Friday, September 21, 2012

Was It The Chicken Or The Egg That Came First?

Emmett Frary, the fifth-generation with a two-
week old chick.
At Copicut Farms, in North Dartmouth, MA, the chicken came first.  Every three weeks during the warmer months they get a new crop of day-old chickens that are raised for their meat (8 weeks until they are ready for processing), but these are not the chickens that lay their eggs.  The farm has a totally separate operation with hens for their egg production. In the spring they will purchase 500-600 new laying chickens to complement the existing group of 500 egg-producing chickens and produce hundreds of thousands of eggs.

This was all a little confusing to me, a suburban hockey dad, but Elizabeth Frary, Owner of Copicut Farms with her husband Vince,  helped me to understand how a family-run poultry operation works.  Elizabeth is a fourth-generation farmer, her father owns E.L. Silvia Farms, a successful fruit and vegetable farm in Dighton, MA.  She and her husband, Vince, returned to the area several years ago and purchased 80 acres of land that had been used for a dairy farm in recent years, to start a pasture-raised poultry farm.

Vince has a degree in Biology and an advanced degree in Wildlife Biology, while Elizabeth has a degree in Environmental Studies and an advanced degree in Education.  Even her father is a thesis away from an advanced degree in Horticulture.  These are smart, nice, educated people trying to grow and provide good, healthy, local food for the community.  While I will rave about the chickens and eggs here, the father's nectarines, apples, corn and squash have been wonderful too.

Why am I writing about chickens instead of plants?  I absolutely love their eggs and chickens and this is a very cool model for sustainable farming and learning how to get back to raising food that is healthy and local.  I would have thought that all chickens were raised in big fields with lots of grass, water and sun, but I would be very wrong.  Since Vitamins A and D and antibiotics were brought to the market, most chickens we eat never see the light of day.

Also, they sell their products at local farmer's markets (Winchester, Westwood, Framingham and Milton) and I hope you have a chance to try their tasty offerings.

Jacob Sylvia, the egg-picker, helps out Elizabeth
at the Winchester farmer's market
Laying Hens and Eggs
During this past summer they had about 1,000 laying hens on the farm, that produced about 75 dozen eggs per day.  A young high school student, named Jacob Sylvia, comes after school every day to pick the eggs, since you can't leave them out too long.  These egg-layers are are a cross between Rhode Island Reds and Leghorn chickens, both of which are considered excellent egg-producing chickens.  Of course your don't want any roosters in this group, since only the hens lay eggs and unfertilized eggs are most typical in the market.  This reminded me of a Seinfeld episode, as most funny things in life do, where George's father tries to figure out the hen, chicken and rooster quandary

Another comic aside, you may remember Foghorn Leghorn from early Saturday morning cartoons, maybe one of the most famous of the Leghorns.

An egg-layer checking me out
These egg-layers forage in the field for bugs and worms, eat grass, clover and whatever else is available and get some feed for their diet each day. The feed comes from a local Cooperative that uses 40% locally sourced grain, with fish meal and probiotics.  With all this good food and open pasture, the hens lay almost one egg per day, and when they are happy, healthy and stress-free the eggs have a nice hard shell, the best indicator of health.

Right now, in the fall, they are culling their crop of laying hens to 500 for the winter, and the local Portuguese community loves the hens for eating.  They are great in stews and soups, but are leaner than the other meat chickens and have a much stronger flavor, not traditionally enjoyed in the marketplace.  They even have the chicken feet, which are excellent in soups, but I haven't crossed that line yet.  Might be a while before I am caught chewing on some chicken feet.

Next spring they will purchase another 500 or more laying hens as they have to keep the stock young since the birds typically stop producing eggs reliably after two years.

5 week old Cornish chickens enjoying some pasture
Meat Chickens
As mentioned earlier, they receive a new crop of some 300, day-old chickens every three weeks.  The bird is a Cornish Cross, a common fast-growing bird in the industry.  In eight-weeks they have a bird ready for market.  Elizabeth and Vince both agree that the key to a tasty and healthy bird is to feed them quality feed but not so much that they don't forage and eat what is available in the field.  Because of the healthy conditions they have no incidence of disease and only lost one chicken in their last batch.  This is well-below what is average in the industry for pasture raised chickens.

Unlike the large commercial growers of chicken, these birds live in clean, natural surroundings that doesn't breed disease, and the quality of their fresh feed, with minimal preservatives, keeps them healthy.  Often, inferior feed will make the birds eat too much to get their nutrition, and this can lead to significant health and weight issues as they won't forage and eat the natural aspect of their diets.

