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Mulch Can Cover A Multitude of Sins As Well As Weeds

In Gene Logsdon Blog on December 16, 2008 at 8:50 am

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

Sometimes I think that Ruth Stout, the Queen of Mulch in the early days of organic gardening, did more to hurt the practice than to help it. She made it sound so easy and carefree. That’s okay because I daresay she persuaded more people to start gardening than any other single writer at that time. We all rushed out to gather up leaves and grass clippings from the four winds to pile on our gardens and then, tra la la, fell back in our hammocks and waited for harvest. Ruth put gardening on Easy Street.

As the old song puts in, “it ain’t necessarily so,”  as we all found out. Mulching is one of the very best gardening practices, but like everything else, you have to master the details if you are hoping for quality time in the hammock.

The rule of timing: The sin that mulching so often covers, in addition to weeds, is cold wet soil from applying the stuff too early. Do not start mulching until the soil has warmed up completely. I suppose on pure sand or in the deep South, this rule is not as critical, but whatever, especially on clay and loam soils, you will experience much grief if you layer on the mulch early in spring or worse, put it on late in fall or through the winter under the mistaken notion that you are protecting the soil from winter’s cold. The soil benefits from winter’s cold.

Mulching too early means you can’t work up a nice seedbed until late in the spring.  Transplants set into cold, mulched soil will sit there, blue and shivering, until July. I am talking now about organic mulches— hay, leaves, straw, grass clippings etc. Black plastic “mulch” can be put on early, and it will help warm the soil up. But that’s a subject for another time.

Here in northern Ohio, (you can make your own determinations accordingly), we do not put on organic mulches until June and then aren’t in a hurry. Right after a good rain is the best time, so as to prevent that moisture from evaporating into the air. Mulching in a normal year can take the place of watering. In a dry year, it can cut watering by half.

First we mulch early vegetables, perhaps even a little before June, especially leafy vegetables so that rain doesn’t bounce mud on them. Then comes the twin pole bean rows where the vines are climbing wooden poles anchored to a center wire overhead. That means a sort of tunnel underneath, impossible to get to with the tiller and hard even to hoe. Then we do potatoes before the plants fall and flounce all over.  After that we do the viney melons, squashes, sweet potatoes, etc. before the plants crawl out all over the place and make mulching difficult. Last comes tomatoes, eggplants and peppers which especially need to be growing vigorously in warm soil before mulching. Do not mulch onions up close. The bulbs need air and sunlight to grow properly. I usually do not mulch the sweet corn either since it is easy to cultivate weeds between the rows with the tiller.

Exceptions to the rule of timing:
I put leaf mulch on the asparagus row as soon as possible after the first spears appear. That will be early, the last week of April here, but obviously the soil is warm enough or the shoots wouldn’t be coming up. Asparagus spears will come right up through the mulch but delay weeds. Then in June, on hands and knees, I crawl along the bed and manually turn over that leaf mulch, at the same time pulling out weeds, especially the zillions of little asparagus seedlings that have started to grow despite the mulch.

I mulch the raspberry patch heavily as soon as the raspberry leaves start coming out. I just throw leaf mulch with a fork over the patch and let them fall helter-skelter among the canes. New canes will come up right through a leaf mulch but most weeds won’t, at least for a month or so.

In a northern climate like ours, strawberries should be mulched in winter after the ground has frozen. Wheat or oat straw is the preferred mulch (rich in potassium). This mulch keeps the ground from thawing and freezing repeatedly over winter, which will heave strawberry plants out of the ground. Winter mulch also delays spring growth, therefore spring blossoming, therefore fewer frost-killed blossoms. Also, mulch protects the berry plants from deer which often take a craving for the first growth in spring. After the plants are pushing hard to get up through the mulch, pull the straw back to the edges of the strawberry bed where it will keep the subsequent berries clean and row middles relatively free of weeds.

Depth of mulch: As a general rule four inches is about right. Fluffier materials can go on thicker but you don’t want more mulch than will decompose over winter. If you grind up the leaves or other mulches as with a lawn mower, they are usually dense enough so that four inches or even three will do the job. Grass clippings, being fine, can work well at three inches. Sawdust will do the job at three inches. The trick is to snuggle the mulches up close to the growing plants where it is hardest to control weeds. Some weeds will still come up close to the plants you are mulching.

