A friend recently commented, in an email sent to several people spread out around the country:

So the cicadas have made their return to the Chicago area, these gross-looking insects that descend on the area every 17 years. But they are really starting to freak me out for a multitude of reasons. First, they tend to only come out at night so when I’m walking my dog, I’m finding myself inadvertently crushing one of the 100s of cicadas covering the sidewalks. Then last week, I got in my car in the early evening and had to wait for a large gathering of Lake Michigan seagulls to clear out the way–they were feasting on the cicadas.

What’s bizarre is that 17 years ago, I spent the summer in Chicago and had this same perspective on cicadas. They were obnoxious, and the low hum made it nearly impossible to sleep (particularly since it was so hot, and I was a starving student lacking A/C, so the windows were open all night).

The cicadas haven’t arrived here yet (about 90 minutes south of my friend’s neighborhood), but I must admit that I’m actually looking forward to when they come out from their long hibernation. Our large flock of free range ducks stays out all night, and I can already picture them working their way across the field feasting on these nasty critters. And then, when the laying hens come pouring out of the hen house first thing in the morning, they’ll clean up all the cicadas the ducks didn’t get to. Heck, I may be able to stop giving the birds supplemental feed.

Of course, the droning hum may have me singing a different tune after awhile. We still don’t have air conditionning, and it’ll be interesting to see how loud those cicadas will get. Not to mention the sounds of duck bills crushing lots of little bug bodies…

Doing this full time

Perhaps the most influential figure in the sustainable agriculture movement is Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms in Virginia. I’d also call him the most inspirational figure in that movement, because he has developed a working, profitable operation which integrates beef, pork, broilers, rabbits, and eggs. More than that, he takes in apprentices — and travels the country giving speeches, helping others get started. As his website details, you can visit his farm and see how he puts all the pieces together. Some neighbors of ours did just that on a family vacation a couple of years ago, and said it was the highlight of their trip.

Joel has also written a number of books, a couple of which were among the first we read after moving here. They have proven invaluable.

In the next few days, I’ll be putting up a post showing how we’ve incorporated his pastured poultry pens into our own farm.

Great Nests

We’ve had several ducks make nests and go broody, in various places all over the property. Some of these nests were in terribly unprotected places, and/or the mother ducks did a lousy job of tending their eggs, and those nests got destroyed.

Several are off in the high weeds, often inside the wire enclosures we’ve set up around young fruit trees to keep the sheep out. Somehow, ducks can manage to squeeze through or under any fence anyone can build…meaning they figure out odd places to make nests.

One that I especially like is this Khaki Campbell’s set-up, in the hollow of an enormous Green Ash tree that borders my vineyard.

And this Cayuga has picked perhaps the safest location: under a pile of old pallets. I don’t know how she manages to get in or out, but she’s been our most faithful nest-sitter this year.

As I said, there are many more such nests in various places around the property; too many to picture in just one post. I love having heritage breeds of ducks, like Cayugas and Magpies, which will hatch and brood their own young.

Although even the Khaki Campbells — a production egg duck — will hatch a clutch of eggs with the best of the heritage breeds, they have proven themselves to be absolutely horrible mothers. Time and again, I’ve seen them start with eight or ten hatchlings…only to lose one or two per day, until they have zero. Starting last year, we began simply taking ducklings away from the Khaki mothers and brooding them ourselves under heat lamps.

Of course, we can’t count our ducklings before they hatch. But hopefully we’ll be getting plenty of delicious duck before too long.

Memorial Day

Can’t think of a better song for Memorial Day.

As for our family, we took a drive over to the local cemetery this afternoon. The local American Legion and VFW did a wonderful job decorating graves with flags, and had a nice memorial set up at the base of the large flag pole. We walked around, praying for all the various people buried there, but particularly for the veterans. We then sat down on a couple of benches and said the rosary.

All in all, a nice way to spend a beautiful afternoon.

