Gardening, farming and homesteading are about as local a lifestyle as one can get. Climate zones, geography, preferred practices and the like are the ties that bind at the local level. But they can also insulate us from the global community of smallholder farmers. The United Nations named 2014 the International Year of Family Farming, providing an excellent platform to highlight the importance of family farmers in feeding the world and healing the planet at the same time.
In this new blog series, I would like to introduce you to farmers from around the world. Through our work at Heifer International, we are more fortunate than most to meet and learn about farmers from as nearby as the Arkansas Delta region to as far off as the Himalayas in Nepal. My hope is that you will find commonalities between their lives and your own, while celebrating the differences that are the hallmark of the human experience.
Small-Scale Farming Lessons from Uganda
Earlier this month Heifer’s Vice President of Africa Programs Elizabeth Bintliff visited Emma Navlungo and her husband, Edward Serunjogi in Luwero district, Uganda. On a quarter-acre of land, the family of seven maintains kitchen gardens, chickens, dairy cows, rabbits, fish and pigs. By attending trainings given by Heifer and other organizations, they have learned to be extremely efficient, managing an intensive and integrated small farm on less land than the average lot size for a single-family home in the United States.
Emma and Edward are participants in the Uganda Domestic Biogas Programme, implemented by Heifer International and partners. The family has a biogas unit, which allows them to convert manure from their livestock, as well as crop waste, into fuel for cooking and lighting. There are a myriad of benefits to using biogas, including saving money on energy costs, preserving the environment, and reducing the health risks associated with cooking with charcoal (the primary source of fuel for much of rural Ugandans). Bio-slurry, a nutrient-rich byproduct of the biogas digester, has reduced the family’s spending on animal feed and fertilizer by 50 percent, as the slurry is an excellent garden fertilizer, increasing crop yields and enriching fish and animal feed.
Cooking With Biogas Energy
It may be difficult to place yourself in their shoes: Emma and Edward live a world away, and they have overcome the daily struggle of feeding their family. But they are a true testament that, even on the most meager plot of land, smallholder farmers are capable of productive, environmentally friendly agriculture, if provided the training and tools they need to get started.
Video and production by Olivier Asselin Photography, courtesy of Heifer International
Photo courtesy Heifer International: Heifer Vice President for Africa Program Elizabeth Bintliff (left) with farmer Emma Navlungo
I’ve written two previous posts on the use of guard llamas. If you considering a llama as a guardian, it may be helpful to review how guard llamas work and the pros and cons of using them as guardians.
Researchers have determined the three most important llama traits that correlate with successful livestock guarding are alertness, leadership and weight. Weight is directly linked to age and maturity. Keeping these traits in mind, what should you be looking for in a good potential guard llama?
What to Look For
First, you want an adult llama not younger than 18 to 24 months in age. Most importantly, buying an adult allows you to evaluate his behavior more accurately than a younger llama. Older llamas have also learned to accept the regular handling that goes along with catching and haltering, toenail trimming, vetting, and possibly shearing. Ask the breeder to let you catch the llama, since some llamas are very difficult to catch and halter. If possible, ask the breeder if you can bring a strange dog into the llama’s line of sight or near his pasture to evaluate his response to canines.
It is important not to buy a very young llama, or one that was bottle-fed, or brought up alone. In addition, llamas should not be weaned until 6 months of age. It is very important that a llama spends the first year and a half to two years in the company of other llamas and with normal mothering. This allows the llama to develop appropriate llama behaviors and develop mature territorial instincts. Lacking experience with other llamas and receiving too much human attention can cause the llama to bond with humans rather than other llamas. Over indulging a young llama and failing to set behavioral limits often results in a grown llama that views humans as competitors, resulting in a large animal that exhibits inappropriate and possibly dangerous behavior towards peoples.
Female or Male?
Either females or gelded males can work as guardians. Gelded males are used more frequently because they are larger and less expensive. Male llamas weigh 300 pounds or more and stand 40 to 44 inches tall at the withers. Some owners report than a female llama can be more nurturing, especially if she has been used for breeding. A retired breeding female cannot only be very attentive, but is often available for a reasonable price. Llamas have a lifespan of 20 to 25 years. Single llamas guard better than multiple llamas, since they will bond with their stock rather than each other.