Materials for mulching: It is not a good idea to use fresh barn manure close to leafy vegetables to be eaten directly and besides the ammonia nitrogen will wilt the plants. Barn manure bedding from the previous year is fine, and two or three years old is  better.  I like sheep manure bedding, trampled in the barn by the sheep to a hard, dry mass. I peel it up with a manure fork in layers that are only an inch or two thick, but impenetrable to weeds.

Straw, hay, tree leaves and grass clippings are of course all fine. I pile them near the garden for use the next year. I don’t want them to compost much before use. Finished compost will not smother weeds. Half composted materials may not last out the whole growing season before decomposing. Old hay that is full of weeds seeds is not so desirable, but if you watch carefully when the weed seeds germinate, you can turn the hay mulch over thereby killing the weeds. Chopped up cornstalks, bagasse (dried sugarcane pulp), peat moss, cocoa bean hulls and other commercial products are good but comparatively expensive.

Sawdust or wood shavings, after having served as bedding for chickens, or if well rotted, make a very nice mulch, easy to work in and around garden plants. Fresh sawdust or shavings are less desirable but the caution often given, that they will rob nitrogen from the soil, is not true enough to worry about on a good, rich soil. Reason?  Something almost magical takes place in that inch or so of no man’s land between good soil and the layer of decomposing mulch. Scientists tell me that oil microbes run wild there and create nitrogen as fast as the decomposition process is removing it. This process is otherwise called sheet composting and in my experience is just as effective as a soil builder as going through the laborious process of making compost in piles.

Warnings. If you do a lot of mulch gardening, you will have plenty of earthworms (good) but also a plague of moles (bad).  Also mulch does not control all weeds. Thistles will, given a little time, come right up through most organic mulches. Towards the end of the growing season, grasses will creep in from the edge of the lawn. By fall most kinds of weeds will find their way through the mulch but much fewer in number than not mulching.

On the other hand, mulching works very well on our two most bothersome  weeds:  chickweed and purslane. Yes, I know. Both are quite edible. So? After you eat a ton of the stuff, what do you do with the next four tons?
See also Gene’s Organic Garden and Small Farm Skills – Hoemanship
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming |
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My Wilderness

In Gene Logsdon Blog on December 9, 2008 at 11:35 am

From Gene Logsdon (1990)

In human culture is the preservation of wildness.
-Wendell Berry

I used to say that it was but a few steps from the world of my garden to the world of wild woodland, but now I realize how that statement reflects one of the most invidious errors we humans have been making.

It certainly is true that my garden borders woodland. It is also true that a pronounced change in my mentality occurs when I slip from my workaday garden into the wilder haunts of the woods. I am transformed from Mr. MacGregor worrying about Peter Rabbit into Tarzan rallying the jungle animals against the excesses of human civilization. Nor would I deny that my garden serves the side of my rational mind that demands MacGregor-like order in a chaotic world, while my woodland provides me with the wilderness that the mystic, wild side of my nature yearns for.

The error is in thinking that these contrasts represent different worlds. Vegetable gardens are perhaps more human-controlled than are wild woodlands, but the difference blurs with close scrutiny. Every effort to impose an order that would sever the garden completely from wild nature ends in silly futility or catastrophe. One year a neighbor of mine decided that, by God, he was going to get rid of every weed in his sweet corn patch once and for all. He drenched the soil with atrazine above the recommended rate. No weeds for sure, but nothing else would grow there either for three years. At the other extreme, we preserve “wilderness areas” as if we could store nature away like a can of pickles to satisfy momentary cravings. I went to a wilderness area once and got trapped in a colossal trafifc jam. The only wildlife I saw was elbow-to-elbow campers emitting mating calls from portable stereos.

If gardening has taught me anything, it’s that we can’t separate ourselves from wild nature. Even in a hydroponic greenhouse I recently visited, a cat was kept to control mice, and shipments of ladybird beetles were unleashed to eat the aphids. We live in union with a wilderness fundamentally beyond our control or we don’t live long at all. We don’t have the choice of moving from a human world to a nature world, but only from one footstep to another. As Theodore Roszak put it so well in Where the Wasteland Ends (1972):

We forget that nature is, quite simply, the universal continuum, ourselves inextricably included; it is that which mothered us into existence, which will outsurvive us, and from which we have learned (if we still remember the lesson) our destiny. It is the mirror of our identity. Any cultural goods we produce which sunder themselves from this traditional, lively connection with the nonhuman, any thinking we do which isolates itself from, or pits itself against, the natural environment is—strictly speaking—a delusion, and a very sick one. Not only because it will lack ecological intelligence, but because, more critically still, it will lack psychological completeness. It will be ignorant of the greatest truth mankind learned from its ancient intimacy with nature: the reality of spiritual being.