Sustainable Agriculture
These girls are not in a cage, we just lifted the egg
protector so I could get a shot of these beauties
An important part of the pasture model is to keep the chickens moving around the fields so the resources don't get depleted and the bird waste does not overwhelm the field.  The laying chicken's houses are moved every three days and the meat chicken's every week.  The bedding from the meat chickens and any other waste is composted and then put back onto the fields when ready.  Broken eggs and chicken parts not used in the processing also become part of the compost process.  This ensures the biological activity in the pasture stays strong and the plant life continues to regenerate.

Predator Issues
They had a pair of Cooper's Hawks this summer that tried to take advantage of the bumper crop of chicks, but the birds were able to ward off the attacks by finding cover in their house.  This is a real risk for living out in the open.  More recently, a skunk has found a way to enter the fence at night to terrorize the chicks, and since the birds are night blind, the advantage definitely goes to the skunk. Vince has stayed a few nights on the farm to try to figure out how the skunk is entering the houses, but it remains a mystery for now.  Losing a whole batch of chicks could be devastating, so vigilance is important to keep everyone safe.

Feeding time is no time to mess around... these
girls are tough
Young Emmett likes to hand-feed the chickens, wonder
if there is a market for that, they also have a family
member who is a yoga instructor, who want to make
them little yogis

They also process all of the chickens, right on the property when it is time, this minimizes stress from transportation and decreases their costs.  Some chickens are sold fresh, but most get frozen immediately for farmer's markets and to keep for sale over the winter.  They also have about 200 turkeys that will be ready for the holidays and currently have Cornish Game Hens, a 4-week old, version of their regular chickens.

I got hooked on the chickens when I split one in half and cooked it on the grill this summer, and Kathy and I now eat their eggs soft-boiled and poached.  You will notice the difference immediately.  Look for Elizabeth at the market and she will tell you all about it and how to prepare her chickens.

They will also be at the winter farmer's market at Mahoneys in Winchester all winter, so you don't have to go without during the cold months.

Please support local farmers, like the Frarys, who work hard to give us better food.

12 week-old Turkeys coming over to say hi...only a few more weeks
for them, I want to order two for Thanksgiving.

Don't make that neck too long, it is almost October...

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Downy Mildew On Impatiens Was A Real Downer

How'd those Impatiens work out for you in the garden this year?

What is left of my beautiful spotted Impatiens
If you were like me and many others in New England, your Impatiens were struck by a disease called Downy Mildew and they died a slow, ugly death.  Click the link below for a very comprehensive fact sheet on the disease, some images of plants suffering and what to do in the future.

Downy Mildew Fact Sheet

Downy Mildew has been around for a long time but seemed to work its way through the nurseries last year, and especially this year and the impact has been devastating.

The challenge with the disease is that the plants seem to yellow and the leaves curl, so you think the plants need water, which is exactly what they don't need.  Unfortunately, plants that are effected can not be saved by conventional fungicides.

The disease can overwinter in the leaves and soil, so clean up any remaining plants and remove the top layer in the garden where the plants were situated.  If you had Impatiens in pots, be sure to clean them up well before you put them away, or remove all the soil if your containers stay outside.

So what next?  It is recommended that you not replant impatiens in the garden were they were before, especially if they died from a Downy Mildew.  You can replant in containers, provided they were well cleaned from last season, that means the soil removed and the container(especially if porous) scrubbed.

The growing industry will certainly be on high alert next year for the disease and will be spraying and protecting plants as they grow, but I will be looking for suitable replacements.

Suitable Replacements 

New Guinea Impatiens are not effected by the disease, so they are a suitable replacement, even if they are not as soft and colorful, but they may be the best replacement for color in shade.

Torenia is a great plant for part sun to shade.  There is an upright and trailing variety and it comes in a range of colors but not quite like the Impatiens.  This can go into mostly shade and is a great trailer in hanging baskets.

Browallia is another good replacement with limited colors but a good performer all season in shade.

Alyssum has some nice colors and can give you that nice shot of color, but only to part shade.

There are so many Coleus to choose from in some wild colors, be sure to look carefully at the mature size since some 4inch containers of Coleus can grow several feet in a season.  A burnt orange and a lime green coleus are favorites for the bold color they add.  Tip pruning them several times during the year can keep them to any size.

Begonias can be great in the shade and containers and have lots of color choices.  The tuberous can be big flowerers, while many of the other varieties can have wonderful foliage.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Don't give up on the garden yet!