Farming for the Future

There is a really outstanding video out about a movement of small-scale farmers in Southeast Ohio, called “Farming for the Future”. Beautiful visuals, and excellent commentary from the farmers themselves about why they’re doing this and what it all means. Very thought-provoking, and inspiring. You can watch the streaming video here.

These folks are actually making money at organic farming, and it appears to be their full-time occupation, which puts them several steps beyond us. Our own focus is still on producing wholesome food for our family; we only sell excess production to others. But we do know folks who are able to do this kind of thing more or less full time, and this video gives a great view of that.

Some of the farmers give eloquent descriptions of their philosophical motivations and objections to conventional (chemical-based) farming; one in particular describes the “warfare technology” most farmers employ—which I think is an apt characterization. The video also does an excellent job of showing the connection between these farmers and the community (particularly at the farmers market). One thing that’s missing, though, is a sense of family involvement and how this style of farming provides harmony not only with nature but with the proper ordering of family life. They do show some husbands and wives farming together, but children are conspicuously absent. But that’s a minor quibble.

Thanks to Athos for alerting me to the video.

Just Plain Busted

Sometimes, unlike the situation with the busted pipe I recently blogged about, it’s just plain impossible to turn a lemon into lemonade.

We have several grape vines growing right behind the house, along a fence that subdivides the property. As these vines are so close to the house, I’ve been able to give them lots of attention the last few years. They’ve gotten plenty of water, and I’ve been able to protect them from Japanese Beetles. They’re far and away the healthiest vines on the property, because they’ve been close enough to get so much care.

Until this morning, when I went out to do the chores and discovered one of them had been utterly destroyed. It was only six feet from the back door, and our dog Scooter always sleeps at the foot of it. At first glance, it looked okay…just a little wilted.

But something was wasn’t quite right, so I took a closer look. The roots had been totally dug up, and the two stalks of the vine were snapped. Even quite a bit of the bark had been stripped off — almost like a deer or goat had attacked it. But a deer or goat would’ve devoured the leaves first; and besides, all the goats were secure. And deer never come this close to the house. And since when has a deer or goat dug up a vine from the roots?

I couldn’t prove it was Scooter, but I was highly suspicious. It also could’ve been Tabasco, who’s always digging up everything on the trail of mouse and rat nests. Between Tabasco’s digging and Scooter’s chewing, it could’ve been a team destruction effort.

This particular vine didn’t have a lot of fruit clusters on it, but it was the principle of the thing: I’d planted this vine, watered it, weeded it, pruned it, and cultivated it for years. It was beautiful, and it was thriving.

Sitting with the sheep later this morning, I had the chance to reflect on the vine and what the incident might be trying to say. On a farm, this kind of thing happens all the time: you spend months or years caring for some living thing (be it an animal, a bush, or a crop), but it’s a living thing. You go to bed and everything’s fine…and come out the next morning and it’s dead. We’ve had more than one beautiful ram drop dead from bloat or parasites. Sometimes there is a dead hen in the chicken house in the morning; no sign of struggle or predation…it just died in the night. In the blink of an eye, we’ve lost two different dogs to collisions with cars. I came home one afternoon and surprised a hawk devouring one of our ducks in the driveway. Our first mother goose sat on a nest for weeks, and her eggs were nearly ready to hatch, when I came out one morning to discover coyotes had torn her to pieces like a feather pillow.

I could continue this this list, but you get the picture: to have a farm is to have a constant education in the virtue of detachment. As you toil and “husband” your livestock and produce, you must never succumb to the temptation of admiring that handiwork and thinking it was all your own invincible doing. Because it can all be taken away overnight. This is something I was largely insulated from when I lived in the city, as I think is the case for most city-dwellers. But the things of this earth, even the ones that you’ve worked so hard to care for (and perhaps especially those things) really are passing away. And that’s a good thing to reflect on. We sure get plenty of chances to do so on the farm.

And now I’ve got to take these grape branches and feed them to the goats.