“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants,” says local-food evangelist Michael Pollan, and though his books have been translated in at least sixty-five languages including Urdu, Chicken wasn’t one of them. Even if it were, it would be lost in translation on my willful mob. Can you say “Eat food, lots of it, mostly Matthew’s plants.”
Breakfast of Chickens: The apple blossom special.
My Dilemma with Omnivores is their lack of discrimination. They seem to pick up on the coddled pheromone trail I’ve invested into my favorite varieties an go for those first. Just when a long-awaited apple, pear or tomato is heavy with itself, it’s pecked or gnawed into oblivion.
Chickens are über-omnivores: They’ll sample, trial and taste almost anything, even chicken (don’t ask). And they’ve become so unhinged lately by the delirium of Spring that they’ve even taken to browsing the blossoms off of fruit trees in the orchard. Who does that?
I’m not alone, of course. I just have a larger produce department than most home gardeners, and a few too many fowl wandering the aisles.
Annual Lamium purpurium carpets the orchard. Also known as henbit, it’s chicken candy.
I spoke about “Growing Beautiful Food” at a big garden conference last month in Connecticut, where the Master Gardeners were many, and the Q&A was mostly about predation. “Yes, it’s all very pretty, and thank you for your lovely presentation, but what about the critters? How do you keep them out? This was the idée fixe: Beauty is negotiable, plundering is not.
And while I implored them to sacrifice a few peonies for eggplant, they couldn’t get passed the loss factor. Though growing things is always fraught with peril, growing food–no matter how beautiful, healthful, and environmentally responsible—is asking for trouble. Of course, in the long haul, not growing your own, or not supporting those who do it locally and organically, is the real worry; It will be no accident when we just can’t feed ten billion people on chemically saturated agricultural land that’s dependent on a diminishing supply of petroleum. So a few wayward chickens or nibbled greens are the least of our worries.
I’m seeking absolution, I suppose; having come in from the urban cold of not knowing (or caring) where my food came from, to caring deeply and deciding to do something about it.
I came from cities – physically, psychologically. From the bump and bustle of urbanism. No planting, no growing, no harvesting. And yet, here I am in mid-life, an organic farmer, feeding my family, feeding neighbors and CSA members; lost in a headlong swoon for this crazy, sexy piece of earth, and unable to imagine a life without it.
Spring at Stonegate Farm: One sexy piece of earth.
So I let the chickens have their barter share: They lay, I look the other way. A dilemma resolved by a kind of rural détante. Sometimes letting go can be the very thing your life needs. -Mb
Visit the farm @ StonegatefarmNY.org
A solitary hawk circled above the orchard this morning, cutting loose, slow wheels of menace across the sky. Chickens crouched under brambles, songbirds muted themselves in thickets. All the mad, flitting bustle of life on the farm came to an abrupt stop.
Something dangerous this way comes.
A hawk on the hunt is a magical, ominous sight: it’s silent wings, its keen, focused hunger. And from on high, the chickens are easy to spot; a fluff of life against a monotony of gray-grey grass.
The land below surely looked scrappier to the red tail than it does to us, with our edited, boots-on-the-ground view. Outside of raked and leaf-blown fields, the woods are a mess: an almost impenetrable tangle of limbs scattered by the latest hurricane, paper and mud stuccoed to trunks, swales sodden with leaves and brush, and above them a tree-line torn and broken against the sky.
The farm is a break from the chaos of wildness, and for the hawk it’s an easy place to spot the random flutter of a meal. Without the fleshed-out green of summer to protect them, the hens are vulnerable when out in the orchard each day in winter, with only the spiked bones of blackberry or a vault of primocanes to protect them.
The hawk perched in an oak tree above the stable and waited. I scurried about like a protective daddy, trying to herd the terrified hens back into the coop, but they had hunkered down under the blackberries, not to be wrangled. The red tail sat there preening and self-possessed, assuming she’d have the last laugh, or squawk.
Lookouts patrol the snowy roof of the coop.
