autumn, we have two groups totalling ten Large Blacks from Five Sisters. The youngest six just arrived – they are, as always, impossibly cute.
Looking forward to the Season of Grand Plans (a.k.a winter)
We’re looking forward to the quiet of winter. We’ve had the big machine in again this autumn pulling stumps and piling brush in the area we logged last winter. We’re hoping to burn the piles in the next few weeks. This winter, we’ll watch where the water goes so we know where to dig ditches and another pond to control water next summer, and start cover cropping as soon as we can get something to germinate.
We’re getting ready to reflect on this season, and plan the next. We’ll be thinking about how to invest in new machinery and infrastructure to make us more efficient and extend our season. We’ll be thinking about what crops and varieties to grow next season, and when. We’ll be looking at ways to expand our production before our new field space is ready in 2019 – perhaps by leasing land, or reducing low-yield, slower growing crops. And, we’ll be wrapping up our Young Agrarians Business Mentorship. While there’s still a lot to do to close out this season and get ready for the next, we’re already enjoying the transition to shorter work days, and having a little more of our “to do” list doable while curled up with a coffee in front of the fire.