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Posts Tagged ‘Chickens’

While the title of this essay may be tinted with a bit of doom and gloom, it is not as ominous as it sounds, and it is a fairly accurate description of the events and stories that follow.  For anyone who has followed this blog over the last five years may have noticed, I have gone through periods of consistent, productive writing, balanced out with dry periods of nothing but writers’ block growing up through the cracks of my mindscape.  While these droughts have been few for the most part, this last one has been pretty epic in scale!  The last time I sat down to write was back in February of this year when I continued with an ongoing series of essays about DIY homebrewing.

 

Winter!!!

Winter!!!

Since this last winter (the one filled with all of the Polar Vortexes) many things have happened here at the Dead End Alley Farm, and much of it would have made great copy for essays and DIY how – to’s here on the blog. I am not going to touch on everything, but I guess it is time for us to catch up on current events and happenings around the homestead and the world at large.

 

As I sit here in the afternoon shade with a cold beer in the outside office (a picnic table and some benches, and a hacked together arbor covered in wild grapes and honeysuckle) I am listening to one of the hens cluck away in pride or fear or some other emotion that only a chicken can know.  I can see bumble bees feeding on white clover and catnip, an overcast sky, and my old dog Harvey lying in the grass watching the world go by.

 

There are parts of our yard that are overgrown with weeds that should have been ripped from the ground long ago, and some of our apple trees (especially the big old one in back) are beginning to shed apples like drops of rain.  There is garlic hanging from the roof joists of my back deck and the tomato plants are overloaded with luscious fruit this year.

 

I have three hives of bees this season.  My pride and joy are the Carniolans that overwintered and have proven to be exceptional bees.  They are 3 deep with 2 honey supers (which translates to a very healthy colony that is making a lot of honey), a naturally mated queen (who may be the same one from last year, not real sure if they have swarmed or not this season) leads this tribe, and they are poised to enter this upcoming winter appearing very strong and healthy with adequate food supplies.

 

buckfastbbeeinstall

Installing the Buckfast bees out at our country beeyard.

This spring I also purchased 2 packages of hybrid Buckfast bees that came up from Georgia.  Sadly one perished within the first week (dead queen), but the other one has shown to be a vigorous (if not a bit pissy) hive of bees.  At last check they were finishing up drawing out comb and making honey in 3 deep boxes which should be enough stores for winter. And throughout the early part of the year these Buckfast bees provided frames of brood and eggs to help strengthen my Carniolans, and have also helped out to create a third colony.

 

At the end of June I came across a local company, 4 Seasons Apiaries, that specializes in locally bred queens and nucs.  This is a huge deal for us in Minnesota, not only for the fact that it is hard to find northern bred queens anywhere, but because it was only 20 minutes from my house as the car drives.  I ended up purchasing a really dark queen for $28 and put together a split that was made up of two frames each of the Buckfasts and the Carniolans.  The jury is still out on how this hive is doing though.  The queen is laying eggs, there is brood (both capped and otherwise), and they are actually making quite a bit of honey, but their overall numbers seem low to me.  They will most likely be subsidized with honey from the Carniolans this winter in hopes that they will have enough food to survive the cold, dark days of the upper midwest winter.

 

While I cross my fingers in hopes that all 3 of my colonies will pull through and survive this upcoming winter, observation and common sense tell me that the likelihood of all 3 surviving is slim at best.  Current numbers from this last winters survival rate was anywhere from about 30-50%.  These are horseshit numbers when compared to 20-30 years ago when a beekeeper could expect close to 90% survival rate in their apiaries.

 

My backyard is a refuge for endangered species...

My backyard is a refuge for endangered species…

So the same story continues for the bees.  While the numbers of reported cases of colony collapse disorder have evened out (and possibly plateaued), bee losses continue throughout many parts of the world, but seem especially high here in America.  Why this is such a surprise to people baffles me.  Our modern – mono crop – anthropocentric ways of inhabiting this planet are not compatible with a diverse, living, natural world.  This story is no longer just about the bees, but also of the monarch butterfly, the oceans, the remaining old growth forests of the world, and even people.

 

Habitat destruction, climate change, slavery, edible-food-like-products engineered to grow with poison, industrial pollution, and profit – from – disease are all symptoms of the overarching cancer that is this modern day capitalist society. It has grown up around us over the last 300 years, the whole time was spent in a petrochemical party binge, and now that we are drying out we are starting to feel the hangover!

 

It is as simple as this – when the bees lose, we lose, and that is the road we are going down.  The world that we live in, regardless of your flavor of religion, or politics, or indifference is still ruled by cold hard facts established through observation and the scientific method.  The world is changing, mainly its’ climate, but also the make-up of its varied populations.  Every day the Earth loses another creature, another plant.  The last of manifest destiny is completing itself as the few remaining “wild” people are driven from their forest homes, and the blood of ethnic genocide still waters the tree of “Liberty” for those of us in the privileged world .

 

Here is my flooded basement!

Here is my flooded basement!

