Turkeys Hard At Work

I had a couple of posts about turkeys back in the spring, and apologize for not providing some updates since.

Regular readers recall that we’re raising Bourbon Red turkeys again this year; they are a wonderful heritage breed, and we’ve had good luck with them in the past. In getting a garden established on our new property, we decided to incorporate “poultry tractors” into the design from the very beginning. We had a neighbor use his tractor to bust the sod in several four-foot rows across a sunny section of our front yard. Mrs. Yeoman Farmer planted several of these beds this year, and we reserved the remaining rows for our turkeys.

We have 22 mature turkeys now, divided between two portable pens. As described in a post earlier this year, each pen is four feet wide, eight feet long, and two feet high; the eight-foot sections are covered in plywood, and the four-foot sides are enclosed with chicken wire. Every day or two, we’ve been moving each pen eight feet farther down its own garden bed. In the photograph below, the pens are moving toward the camera. Note the height of the weeds in the portion they haven’t gotten to yet, and the complete devastation in the portion behind each pen.

This system has three excellent benefits: the turkeys destroy the weeds, the turkeys get excellent supplemental greens in their diet, and the turkeys provide an excellent layer of fertilizer that can be worked into the garden bed for next year’s planting. Next year, we will rotate the pens to the garden beds that were planted this year, and plant our vegetables on the beds the turkeys have been working this year.

Here are the turkeys in one pen, with the lid removed, just before the pen is to be slid down to the next eight-foot patch of weeds. Clearly, they’re wondering what’s taking me so long.

As for me, I can hardly wait for Thanksgiving.

Urban Farming, Anyone?

I’m too swamped with work these days to do much but skim headlines, but I couldn’t resist clicking through and reading this story. Seems that some foreclosed properties in the City of Detroit are in such bad repair, and owners are so desperate to get them off the books, that houses are actually being let go for just one dollar.

The sale price of the home may be an anomaly, but illustrates both the depths of the foreclosure crisis in Detroit and the rapid scuttling of vacant homes in some of the city’s impoverished neighborhoods.

The home, at 8111 Traverse Street, a few blocks from Detroit City Airport, was the nicest house on the block when it sold for $65,000 in November 2006, said neighbor Carl Upshaw. But the home was foreclosed last summer, and it wasn’t long until “the vultures closed in,” Upshaw said.

“The siding was the first to go. Then they took the fence. Then they broke in and took everything else.”

Tuesday, the home was wide open. Doors leading into the kitchen and the basement were missing, and the front windows had been smashed. Weeds grew chest-high, and charred remains marked a spot where the garage recently burned.

Put on the market in January for $1,100, the house had no lookers other than the squatters who sometimes stayed there at night. Facing $4,000 in back taxes and a large unpaid water bill, the bank that owned the property lowered the price to $1.

On Tuesday, Realtor.com listed one other single-family home, one duplex and one empty lot at $1 in Detroit.

Dollar property sales are the financial hangover from the foreclosure crisis, said Anthony Viola of Realty Corp. of America in Cleveland.

Lenders that made loans to unqualified buyers during the height of the subprime market now find themselves the owners of whole neighborhoods of vacant, deteriorating homes.

“No one has much sympathy for these banks that made subprime loans,” Viola said. “And in some cities like Cleveland, judges aren’t letting them sit on the properties — they’re ordering them to tear them down or sell them.”

So desperate was the bank owner of 8111 Traverse Street to unload the property that it agreed to pay $2,500 in sales commission and another $1,000 bonus for closing the $1 sale; the bank also will pay $500 of the buyer’s closing costs. Throw in back taxes and a water bill, and unloading the house will cost the bank about $10,000.

“It doesn’t make sense in some neighborhoods to keep paying costs and costs,” Colpaert said. “It can make more financial sense to give it away.”

This got me thinking: I wonder if it’s possible to acquire one of these urban properties, tear down the house, and somehow use the land for food production? The property must have city water and power. Some remaining portion of the house could be used to store garden tools. I doubt that livestock would be possible, but I bet a person could establish a large market garden and get away with a keeping a pen of laying hens. You could move the pen up and down the unused portions of the garden as a tractor, using the hens to destroy the weeds and return fertility to the soil. (You’d need someplace to move them in the winter time, though.) Chickens are probably technically illegal in the city, but who’s going to report you? Hens are quiet, and any nosy neighbors could be bought off with free eggs.