I had to step back and forth from garden to woodland many times before I realized that the line between them was too fine to draw, that the “reality of spiritual being” dissolved the difference I had imagined. Amid the jungle-like fernery of the asparagus patch, for example, nature plays out dramas of eating and being eaten as wild as those that occur among the bulrushes of the woodland creek: the chipping sparrow flits from her nest in the strawberry patch to prey upon larvae of asparagus beetles with all the grisly intensity of the black rat snake snatching into its gaping mouth a field sparrow bathing at the shoreline of of the creek. Wren battles wren for territorial rights to the birdhouse in the apple tree as ferociously as two bucks in the woods battling for supremacy of a deer herd.

The difference between the larvae of lady bird beetles attacking aphids on the lima beans and cheetahs attacking wildebeests on the Serengeti Plain is one of scale only. I learn to measure my progress as a gardener not by the size of my tomato harvest, but by the degree of calmness I can maintain when I abruptly meet a garter snake hunting slugs.

There is only one accurate way to describe the roiling, moiling, toiling scene of the healthy garden: it’s wild! Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of species of bugs, birds, worms, and animals move in and out of it, all eating and being eaten. Yet most of the time, this banquet table of soil provides enough food for me, too. The real need to “protect” it comes only when nature’s normalcy has been thwarted, either by its own seemingly chaotic workings or by that of humans.

An ecology-minded world would not need to protect gardens from rabbits because gardeners would understand the continuum of nature and ensure the natural habits and habitats of owls, hawks, foxes, and other animals that feed on rabbits. All else failing, humans would eat their rabbits themselves, with the same gusto that they eat Big Macs. Cabbage patch and wilderness would be one. Tarzan understood gardening better than Mr. MacGregor.

I walk from one part of my property to another as through a continuous wilderness. The vegetable rows, the woods, the pasture, the creek bottom, the little grain- and hayfields are all “garden.” They are all part of the Great Garden that once covered the Earth and might cover it again. As I walk, I pass only from one realm of the Great Garden to another. The more indeterminately the borders coalesce, the more assuredly I achieve the oneness of the natural continuum. The vegetable garden, the most humanly shaped realm, becomes a kind of decontamination chamber, a place where I can slough off the fretting cares of civilization while I pull weeds—lamb’s-quarter, purslane, pigweed (wild amaranth), and sour grass—some of which I realize, wryly, are nearly as tasty as the salad plants I grow.

Then I step into the woods by way of a glade that also serves as backyard lawn. I leave the yard deliberately unkempt so that the mower freaks who visit me can’t tell where lawn ends and wood begins. Who can say whether I should mow here or not—whether I am obeying the strictures of lawn neatness that our rural middlewestern mentality teaches? Raspberries at the woodland edge further blur the border between civilization and wilderness. Are they part of the garden or the woods? I ask the same question of the hickory nuts hovering over them.

In the woods I become a sort of high-tech Tarzan. Loincloths unfortunately are not approved of by rural middlewestern Germanic souls of propriety any more than unmowed lawns, but my belt holds a knife and more (magnifying glass and hand pruners). With binoculars around my neck, I can watch for what food, spiritual or corporeal, this wilder garden has to offer today. I find a luna moth—an endangered species in this region, where even woodland is sometimes mowed—newly emerged from its cocoon, still not ready to fly, glistening pale green and purple. I hold it in one hand and study it through the magnifying glass with the other. I am transfixed by its beauty. Of the unlimited arrangements of color and pattern that moth wings could take, why these particular ones?

I am face-to-face with mystery I cannot fathom, appearing over and over wherever I turn my eye. I begin to understand the meaning of “reality of spiritual being.” Here is knowledge that science has not yet imagined, not visible to magnifying glass or the most powerful microscope. The moth flutters away. It soon will mate and lay eggs if a bird does not catch it first, and then it will die shortly, its magnificence “wasted” if not for my chance meeting with it. Perhaps wasted. In the realm of spiritual being, perhaps is the most necessary word in any language.