This spring my family experienced climate change first hand.  For some naive reason I thought we were insulated from climate change here in Minnesota, but was I wrong!  Starting towards the end of May and going through towards the end of June, we received upwards of 15 inches of rain for the month, with a lot of this rain coming in bursts of multiple inches in short periods of time.  At some point a sewer line about a block and a half away from my home could no longer keep up with the amount of stormwater entering the system and literally collapsed in on itself.  This blockage led to my whole neighborhoods’ sanitary sewers backing up and we had upwards of 14 inches of sewage water in our basements!

 

Lets just say it was a real shitty and smelly problem to clean up.  To add to the mess, the city that I live in is not claiming any real responsibility for the sewer collapsing.  They are saying that the amount of rain that we received is to blame (because no one could have predicted that we would ever get that much rain in such a small space of time), and it is not their problem that the sewer wasn’t designed to handle that much water.  This situation is a good illustration of the intersecting problems of failing infrastructure and its ability to deal with the symptoms of climate change.

 

Not only is it bad enough that our infrastructure is falling apart and failing throughout the country, climate change will only hasten the collapse of these systems that we take for granted.  As there is less and less money to spend on domestic infrastructure projects and basic preventative maintenance, and the ever increasing threats of unstable weather conditions loom closer on all of our horizons, our roads and sewers and all the other systems that make modern lifestyles possible will be challenged and frequently overcome by a force far greater than themselves.

 

What is the quick take away from this conversation?  That as we face the future of a world that struggles to adapt to a changing climate with far fewer cheap resources on hand to work with, we can no longer rely on the long term support of our governments to solve these problems or to even help clean up the messes that ensue.  Just think back to hurricanes Katrina or Sandy (or any number of other climate disasters that happen regularly around the world) and you have all the evidence that you need to show government ineptitude when a climate-crisis strikes.

 

Most of the collapse will be slow and unnoticeable except for those places directly affected by whatever natural disaster decides to strike next.  But with each changing season, and every new climate change induced disaster, bit by bit the comfort and convenience that we are used to will begin to erode away. As long as we keep spending our resources, whether that be gold or oil, in a way that denies climate change and resource depletion, we will find ourselves in a world that is an empty shell of the one we now know.

 

If I were a religious man I may start praying extra hard right now, but thankfully I let science rather than superstition guide my life.  Critical observation and the ability to make rational decisions based on the facts is important.  Not just for a nation or a civilization, but also on the personal and family level.  I think if there is anything I have learned, is that when we can look at problems on multiple levels, do the research that is needed to educate ourselves on these problems, and then make decisions based on these observations to correct the problem, we can do a lot just in our own lives to change the course of events, and add a bit of resiliency and human spirit back into our everyday lives.

 

Nature reclaiming what is rightfully hers!!

Nature reclaiming what is rightfully hers!!

As briefly mentioned here in other posts, a year and a half ago I quit a long time job of mine in favor of one that affords me far more free time.  The trade off has been huge, and sometimes quite challenging.  This has been my second summer off, and my first full season as a partially self employed, full time stay at home dad.  It has probably been the most eye opening, and sometimes hardest role I have ever had to play.

 

Being use to the role as the main breadwinner in my family for so long and then giving up that economic control is not easy, but a lesson that I urge you to all try at some point in your life.  After these last few months of being at home with the kids, I have a far greater appreciation and respect for the work that my wife (as well as all you other moms out there!) has done over the last 8 years.  Child rearing is the hardest thing I have ever participated in, but I am glad that I have had the chance to dive in full time.

 

For me the hardest part has been balancing time between time actively spent with the kids, chores, and coordinating our CSA.  The CSA we run is small.  2 full shares, and 2, ½ shares, but it gave me a nice chunk of cash in the spring and early summer for things like groceries (I can’t grow cheese cake!) and gas money.  That cash is gone now, so my new endeavor is working on a business plan that expands out from the CSA in other directions to increase my summer cash flow for a few more months.

 

Eventually I hope to start making a bit of money by raising bees to sell, starting a small plant nursery, and I am also exploring some options for teaching classes.  Using outlets like the public library system, community education, and space at my local co-op, I am hoping to put together a selection of classes that will include introductions to beekeeping and Permaculture, and also a tree grafting workshop each spring.  I am in the early phases of research and planning, but I hope to teach my first official tree grafting class this upcoming spring (contact me if you are interested in hosting a class).

 

I guess when I really sit down and think about it, my ultimate long term goal is to not have to ever work a full time job again, unless it is for myself.  I am not scared of hard work, but it comes back to the fact that I am no longer alright selling my time to some asshole when I am fully capable of doing something(s) I am passionate about and generate an income for myself at the same time.

 

You can't stop nature!

You can’t stop nature!

Is this selfish?  Maybe, but I am okay with that as well.  I have begun to realize more than ever most people are just clueless drones.  Who after years of taking orders, and numbing themselves with TV, processed food, and fanatical beliefs in fairy tales can no longer truly take care of themselves or make desicions that impact their destiny.  As it stands, with humans being prisoners to their own creations and all,  I do not have a lot of hope for humanity right now.

