Changing Seasons, Chicken Catastrophes and Chasing the Dream

I am standing in my parents’ kitchen, on their landline, shouting into the phone.

“This has gone on long enough. Do you think I have time to get the magistrate involved in this mess? I don’t want to, but this is not how adults behave. This is not how commerce works, and this has gone on long enough.”

I am shouting this at the boy (some 21-year-olds may be men, but I’ve given this one the benefit of the doubt for far too long), because he is the direct cause of our chicken catastrophe, and my patience in handling this nightmare has expired, and I am just so, so tired.

Let’s back up for a moment.

It’s early July. Our chickens are laying, and laying well, and are happy in their pasture. We had some troubles with foxes and hawks earlier this season, and at least one coyote, and are down about thirty of our girls from sneak attacks.  We’ve moved them across the property to a less hawk-filled territory and are talking about tracking down some layers to get our numbers back up. I find an ad for the type of chicken we already have, from someone nearby who, according to the advertisement, just has too many chickens and is getting too many eggs, and they’ll deliver them to the farm. My neighbor and I collaborate on the chickens, so I tell him about the ad. We agree it’s a good decision.

Perfect, I think. This is perfect.

The chickens arrive the following week at my neighbor’s property, where the chickens live. These new chickens are a little smaller than ours, and a little scrappier, but I chalk that up to the coop syndrome, where too many chickens crowded in get picked on and scruffy from the lack of sun and pasture. We’re doing these new girls a service, I think, and I’m glad.

Since then, I’ve heard from other farmers that you ALWAYS quarantine new animals. It makes sense, of course, after the fact. But also for every farmer who tells me that, there’s another who assures me that they don’t, and that they would have never thought to, either.

The point is, about four days after the new chickens arrive, all of our chickens, all two hundred plus of our happy little flock, stop laying eggs.

Concern, panic and straight confusion set in. Are these newcomers stressing the flock? One of my neighbor’s workers is a seasoned chicken lady, and as we walk around investigating the newcomers and original hens alike, we start to hear sneezing, see glassy eyes and drippy beaks. Something is amiss here, and we round up the questionable girls and move them to a coop offsite to keep an eye on them. We put colloidal silver in their water, Thieves around the coop, and start researching what this could be and how to treat it.

Then the hens start to die. It’s a couple at first – two, then five, then seven. A handful every day. I call the guy who sold us the new hens and he says some obvious nonsense about new chickens not being acclimated to the outside. He assures us none of the other chickens he’s sold have had any problems. After several more days of these inexplicable casualties, the phone calls get more tense, and he discloses that he’s purchased these chickens from a poultry auction and that he has no sense of their history or what could be wrong. The smoldering anger in me starts to catch.

We have researched some diseases and a few seem to fit the bill. We take a couple of our deceased girls to a pathologist in Kennett Square, and she calls a day later with disheartening news – the flock has mycoplasmosis. It’s a contagious disease that causes respiratory infections that lead to death. Lack of eggs is another primary symptom. Once a chicken has it, only antibiotics can alleviate the symptoms (at which point we can’t sell the eggs or the meat) – and the minute you take the flock off the antibiotics, the symptoms and the carnage resumes.

The news is devastating.

“How does this happen?” I ask. I’m sitting in my truck, head pressed against the steering wheel, and that smoldering is getting stronger.

If chickens are on antibiotics while in the poultry houses, they may not exhibit symptoms while the auction is happening. But once off the medications, the symptoms can come back, and that’s what makes the birds contagious. There’s no cure, and no way to manage this problem on the scale we operate on. Except culling the flock.

I call the guy who sold us the chickens and calmly tell him all this information. I tell him that if he has other chickens on his property that he needs to get them tested, so this isn’t spreading any further. I hear his distress and his confusion. I don’t feel he was maliciously trying to unload sick birds on us. But there is an adult, mature way to do business. We aren’t looking for the thousands of dollars in compensation for lost birds, unused feeds, the eggs we’ll have to buy in for the rest of the season. We just want the money back from our purchase with him, a few hundred dollars to close the loose ends on this horrible ordeal. Because who wants to talk about small claims and damage suits with another farmer, especially another young farmer?