The key, I suppose, would be to put a secure fence around the perimeter. If neighbors have stripped the house of everything valuable, just imagine what they’d do to a market garden.

Anybody know of anyone who’s tried doing this kind of thing with an abandoned city property? Could be an interesting way for someone stuck in the city to acquire some gardening skills, and prepare for a move to the country.

The Rain Keeps Falling

We’ve been getting an unbelievable amount of rain here, as has much of the middle of the country. As detailed in a recent post, we barely got the first cutting of hay into the barn before the rains started. In the time since, we haven’t had another rain-free stretch that would have been long enough to have gotten the hay in. In other words: it’s very fortunate we got the hay in when we got it in.

With all the moisture, the hay field has jumped right back into production. According to locals, last summer was so dry, the second cutting yielded only 25 bales (from a six-acre field). This year’s second cutting should be a bumper crop.

But the rain also has a downside: Mrs Yeoman Farmer has been unable to plant her garden. We got the sod busted earlier in the spring, and the ground tilled up, but potatoes are the only thing she managed to put in. Those plants are doing great. But all her other seedlings are still sitting in peat pots, waiting to go in the ground.

The NY Times has a story today about the broader effects of all this rain; there are a lot of commercial grain farmers who have been unable to get crops planted. While things could turn around later, the prospects for this year’s corn and soybean harvest is looking bleak:

Bob Biehl, whose farm is near St. Louis, has managed to plant only 140 of the 650 acres he wanted to devote to corn. Some farmers in his area “haven’t even been able to take the tractor out of the shed,” he said.

United States soybean plantings are running 16 percent behind last year. Rice is tardy in Arkansas, which produces nearly half the country’s crop. “We’re certainly not going to have as good a crop as we had hoped,” said Harvey Howington of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. “I don’t think this is good news for anybody.”

Harvests ebb and flow, of course. But with supplies of most of the key commodities at their lowest levels in decades, there is little room for error this year. American farmers are among the world’s top producers, supplying 60 percent of the corn that moves across international borders in a typical year, as well as a third of the soybeans, a quarter of the wheat and a tenth of the rice.

“If we have bad crops, it’s going to be a wild ride,” said the Agriculture Department’s chief economist, Joseph Glauber. “There’s just no cushion.”

No cushion. That, it seems to me, is one of the biggest problems with ethanol subsidies and mandates — and the wildlife conservation programs that pay farmers to take land out of production. They may seem like good ideas when harvests are bountiful, but it’s hard to tell when a year like this current one may be coming. And by the time we’re in the midst of a year like this one, it’s far too late to reverse course.

Few of us can do anything about soaring gas prices; backyard oil wells are impractical, and backyard oil refineries are even less so. But food is different: nearly everyone with a bit of sunny yard can plant a garden. My hope is that this year of soaring food prices will lead more Americans to rediscover gardening and other ways of producing their own food.

Assuming, of course, that the rain ever lets up enough for even us backyard gardeners to get our plots planted…

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.

Death Row

The garden is now largely planted, but there has been a problem: one chicken in particular has repeatedly managed to find a way in and tear up the tender young seedlings. We tried chasing her out, but she’s been extremely resourceful in getting back in. Most mornings when I wake up, she’s already out there poking around.

Around here, that earns a chicken a one-way ticket to Death Row. Particularly since this one is a meat breed that I simply didn’t get butchered last year (and her useless eggs are the size of marbles), her time is up. This old dog cage is where our fowl spend their last hours; the metal cone is what we use for actually butchering them. The bird goes upside down into that cone, then I slit the throat and let the bird bleed to death (kosher style). This method is very effective at bleeding the bird thoroughly, and is much less messy than the “cut the head off with an axe and watch it run around the barnyard” method.

My wife also suspects our three Guinea fowl have been tearing up the garden, and I was preparing to butcher them today as well. But she, acting as Governor, decided to give them a last minute stay of execution. We strongly suspect that this one chicken has been responsible for the bulk of the damage, and she’s willing to spare the Guineas for a few days. If the garden remains unmolested, the Guineas live. If not…I’m getting out my .22 rifle and going hunting. (Guineas fly so well, and roost so high in the barn, they’re nearly impossible to catch.) I really like the Guineas a lot, so I hope they behave themselves. They’re wonderful bug-catchers, and with Japanese Beetle season (and the seventeen year locusts) just over a month away, I’d like to have all hands on deck. Stay tuned.