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

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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.

Chicken Adventures and The Start of Harvest

Sorrel picking

And so it begins!

Sure, my first big harvest was a mere pound of baby sorrel for the area farm to table, Curious Goods at the Bake Oven Inn, but standing out in the field with the harvest bin and a pair of snips made me feel the way walking past the track in high school used to. Excited, expectant. Ready for spring.

bagged sorrel

This week has been one of rapid movement. We’ve seeded mesclun and a pile of beets, we’ve planted kale, broccoli raab, cauliflower, cabbages, radishes and spring turnips, and there’s still more waiting in the wings for bed prep. Mom has been clearing out the leaves and weeds from the herbs beds.

komatsuna and raab

Today, after I post this blog, I’ll be in the greenhouse with my mom and aunt thinning, potting up eggplant, peppers and herbs and getting transplants ready to sell at the store. The ladies at Green Heron Tools gave me their lady-friendly tiller for the weekend, so I’ll be prepping my strawberry(!) and onion beds, and perhaps some more greens beds, with that over the next couple days.

The flowers are blooming, the trees are budding and things are finally starting to look green. Yes.

Last week was one of adventures, too. My neighbor at Willow Haven Farm and I expanded his egg enterprise this year, and on Thursday we packed up chicken crates and headed down to Lancaster to get our girls for the season.

chicken2 chicken 1

We came home with 200 birds and sawdust for the nesting boxes. The day before we cleaned out the Chicken Camper, a hotel and spa bird resort with mahogany roosts (an accident, really – we just got a fancy pallet), and when we got home that afternoon we released our ladies into their mobile environment.

chickenbefree

The chickens are afraid to hop out of the crates.

chickenslucia

So Lucia, Willow Haven’s awesome intern for the season, helps them out.

chicken fence move

Poultry Paradise, Hen Heaven, Fowl Fantasy, Chicken Chalet

In the next few weeks I’ll be dedicating a blog post to the price of happy chickens. Between the moveable fence, the weekly cost of soy-free, organic feed and the labor of moving them around every week, the cost of happy, healthy egg-layers might be more than you think. But let me tell you, these are the best eggs I’ve ever had.

The pups are taking very well to farm life. Arya oversees our operations on a daily basis and Chases rolls around like a toddler and sleeps under things.

arya drives

puppies in the leaves Like a boss (above). Children (below)

I keep discovering these beautiful flowers that are coming up in the yard at Little House. In the mornings before I go to the farm I pull out some weeds from the front and back beds and plant lavender, lemon balm, sage, tulips and hyacinths. Operation Hobbit Hole is commencing nicely. Stay tuned for housewarming details.

snowdrops scillia

Also, for inquiring minds, our good friend Farm Kitten has become a bigger (but still somewhat little) terror.

stubbz

Prince cat.

I’ve been getting back into the swing of a schedule and am finally starting to balance the farm with the rest of my life. I see the folks I want to see (though never as much as I’d like, as it goes), I’m making time to read and run and, most importantly, write.

I used to write nonstop. Then I wrote a lot for whatever colleges and freelance roles I held at the times. Then I started this blog and ran it as infrequently as a busy outdoors person with touchy wi-fi would. But that’s all starting to shift. I don’t know if it’s my sister’s urging to blog more, or having a house where I can stay up until midnight writing on the couch if I want to, or just the natural progression of my life, but suddenly I’m writing every day. And not just farm-related things, though that is a big part of it.

I’ve been granted this magical opportunity to take an online writing course with my favorite lady author. Francesca Lia Block writes these beautiful stories that transcends genres. As many of my friends will tell you, I’m re-read one particular story line annually or in moments of emotional distress, and when I discovered she was teaching a series of classes, there was no way I could pass it up.

We received our first assignment last week, and it’s sent me back into the world of fiction writing, a place I haven’t visited since college. And it feels so, so wonderful.

So yes, things are great on this end. Now, off to the greenhouse!

garlic

The Wagner Women and Their Vegetables

On Saturday, Donna Wagner and I took our first real step into farming; we went out to the Farmstead in the awful weather and measured our field. Now we can start planning our plantings based on bed and row size. In theory, of course. We still need a tractor, and we still need to figure out tractor wheel size and slope direction and a thousand other things. But the field is measured, folks, and it looks something like this:

Every art teacher (and everyone on the farm, and, really, anyone with an ounce of artistic ability who has ever known me) cringes when I try to draw. But here it is – the world’s ugliest, messiest field map. Don’t worry. I’m going to clean it up.

Donna has been insistent through and through that we be a ladies only farm, and I am becoming more and more on board with that by the day. More on that, and this incredible woman who is my mother, later this week.

In our excitement, we then proceeded to cook everything we’ve grown. We took some leftover clams from our last family bonanza and used mom’s green peppers, Keith’s garlic and some local onions for clams casino.

Tasty, tasty clams.

Then I roasted some entrepreneur tomatillos and made some badass salsa verde with some Hot Portugal peppers. Mom also made her own fresh salsa with all the ingredients from her garden. It’s scrumptious.

Salsa Verde! It tastes awesome.

Momma Wags's delicious garden salsa.

And then, finally, after weeks of preparation and no delivery on my part, we made pesto. Keith’s garlic and basil, pine nuts from my favorite Syrian bakery in Allentown. It is delicious.

Pesto Party. Throw some olive oil on top and freeze it for later.

Coupled with Jess’s CSA subscription from afar and my grandma’s typical  veg-heavy diet from her garden and ours, the Wagner women have been digging on their local, sustainable veggies pretty hard this year.

Sunday morning we headed over to the Emmaus Farmer’s Market. I wanted to check out the market and talk to some vendors, including folks at the Seed Exchange, who offer are offering a 20-hour a week apprenticeship in 2013 that would sync up nicely with next year’s plans. I spoke with an intern and the director there for a couple minutes – the intern, Marguarite, had been a WOOFer previously, and for her the two-acre production at the Seed Exchange was a huge step up. She said she’s learned a lot about tractors as well. I’m still on the fence here, but it was still really nice just to talk with some other farmers about flea beetles and cipollini onions and things of that sort.

We bought some Bison meat, nitrate-free bacon and artisan bread from various vendors, and I picked up some eggs from BAD Farm in Kempton, a husband and wife dairy operation close to Wagner Farmstead that will supply me with all the raw milk I could ever want once I’m living far away from Freedom Hill in New York. They have some 300 Rhode Island Reds for eggs and were really forthcoming and open to visitors, so I hope I can pick their brains about chickens in the near future.

Back at the farm, I finally finished reading through Richard Wiswall’s Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook and am skimming through a copy of Storey’s I by Gail Damerow. I plan to buy copies of all these for myself in the future, once I’m up and running and will need to refer to these books and their specifics more frequently. But this initial exposure if helping me figure out what I want and need to do in a more general sense. My next big task is to research tractors. Glenn keeps talking about checking some out, but we need to know what will work best for us before we go plunging into a crazy purchase like that.

So yes, today was a food post, but yesterday I went and bought the cheapest camera at Best Buy so I can get back to taking delicious and delightful photos of the farm, our evolving stand and our great-looking produce. Going to head out now and take some kale shots for a post later this week.

Fall is in the air up here. And for the first time that I can remember, I am totally stoked about it.

-Farmer Liz