There was excitement in Jeremy Barker-Plotkin’s voice when I spoke with him about his western Massachusetts organic farm. They had just been putting seeds in the ground that day at Simple Gifts, the farm in Amherst he co-owns with Dave Tepfer. Jeremy and Dave have been farming in Amherst together since 2006, but plans to farm together had been in the works for awhile after the pair met at The Land Institute in Kansas.
Jeremy had been farming about 5 acres in nearby Belchertown, on land managed by The New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI). The 100 or so acre parcel, as Jeremy estimates, serves an an incubator for small start-up farms in western Massachusetts. The tillable acrage was split between several farms when Simple Gifts lived there, and is now part of The Pioneer Valley Grain CSA.
Simple Gifts had an eye looking for a new place to farm, when Jeremy and his wife Audrey were driving down Pine Street in North Amherst and saw Don Gallager pounding in a sign that read “Save this farm.”
Don was then co-President of the North Amherst Community Farm (NACF) initiative. NACF was then a group of citizens who had come together to raise the $1.2 million needed to buy the Dziekanowski farm, one of the last working farms in North Amherst.
The roughly 35-acre plot is situated just a mile from The University of Massachusetts down heavily trafficked North Pleasant Street. It is surrounded mostly by student housing complexes. Without NACF efforts, the land almost surely would have been sold and developed to match its surroundings. “We never would have been able to afford the land on our own,” says Jeremy.
Even NACF wasn’t able to come up with the full amount. NACF took advantage of the Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program (APR), a program designed to encourage land-owners to preserve farmland by offering a $10,000/ acre sum. This sum is exchanged for an easement agreement that keeps the land permanently safe from development. They were also benefited by the state-funded, but town operated Community Preservation Act. Another large chunk of money came from selling small parcels of the property.
Even so, the collaborative was only able to come up with about half of the $1.2 million mark. They took out a mortgage on the remainder.
Still, it was enough to get Simple Gifts on the land in 2006. “They closed in July, and we started farming in April,” laughs Jeremy. “I guess we didn’t really know if it was going to work out, but it turned out okay.”
That first year they grew about 9 acres of vegetables, enough for a market and a 100 member CSA. “We kind of colonized a small part of the land, with an abandoned farm all around us.”
Once NACF had officially procured the land, there was still a lease agreement to be worked out between the trust now responsible for the farm’s mortgage, and the farmers, newly responsible for the land’s production.
The lease agreement was set up as a kind of series of phases, Jeremy explains. “What we’re working towards is a 99 year lease, where we own all the buildings, but not the land itself.”
The interim lease agreement started with phase one: a renewable 5 year lease where the land trust (NACF) owns all the buildings. The initial agreement was that Simple Gifts’ lease payments would continue to pay the mortgage, leaving the farmers with a hefty $2300/ month rent. Presently, through the help of non-profit group Equity Trust, the monthly rent is now $900. The farm owns any buildings or improvements they make to the property.
The plan is that this payment will do down once the 99 year lease is put into action. “The idea is that in phase two, our phase one lease payments will go retroactively towards buying the existing buildings,” explained Jeremy.
The original buildings include four barns, in various states of functionality and the main farmhouse. Jeremy and Dave each have a house on the far end of the property, where they live with their families. These buildings are not part of the lease agreement, and are fully owned by their respective families.
Today, Simple Gifts has a little over 15 acres in vegetable production, as well as an expanding livestock operation, including chickens, sheep, pigs, a herd of beef cattle and a pair of oxen. They have Dave oversees the livestock and plans cover crop rotations while Jeremy runs the veggie side of the business.
Brooke Werley is a farmer and writer living in Northern Vermont. Her blog is thisgrowingup.wordpress.com. She also writes farm profiles for Agrarian Trust, a new initiative working with the issues faced by next generation farmers and new agrarians
More than once in my life, I’ve interfered with a plant, critter or bug I was unfamiliar with instead of first doing my research.
Many years ago, after growing up in Wisconsin, I was unacquainted with a twisty sort of tree flourishing beneath the power pole at my new home in Virginia. The house had been vacant for some years before I arrived, so I reasoned the untamed vegetation spread on its own.