The guy resolves to get the money together and we hang up. Shortly thereafter, he blocks my phone number.

Cut back to present. To the world where I’ve had to use a different phone to call these people, to where another human answers the phone and tells me to leave him alone and stop calling and I have to pull out aggression I didn’t know I even had anymore to get my point across and get this issue settled, to a world where the chickens we’ve enjoyed and cared for since the season began have gone to the great green pastures in the sky.

It’s exhausting, and a true part of this lifestyle I have had yet to experience. Working with animals tempers your emotions, I’ve known that since my first season at the dairy, because life and death are the worlds we deal with in agriculture. But this, this is something new. Something that leaves me feeling responsible, under-educated, and angrier than I’ve felt in years. I’ve watched my parents suffer emotionally over the distress of these birds and my subsequent duress. My neighbor and I, already in the throes of summer exhaustion, were just handed an additional hefty plate to handle. This is something that smolders.

We are very lucky to have such a strong community of food in this area. We’ve found several sources of fantastic eggs for the CSA shares and markets to carry us through the rest of the season, and I can’t thank those folks enough for working with us and empathizing with this satiation. My friends and fellow producers and family have been nothing but encouraging and supportive as my emotional turbulence has ebbed and flowed in the last two months. My neighbor and I have been discouraged by this, as I’m sure you can understand, but are talking about what next year could look like with our new education in this realm. Personally, I’m not sure if I can handle it right now. Ask me again in a few months.

But here’s the undercurrent of all this. Those sick chickens came from somewhere, right? Somewhere where hens are cooped up and blasted with medication to suppress these illnesses. And then when the manufacturer is done with them, he dumps them out into the world for us to face the consequences.

I’ve become so much more meticulous about knowing where my meat comes from, and my eggs, and all my animal products in the last few years, but now it feels imperative. It feels like a weight in my stomach that is with me all day, a weight that I’ve been sitting with, scared to talk about, but now it can’t just sit in there anymore. If this is something that happened to us, it has to be happening somewhere else. Maybe many other places. And it deals with the food that you and I put into our bodies every day.

So this is the lesson I’ve learned this year. This is the hard, long, painful lesson. We need to demand food transparency. We should want to know who is raising the animals we rely upon, and how we are raising those animals and that food, and we need to support the growers and producers who are making the responsible, moral choices.

I know the usual Liz on this forum is very bubbly and hopeful and energized. And she’s still here. I’m looking forward to writing more, very soon, about growing the Lehigh Valley food community, about the workshops I’ve been leading and talks and festivals we’ve been attending, about the amazing feedback we’ve had for the Blue Mountain Farm Market in my hometown, and for the growing interest in growing and using herbs. I can’t wait to tell you about how happy the CSA folks have been this year, how much fun I’ve had sprouting fruit trees, and how exhilarating it is to be building infrastructure for next year as we move into the fall.

But today we pause and acknowledge our girls, those lovely hens, and the choices they represent in our food systems.

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-Liz

Season Endings, Cheese Making and the Upcoming Travel Adventure!

It’s raining today, and I know I have a pallet of cinder blocks in my truck bed that need to go into the greenhouse to expand the solar bunker for February’s early seedlings. I sat here and made a list of errands to run, spreadsheets to make, side projects to buy materials for. I am going to mail a package that has been hanging out in my truck for something like four weeks, waiting to get to a post office. Sorry, Kat and Will. I promise it’s coming.

Instead of doing these things, I stir my tea, slice myself a piece of yesterday-made feta cheese, and think about how to turn my brain down. I talked about this last year, too – teaching yourself how to slow down and detach because deserved rest is allowed and acceptable – and while the mental guilt still battles on in my silly brain every time I sleep in or spend an afternoon reading (even if it’s raining, even if it’s the off-season), I’m getting better at it. Marginally.