Do not buy an intact male llama or a male that was used for breeding before gelding. Not only can an intact male challenge your authority, he will most likely attempt to breed your livestock, causing serious injury or death. If a llama was used for breeding, even gelding does not eliminate this threat to your livestock. Look for males that were never bred. When buying a gelded male, make sure he was neutered at least 90 days before your purchase. Also, you should confirm that his fighting teeth have been removed.
You are looking for an even-natured individual. Do not buy a llama that screams or spits at humans, paces his fence line, or does not allow people to enter his pen. Do not buy a llama that tries to chest-butt you, bothers your feet, or forces you to go around him rather than giving ground. Llamas can certainly be curious about you, but the best guardians are more independent or aloof. Also, avoid a llama that is over protective of his food or will not allow his manure pile to be cleaned.
If you are fortunate to find a llama that is already with stock, you can observe his behavior. Does he challenge his fencing or pace the fence looking for other llamas rather than staying with his stock? Instead, he should appear alert and curious about disturbances. He may associate with his stock or he might use a higher area of the pasture as a lookout, separating himself from his flock. Either is appropriate behavior. Ask if he was present during lambing or kidding seasons. Ask if he shows aggression toward dogs or gives alarm calls. Find out if he accepts familiar dogs on the farm, but be very cautious when using your own dogs in your llama’s pasture or enclosure.
If you know someone familiar with llamas, they can be very helpful to you in assessing good behavior, health, and conformation. If you are new to keeping llamas, you might plan several trips to the farm to gain some experience and confidence in handling your new llama.
You may be fortunate to find an experienced llama for sale or you can purchase a llama directly from a breeder. You can begin your search for a reputable llama breeder through the various regional and national llama associations. Some breeders specialize in raising llamas for use as livestock guardians. Expect to pay from $500 to $1500 or more for a gelded male llama, with females somewhat more expensive. Be aware that some breeders will not sell a llama to be used as a guardian if you have serious predator problems beyond foxes or the occasional solitary coyote. Llamas truly have no defense against packs of dogs or coyotes, wolves, bears, or the big cats. When faced with those serious predators, llama breeders use livestock guard dogs to protect their animals.
Generally speaking, llama rescue groups do not have many llamas that are suitable for work as guardians. Occasionally a llama is available at a livestock auction but you will not be able to assess his behavior around humans and livestock or if he is aggressive towards canines.
Bringing Your Llama Home
How you deal with introducing your llama to your stock depends on the prior experiences of both. Your new llama will understandably be nervous or uncertain at first. In the past, the standard advice was to just place the llama out in the field with his new stock. At times this does work; however, research has proven that you will have greater success if the llama and stock both have a chance to become acquainted with each other for several days in a smaller area such as a corral. This is especially important if your pasture area is large or if your sheep or goats are very flighty or do not flock well.
Some owners have reported that a llama will guard sheep better if he is introduced to them when lambs are present, although research hasn’t supported this observation. Many owners do report that llamas, especially females, are very interested in lambs.
If your llama is already accustomed to stock, he may run right up to them. Even if he is not experienced, he may just be very happy to be with some companions. Typically, even if he does not run towards the flock, he will be interested and curious in them. Occasionally a llama will be more aloof and calm when introduced to stock. In any case, he should settle down with a few hours although it will take several days for him to fully adjust. During this time your new llama may be much more interested in humans, seeking your attention or pacing the fence closest to you. Remember that he needs to bond with his new herd mates rather than you, so you should not give him too much attention until this has occurred.
If your stock has not seen a llama before, they may be very frightened or alarmed. If they are extremely nervous, it might be necessary to pen the llama next to the animals so that they can get used to each other through a fence. Entice your stock to feel more comfortable by feeding them next to each other for several days. Follow this side-by-side experience with penning them together for a few more days before turning them out on a large pasture.
A Word of Caution
One additional caution – be very careful introducing horses and llamas to each other if the horses are unfamiliar with llamas. Experienced owners recommend spending a month or so letting the horses safely observe the llamas before placing them together. Please be very careful with your farm dogs as well. Some llamas come to accept familiar dogs, even a livestock guard dog, but others do not.