A full 8 months pregnant, I marched right out there with my pruning saw, hacking each 15-foot tree off at ground level. I figured it was better to sacrifice the young trees before they grew into the electric wires and before I fell in love with them.
Pleased with my day-long effort to cut, drag and stack the brush, I was atop the huge pile, stomping it into a manageable mass to burn, when a neighbor – a fourth-generation Virginia tobacco farmer – happened to stop in. I assumed his perplexed look centered on my precarious position and safety.
Oh, it’s OK, I said. My doctor says me and the baby are perfectly healthy. This is not stressful, I added, hoping he would not consider me frail or reckless.
“No, I was wondering,” he asked, “How come you cut down all your dogwood trees?”
So, the flowering trees, growing no more than 20 feet or so, were intentionally planted there, bursting with white blossoms in springtime and bright red berries all winter. And I murdered them.
In the eight years I lived there, I kept hoping a few would sprout back, but they never did. Although I felt awful for a long time, I had yet to learn a lesson.
Then, when moving to the Ozarks, I was pleased to meet the lovely catalpa tree. This beauty grows to about 90 feet with heart-shaped leaves as big as a pie pan. To top it off, the tree showers us with sweet-smelling flowers in late May.
Whoever first thought of scattering flowers on the lawn for June weddings surely had a catalpa tree in the yard. The display and aroma go on for weeks.
So, you can imagine my alarm when black-and-yellow striped caterpillars showed up by the thousands overnight chewing voraciously on three front-yard catalpa trees. Their munching and accompanying droppings can be heard 30 feet away on calm evenings. I’ve seen many wonders in my life, but never anything such as that.
I did what I thought any all-natural gardener would do. I mixed up a batch of cayenne pepper and crushed garlic for the garden-hose sprayer.
Once again, I jumped right in, shooting that hot stuff straight up into the trees, splattering the fiery red water everywhere, even soaking the soil beneath the fully grown trees. The caterpillars rained down. I stepped on them and sprayed them some more, until there was not a live caterpillar anywhere.
That was two years ago. Last year, no worms returned, and still none this year.
Two weeks ago, however, a smaller tree that was not among the group in the front yard bloomed for the first time. The 20-foot tree is now coated with caterpillars. But, instead of getting out the pepper spray, I did some online reading and discovered – to my horror – the catalpa sphinx and tree have coexisted for thousands of years.
Like many things in nature, the tree and worm depend on each other. The host catalpa tree is the only plant the worm eats, which it can devour to naked branches without harming the tree. According to Stephen L. Peele, curator of the Florida Mycology Research Center, catalpa trees are sometimes completely defoliated three or four times during a single summer, yet survive. No other tree could withstand this.
“They always come back. They always look healthy,” says Peele. “I have tried to understand the possible symbiotic relationship between the worm and the tree. There surely must be one.”
Fishing enthusiasts even propagate the trees just to harvest the worms, which grow to 3 or 4 inches and are considered the best natural catfish bait. The worms can be frozen for months to use for fishing.
“One worm could be cut into 3 to 4 sections to make as many pieces of bait,” Peele wrote in an article about the trees’ and worms’ decline in America. “The worm’s skin is pretty tough, so it is not easy for the fish to just ‘peck’ it off the hook, like they can a cricket. Fact is, you catch several fish on the same piece of worm bait.”
Another benefit: The worm dung fertilizes the tree – and everything else under its canopy. One of my tomato plants within worm-dropping distance is now a foot taller than its brothers.
I noticed this morning that the worms are retreating underground to pupate as only about 1/4 of the tree leaves remain. Without my meddling, the catalpa tree will return to its full vigor and another generation of worms will be born.
Peele is gathering information on the status of catalpa trees and worms in America, which may be disappearing unnoticed. He says they may be approaching “endangered.” I feel somewhat responsible.
If you have knowledge concerning the status of catalpa trees and worms in your area, Peele would like to hear from you. Have trees been cut in your area? Did there used to be trees? Did there used to be worms? Please send whatever information to: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or, FMRC, PO Box 18105, Pensacola, FL 32523.