End of Season Share! Aka Shameless Plug

End of Season Share! Aka Shameless Plug

The season, as many of you know, is at an end for 2015. Though the season doesn’t truly ever end – field planning for 2016 has already commenced, seed catalogs are being perused, and folks are already signing up for next year’s CSA (WOOHOO!) – the fields are more or less in rest, save some kale and collards for Thanksgiving meals, and the chickens have been pared down for their move to the indoors for winter. Many went to some fabulous local homes to expand some homesteader flocks, and that makes me really happy.

During our last move of the chickens, all the cows decided to come lick Reuben's truck.

During our last move of the chickens, all the cows decided to come lick Reuben’s truck.

I took Mama Wags to Valley Milkhouse‘s beautiful Cheesemaking 101 class yesterday, and we had an awesome morning with Allison Czapp of Buy Fresh Buy Local as we listened to the always-stunning and articulate Stef Angstadt explain cheese production and its translation into a home cheese-making setting. Stef is a young cheesemaker in Oley Valley who has rocked Eastern PA with her dynamic personality and delicious cheese.

Stef and her enormous blue cheese inventory, being awesome.

Stef and her enormous blue cheese inventory, being awesome.

Hooping feta in the giant vat.

Hooping feta in the giant vat.

The cheese class folks give their own a try!

The cheese class folks give their own a try!

After several hours of setting, culturing, hooping, and flipping, along with a creamery tour and cheese tasting of Stef’s amazing eats, we wandered home with huge wedges of fresh feta and recipes, culture and rennet for our own future kitchen creamery escapades. As each group made our own wheel of feta, Stef and her assistant finished off their 25-gallon batch along with us as she explained the nuances of different cheese production, the steps and ingredients necessary for a perfect mold rind and subtle flavors, and her story of home cheese-maker-turned-creamery-extraordinaire.

Allison hoops!

Allison hoops!

Mom uses the sweet knife.

Mom uses the sweet knife.

:) Happiest cheesemaker.

🙂 Happiest cheesemaker.

I can’t wait for Liz and Mom kitchen projects, and judging by that look on her face yesterday, I think she may be in agreement. If you’re looking for an awesome class for you and a friend who likes to cook, homestead or just enjoys cheese and learning, I can’t recommend this class enough. Everyone seemed to have a wonderful time.

The shift into hibernation has afforded me some adventure time, too. My grandma and I watched the Muppets. Liz and Ann of Green Heron Tools cooked me a spectacular meal, followed by hours of spectacular conversation (and the opportunity to read Earth Dreams, written by Liz, which is pretty rad).

Home sweet Keith's

Home sweet Keith’s

I made my annual pilgrimage back to New York, to where it all began over in the Hudson Valley. Visiting Keith’s renews my spirit, and popping cloves with this year’s crew gave me hope of having my own happy, healthy, stable intern or three one day.

Kobe, still being adorable after all these years.

Kobe, still being adorable after all these years.

The man, the myth, the ultimate boss: Mr. Keith Stewart.

The man, the myth, the ultimate boss: Mr. Keith Stewart.

I spent an evening with my aunt and this little bundle of joy earlier this week.

The Return of the Kitten Monster.

The Return of the Kitten Monster.

I’ve been attending some workshops in the Lehigh Valley about all sorts of things, from a Reiki Attunement certification to the Laws of Attraction to, as you see, cheesemaking! I’m spending a couple hours a week helping the Lehigh County Farmland Preservation office with some office work and learning about the process of farm inspections and preserving practices. It’s all pretty cool stuff.

Plus, farm inspections usually include great animals, like this precious girl.

Plus, farm inspections usually include great animals, like this precious girl.

I’m also in the midst of a crash-course in carpentry as I help a dear friend finish off some work on her shed and house before the snow comes. Cedar shingles and insulation are my new best friends.