We lost a few hens last season, taken out by a swift set of talons in broad daylight, and I’ve since sworn a farmer’s version of the Hippocratic oath, charged with protecting all creatures and crops in my charge (the woodchucks, squirrels, chipmunks, and raccoons have sworn at both me and my oath, as they’ve been trapped and shown to the exits).
Aside from keeping chickens enclosed in a run or pen, however (which would counter our free range philosophy), there’s really no protecting against a determined hawk. If you are small and yummy and out under the open sky, they will have you. This red tail, tired of my leery presence, finally flew off, if only to find a predatory perch somewhere else.
We lost a Cuckoo Maran hen the next day. She’s been too heavy for the hawk to carry off, and we found her in the back field, her body opened like a book, with an assembly line of eggs still waiting to be hatched.
Maybe I should have kept the hens cooped up for a day or two until the danger passed? Or just console myself with a dirge-like chorus from The Circle of Life. But in the end, you try and be part of the harmony, and not tip the balance too much; that’s the goal of sustainability. Hakuna Matata. - Mb
Danny Boy, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage.
A year ago I went to set loose a bantam black frizzle rooster that had a habit of launching into my son like a feathered football, talons blazing. As I pulled off the road and opened the truck door, ready to release, a figure emerged from the woods. I quickly pulled my anxious cockerel back into the cab, and the figure did the same. Turns out it was my marathon-running neighbor who’d stopped for a pee break. We were both rattled when caught in flagrante with our boys out.
The truth is, I just can’t take the crowing. It cuts right through my brain like some avian scalpel. Roosters are eye candy, to be sure, but also a sonic ear-sore. This is where my hard-wired urban DNA falters, where I’d rather hear a garbage truck at 4:00 a.m. than a rooster crow. Try as I might, I’m just not 4-H enough (I don’t think yelling “shut the H up” repeatedly counts).
A friend with goats and chickens and horses usually pulls me aside when we have dinner at his place and proudly lets me know – out of his children’s earshot – that we’re devouring one of his hapless bucks or chickens he’d just butchered (I always check to make sure the horses are accounted for). He has his farm-to-table merit badge for meat, which I secretly envy.
Quince in flower in the orchard. We’ll settle for beauty in bloom, not blood.
Even among small farm foodies, there’s a hierarchy: Heirloom seed savers vs. seed buyers, double diggers vs. topsoil tillers, preservers vs. seasonal eaters, animal butchers vs. coddlers, goat milk teat squeezers vs. the rest of us. Everyone has his own sustainability threshold.
The orchard hens are grateful for my aversion to the on-site abattoir, and maybe even for Danny’s departure. Perhaps the loss a preening, crowing Lothario is a relief. No more being taken by the scruff every morning and subjected to the tremor and spasm of an oversexed male. They seem to be carrying on fine without him, and since I don’t speak chicken, their pining would be lost on me. The henhouse flutters forth, with all inhabitants content to putter and scratch in the dirt, just like me. – Mb
The new hive supers and brood boxes arrived this week, sent in a backbreaking UPS shipment from Brushy Mountain Bee. Along with a smoker, protective clothing, and a Spring order for sixty thousand Italian bees, we’re getting serious about honey.
Last season’s colony rallied valiantly against the cold, but the brutal, permafrost Winter this year proved too much for them, and they succumbed. Their stores of honey exhausted, and their thousand fold wing-beats unable to keep the hive at a survival temperature of 94 degrees, they died of exposure and starvation. In December, the hive seemed to be humming along. Bees that were terminally exhausted had clambered out and perished in the snow, which they’re predisposed to do (they’re fussy that way), and I watched workers occasionally cleaning out the hive near the entrance.
All seemed well until mid-January, after a week in the single digits, when the humming and cleaning stopped. I’m not sure If the bees were Neapolitan or from the Italian Alps, but trying to raise internal temps by almost one hundred degrees would take one hell of a furnace, no matter what your origin.
When I opened the hive, all of the honey stores were exhausted, and I found a tight cluster of lifeless bees huddled in a sphere around their queen, who seemed to have died on the throne. The bees had needed more protection from the elements, more routine care, and I felt as though I had failed them. Any success in farming is always guarded and qualified, tempered by the humbling reality of caring for living things.