 

If you follow David Holmgren’s work Future Scenarios, we are most likely entering into the Brown Tech future.  A world where we will continue draining the Earth of its fossil fuels, destroying the last of the wild lands, converting more and more  of that land to desertscapes of monocrops, and the further erosion of our shared cultural heritage, modern Homo Sapiens have perfected the art of extinction.

 

It is a bleak future.  One that leaves less and less room for those of us who seek freedom and justice.  It is a world that has been reduced to cultural poverty by traditions and tragedies alike.  It is a world where all life on Earth has been reduced to interchangeable and disposable parts in the pursuit of Progress.  It is a world filled with death and injustice, but it is also falling apart.

 

Whether humans can survive this collapse of our own making is yet to be determined.  It will be hard, but even the strongest rock is defeated by water and wind in the end.  It is in these cracks and fissures that we can seek our refuge.  The spots forgotten about and overlooked.  The areas where literal and figurative weeds grow.  The edges.  The TAZs where humanity still flourish.

 

Go on hikes.  Hunt mushrooms.  Raise bees.  Raise Kids.  Bake bread.  Love.  Hate.  Grow some carrots.  Chop some wood.  Pull some weeds.  Laugh.  Hug a puppy.  Cry.  Resist!  Grow.  Take a nap.  Rise up!  Read a book.  Lend a hand.   Take notes.  Have fun.  Fish.  Visit a friend.  Hug your mom.  Plant trees.  Be human….

Freedom!!

Freedom!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Here is all the food I pulled out of my new favorite dumpster!!

Here is all the food I pulled out of my new favorite dumpster!!

Last winter I wrote an essay entitled The Tragedy of a Disposable Culture.  It was inspired by my observations of a world gone mad by garbage and a particularly good dumpster score at a construction site.  I ended up pulling out a bunch of 8 foot 2x4s, 2x12s, ½ by, 8 foot sections of plywood and other random, but useful materials.  Some of that lumber has been used in beehive equipment and a lofted bed for my son, while the rest awaits a future project of some kind to manifest itself.

My days as a dumpster diver started in earnest back when I was 19.  As a poor college student who excelled at missing class due to environmental activism, joint rolling, and hangovers, I had plenty of time to explore the small college town I was living in.  On the north end of town there was a grocery store that kept an unlocked dumpster.  I stumbled upon it one night and felt like I had hit a jackpot.  Inside the dumpster were pre made veggie platters, bagels, and bags of apples.

Being the good vegetarian I was back then, this was a great find.  I loaded myself up with as much as I could carry and headed back to the dorm to figure out how to proceed.  I got my friend Chris to join me, and we headed back up to the dumpster with some bags, warm coffee, and a joint we shared together underneath the stars.

That night we made it our mission to liberate as many of those goodies as we could; not only feed ourselves, but to feed as many other college kids as we could find.  We loaded up the veggie platters and apples, and also realized there was a whole garbage bag worth of bagels for the taking.  Without hesitating, everything that could be salvaged was, and we headed back.

As we entered into the main part of the campus, enough people were out walking around (it must have been a Friday or Saturday night) that we decided to just start handing out the bagels.  Some people thought we were nuts, but most (being poor college students like ourselves) were grateful for some free food to go along with their beer.  We nearly emptied the bag in less than an hour!

The next day I gorged myself on veggies and finished the apples, and with what I couldn’t eat fresh, I turned the excess produce into a big stew that contained broccoli, cauliflower, and carrots – nothing had ever tasted so good as that dumpster stew!  For the remainder of that year in Wisconsin I would often visit the dumpster.  Some days were better than others, but I usually came away with at least a snack to tide me over in those lean days of my failed attempt at higher education.

And so that is how I got my start diving into dumpsters.  Since those days back in Wisconsin, I have a hard time passing a dumpster without peeking my head in to see what might be hiding down in the deep, dark, and sometimes stinky depths.  Most times it is just truly garbage, but on those rare occasions something great is procured – romex wiring and brand new electrical plug-in boxes, boxes of nails, a whole universe of dimensional lumber, box fans, books, extension cords, a multi-tool, cleaning supplies,  and five gallon buckets have all been found in my local dumpsters and back alleys.  But it hasn’t been since the glorious food dumpster in college that I have had luck in finding high quality food for the taking, that is until yesterday!

Yesterday I was doing a bit of grocery shopping at a store that is fairly new to us and our area.  While it is not a store I typically shop at, I was intrigued by a flyer we had received with the Sunday paper and thought I would check it out.  Surprisingly, the prices are pretty affordable, and if you are an ingredients list reader like I am, most of the products I was interested in purchasing contained a short ingredients list that I could read and pronounce all of the words contained in the list with no problems!

I got the small amount of items I had set out for, but was amazed by a few things I noticed while walking the aisles.  Almost all of the fresh produce is over packaged – snow peas laid out on a foam tray wrapped up in plastic, individually wrapped cukes, two tomatoes to a tray – you get the picture.  Upon seeing this, my mind flashed backed to the dumpster of glory I talked about earlier – that dumpster contained the same kinds of things, over packaged produce that was still good for eating, and lots of it.