Leaving the woods, I enter my pasture, a miniature version of the Serengeti Plain, another mode of the Great Garden. Here, wild and domestic life mingles even more intensely than in the vegetable rows and orchard. I once sowed “improved” grasses and clovers here, believing the universities, which told me these improvements would be better for my cows and sheep than the herbage that nature grew. Nature laughed at such pride and sowed more enduring plants. In almost every case, the wilder ones have proved better for the livestock than the university-improved ones, not to mention for the birds and insects that also live there. Even the “weeds,” except some of the more noxious ones introduced from Europe by pioneers who also thought they could improve the native landscape, make good grazing. If I mow occasionally, the pasture takes care of itself.

Meadowlarks sing from fenceposts, bluebirds nest in the houses I have set atop some posts, kingbirds sit on the fence wire between the posts, bobolinks burble and spin up over the fence and into the grass again, barn swallows dart at bugs rising from the grass, field sparrows crouch over nests of eggs at the base of bull thistles. Cowbirds perch on the back of the cow and the sheep, watching for flies. I rake the meadow with my binoculars and gather the whole scene into a spiritual harvest.

I pass into a third realm of the Great Garden: my fields of corn, oats, wheat, and clover hay. Red-winged blackbirds walk the cornrows, stolidly hunting cutworms. I turn over a lump of barn manure that didn’t get worked into the soil at planting time and uncover two ground beetles, a species that also feeds on cutworms and wireworms. I lift another manure clump and find two more. The reason for these unworked clumps is that a killdeer had been nesting there at planting time, and I dodged her with the tractor and disk. In the wheat plot, a path of trampled stalks leading into the stand tells me that raccoons or groundhogs are probably in the field, digging burrows that the growing grain stalks already hide from view. I scowl, the Mr. MacGregor in me asserting himself.

I pass into a fourth realm of the Great Garden, the grove of trees through which the creek winds. I sit on the bridge I built across the stream, my legs dangling over the side, and gaze into the water tumbling over the rock dam the children built. The sound of water over the stones is spring’s best music, next to the meadowlark’s song. Along the bank, almost in the water, a wild iris blooms. It appears to have been deliberately planted there, I catch myself thinking, still needing to remind myself that nature was planting flowers long before humans and can do the job just as well.

Suddenly, a fish flies between my dangling legs. It leaps from the water under the bridge in an arc up over the dam into the upper pool. I can’t believe my eyes, so I wait. Another one! At least a dozen dance over the dam as I watch. How did these common little shiners and larger suckers (as we call them) learn to leap dams built by children? There are no natural rock dams in our world of mud-bottomed creeks, far from the salmon runs of the wild Mackenzie. And yet, is the “real” wilderness any more spiritually vitalizing than this humdrum remnant left in these Ohio farmlands? If all the land were kept as part of the Great Garden, there would be little need for wilderness parks.

But all land is not kept this way. I walk into a section where, as far as my eye can see, there is nothing but plowed soil. I come here to hunt flint arrowheads and stone hammers left by the Tarzans of another era. I search a while, but the stillness, the eerie emptiness of hundreds of plowed acres stretching into the gathering dusk, overwhelms me. No barns, houses, pastures, woodlands, or fencerows are visible. I have entered a strange planet, one which man has almost succeeded in severing from the full life of nature. Ironically, the men who create these moonscapes for money use the profit to vacation in far-off wilderness areas.

I shiver from some vague fear. A vision of nature decapitated spreads before my mind’s eye: a future in which this countryside is slowly but surely turned from its original Great Garden into a desert stretching between lonely roads, a no-man’s-land between cities. I see whole townships and counties where a virtually limitless variety of plants, insects, animals, and humans all in their allotted niches once lived—field, pasture, woodland, farmstead, and village—now turned into empty spaces of pulverized, eroding soil producing surplus corn, rootworms, poor-quality food, and an unhealthy society. The Indians left their flints to mark the passing of their culture. I have only a hoe with a shiny handle to mark the end of mine.