So we’re starting over. In fact, as I was assembling and painting the new hives, a few curious bees showed up and started inspecting the bundles of wax frames. They’re from a small colony that swarmed last season and took up residence high inside the wall of our pool porch. Like real estate speculators, they figure it’s a buyers market, and the porch wall is no match for a brand new duplex.
The new hives will be placed out in the Southeast corner of the orchard, where the glacial snow has finally retreated and the hens are now out and about on the sotted earth, looking to scratch up a thawed worm or two.
The farm looks a bit scrappy this time of year, not quite camera-ready, with the swill of Spring mud, the storm scattered branches, the gray wall of leaf-less trees. I feel the onset of that seasonal impulse to regenerate, to make my world good and green again.
In a few weeks, seedlings will be started, one or too hens will get broody and begin set on a clutch of eggs, and Spring onions will pierce the earth with their soft, aromatic spears. All the frustration of Winter, like the interminable snow, will have faded to exuberant green.
It’s hard to conjure green in January. While it dominates the landscape for most of the year, in mid-winter it is a fugitive from the cold, hidden beneath a thick blanket of snow. We’ve just had our third major blizzard of the season here at Stonegate Farm, and only the fence lines now mark the faint contours of productive land.
The chore-worn path to the coop marks the
daily routine of ritual and care.
Snow transforms not only the visual shape and color of the farm, but it alters our behavior as well. In Winter, we are deliberate. Our days are marked by the lines we make in the snow between outbuildings: feeding, filling water, warming. The woodpile, the coop, the greenhouse, the barn are all tended to. Our chore-worn paths mark daily routines and the ritual of care.
The fence lines that neatly define the perimeter of the farm are the only indication of productive land.
Most of our paths through life are more circuitous and indirect, affected by circumstance. Starting a farm for me was an indirect line, a scribble in the margins of an established career, but it has helped me to discover something fundamental that was lacking: finding purposeful work that’s connected and deeply rooted to place. If, as John Kabat-Zinn said in his meditation on everyday life, “wherever you go, there you are,” then I am here, and plan to stay. Planting an orchard or building barns presumes longevity, after all.
Out in the snow, the footprints of deer and rabbit and cat are present, as is the random scurry of a vole. The finches and sparrows perch like quarter notes in the limbs of crabapples, whose ice-bound fruit is pecked at. The hives hum faintly as bees cluster for warmth. They too have their winter routines.
While Winter is a stern editor of possibilities, routines are sometimes broken by chance encounters with the unexpected: An old maple, its branches burdened with snow, succumbs in the middle of the night, taking down a stretch of fence line; the alarming sight of female worker bees, who expired keeping their precious queen warm, scattered in stiff curls on the snow outside the hive. Even hoof prints along the orchard fence, where deer make their habitual circuit each night, seem deeper and more clustered, as though they’ve begun to nose the the perimeter of the orchard with curiosity and hunger. They could strip the bark off an entire planting of young fruit trees in one fatal, ravenous binge.
The chickens don’t get out much in winter. They don’t like the frost biting at their feet, and with nothing to scratch but snow, there’s not much point. May as well hang out in the coop, lay a few eggs, crow and squawk a bit, fight over a perch. I’ll come out and throw them some scratch, or freshen up their bedding with new straw, harvest eggs for the weekly egg share. I could be the most exciting thing to happen in their day, and that’s not saying much. At night, the coop glows like an ember with its 200 watt warming light, and inside the chickens are fluffed up and roosting in their brightly feathered duvets.
It’s up tails all as the hens try to make sense of snow.
Before Spring turns down the bed of snow, the boot-stitched lines that mark the back and forth of winter work and the hours of obligation will widen, as will our ambitions. We know how the growing season will overwhelm us with possibility and choice making. For now, the winter simplifies, letting our ambitions hibernate too. – Mb
The orchard hens have started to lay their pale blue and almond brown eggs as promised. I’ve been finding them tucked here and there under a pear or quince tree, or scattered beneath the brambles, but mostly in the nesting boxes as planned. There’s a large, antique porcelain decoy egg for encouragement, and plenty of praise when they relinquish.