I paid for my items, and decided right then and there to see if my suspicions were correct.  I pulled my small car around to the back of the strip mall, found the proper dumpster, and casually went and stuck my head in.  WOW!!  Not only were my suspicions correct, they were exceeded by what I saw in there!  Snow peas, bunches of celery, cabbage, citrus, and a tray of multi-colored bell peppers that were just out of reach.

Being that it was the middle of the day and well past 90 degrees, I quickly grabbed what was within arms reach and got out of there.  Checking for cameras as I left (which I couldn’t find), I felt secure about going back later in the night to check back in on the dumpster.  On that first trip I left with a perfectly good head of cabbage, a few trays of the aforementioned snow peas, and celery.  Because of the heat I ended up feeding the peas and the celery to the chickens, but still a good use of otherwise unwanted food – spoiled veggies turned into egg protein!

As day turned into night and I finished my evening chores, I suited up in working clothes, put on my boots, grabbed a flashlight and a couple of buckets and headed back to the dumpster.  This trip was even better!  I ended up leaving with 8 pints of grape tomatoes, a bunch of organic bananas, 3 oranges, and more celery.  I was stoked!

With the tomatoes we are going to make a salad with mozzarella balls, and basil from the garden, and salsa using cilantro and purple jalapenos from the garden as well.  The bananas, just slightly soft to eat fresh are going to be turned into banana bread with some sunflower seeds in it, the cabbage is most likely going to get fermented into a small batch of kraut, the oranges are perfect for eating by themselves as is, and once again the celery went to the chickens.  What a great abundance of food that otherwise would have been tossed into the landfill.

It breaks my heart knowing that this dumpster is filled with food almost everyday.  What is even worse, is that there are millions of other dumpsters just like it around the world.  Lucky are the ones that are not kept under lock and key and compaction, but most are.  So really, the crisis of kids going to bed hungry, and people not knowing where they are going to get their next meal is not a matter of there not being enough food, but a problem of distribution.  If a company can’t make money off of the product, it is easier to just toss it, rather than offering it to food shelves and kitchens or directly to the people.  This is insanity, and it is wrong!

FNBWhile this topic is too big for me to tackle in one small essay, there are solutions to this problem of distribution.  The group Food Not Bombs who I used to work with back in my punk rock days is one of these solutions.  Founded in Massachusetts in the early ‘80s by anti nuclear activists, Food Not Bombs has grown into a worldwide movement of independent collectives that serve free vegan and vegetarian meals at rallies, protests, and impromptu gathering.  Lots of the food that FNBs uses is dumpstered and donated, and then cooked up and offered for free to anyone who is hungry.

Food Not Bombs, along with many other groups that have similar intentions, are fixing that distribution issue.  Just like in Permaculture where we can take the problem and turn it into the solution, FNBs is liberating perfectly edible food from dumpsters and feeding those who are in need of a good, wholesome meal.  Not only is this act one of compassion towards our greater community, it is also a shot across the bow of the corporate, food elites.  It is taking the food back to where it belongs, in people’s stomachs regardless of who they are or how much money they have to their name.

It is hard to imagine what the possibilities might be if all the food that can be found in dumpsters – fruits and veggies, packages of cheese, and crates of olive oil (just to name a few) were to make it into the hands of the people who need it the most.  What would happen if everyone went to bed with a satisfied belly?  What would happen if we no longer equated the ability to eat with how much money you earn?  What amount of resources could be saved if we ate all this food (or at least fed it to livestock or even composted) instead?  These are questions we can ponder all we want, but in reality it comes down to one thing – If you have access to a dumpster(s) like this, take full advantage of it.

Take what you can and eat it yourself.  Experiment with recipes using what you have on hand.  In the case of the cabbage, practice preservation techniques like fermentation.  Or if you find a bag of lemons, preserve them in salt or make lemonade.  The possibilities are endless.  If you find more than you can use or preserve, share it with friends or family.  If you have a local chapter of Food Not Bombs, or some equivalent organization, donate the food to them and even better, volunteer and get involved (This is something I need to start doing again as well).  And if you have produce that is not fit for human consumption, feed it to your chickens or other livestock.  Novella Carpenter, in her book, Farm City describes how she fed her two urban hogs a diet of dumpstered fish parts, peaches, and other produce that Bay Area residents discarded on a daily basis.  Whatever you decide to do with your dumpstered food, the important thing is removing it from the waste stream and keeping it out of the landfill.

As for me, I plan on visiting this new dumpster a few times a week.  While my family is not starving from a lack of food, I plan on taking full advantage of this resource and using it in conjunction with our garden produce and eggs from our chickens.  I have no qualms about eating produce or other grocery items out of a dumpster, and if I can cut down on my monthly food costs, and fill up my larder at the same time, even better.  And if I come across someone in need in my community, I am going to share this little secret of mine with them so they can reap the benefits of this magical dumpster as well!  Peace & Cheers

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garden

Workin in the garden …

I have ruminated enough times on this blog about climate change that it would no longer pop up its ugly head, and yet it never ceases to amaze me as to how well it lends itself to a quick article.  As homesteaders, so many of our daily activities lead to the out-of-doors, and therefore keeps us connected to nature and all her changing faces.  As an example, currently we are in the middle of a week long rainy stretch (not so unusual for this time of year), but on May 14 (more than a couple days ago), we had high temps in Minnesota ranging from the mid 90’s (Fahrenheit) all the way up to 102 at my friends Permaculture farm an hour and a half south of town (a bit early for temps like that).  Three days earlier we had close to freezing temps in the morning and freezing rain on and off throughout the first half of the day.  A week or so prior to that we had a significant snowfall which followed one of the most perfect, 80 degree, bug free weekends I have ever experienced! Talk about extremes!