If only Carpenter Liz could translate straight lines...

If only Carpenter Liz could translate straight lines…

And I’m looking ahead to next season. It’s been such a satisfying and challenging season in a number of ways, and next year is only going to get better. So many of this year’s CSAers sent such beautiful photos and messages throughout the weeks and have already committed to 2016 (I even got some checks already, bless their hearts), and that’s a truly wonderful feeling. I’m feeling confident as a grower and ready to tighten up the fields for better production and streamline some processes for more veggies with less back-breaking labor and mind-numbing schedules. It’s totally possible, and I’m figuring out how.

This week I had a really great meeting with the administration of St. Luke’s CSA program, and we discussed a number of ways to make the 2016 season less stressful for the farmers and more valuable to the customers. I had a call yesterday from an interested potential 2016 member. And I’m looking for a Bethlehem drop-off location, especially since Bethlehem Food Co-Op members receive a 5% discount on share prices when they join! This is an organization I hope to become more involved with as their infrastructure grows, and I want you to be a part of it, too! The co-ops in Philly are so cool, and the thought of having one here, with shelves stocked by farmer friends, not to mention myself, is just so exciting.

Tea party, ahoy!

Tea party, ahoy!

The teas and herbs are moving into the spotlight for me, too. We are currently selling at Northampton Community College’s Wednesday market (10-2 at main campus!), and will have some herbs at the Easton Public Market when that location opens. I’ve been looking for places to give out sample packs around the county to interested stores and cafes, so if you have any ideas, let me know!

I few weeks ago a handful of friends and NCC Good Growers came out to help me dig some raised beds. Shovels flew and two enormous raised beds were formed, moving us ever closer to that permanent raised bed dream. And beautiful Lucia, neighbor intern and beloved soul sister of 2015, has finished her season with Willow Haven and returned home. Applications are open for new guitar-strumming, heart-warming neighbor gals – but know she’s always gonna be the favorite. Follow her family’s adventure as they create a tiny house community outside of Philly!

Lucia, the beloved, and Mislav, the first person to appreciate that my tea kettle whistles a perfect fifth.

Lucia, the beloved, and Mislav, the first person to appreciate that my tea kettle whistles a perfect fifth.

And the biggest news of all: I’m going on an adventure! I’ve talked about it for years and put it off for one reason or another. Too nervous of traveling, not enough funds, afraid to be away for such a long time. But a couple months ago I was surfing some listings through Workaway, a site that offers international work trade experiences, and found a listing for an eco-village on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. St. Michael‘s practices permaculture and sustainable techniques I’ve only ever read about, and their commitment to teaching their workers how to utilize these practices is inspiring. The space looks utterly breathtaking. The owner is incredibly perceptive and welcoming, and even took the time to read my blog before our initial interview. I think we understand each other in terms of mission and future goals at our respective properties. We aren’t necessarily able to grow the same things in our varying climates, but new experiential learning is half the fun!

Plus, the thought of spending any more time in a Pennsylvania winter makes me too tired to think.

I can’t even explain to you how stoked I am. Jess is even lending me a not-duct-taped-together laptop for the journey, so you can all read along with this leg of the Farmer Liz adventure. Stay tuned.

You know you want to...

You know you want to…

I’m about to update all these other blog pages, the ones about teas and herbs and available locations, and the 2016 CSA info. Now’s the time, friends, to step out of your comfort zone and share in a new food experience. Contact me for more info.

Yours in Kale, Love and Coastal Dreaming,
Liz

fall kitchen

Rain Dances, Sister Love and Chicken Capers

watermelons

squash

Okay, nobody panic.