I retreat back to country where the Great Garden is still remembered. A wood thrush sings as I approach my tree grove, renewing my hope. The dark vision cannot come to reality, the thrush seems to be telling me, because the coninuum of wild nature is even stronger in humans than the continuum of greed. Even the agribusinessmen will understand, once the wilderness areas they escape to are all paved with traffic jams and populated with deanimalized bears eating human garbage. Then everyone will be convinced that the only “escape” is to make all the Earth over into the various realms of the Great Garden.
See also Gene’s The Man Who Created Paradise
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Excerpted from At Nature’s Pace: Farming and the American Dream (1990)
Image Credits: Deer © Mike Rogal |
Beetles © Rusty Dodson | |
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Unexpected Benefits From Pasture Farming

In Gene Logsdon Blog on December 2, 2008 at 10:49 am

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

The biggest problem in pasture farming, that is raising farm animals almost entirely on pastures without much annual soil cultivation for grains, is internal parasites, especially in the more humid parts of the country. Parasitic worms hatch into the larval stage in the soil and crawl up the grass stems where they are ingested by the grazing animals. The worms’ eggs then pass out of the animals in the manure, and cycle back through the soil and up the grass stems to be ingested again. As pasture farmers increase livestock numbers because they have learned how to increase the carrying capacity of their pastures, the more the problem is exacerbated and the more they have to rely on various wormers. Treating sheep with vermifuges three times a summer has become necessary in some cases and even that may not do the job very well. Internal parasites seem to be growing immune to the usual medications, necessitating the use of different, stronger and more expensive ones.

We shepherds have learned that taking the animals off a pasture for a month does not break the worm cycle on that pasture, as used to be commonly believed. However a pasture not grazed for a year can eliminate or greatly reduce infestation. Medieval farmers resorted to dividing their land into two parts and alternately grazing only half in any given year. But today, graziers don’t think they can afford to pasture only half their land (so much for progress) and put hay or grain alternately in the other half. That would mean doing annual cultivation of half the farm every year thereby losing the cost-saving advantages of permanent or nearly permanent pasture.

But there might be an effective compromise that rotational grazing makes possible. At least it has worked for us so far— keep your fingers crossed.  In earlier years, we had gotten to the point where we had to worm the sheep three times a summer to keep them healthy.   (Sheep with stomach worms have pale eyes, scraggly wool, invariably have rear ends coated with manure, and the lambs do not gain weight efficiently.)  Now we are back to only one worming a year and I have hopes of eliminating the job completely.

We have experimented with various schedules and carrying rates on our rotated pastures to arrive at what seems, all things considered, the best for us: a division into eight plots of about an acre and a half in size, with two other woodsy plots grazed only irregularly to give the animals a chance to eat acorns and walnut leaves and other wild plants traditionally thought to be helpful in controlling internal parasites. Each of the eight plots, or paddocks as graziers call them, is grazed for one week at a time and then the sheep are moved on to the next. That means any given plot has sheep on it only one week roughly every two months. In a grazing season of eight months, each plot is visited only one month (four separate weeks) out of the year at two months intervals. Parasitic worms do not have a chance to build up high populations under this regimen. The animals are allowed the run of all the plots in winter because worms aren’t active in cold weather. Although this is not quite once-a-year grazing, it seems to work so far.

To help this kind of parasite control, I usually mow a  paddock following one or two of  its four grazing periods  to control weeds that the animals might not have eaten and to encourage lush new growth of grass and clover. Mowing helps control worms, so the books say.

I’m sure that part of the reason we have had success this way is that we don’t overcrowd our pastures. We keep around 20 ewes on about 14 acres. From April until October, there will be another 20 to 30 lambs too,  or altogether, roughly about three and a half head per acre. Normal carrying capacity on our kind of soil and climate is five sheep per acre.  A commercial shepherd might find  our stocking rate too low to be profitable, but I wonder. If we can eliminate internal parasites we might make as much net profit with a low carrying rate.

I can’t resist sharing another, somewhat humorous benefit from rotational grazing. When the sheep see me coming to switch them into another plot, they run ahead of me like a herd of crazed buffaloes to the gate, then turn around and stare at me expectantly. They know the routine.