Cherry Blossoms!

Cherry Blossoms!

All of this occurred in roughly the last three weeks, a time that can be traditionally summed up with the old adage “ April showers, bring May flowers.”  This year everything is mixed up, and a bit delayed.  The dandelions are just starting to bloom, as are the haskaps (honeyberries), Creeping Charlie, Lilacs, and for the first time, our multi-cultivar plum tree that I have lovingly named “Plumsy”!

Plumsy now has about 17 varieties of plums and apricots grafted onto him, and if all the blossoms get pollinated, set fruit, and survive through harvest time, I can expect to taste Mount Royal, Pipestone, Red Cherry Plum, and Superior plums for the first time!  I have only had a tree ripened plum at my father – in – laws, so this is exciting and something to look forward to!

Keeping on the theme of fruit trees and grafting, the 2013 preliminary results are in.  A lot of grafting has been done and I am highly optimistic for the success rate this year!  After much trial and error, I have officially switched back to the whip and tongue method of grafting for most of my work.  Last year I used the cleft grafting method and had decent results, but the whip and tongue, when executed properly, makes a much stronger graft union due to more cambium layer contact between the scion and the stock.

A bucket full of prunus grafts!!

A bucket full of prunus grafts!!

I started out all this years grafting with the rootstock.  29 apples, 20 plums, 5 apricots (apricots can use the same rootstock as plums) and one Shipova (sorbus x pyrus) grafted onto a sucker root I dug up from my Ivan’s Belle Russian Rowan.  I will hopefully know by July which grafts take and then can start planting out trees, or prepare a winter nursery area for the ones that are to be planted or sold next year.

Now onto the monsters in the family!  As I mentioned earlier, Plumsy now has close to 17 varieties of plums and apricots.  I added two European plums – Imperial Epinuese and Kuban Comet to help pollinate the Mount Royal, a bunch of American x Japanese plums, and two apricots – Apache and Black.  Last year I had a 100% success rate with grafting onto to Plumsy, hopefully I can repeat that again this year.

Next is the infamous Son of !Frankentree!  3 years ago I started grafting onto a Haral-red apple tree.  That first year only one graft took, but I kept at it and last year added 20 varieties and had about a 90% success rate.  This year I added another 20 or so varieties and time will only tell, this fall I may have an apple tree with close to 40 varieties grafted onto Son of Frank!

Continuing with plant propagation, I tried a few other experiments in the last few months with varying degrees of success.  I obtained a number of berry cuttings this winter (aronia, currants, elderberries, gooseberries, and haskaps) and continued with trying to root these.  Most of the currants are doings pretty well, as are the elderberries, but the aronia and haskaps were complete failures.  I am going to try again in a few weeks using green wood, rather than 1 year old growth.

Also mentioned in an earlier post is the package of chestnut seeds I received from my friend Cliff who owns Englands Nursery.  I have not had the best germination rate with these (probably because I used a grow lamp rather than the sun!) but there have been a few that have done exceptionally well.  The strongest one has found a home on the north end of my property, and will hopefully be the upper story of a future urban food forest!

The offspring out by the new coop.  Did I say offspring, I meant my kids!!

The offspring out by the new coop. Did I say offspring, I meant my kids!!

In other news, a project I first mentioned back in this post, is now functionally complete.  The new chicken coop and run was finished a week ago.  I am happy to say that this project, except for the nails and screws, used nothing but salvaged and repurposed materials – the shed, window, all the lumber, fence panels, and welded wire fencing were all garbage to someone else, and now have a new lease on life helping to house and protect my flock of yardbirds.

Along with diverting salvageable resources from the waste stream, the new coop and run is functionally superior to the old one.  Not only is it larger which will mean happier chickens, it will also be easier to clean.  Our composting area is only a few feet away so it will be easier and more efficient than what we have been doing – the beauty in a well designed system!

Aside from the freakish weather, grafting and plant propagation, and the chicken coop project, spring here at the Dead End Alley Farm appears to be winding down quickly.  Some blank spots in the food forest/orchard continue to be filled in with more apples, cherries, and plums, all my bee hive equipment is ready to go, but so far the bees I was hoping to purchase have fallen through.  Hopefully my swarm traps do their jobs and I end up with some free bees!

A quick note to all my loyal readers, this tends to be the time of year when I get too busy to write on a regular basis.  I anticipate this happening again this year, but you never know.  I will do my best to keep puttin’ my thoughts down into words for all ya’ to read, but short of that, feel free to follow me on face book and keep up to speed with smaller updates – kind of like Autonomy Acres Lite!  Also, I love hearing from my readers, so shoot me an email at autonomyacres@gmail.com if you have any questions or comments.  Until next time, I hope climate change is kind to you and yours!  Happy Growing Amigos y Amigas!!  Peace & Cheers

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possum

Pretty Cute, Huh !!!