Our Easter turned naturally to thanksgiving with the remarkable simplicity of dragging our newly built chicken casa to its permanent orchard home, sparkling spring weather, warmth of great friendship, four year old wonder and joy, and the amazing volume of projects accomplished on a beautiful weekend.
Our 6 pound locally-grown pastured ham, glazed with a cider mustard honey elixir paired beautifully with my spinach sweet potato gratin and sriracha deviled eggs to restore the planters of raspberries and 4 fruit trees. Laughter and contented familiarity made the clink of old silver on my grandma's china musical. The success of our chicks' first day in the poultry yard, scratching and chickening about, was something to celebrate.
Despite the unexplainable loss of 11 of our 15 baby turkeys, the day was made for reflection and joy. Murray McMurray Hatchery is kindly replacing the broad breasted bronze turkeys that we deduced must have had a hard journey. I have read and reread the Storey's Poultry raising guide. Our comfortable and temperate indoor accommodations aren't lacking, but the babies are dropping like flies without any precursory signs or symptoms of distress.
Our 4 year old was overjoyed with the big boy two wheeler bike that grew from the magic jelly bean seeds we planted on Easter Eve. Our rescued domestic rabbit, Fish, left the beans with a note explaining their magic. Nothing can prepare a mom for the flush of warmth at the successful growth of your child or the light in his eye at a true miracle.
Our first Easter at Pomponio Homestead was verdant, magical, happy and fruitful. I am so incredibly thankful for the gifts we have been given, and the good use we are putting them to. How could I not be? The smell of ham, golden sunrise on the pond, soft spring chirping all around and deliciously sore muscles are tangible sensory experiences as testament to the wonder and goodness of this life.
I love spring, when we can finally get out to the beeyard and open up those beehives! This past weekend we had the right conditions to do the first full hive inspections of the year. Temperatures were in the 50’s and 60’s, nice and sunny, and not too breezy. Perfect!
5 Steps of Beehive Inspections
We basically follow the same routine for each hive, which I will outline below.
1. First we puff a little smoke into the hive, wait a few minutes, then remove the outer and inner covers. For the hives we are feeding, we remove the hive top feeder. We take a peek in the top of the hive to see how the population looks. Some of the things we look for are the size of the cluster, the gentleness (or aggressiveness) of the bees, and signs of any pests such as small hive beetles.
2. We then start looking at the frames in the top hive body. We look for the queen, or if we can’t find her, eggs and brood. The picture to the right shows a frame of worker bees on a frame of eggs and larvae. In most cases the brood, eggs, and queen are in the top hive box at this point in time. After we have inspected the frames, we take the top box off, and set it aside. We then take a look at the next hive body. In our stronger hives we tend to find capped brood in this box, but in some hives it was empty, with just some honey. We continue working our way down until we have removed all of the hive bodies. As we inspect each frame, we also scrape off any “burr comb” (comb that the bees have built above and below the frames). This will help us avoid crushing bees when we put the hive bodies back on later.
3. We then remove the screened bottom board, and brush it off outside of the beeyard to remove the dead bees and other debris that have accumulated over the winter. We also lift up the hive stand, and brush off any debris that have accumulated there. We then replace the hive stand and bottom board.
4. Now we put the hive bodies back, but not in the same order they were in. We take the top hive body that had the queen, eggs, and brood, and put that on the bottom. If there was a second box with capped brood, we put that on next. For the third hive body, we put a box that is a mix of capped honey, pollen, and empty comb. If any of the remaining boxes had mostly empty comb, we shake off the remaining bees into the hive, and remove that box. This way the queen has room to work her way upwards laying eggs. Later in the season we will add more boxes of honey supers.
5. Finally, we add a sprinkle of a pollen substitute such as MegaBee, to give the bees a boost in brood production, before replacing the inner and outer covers, (or the feeders if honey stores seem low and we think they need supplemental feeding).
For most of the hives, they are all set until we are ready to start adding honey supers. The majority of the hives had good laying pattern, calm bees, and a nice mix of brood, pollen, honey, and empty frames to fill with brood or nectar. However, we did run into a few problems that need our attention.
One hive was extremely aggressive. As soon as we took off the outer and inner cover, the bees began flying directly at our veils. We quickly closed them back up, and will try to inspect them again on another day. If this aggression continues, we may have to look at ordering a new queen for them. I like to be able to relax and enjoy my bees, and these bees did not seem happy at all!