With a little work to clean things up in the garden, there is still plenty of color and wildlife to enjoy.   With the acute drought we had in July, it may seem as though fall is coming early.  Stressed trees are dropping some leaves and some plants look like they are toast for the season.  Don't give up yet, spend some time cleaning things up and you will be rewarded over the next two months.

If you do have trees dropping some leaves early, get a hose or soaker hose on them to make sure they are very well hydrated as we head into the fall.  Don't ignore even your largest trees.  You can't always rely on fall rains to give enough moisture to the deep roots systems.  If you have some special ornamental trees or even large evergreens, give them a check and give them a deep watering going into fall.

Here are some photos of what's happening in my space:

A Checkered White male butterfly enjoying the Nasturtium flowers

I believe this is a Zabulon Skipper butterfly

Many of these Zabulons are all over the Verbena

One of many beautiful late-season sedums

Don't worry about all the bees that Sedums attract, most are
honey bees and they won't bother or sting anyone.

Caryopteris "Snow Fairy" just starting to show its blue/purple
flowers over variegated foliage

Kirengeshoma palmata- yellow wax bells is a favorite in deep shade
with late season yellow flowers.

Geranium "Rozanne"  a work horse in the front of the border
until frost.

Lobelia cardinalis - Cardinal flower giving a few last flowers after
being cut back last month.

Verbena bonariensis - A favorite to grow from seed for their big
arching branches of pale purple flower from late-Summer on.

Verbena is an insect and hummingbird magnet and will re-seed easily

Friday, September 7, 2012

Shagbark Hickory: Beauty comes with a painful price.

I returned to a client's garden that I designed and installed almost 10 years ago to perform a little pruning on some Japanese Maples and forgot about the deadly canopy above me until a golf ball sized nut hit the ground a few feet away.  Suddenly, I felt like I was 150 yards away from the tee on a golf driving range waiting for the inevitable crack of a nut landing square on my head.

I managed to escape after an hour and a half with shredded nerves and without injury, but I was reminded that the Shagback Hickory (Carya Ovata) is a beautiful and culturally significant tree.  Hickory is part of the Juglandaceae family, so it is a close relative to the Walnut and Pecan, and while lesser known, the nut is similar to its cousins, encased in a fibrous husk with a very hard shell underneath.  While a favorite of many critters, it takes a lot of work to get the prize

Shell cradled in thick husk with nut inside.
Given the fall bounty of nuts, it is not a great tree along driveways or close to the house, but is a wonderful , tall, straight-trunked tree as a specimen or in groupings where they can have some space.  One of the greatest attributes is the bark that flakes off in long strips on mature trees.  The trees that I was working close to may not be sited in the best location, but over time the limbs have been pruned up to reveal the long, beautiful trunks covered with this lovely bark.

Like the Walnut, Hickory has a compound leaf, with usually five leaflets, and it can have stunning yellow to golden fall color.  The wood is quite valuable for its strength in making tools and flavoring meat.  If you like BBQ, Hickory is a common wood used to smoke meat, and as a hard wood, it burns slowly.  If you have any Hickory on your property, don't let the arborist get away with the wood as it is valuable, at least as an excellent firewood.

Compound Leaf with five leaflets
I tried to remove the husks from the nuts, but, after being warned by my wife to be careful (I have a history of self-injury when doing silly things like this), resorted to my Hickory handled axe to reveal the small prize inside the husk.

Trees like this make me wish for a 100 acres of land so I could appreciate some of the larger plants and trees around, but for now I am fortunate to visit specimens I find elsewhere.

Close-up profile of bark
Husk surrounding the shell, turns brown and falls
off to reveal the shell underneath.
Two hickories standing tall over
a two-story home.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Forks, Maine - Humble in its Presence.

A holiday weekend trip to The Forks, Maine, provided a wonderful respite from the orderly grid of suburban gardens.  Roughly 30 miles from the Canadian border in the Northern Appalachians, this place is smack in the 'middle of nowhere' as referred to in the old Far Side cartoons.  We spent a day rafting on the Kennebec River through naturally formed gorges spotting several raptors including one mature Bald Eagle.

In gardens and landscapes, sometimes the objective is to achieve a natural aesthetic, but no designed landscape can compare to that of nature.  On our second day we hiked in to  Moxie Falls, one of the largest and most rugged waterfalls in New England.  To see how millions of years of moving water has carved out a series of stepped falls, pools and a 90' waterfall is humbling and puts into perspective how brief our stay and impact will be on this planet.  Please excuse the fact that I did not have my real camera with me.

90' Moxie Falls

Stepped falls and pools above falls

Fallen trees providing food for next generation

Over the falls and down into the gorge

Pebbles and rocks in a shallow pool