Photos by Linda Holliday of catalpa blossoms, young worms and worms one week later.
Linda Holliday lives in the Missouri Ozarks where she and her husband formed Well WaterBoy Products, a company devoted to helping people live more self-sufficiently off grid, and invented the WaterBuck Pump.
This is the time of year when everyone loves the mountains because of the profusion of wildflowers. On our property there are so many various species of wild flowers that it is impossible for us to count them all. That is one of the things we will miss when we sell our home and move from here. We have an abundance of wild roses, columbine, lupine, Indian paint brush, violets, daisy and monk’s hood just to name a few. They tend to bloom for weeks and months producing a carpet of wildflowers. Walking through the property with all the wild flowers is one of the special advantages of living in the mountains. It is not just the varied colors and species but the profusion of flowers and flowering weeds that transform and carry you into a special place.
As I walked our property this morning the birds were singing their songs, getting a drink or bathing from our two streams or in search of food, plus the wild flowers were every where and the ground was like a green carpet mingled with a host of color. The chipmunks and ground squirrels seemed to notice the beauty too as I observed several sitting on stumps seeming to enjoy the time of year munching on a dandelion flower or some piece of food. Yesterday we went to cut up some downed trees but when we arrived at them there were three deer bedded down chewing their cuds so we decided not to disturb the deer and leave the cutting for another day. They feel so safe and secure here that they didn’t even get up even though we were within 30 feet from them. These are the things we will sorely miss when we move to a more comfortable and compatible environment that will not be as difficult to handle with aging body joints.
This time of year is one of those times that makes living in the mountains so special - like being reborn all over again each year and experiencing new life (except for sore joints). The elk, deer and bear have their babies, the woods are various shades of green splashed with a variety of colors from the wildflowers and it seems that life starts new from here. Fall is also a very special time in the mountains with the aspen and mountain oak changing colors and the smell of hot pine needles with the full aroma of fall. Both of these seasons either follow or proceed the harsh reality of snow season which in itself is a fun time, albeit a lot of physical work. Our summer in the mountains where we actually use a circulating fan to keep cool lasts about two weeks. Other than those two weeks the temperatures are very comfortable and the cool at night is excellent for good sleeping just by leaving the windows open.
So while we will miss all these aspects of mountain living at 9,750’ elevation we have concluded that living here full time for 16+ years will be memories we will always cherish and someone else can enjoy it in the future. Bodies get older making it hard to continue to fully enjoy this small area of paradise. We don’t know how long it will take to sell our homestead and this lifestyle but until that time happens we will continue to enjoy the ideal life and let things evolve on their own.
For more on mountain living with Bruce and Carol McElmurray go to: www.brucecarolcabin.blogspot.com, and if you are interested in our mountain property go to: www.coloradomountaincabinforsale.blogspot.com.
When I first heard the term chicken saddles, the whole idea seemed absolutely preposterous to me. Hearing the word, I immediately pictured a miniature horse saddle strapped around one of my chickens. It made absolutely no sense. Even a rat would be hard pressed to ride a chicken, let alone something bigger. Of course, this is not at all what a chicken saddle is actually used for. Although a chicken saddle is placed on their backs, it is actually used to protect a hen's back when roosters get a bit rough during mating.
Having two roosters in my flock, this became an evident problem for one of my hens in particular as my chickens matured. By spring, her back was bare and laden with scrapes and scabs. She happened to be one of the smartest chickens in the flock, always seeming to find a way out of the fence and into the garden. For a long time, I puzzled over why she always separated herself from the other chickens. I worried that a hawk would find her easy to snatch. I then realized that she did this to stay away from the roosters. As I watched her to confirm this fact, I found that she was miserable. When I was working in the garden, the hen would hide behind me when a rooster neared her. I knew that a chicken saddle would be the easiest solution.
Unfortunately, at the time, my sewing machine and fabric was lost in an overwhelming pile of boxes. I needed to find a way to make a no-sew chicken saddle with materials that I had accessible to me at the time.