I used to wish I had a good border collie to help me move the sheep.  Now I don’t need one. All I have to do is stand at a gate, any gate, and call a bit and no matter where the sheep are, they will come running. The grass where they are grazing might still be good,  but if the master is calling, it must be better on the other side of the fence. Finally they will even come into the barn lot without being driven if I stand at the gate and call. Going through gates just gets to be a habit with them, an indication of better things to come. Wish it were that easy to instill hope in human society in these paranoid days.
See also Gene’s Our Ewes Are Having Lots Of Lambs, But Is More Better?
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: © John Manning | |
Gene’s Posts
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The Garden Farm Guide To Beekeeping

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on November 25, 2008 at 1:26 am

From Gene Logsdon (1985)
WIth Update – November 2008
Garden Farm Skills

I hesitate to describe the way I produce the 8 to 10 quarts of honey we eat every year (we use honey, maple syrup, and sorghum molasses for sweeteners but seldom use honey in cooking or baking). I ignore almost all the rules in bee books about producing honey, and I have done so for eight years without any ill effects at all. Commercial beekeepers will say I’ve just been lucky, and I suppose to some small degree that’s true. But you, too, can easily be that lucky while reducing the complications of beekeeping to a very simple, low-cost, and low-labor activity.

The reason I can ignore the “right” ways of beekeeping is that I allow the bees to perform their natural functions as naturally as possible in the domesticated environment I provide them. Bees in the wild take care of themselves quite well, and so long as there are places for them to live and nectar for them to gather, they go right on living, even though individual colonies occasionally die out.

The “right ways” that I more or less ignore are the necessary steps the beekeeper must attend to when he is manipulating this natural bee activity for the highest possible honey production, that is, when he or she wants to produce enough honey to make the operation commercially profitable, possibly even as a way to make a living. Almost all how-to books consciously or unconsciously assume this kind of profitability as the ultimate purpose of home-based work: If the work is cottage industry, then it must make dollars and cents in the so-called real economic world. This assumption even insinuates itself occasionally into how-to gardening books even though the salvation of gardening is that it is a noncommercial type of agriculture. The reason I harp and carp on this point is because the very essence of traditional skills and crafts is the avoidance of and freedom from the profit motive. My bees do not make money for me. But being free of the time and equipment I’d need to manipulate them to “profitability,” my bees certainly do not lose money, either. The 10 quarts of honey would cost us, retail today, about $40. We bought a $150 extractor, an extravagance already paid for out of that yearly honey income. We’ve bought little else except honey frames and wax foundations and the usual veil, gloves, and hive tools. I made the hive bodies or received them free from other beekeepers simply by being patient and alert.

There are always bees in hives for sale in the fall in rural newspapers, or to be had for free from someone who went into the bee business for money and lost interest, or from swarms free for the capturing. Hardly a year goes by that I am not called to capture a swarm, usually by a frantic homeowner scared to death of the bees, although when swarming, bees seldom if ever sting. I got my start with a colony owned by a man who found he was becoming dangerously allergic to bee stings. He had three hives. I knew nothing about bees (still know very little). I called a beekeeper. Would she help me get the three hives in exchange for two of them? Gladly. The owner graciously gave us the hive bodies and supers (hive boxes), too (all were in bad shape). We wrapped up the hives in burlap sacks (I watched) and carted them off in a pickup truck. I was in the bee “business.” The old saying is that you have to move a colony either just a few feet, or you have to move them a few miles so that the bees will not return to their old location. We were beyond the 3-mile limit, so no worries.

I put my hive up on bricks and doused the bricks with used oil to discourage ants from raiding the hive. I cleaned and refurbished the honey supers that I would eventually add on top of the brood chamber. I must confess that in eight years I have never looked into the brood chamber. To be quite honest, I’ve been afraid to root round down in there and get on a first-name basis with the queen, or do any requeening or such complicated maneuvers. My theory is that she will do her job if I just don’t bother her too much. And I never have. Every June I add a shallow super over the original brood chamber and original deep honey super that I never monkey with. In recent years I’ve added a second shallow super. In late October I take off this top super and remove the honey. Next June I put it back on again. That is the entire extent of my beekeeping efforts.

What happens, of course, is that when the colony gets overcrowded, because I do not add more supers in the summer, they swarm. The commercial beekeeper goes to great lengths to avoid swarming, so that hive population increases and produces more honey. I welcome swarming. It is the bees’ natural way to increase themselves. The old queen and old bees leave the hive. A new queen and new workers build up in the hive — renewing the vigor of the colony, and, I’m now quite sure, helping to avoid diseases and other problems that come with the unnatural buildup of huge colonies.