So I have something to tell you all.  With much hesitation and trepidation, but with encouragement from my wife and my good buddy Bill, I bring you the story of why I have blood on my hands.  Two nights ago I had to kill a possum.  I did not do it because I wanted to, or because I thought it would be fun, but because I was defending my chickens.

Earlier in the day we had noticed that one of our Buff Orpingtons was dead.  This has happened one other time when I had an accident putting them away at night.  The ramp that leads up to the coop is a drawbridge type of door, and evidently one of the other Buff Orpingtons had stuck her head out as it was being closed and received a broken neck from my carelessness.  Needless to say, I received the name “Chicken Killer” from my wife and kids.  Since then, I always double check to make sure everybody is out of the way before I close them up for the night.

When we came upon this recently deceased chicken, it was a bit strange as to where she was located.  She was not near the door like the previous chicken had been, but was underneath the drawbridge.  I felt this was evidence enough (of what do you suppose!!), to clear my name of the “Chicken Killer” label, but I was still blamed.  I got her cleaned up and disposed of, but because the ground is still frozen here, I was not able to bury her which I would have preferred to do (dead chickens are great fertilizer!).

Once that was done I really did not think about it anymore.  I collected an egg from the nesting box, checked on the bees because it was a nice sunny day (they are still alive!!), and headed inside to make dinner.  I ended up falling asleep early that night and was happily dreaming about spring rains and dandelions, when I was awoken by the sound of my wife running into the house, holding a chicken, yelling for me!

I had no idea what was going on, but I reluctantly pulled myself out of bed and went to see what the problem was.  This is when I found out that we have had a possum visiting our chickens.  When Karyn went outside to put away the birds, it was dark and they should have been inside the coop on their roosts.  Instead they were all outside squawkin’ away, terrified of something. One was stuck in some orange, plastic fencing that had fallen down from snow, trying to fly away. Another chicken somehow got out of the pen. She picked it up and opened the nesting boxes to put it back in the coop when she found the possum, nestled comfortably in bedding straw, eating a raw egg.

It was almost 11:00 PM when I was called into action.  I was tired, and not at all pleased with the situation I found in front of me.  I got my jacket on, and went outside to figure something out.  I realized almost immediately that I would have to kill this ugly thing!  If all I did was chase it out of the coop and scare it off, it would come back and cause more damage than it already had.

I am not a hunter, and the extent of my killing experience (except for the chicken whose neck I broke) has been limited to a rabbit or two that my cat has made a horrible mess of!  Now I realize that my diet (which consists of meat) is only possible by killing, and therefore I play a direct role in the slaughter of animals for food.  That is why we try to support local, ethical suppliers of meat when we can afford to.  But having this situation, or should I say creature, look me in the eyes, and knowing that I am going to have to kill it myself was a feeling I was not entirely comfortable with.  I fought through the emotions quickly, and realized that if I was willing to keep chickens as part of our homesteading project, than I had to be willing to protect them from predation by possums, raccoon, and other varmints that call the cities and suburbs home.

Without going into the exact details of how I took this creatures life, I will say this.  Possums are incredibly tough and have a will to live that is impressive.  I did my best to give this animal a quick and painless death, but it was a challenge.  Both myself and my wife are now in agreement that if we are going to keep chickens as a part of our homestead, then we need to take proper steps to insure their safety – we will be buying a small .22 caliber pistol for the next time this situation presents itself.

Which leads to the true moral of the story.  We failed as responsible homesteaders.  We failed at responsible animal husbandry.  When you decide to include animals into your homestead, you take on a moral obligation to provide them with a safe and healthy environment in which to live, and this is where we failed.  This should never have happened, and the fact that a possum was able to get into the coop shows a design flaw in the system.  While we have since taken steps to correct the problem, it makes me sad that we lost one of our chickens to a mistake that could have been prevented.

My chickens are not pets to me.  I try to avoid naming them, except for Teeny Houdini (formerly Cluck D), and realize that someday they are going to die and end up in the stock pot.  And there lies the difference – I want their death to be at my hands, done humanely and quickly and with purpose.  So while it is sad that we are now going to have one less egg every few days, and that we lost a nice gentle bird, we have learned some very good lessons, and have seen a side to homesteading that is not pretty or sexy or hip.

Moving forward, the chicken coop and run are being completely redesigned and relocated this spring.  We had already started planning this before the possum had shown up, so I suppose this is good timing to reevaluate designs and plan accordingly.  While I hope this never happens again, I do realize that some of this is just the way the world works.  There are prey and predators in nature and they do what they are evolved to do.  Our role then is to moderate that interaction and keep our animals safe to the best of our abilities.  To all those with a flock of backyard chickens – keep ‘em safe!  Make sure their coop and run is secure, and if you have to deal with a similar situation as I just described, be prepared to take the appropriate actions!  Peace & Cheers


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In the first installment of the Urban Homesteading in a Northern Climate series, we talked about the garden and some tactics and ideas that can lead to successful food production.  This week I want to continue that conversation by staying outside, and talk more about the other out-of-door spaces of a northern climate urban homestead.