How to Remedy Low Beehive Populations
Two of our hives had very low populations, with a cluster that is only about the size of a softball. While they do both have queens who are laying eggs, it seems as though there is not a lot of eggs and brood. For these hives we reduced them to just one medium hive body that had brood, honey, pollen, and some empty space for the queen to lay eggs. We gave them the pollen substitute, and will continue to feed them. We talked to some other beekeepers about the problem and got several suggestions, listed below.
1. Just leave them alone and see if they build up. They may have just had a hard winter, and need more time to build up to the same levels as the other hives.
2. Since there are not many eggs or brood, the queen isn’t doing her job. Kill the queen, and combine them with other hives. We can then order more queens to make splits from the hives that are doing well later this summer to replace these hives.
3. Since they did lose many adult bees during the winter, it may be that the queen is performing well, but that there are not enough adult worker bees to care for the brood. Take some frames of brood and nurse bees from other strong hives, add them to the weak hives, and see if that helps them build up.
As it turns out, we are going to try a combination of these methods. Right after we did these inspections, it got cold again (in fact, it snowed this morning). So, we will need to leave the weak hives alone until at least the following weekend. At that point we can check them and see if they are doing any better. If not, I would like to add the brood from another hive, and see if they take off. If they still don’t look good after another week, we will kill the queens and combine them with another hive. I don’t like the idea of killing a queen, but if the hive isn’t going to make it, it is better to save the worker bees that are left than to lose them all.
One more thing I want to mention – make sure you take a moment to enjoy the time in the beeyard! For me it is so gratifying to get back out in the beeyard and spend some time with the bees. I hope you enjoy it as well!
Jennifer Ford owns and operates Bees of the Woods Apiary with her husband Keith. You can visit them at www.BeesOfTheWoods.com.
It was mid-April, and I was away for a weekend helping a friend and her family inoculate a new season’s worth of shiitake mushroom logs. It was a short trip away, but at this time of year, changes seem to punctuate each hour. Thus, upon my return two days later, I was astounded by how little snow cover remained. Winter wrens were singing my approach, and the roar of the river left no question in my mind as to it’s frigid power.
I walked towards our clearing, smiling to see our footbridges now visible without snow. A wave of joy washed over me at the first sight of the shed, and the cabin beyond. I quickly spotted moose tracks through the mud, and wondered how the creature was finding spring. In the few moments it took to walk to our granite stoop, my eyes caught the daffodils and tulips poking through leaf duff beside the sunny rocks out front. I noticed that sufficient snow had melted to allow for the pruning of winter damage from our young fruit trees and the tidying up of our many blueberry bushes - I would do that after unpacking. I righted the snow shovel that had fallen when it’s snow drift slumped, and picked up the snow stake that no longer had snow at its base. Evidence of spring was sending me so many details to grasp I didn’t see what was right beside me.
My hand on the door handle, I turned to call Mica. Instead, I chortled my own words into a surprised gasp of “oh...hey...” The moose itself was looking right at me.
While it seemed to find my obliviousness curious, it did not find my speech reassuring. It trotted away towards the eastern woodline, kindly sidestepping the asparagus patch. From there, we watched each other obliquely. I, for one, was trying to watch subtly, without staring. Perhaps she was doing the same. She seemed well-fed, and her coat thick. The exception, though, being high on her withers. There, significant bare spots were visible - the result, I assumed, of rubbing herself against tree trunks trying to alleviate the persistence of winter ticks.
She nosed about, then turned and headed north, again staying just to the side of the now snow-free garden beds. I whispered a thank-you.
As the afternoon went on, I finished pruning and spent the later hours splitting wood for fall. The moose continued to come back and forth, and we cautiously shared the clearing for brief moments. At times it was I who retreated to the cabin; other times it was she who double-backed to the woodline. Eventually she trotted off, delicately picking a path along the old woods trail.
My own elation at bare ground, plant buds, and warm sun kept me outside to the dinner hour. The moose, perhaps, in her own way, was experiencing her own pleasure in the coming of spring.
Spring is here! Time to prune your fruit trees, berry bushes, and ornamental shrubs! Time to design your garden! Time to purchase new nursery stock! Contact Beth via firstname.lastname@example.org for your garden and orchard needs.