Being a farmer, most of my clothes are stained from paint, grass and dirt. I found such a pair of jeans that I wore when I was doing especially messy jobs, such as painting the barn and building the chicken coop. The jeans were small on me and never very comfortable, so I decided to use them to make an emergency chicken saddle until I could make I more substantial version.
Starting at the bottom of the pants, I cut along the middle of the seam on one of the legs, working my way up. I chose to cut at the seam to prevent the fabric from fraying. I stopped when I reached about a foot up the pant and then cut across to sever the material from the rest of the jeans. You may want to adjust this length depending on the size of your hen. I always prefer to start much larger than necessary just in case a problem arises.
At this time, I checked the length on my hen to ensure the size correctly matched the hen’s back. I normally measure this by holding the fabric against her back. The end of the saddle (the seam on the bottom of the jeans) should fall about a quarter over the hens tail maybe a little more. The front should rest at the bottom of the hen's neck. Shorten if necessary, but do so sparingly. If the fabric is shortened too much, it will fray quickly and eventually fall apart.
On the top of that saddle, about three inches from the edge on both sides, I cut a slit for the wings to go through. Keep the slits as small as possible because this is what secures the saddle to the hen. If the holes are too large, it is very likely that the saddle will fall off frequently. Before cutting these holes, you might benefit by measuring the space between the bases of the wings. The space between the slits should be identical to this measurement.
Finally you can try the chicken saddle on your hen by gently working her wings through the slits. Be careful not to damage her feathers. I often find that the slits for the wings usually tend to be a bit small so I slowly adjust the size using scissors. Do not tear the fabric to increase the size of the holes. This will encourage fraying and additional tearing to occur.
Although this is by no means a permanent option, this is a quick effective method to help keep your hens happy and safe!
I am a young farmer and photographer committed to growing organically and protecting the environment.
Our farm is home to rare breeds of poultry, including Dorking chickens, Ancona ducks and Narragansett turkeys. Having offspring each year is essential to our mission of helping to save these rare breeds, but hatching and caring for chicks presents different challenges each year. We purchased an incubator four years ago to give us more control in getting consistent hatches; it has done well with both chickens and ducks. However, this springtime has shown us that we have a lot more to learn when hatching out turkey eggs—and that sometimes having chickens as a back-up still works best. Here are some of the pros and cons we’re finding with an incubator versus a broody hen:
• You can plug in an incubator anytime, but a bird will begin to brood only when she is ready. Last springtime was a warm one, and there were two Narragansett turkey hens that were willing to sit and brood in March. Heritage breed turkeys take a long time to grow, and beginning in March worked out perfectly to having turkeys for our friends’ Thanksgiving tables. Although turkeys had begun laying eggs in this year’s cooler spring, no hens were yet broody. Being “broody,” or being willing to sit like a “Buddha” on eggs for four weeks, is essential for a successful hatch. That is why we collected eggs in the root cellar, at 55 degrees F., until we collected 15 eggs to put in the incubator.
• You can “candle” eggs when they’re in the incubator—and that’s a lot of fun! Our candling set-up is merely a box over a desk lamp with a small florescent light inside. I cut an oblong hole in the box, barely the size of an egg, to hold the egg against and get a shadowy picture of what’s inside. Eggs are candled the first week to see if vessels are developing, and later to check the size of the air-sac. I’ve discovered that holding the egg with one hand, while cupping the other hand around the egg, allows me to see the actual movement of the embryo. I think this is as thrilling as a fetal ultrasound! After one week there is the marble-size blob. After two weeks the blob is bi-lobed and moving. After that it’s possible to see a wing or a head move. It takes less than 30 seconds to look at each egg, and leaving the incubator open that long is equivalent to the mother hen leaving the nest for food and water. I love getting in on the miracle of this new life!
• Mother hens have proven more reliable than our incubator this year. We just completed our second incubator hatch of turkeys, and neither could be considered a success. Four poults survived the first hatch and there are only two healthy babies from the second.