It is easy for the garden to steal the show – they provide us with our sustenance, a place to escape to, and inspiration for songs and stories.  It is more difficult to find that same spirit in a wood pile or a garden shed, but does it make these other aspects of our homesteads any less important?  Certainly not!

Like the human body, a healthy, functioning homestead has many different parts and systems that complete the whole.  Where the gardens and orchard may be the heart and circulatory system, our houses as our protective skin, and the kitchen as our digestive tract, all homesteads – like our bodies, require the basics to sustain life.  These analogies of the body and a homestead are not perfect, but I do believe they do a decent job of illustrating the point I am trying to make.

So what are some of the other out door spaces that contribute to a healthy and vibrant homestead?  What are their roles and more importantly, since we are talking about the Urban Homestead here, how do we design them into the small spaces we have to work with?

Here are our two main compost bins.  The chickens' new home will be behind this area.

Here are our two main compost bins. The chickens’ new home will be behind this area.

Let’s begin with an important piece of any homestead, the compost pile.  If you are anything like me, the compost pile may be as important as the garden itself is.  Without a place to turn our organic wastes into useful fertilizer and soil amendments, we wouldn’t have fertile, thriving gardens.  We have our main compost pile located almost centered on our ½ acre plot.  We use a system of two plastic compost bins (along with temporary welded – wire compost cages to accommodate seasonal over flow of compostable material), which cycle, and compost organic waste in a rotation of first in, first out.  Because our homestead has been evolving over the last ten years, there are definite design flaws that we try to remedy as they are identified and as time permits.

One of these design flaws has to do with the interaction of our flock of backyard hens, and our compost area.  Our number one compost ingredient is bedding straw and chicken manure.  It would then make sense to have the chicken coop located in closer proximity to the compost area, or the other way around – but we don’t.  The coop sits about 35 feet from the composting area, which really isn’t that far, but it is far enough when you are hauling bedding straw and chicken manure to be composted, and when you have limited space to utilize.  This design flaw will hopefully be corrected this coming spring as we have plans to move the chicken coop and run right next to the composting area.

Another big advantage we will gain by moving the chickens closer to the compost area is that they will also be much closer to where we have one of our garden sheds located.  This rickety old shed acts as a garden tool storage area, and where we store all of our fresh bedding straw.  When we buy bales of straw from the farm supply store, we purchase upwards of 15 bales at a time for three reasons – we get a price break at that amount, we only drive down to the farm store 2 – 3 times a year (for bulk, raw grains for chicken feed, and straw), and because that is how many bales of straw my trailer can accommodate in one load.

Here is the rusty, old shed!  A home for garden tools, bedding straw, and probably some lucky mice!!

Here is the rusty, old shed! A home for garden tools, bedding straw, and probably some lucky mice!!

With the erratic weather patterns and the on going drought that America has been dealing with for the last few seasons, having a place to securely store an expensive input like straw is important.  While we don’t run a huge operation, knowing that we have 6 months to a years worth of straw stored in a dry place saves us money and time, and also adds a small bit of resilience to our homestead.  I’d rather not import and spend money on a product like straw, but the simple fact is that I have too for right now, so having the infrastructure to properly store such a great source of compostable carbon is vital – even if it is a rusty old shed!

Continuing on the importance of outbuildings, we have one other shed, and a detached garage that are a part of our homestead.  In the urban setting, a garage and/or sheds can help take the place of barns, machine/work shops, corn cribs, and granaries.  Once again, here at The Dead End Alley Urban Farm (the commercial arm of the Autonomy Acres blog) we have another design flaw.  This one though is not so much a flaw on the location or the structure itself, but of operator error!  I am a collector of “useful materials”, or a less sexy way of putting it, a modern day scavenger!  My habit of finding and then diving into dumpsters (or spotting cool stuff along boulevards) has yielded me vast amounts of lumber, fencing, firewood, windows, 55 gallon barrels, and many other useful, and random pieces of urban “waste”.  Because of this, our small garage, two sheds, and yard have turned into a BIG mess!

I am not ready to abandon my habit of picking up useful materials, but I do have to figure out better ways of storing the materials I collect.  Another project on the “to–do” list is to organize all the lumber and other random materials I have collected, and store them in ways that make them easy to inventory and even more easy to utilize and build with!  If this can be accomplished, I can actually turn my small garage into a workshop that can then be used for making hive bodies and other beekeeping equipment, rain barrels, compost tumblers, and other DIY projects that I have going on or want to start!

Moving away from outbuildings, but staying on the theme of utilizing the urban “waste stream”, is fire wood.  For the last two years, and periodically over the last decade,  I have been able to heat my house with wood scavenged from neighbors’ yards, storm damaged trees left on the cities’ boulevards, the county compost site, and trees cut from my own land.  In a typical Minnesota winter, that equals a lot of wood – at least two full cords of split, dried, and stacked firewood per winter season.  Now this is one place where our design is almost perfect!  Our spot for storing and chopping wood that is ready to burn is right out our back door (this same spot also doubles as an area to hang clothes out to dry in the summer!).