Eggs from the orchard, in shades of earth and sky, have begun to delight us all.
They will get into all and everything, of course: raspberries, blackberries, tomatoes. I’ve watched them leap 3 feet in the air to snatch a raspberry, or balance on a tightrope of orchard wire to snack on currants, or peck incessantly through fencing to reach a tomato. They will also decide, without much discretion, that your planting of Fall arugula is a fine spot to take an afternoon siesta, so you find your coddled greens flattened here and there by the imprint of a settled hen.
Blackberries, swelling over the orchard fence on long, armored canes, haven’t escaped the notice of the insatiable hens. They will find a way.
The hens may not know a weed from a-rugula, but little loss of green is a small price pay for the eggs we’re now getting. Compared to a supermarket dozen, and to the USDA’s nutrient data on commercial eggs, our orchard roaming hens produce a vastly superior product. Their natural, free-range diet–including seeds, berries, insects, and greens, along with grain–results in eggs with far less cholesterol and saturated fat, and much higher levels of vitamin A, vitamin E, beta carotene, and omega-3 fatty acids. Is it any wonder they taste better?
Supermarket birds, even those labeled “free range” and “organic,” are usually fed a compromised diet of soy, corn and cottonseed meal, laced with additives, and have limited or no access to the outdoors. If fresh eggs from the home or farm are not available, pasture-raised are the next best option.
When the child of a CSA member was in the coop last week as an egg as smooth and blue as beach glass was being laid, she marveled at the beauty of it. In that moment, the value of running a small farm was being paid forward a generation or two. –Mb
The day we decided to resettle the chickens to the other side of the farm began clear and lovely: the luster of the previous night’s rain still visible in the grass, the air luminous and warm. I weeded early in the orchard and stole a few productive hours before heat and swelter took my energy hostage. The day before, the farm seemed to exist only to absorb the sky, to take in its rain like a sieve. The sky on resettlement day was unburdened by clouds or rain, punctuated instead by temperatures already in the 90s.
Coop and cupola, separated by a century and a half, now occupy the same aesthetic space. Ambivalent chickens just want a roof over their heads.
It was high time to furlough the young hens. They would be freed from their tight hot quarters in the Hell’s Kitchen garden, and moved three at a time to their new coop. The trip from the kitchen garden to the orchard is a few hundred feet, but to the hens—who had never known the flap of freedom—the journey was pure trauma.
Each hen had to be blindly grabbed through the coop door, and whatever I got my hands on was how they were removed (foot, wing, thigh, tail, giblet), squawking as though about to be slain. They were put into a box and carried to the new hen house.
My first instinct was to excite them about their new space, like any good chicken realtor: “Look at all these windows, and the closets. Plenty of space to park your eggs, and room to scratch. Have you seen those roosts?” But instead they chose to lie low in the box, head tucked under wing as though resigned to the certainty of a swift end. It took turning the box upside down and shaking them out to get them to check out their new home.
The coop was modeled after the cupola on the barn, with its carpenter gothic detail and pyramidal roof. When the farm was built in the late 1850s, the Gothic Revival period was in full fancy in the Hudson Valley. Its advocates claimed, like their gothic predecessors, that steep gables, vertical battens, and skyward finials brought the dwelling closer to the vault of heaven, so as to almost scrape the stars. All this is lost, of course, on a chicken.
Chickens love routine, and are ambivalent about architecture. To them, any change is loss, even the good changes. What they covet is the daily pattern language they’ve learned since cracking out of the egg. Give them repetition, monotony even, and they seem content. One hen was so put out by the change of venue that she took flight, choosing the perils of the wild wood over unfamiliar routine. She returned a fallen woman, ready to join the showgirls at La Cage.