There were technical difficulties with the incubator both times that may have been factors - the turning-bar for the eggs wasn’t working for two days on the first hatch and the electricity actually went out during the second brood. You would have enjoyed watching us running those precious eggs out to the chicken house for the broody hens to sit on! The embryos were still alive when tucked back in the incubator and candled later that day. Such drama on the farm!
But the broody hens have also been our heroines other times these past two years. We had so many broody chickens, but no broody turkeys, early last springtime that I put seven eggs under two of the broody hens for the “fun of it.” Because chicken eggs only require three weeks of incubation, I didn’t think they would sit the four weeks that turkey eggs require. But the chickens not only sat, they hatched out 100 percent!
This year we no longer trusted the incubator when we began a second round of hatching. Therefore, when 15 eggs went into the incubator, we also put 12 eggs under four broody hens in the chicken house. The chickns net result wasn’t as good as the previous year because there were other hens who wanted to brood (see below), but eight of ten live poults came from the chickens, while only two poults survived the second incubator hatch. The eggs under the chickens actually began hatching two days before the full four weeks—and the incubator eggs didn’t begin hatching until two days after their due-date. I suspect that some of the poults’ nutritional-reserve may be depleted when they hatch so late and perhaps that’s why some didn’t survive after leaving the incubator.
• Successful brooding usually requires a separate brood house. The problem with letting a broody bird sit on her eggs in the hen-house is that other hens either want to contribute eggs or some hens also become broody and want to sit in the same nest. The original broody-girl quickly has too many eggs to keep covered, or eggs become broken as other hens jostle for position.
It’s best to have a separate place for brooding that’s safe from predators. If you want to move a hen when she’s sitting on eggs, do it in the dark and do it quietly. We have moved hens that have hidden under bushes or behind the woodpile into the “brood house” and they have continued sitting. Once the eggs hatch, we put mother and babies outdoors in a ‘baby chicken tractor” for continued protection from cats and other predators until they are large enough to go to the chicken house with their mother. The other hens accept the new chicks and respect that they are the mother’s to care for.
• The incubator can waste a lot of eggs—but so can the hens. Before this year, when hatching chicken or duck eggs (the latter require four weeks of incubation just like turkeys), we’ve had 80 percent to 90 percent hatch rate with the incubator. Although the hatch-rate for the turkey eggs was dismal this year, we’ve had a couple momma hens who were notorious for sitting on nine to 15 eggs, then waltzing off with five or six babies and leaving unhatched chicks—sometimes still cheeping in their shells! Perhaps this is Nature’s birth-control or her way to choose the strongest genetics.
It will probably take more years of watching eggs in the incubator and under hens to better understand what factors are contributing to each hatch. In the meantime, I will try to enjoy the new life without suffering so much with each chick that doesn’t survive!
Mary Lou Shaw homesteads with her husband on a 13 acre farm near Washington Courthouse, Ohio, where they grow most of the food that they eat. Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, is available through MOTHER EARTH NEWS.
Knowing the people who grow your food is a beautiful thing. Learning from them is even better. I have been particularly fortunate in that respect lately.
When we originally paid for our CSA (community supported agriculture) share, we’d vowed to pick 50 dollars’ worth of fruit during its duration. Since it is, after all, strawberry season, we decided to pick 30 dollars of strawberries and make preserves with them. The woman who runs the farm we have a CSA share in, Mrs. Miller, had sent out her recipe for strawberry preserves with one of our latest CSA boxes, and I decided to try it.
We drove to the farm, and I spoke with Mrs. Miller there. She shared how she used to bike over to visit her grandmother every day after school, and they would cook together. They made those strawberry preserves often in the warm days of May and June, over the years. She makes them still.
And so, after all these years, the preserves found their way to me.
The most important thing to bear in mind when picking strawberries for the preserves, Mrs. Miller said, is to use small berries. Since preserves use the whole berry, not cut as they are in jam, you can’t have berries bigger than a mouthful.
You can imagine how happy this made me. If we were only using small strawberries in the preserves, after all, I was allowed to eat some big ones, which I’m not usually With thanks to Mrs. Miller, we set off to pick in the dewy, muddy fields.