In many communal kitchens, may it be a hostel or a student dorm, postings are usually to be found; “Leave it nicer than when you came”, they read. That can be said to humans on earth too, to leave it better than it was.
In previous blogs I've mentioned the difference I see between the commonly used term “low-impact” and how I rather talk about “positive-impact.” Low impact is a pretty popular way of indicating an environmentally friendly approach, to not disturb and to be barely noticeable in the natural world. While all this is well intended and certainly better than many options, I like to think of what Dennis and I are doing here at the homestead as positive impact instead of low impact.
To take an approach to nature as that humans' impact should be barely noticeable is to me to imply that humans' involvement in nature is destructive. It's easy to see where that notion comes from, humans has throughout history, and exponentially in recent time, been unfathomably destructive to nature, but that doesn't mean that that's all humans can be. Furthermore, to take the stand that human involvement in nature should be low impact is also to imply that we should be observers of nature rather than acting in nature, once again assuming that human's actions in nature are negative.
By living and working in nature, with nature, I believe that our surroundings here at the homestead are ecologically healthier, more diverse and vibrant than should we as humans not have been here. In a dense forest with pretty a low diversity of spices, the clearing made for our farm seems to open up for an abundance of life benefiting from the different ecology it offers. Deer and other mammals are drawn to it and owls use it as a hunting ground for mice and voles. We can encourage their presence by providing houses for them, since there are so few old and hollow trees of the right size around here. Our gardens feed many but us, birds for example, like the Red Robins passing through the area in the spring or the Blue Jays, that in September eat the seeds from the dried sunflowers I leave standing for them. Insects, bees and butterflies take advantage of the broad diversity of flowers, a diversity that would not exist on our land had we not created it. Rodents live around the edges of the garden, whether we like it or not, and there's a vast microbiology created by the compost and seaweed we fertilize with.
By promoting the few oaks growing on our land over the invasive balsam fir, we provide nutrient dense acorns for many living creatures and by clearing a white spruce stand to plant apple trees we increase plant diversity that once again provide feed for numerous insects, bees, butterflies and mammals, humans included.
We all depend on nature for our sustenance, even if we don't live directly in it, and all our actions have an impact on nature in some way. But by living like this, with a daily and direct connection to nature and a desire for it to provide for us, we can be in better control over what impact our actions, and interactions, have. Here, we can not only tread lightly but tread positively, and leave it a better place than we found it.
I am petrified of bees. This is no secret to the people that know me. Often times I’ll jump up in a shrieking jig if a wasp, yellow jacket, bumblebee or honeybee flies my way. I get stung. Often. Once while I was on the toilet. I once came home to my bathroom full of bees after a hive broke in our walls. I still have nightmares about it.
When my husband spent a summer helping out a master beekeeper and fell in love with bees, I didn’t think much of it. When we finally bought our farm this fall and he insisted on getting a hive of our own, I was anxious. When we ordered our be package in January, I tried to put it out of my head – after all, April was a long way away and we had bigger issues to face getting through the winter.
When March finally arrived, so did our hive. My husband painted it himself, and obsessively read bee keeping literature. I continued to try to live in denial. This Tuesday, the bees arrived. I was at work when my husband went to get our bee package with my father-in-law, but he texted me pictured that made my stomach drop.
Even though I wasn’t there to witness it, the installation of the bees into the hive went well. Of the four people that were there during the process, not one got stung. I watched the video and did my best not to cringe.
The bees have been with us now for several days, and despite the nights that have dipped well below freezing, they seem to be doing well. My husband goes out to visit them each day. I have yet to face them myself.
I do plan on making my peace with the bees. I am planting several varieties of flowers just for them, and will do my part to keep them happy and healthy – from a safe distance. When I see one while I’m gardening I will take a deep breath and think about what a help they will be to plants and my saplings. I will not swat at them, and instead picture all of the delicious honey I will enjoy this fall. And most of all, I will do my best not to have a panic attach when my husband starts to talk about all of the hives he wants to put in next year.
Carrissa Larsen runs a small farm with her husband in southern Maine. To follow the adventures of Feather and Scale Farm daily, please stop by and "Like" their Facebook page or visit their farm website for updates.