Free at last, Free at last! The hens take to the orchard and frolic over worms and dirt
After a few days of house arrest, the young hens were set loose upon the orchard. At first the vast, open sky bewildered them, but they quickly acclimated and before long were actually frolicking (when was the last time you frolicked?). They soon headed down the long alleé of quince and plum to the thicket of blackberries, where they poked and scratched and left thorny brambles between them and the circling red tails.
We’ve lost a few hens to hawks in the past, and their swift, ominous shadows and piercing cries are embedded into a hen’s survival DNA. My children have witnessed a strike and kill, and after invoking The Lion King, the circle of life, and unfledged hawklings desperately needing a meal, they seemed perfectly at peace about it. For the chickens, now calling the gothic coop home, the further away from the vault of heaven, the better. – Mb
My new hens have outgrown their garret of a starter coop, and have begun to crowd the outside pen like a Parisian café. That’s café, not CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feed Operation), although conditions are rather similar, minus the threat of a looming hereafter. I hear them squawking over food and drink, or the best sidewalk table.
They’ll soon be moving to a new arrondissement in the orchard, where I’ve built a rather ornate gothic revival villa for them, in keeping with the rest of the property. The naming has begun even before the roof is on: The Café Au Lay. Coop de Ville. Das Coop. Why chickens bring out the cheap wordplay in us is a mystery. We just can’t stop ‘till we get an oeuf.
The New Coop will house 25 Maran and Ameraucana hens in great style.
While I was compound mitering the pagoda roof on the coop, my children and friends were in the orchard below, harvesting black currants. Their little hands, pulp-stained to a deep purple, picked the fruit in delicate clusters and arranged them in one pint boxes. This year is our first full harvest, with last year’s having been diminished by the ceaseless rain.
Black currants are certainly an acquired taste. Eating them fresh supposes a longing for complex tartness. The first bite through their supple, sun-blackened flesh is almost sweet, while the finish is much darker. All of life’s complexity in one bite. The Europeans have used them for centuries to flavor jams, tarts and juices, and the French transform them beautifully into cassis.
Daughter Daisy and best friend Hannah harvest black currant. Who needs a Brueghel painting when a canvas comes to life before your eyes?
But beyond flavor, black currants contain the fruit phylum’s highest levels of disease fighting anti-oxidants, particularly anthocyanins, which rage against heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer and diabetes. They’re also highest in vitamin C. For almost a century, production in the United States was banned due to concern over white pine blister rust, a fungal pariah carried by currants. But since 2003, all bans are off. I lift my glass of locally grown cassis to that.
Blackberries, raspberries and Aronia (another super-berry) will follow. The orchard view from the nearly-completed coop roof is lovely, full of promise; the fruit swelling in the heat, the bees traveling to and from, like the bowing of a thousand cellos, the chickens chattering in the distance. Life looks good from up here. -Mb
Black currants harvested in the orchard. Their smoky tartness and free-radical fighting brawn are legendary.
It turns out our dizzy, mop-topped hen, Phyllis Diller, is actually Phil S. Diller, a trans-gender cockerel. He went from dulcet murmuring to an all out strident crow in the space of a week. Give him some Spandex and he’s like a relic from an ‘80s hair band. Chickens are full of peculiar surprises, but this one I didn’t see coming. We put him on Craigs List and a very nice couple from Connecticut adopted him. Apparently they’re into leather.
Phil S. Diller: A bird of a different feather.
A new flock of fuzz (all female, I’ve been assured) arrived via the P.O. today. They, along with these beautiful, warm April skies have put dance back in our weary Winter bones here at Stonegate farm. The sugar snap peas, savoy spinach and tender varieties of early lettuce have been hardened off and are upright and steppin’ out in the Spring beds (var. ‘Red Fire’, ‘Red Sails’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson’). Other delicious greens such as Swiss chard, kale, broccoli, arugula and mesclun are warming up and waiting their turn to flee from the hot confines of the greenhouse.