There is a certain joy that comes from plucking a shining ruby strawberry off its plant and biting into it. It tastes of rain and leaves and an almost unbearable sweetness, throbbing in your jaw. By the time we returned to the farm buildings to pay for our strawberries, I must have looked like I’d taken part in the murder of Caesar.
As soon as we got home I began to cook. The berries paled as they cooked, from almost black to pale pink, and the steam billowing off the pot smelled of strawberries’ warm fruity sweetness. When it was time to can the preserves, we immersed each faceted glass jar in the pot of steaming water we’d prepared, and then waited for the tock each lid gave as it sealed. One jar, which hadn’t sealed, I put in the refrigerator.
Recently I pulled that jar out again, scooped out a lump of strawberries, and stirred them into a bowl of cottage cheese. The preserves were less homogenous than jam, made up of a smooth, thin sauce between chunky berries. The strawberries no longer burned along my jaw, but they still had that tangy sweetness. They were the essence of strawberry.
Even though it’s still June, I can imagine that jar in the middle of winter. When I put on slippers and sweatshirt and hat and am still cold, I’ll go down to the basement and take out a jar of strawberry preserves, and with just one bite, it will be summer again.
If you’d like to make jelly out of the leftover juice from the preserves, you’ll need to boil it down a good deal first, since this recipe waters the juice down. Yield 3 pints.
16 cups whole strawberries, rinsed and hulled
8 cups water
5 cups sugar
Measure the strawberries and water into a large pot, and bring the mixture to a boil. Watch carefully, as it will boil over very fast. Once the berries have come to a boil, remove the pot from the burner. Set a colander atop a bowl and pour the contents of the pot into the colander. The berries in the colander will be used in the preserves; the juice that is caught in the pan below will not. This whole procedure should yield approximately 5 cups of cooked berries.
Measure the drained strawberries back into the big pot and add the sugar. Stir until well-combined. Place the mixture on the stove and cook over moderate heat for about 20 minutes. Stir often. The preserves will naturally thicken, and upon cooling will be thicker yet.
Ladle the preserves into hot, sterilized jars and seal.
Mrs. Miller suggests making the juice that you’ve drained out of the berries into jelly, or using it in homemade smoothies. I haven’t tried the latter and so can’t vouch for its success, but as long as you cook the juice down before making it into jelly, you’ll be fine.
It started with a Christmas present for one curious 9-year-old boy.
My son, Riley, was fascinated with a public television program about the life cycle of bees. We decided it would be a great opportunity to learn about self-sufficiency and get something delicious as a bonus.
Santa brought Riley a complete beehive kit and we kicked in the membership to the local beekeepers association. A month later, Riley and my husband Clay assisted a master beekeeper in removing a feral bee colony from an empty home. These would become our bees.
The first year we harvested six pounds of honey. The next year, we harvested 116 pounds. We couldn't possibly use all the honey our bees made. We gave away jars to our family and friends throughout the year, and they became our first customers. I found another avenue for sales when talking with the manager of our local wine-making supply store. Mead makers in the area were looking for local honey. I provided samples and our contact information to the wine store, along with how much we had available and our next anticipated harvest date.
I also offered a discount due to the bulk sales. Our costs are considerably lower because we can bottle in jugs instead of the smaller, more expensive, glass jars.
We’ve been selling honey for six months now, and we've already realized a six percent return on investment. We predict the start-up costs will be paid by the proceeds within the next 18 months as we have bigger sales.
Advice For Beginners
Start from a place of abundance, both physically and mentally. Don’t hesitate to give free samples and share your knowledge. A little goodwill goes a long way in making loyal customers.
Know your bottom line before you talk to people. We told a lot of people we weren't selling honey in the beginning just because we didn't know what to charge. After speaking with other beekeepers, we found the going rate and this helped us figure out a reasonable price.
Networking is for everyone, not just marketers! Sharing your hobby is a great conversation starter, and you never know when you’re going to meet your next customer. People are very receptive (and sometimes a little envious) hearing about our adventures.
Photo by Fotolia/frog-travel