The Wood Pile!!!

The Wood Pile!!!

As funny as it sounds, this is one of my favorite out door spots in the winter.  There is something about heating my house with wood that helps me keep in contact with the Earth and the realities of human comfort.  I love the feel of the ax or the splitting maul in my hands as I chop wood, and I like knowing that MY physical labor not only helps to keep me a bit healthier, but also helps to keep my wife and kids warm when it is cold outside.  One improvement that could be made however, and will be once time allows (surprise, surprise!), is adding some kind of semi – permanent, roofed structure to help shelter our firewood.  Currently it is just covered with a tarp, but by having a real roof to protect it, we not only benefit from dry firewood, we also add another roof surface to collect rain water from!

Everything covered so far is really only the tip of the iceberg as far as outdoor spaces are concerned.  The possibilities are endless when it comes to designing and implementing ideas for our outdoor spaces!    This is a topic that whole books could be written about, so one blog post does not do this subject justice.  Other areas of importance that all homesteads should at least consider and implement when practical and possible are spots dedicated to catching and collecting rain water, sites for grey water systems, areas for livestock – chickens, rabbits, goats, bees, etc…, summer kitchens (cob and masonry wood fired ovens, solar ovens, and rocket stoves come to mind – oh yeah, and a place to BBQ and smoke meat), areas for drying and curing produce, out door bathroom facilities including composting toilets and solar showers, and entertainment spots like decks, porches, an area for a bonfire pit and even a bit of a lawn for playing bocce ball!

Just like everyone’s body is a bit different, every homestead is unique.  Where we live and what our interests are will play a big role in how we design and setup our outdoor spaces.  Obviously if you live in a spot like southern California or Florida (or some other equivalent warm climate), heating your house in the winter is not going to be a big priority, and if you really aren’t into keeping bees or other livestock you won’t have to work that into your design either.  But as homesteaders – whether in warm climates or cold, in the country or the city; it is our similarities that connect us, and lead to our ultimate success.  So while it is the outside land where we grow our food, raise our animals, and store building and other such materials, it is the home that brings it altogether!   And that is where we will pick up this conversation next time we talk about the Urban Homestead in a Northern Climate – The Home….  Peace & Cheers!


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Here you can see the world's smallest chicken egg!!

Here you can see the world’s smallest chicken egg!!

Good morning everyone.  It is 5:30 AM, so I apologize for any miss spellings and such.  I wanted to get to this last night before going to bed, but sleep prevailed.  Our chickens are laying eggs again!!  Through all of December, and most of January they had stopped laying.  But in the last week or so we have gotten about half a dozen.  Yesterday, when my wife went out to feed them and check their water and look for eggs, she got a surprise, a very small one.  The world’s smallest chicken egg!   Really it looks more like a quail’s egg, but we have no quails!!  We have no idea which of our chickens laid this small orb.  Regardless, all of us, including the chickens I am sure, are glad to have the sun around a little bit more each day.  We are not done with winter yet, but I can almost see spring on the horizon!!  Peace & Cheers!

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Hey everyone!  A big heads up to anyone who is in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin or other upper Midwest locations.  Some dear friends of mine are putting on a great event called the Gathering of the Guilds.  It is a chance for people to get together and talk gardening, permaculture, food justice and many more things. Please refer to the info below for details.  Hope to see you there!!  Peace & Cheers …..

Gathering of the Guilds – 3 Days of Permaculture Skill-shares, Workshops and Networking

September 14-16, 2012

At Harmony Park Music Garden (79503 298th St., Clarks Grove, MN 56016) Open Map

Gates open at Noon on Friday – Come early to set up your camp and help us create the event.

This is a COMMUNITY CREATED EVENT.

We will provide the infrastructure and logistical planning-YOU provide the knowledge. ALL SKILL LEVELS ENCOURAGED. This gathering will offer local permaculturists, farmers, gardeners, activists, and others a chance to spend a weekend sharing skills, making connections, and learning.

WE NEED YOU to facilitate a workshop or share a skill. Some ideas include:

  • Sheet Mulching
  • Animals in Permaculture
  • Hugelkulture
  • Composting
  • Urban Permaculture
  • Bees and Pollinators
  • Mushroom Cultivation
  • Vermiculture (Worms eat my garbage)
  • Seed Saving
  • Freezing, Canning and Drying
  • Fruit Tree Grafting
  • Humanure
  • Tree Pruning for Tree Health
  • Wild Edibles Walk
  • Grey Water Systems
  • Rainwater Catchment, Storage and Use
  • Seed and Plant Swap (Bring your extras and bring home some new additions)

This is a family friendly, drug and alcohol free event. There is onsite tent and RV camping, a Community Kitchen to provide 6 meals (bring your garden surplus to contribute), a kids space with ongoing activities.

We request a $20 donation to cover toilets, kitchen staples, and site rental.

NO DOGS!

NO OUTSIDE FIREWOOD!

For questions or to R.S.V.P please email:

gotg2012@centerfordeepecology.org

 

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