The only caveat to such a glorious early Spring is the dark, foreboding lurk of a late frost, ready to take out all that’s in bud or bloom. Like a wolf crossing the property line (if I hear Prokofiev I’m going to scream!) We’re in zone 6B here in Balmville along the Hudson River, meaning our potential final frost date is May 15th, so who knows? Erratic weather seems to be the new normal, and humble resignation to its mood swings is a hallmark for those working the land. To put a spin on an old chestnut: Hope, in Spring, (and Summer, and Fall) must be eternal, otherwise we’d all be in therapy.
Far From the Madding Swarm was where I stood as hive and housing were introduced.
True to our goal of sustainability, and our dogged, hopeful nature, we’ve said Benvenuti to a hive of 12,000 italian bees in the orchard. These insatiable, chatty, free-range pollinators and makers of organic honey (maybe we’ll have some dripping out of the combs come Fall!) will add viability to both fruit and vegetable crops. Despite our being programmed to fear their Vespa-like buzz, they’re generally ambivalent about us, and have their own Dolce Vita to live.
My Swiss friend Rudy, who’s a pastry chef and instructor at the Culinary Institute in Hyde Park, set up the hive last week. As a master of all things sweet and delicious, Rudy has a fondness for bees. He showed up and built a tower of boxes and frames, emptied the thrumming swarm into them, gave me some bee-keeping-for-dummies fundamentals and told me to hope for the best. That I can do, eternally. – Mb.
We’ve legalized winter egg production here at Stonegate Farm thanks to a 200-watt red warming light in the Cage aux Fowl, and my little feathered harlots are laying like Madame de Pompadour. Even our virile black frizzle rooster, Gerald, struggles to keep on top of his broody harpies – chasing them about the frozen yard like a manic feather duster. With eggs galore in mid-winter, the oldest profession has aroused theKavorka in all of us.
The Dutch think they’re progressive, but we have dozens of farm-fresh eggs in our district!
All this fowl balling has inspired the addition of free range eggs to our 2010 CSA shares and Market Garden: we’ve ordered two dozen more hens, full size Marans and Ameraucanas, that should been laying their deep chocolate and teal colored eggs by Summer. A new Gothic coop will be built in the orchard, where the birds will feed on insects and fallen fruit and in turn cheerfully fertilize from their feathered ends. Chickens, eggs, and quince, oh my!
In the greenhouse, beds and soil blockers are getting ready to start seedlings in early March. This year, we will be adding fingerling potatoes, deep purple carrots, gherkin cucumbers, and – heedful of last season’s scourge – blight-resistant tomatoes! We’ll still have the heirlooms and unusuals but have included an escrow of blight-resistance to our insurance policy. Is any local tomato better than no tomatoes? We’ll see.
Greens are slowly stirring inside the Winter greenhouse.
Out on the Winter farm, the stalwart Tuscan Kale has been adding frozen, vitamin rich greens to soups, and the cold has only ramped their sweetness; it seems many plants react to stress by converting their starches to sugars – a kind of vegetal survival instinct - so kale, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and carrots are a sweet wonder beneath the blanketing snow.
Varied greens will be a mainstay again this season. If I yearn for anything in the bleak mid-winter – and we all need a good yearn this time of year – it’s for all that wonderful, mixed cutting lettuce and mesclun greens. Call it chlorophyll deficit disorder. How many starchy root veg can one man eat, after all.
The snow-bound orchard, waiting for Spring to stir it to life.
Besides walking among the orchards snow-bound allées of apple and pear, pruner and notebook in hand, or starting greenhouse seedlings, winter is a long, cool breath, somewhere between quiet reflection and forward drive. So be it. Let the lusty chickens frolic. Apparently, Roxanne, you dohave to turn on the red light.
Stonegate was restored and designed with the camera in mind, with framable views and an attention to the pattern language of gardens and buildings that create opportunities for image making. It’s been a long process, more than ten years on now, of creating a visual dialogue with this place, and just when I think there can’t possibly be another pixel’s worth, more images get made. Apparently, if you don’t photograph it, it never existed. Spooky.
Bo-Bear pretends to sleep, then slips me a contract and model release form.
You Blight up My Life
It’s here. We’re doing our best to control it, but may lose the battle. I’m putting out the best anti-fungal Karma I can.