It’s dry. Dry, dry, dry. And our driveway kicks up a dust storm whenever you drive up it. But the vegetables are okay.

tomatoes

transplants

The transplants are ready for market. The plants in the field are growly slowly but surely. After two years of dragging my feet, we set up irrigation in the field. And not a moment too soon. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow, right? Do some dances for us.

hydrant

Our little hydrant runs through the woods and out to the field.irrigation

We roll the main line back and forth so one half of the field is irrigated at a time. We haven’t had to try to stretch across the hedgerow to the plantings on the other side…not yet.

Even Willow Haven’s alfalfa – where our chickens live – is beautiful. It’s surprising how resilient these plants can be in this sort-of desert climate.

lucia

Lucia, the awesome Willow Haven intern, pauses to admire the view.

In other news, our farm pups are growing by leaps and bounds. Well, Chase is. Arya is pretty full grown at like a third of his size. Jess can barely lift him!

chase bobcat

He thinks he’s the Navigator. Silly puppy.

jess and chase

Speaking of Jess, a Wagner is back in South Philly and all is right in the Universe.

We ran Broad Street the weekend she moved in, and I even managed to keep up with her for the first five miles! I even got to hitch a ride to the starting line with her Students Run Philly Style Team, and I was so proud to be the big sister while she handed out Gatorade and rallied her kids.

broad street

How Liz Got Her Groove Back.

Broad Street is ten miles of the happiest, most community-centric city event I’ve had the honor to attend, and the montage of my Philly life played out I moved South, the way it does every time. We start where I went to college, we run through my migration to the South. And the friends and neighbors and amazing water station volunteers are truly incredible.

Jess, her darling Jon and I run our first trio race together since like 2012.

Jess, her darling Jon and I run our first trio race together since like 2012.

I haven’t been able to run a race with Jess in a few years. Having her back on our Coast is delightful, and she’s up to amazing things. She is mentoring teens through a couple of running programs in the city and launching her first batch of motivational running apparel – totally made in PA. She’s so cool. A percentage of proceeds will go to the programs she helps with, so once she has product, get ready to represent! Follow her blog at Run Life Co. for her journey.

runlifeco

Can’t keep those Wagner Warrior Women down.

But back to the farm. Today my mom, aunt and I are putting up our deer fence, seeding greens and weeding everything. I’ll be getting my signs cleaned up and my tent out for MARKET! WHICH STARTS IN TWO WEEKS! AH!

I’m excited, if you couldn’t tell.

I’ve been drying herbs like mad, getting ready for teas and spices. The dehydrator smells amazing.

The anise hyssop shot up immediately once mom cleared away the leaves, and we've dried a few batches already

The anise hyssop shot up immediately once mom cleared away the leaves, and we’ve dried a few batches

And the chickens have been keeping us on our toes. The egg count is incredible, and I’m looking forward to sharing these incredible, almost-orange eggs with you this season.

I have promised a more in-depth article about the price of great eggs, and I stand by that promise. Stay tuned. Last night I was looking at our estimated costs and returns spreadsheets, and seeing how much we’ll make (and that’s with NO labor costs), makes me stand by my pricing.

eggs

Trust me when I say these eggs are worth every penny – our chickens are moved to a new section of the alfalfa fields each week, and they live in a camper and get to roam within their portable fence as they please. We’ve had a run in with a predator – a weasel? A bird? We’re still trying to determine this – and it’s pegged some of our girls over the last couple weeks. But we’re trying to be vigilant and take care of this pest problem before it gets out of hand.

Happy Camper Chickens, or "It's moooooving day!" Secret of Nimh, anyone?

Happy Camper Chickens, or “It’s moooooving day!” Secret of Nimh, anyone?

I have an egg share in the works – contact me at liz.m.wagner@gmail.com for details. Or if you’d just like eggs now, these are $5/dozen (which is the going price for these caliber eggs in a market setting). Let me know if you want some and I’ll get them to you.

In other news, so many of my friends and I are in this crazy cosmic upswing where all our projects and dreams and goals are manifesting around us. It would be so much more surprising if last year hadn’t been what it was.

necklace

The world is out there for you. You just need to start reaching for it.