The reason my careless beekeeping methods work is because there is always plenty of honey in the hive for the bees. I’m convinced that feeding them sugar water is not a healthy substitute.

But since I’ve never taken very good care of the hives (I don’t even insulate them for protection in our often subzero winters), I’ve believed that sooner or later my hive would develop problems — at least needing the brood chamber cleaned or replaced. Rather than do that, and also so that I would have to take even less honey out of the one hive, I started a second by capturing a swarm (see below) that issued from the first one. Now, if something goes haywire in the first hive, I will simply destroy it, clean out the brood chamber, and start a new hive from another swarm from the newer colony. But nothing has gone haywire in eight years, as I’ve said, and the two-hive arrangement works well for me. When production is down in one due to a recent swarm, production seems to be up a little in the other. So now I’m preparing a hive to start a third colony, after which I will (I tell myself) destroy the oldest one right after it swarms, since two healthy hives is all I wish to keep.


My two hives are not up to professional standards. In one there is no hive cover under the lid as the books say is necessary. One hive has a queen excluder over the brood chamber; the other does not. In neither of these cases does there seem to be any difference in bee activity or honey production. I don’t have a proper bee entrance on either hive — just a little piece of wood to block part of the entranceway so the bees have less doorway to defend in case of intruders. Ants try to get in the hives (which are not up off the ground far enough) but when I’ve watched an ant raid, it always seems to fizzle. The bees carry the ants away as fast as they try to come in. I suppose some day I will get wax moths, but not so far. There’s a buckeye tree nearby, the pollen of which is supposed to be poison to our to bees (although the honey bees make from it is OK), but this has seemed to pose no threat either. I continue to operate on the theory that the bees know what they are doing.

I have no very professional way to remove the supers and frames full of honey. I wear protective clothing and use a smoker, of course, puffing smoke all over myself, as well as at the entrance to the hive before i pry off the lid. I puff more smoke over the exposed frames, but not too much. Too much just upsets the bees. I’ve never found an easy way to drive the bees down into the hive farther, since I have no air blower. I merely pry up a frame at a time, shake the bees off of it, or brush them with my gloved hand (I have no bee brush, either), and carry the frame back to a pan or bucket sitting beyond the range the bees consider their own private territory — about 30 feet away. Then I go back and take out another frame, and so on until the super is empty. Then I lift off the empty super and put the lid back on the top of the super below.

Then I carry the pan full of frames to the house. The bees remaining on the frames I can now brush off with impunity and they fly away. There’s always a couple that get crushed in this transfer. Back at the hive you should be very careful to try not to crush a bee. This can arouse coworkers. But never panic! I’ve injured bees at the hive, without disaster. I puff a lot of smoke if they start up that certain angry kind of buzzing you soon learn to recognize. I’ve only been stung twice in eight years.

The caps have to be cut off the combs. We don’t have an electric decapper either, but use a butcher knife, the blade kept reasonably hot by dipping it into hot water now and then. The hotter the blade, the easier it cuts through the combs in the decapping process. It’s a messy job no matter what, and you should put down newspapers everywhere, because no matter how careful you are, honey will drip on the floor, you will step on it, and then track it elsewhere.

Some of the frames are filled with sheets of foundation wax reinforced with wires that run through them; other frames have wax sheets that are not reinforced. The former are stronger and better, but with the latter, we can cut out large squares of comb honey. I use these unreinforced sheets for comb honey rather than fussing around with the little boxes and special supers used for production of comb honey in commercial apiaries. I first read about this in the books by Ormond and Harry Aebi, The Art and Adventure of Beekeeping and Mastering the Art of Beekeeping, which are, in my opinion, the two best and most readable books on bees (the former now published by Rodale Press, 1983, the latter by Unity Press, 1980, now out of print). The sizes of the squares, once cut from the frame, are just about right to fit on a saucer. We put a piece of wax paper over each square, so they are protected until they are eaten.

The frames with the “windows” cut out for comb honey can be put back in the hive, and the bees will fill them in with comb and honey again so that I can extract the honey from them. If I want more comb honey, I cut out the entire comb in the frame, rather than leaving enough margin around the “windows” for the bees to work from, and I put a new sheet of foundation wax in the frame.

Most of our honey gets extracted in our stainless steel extractor. This operation is very simple. Two frames that have been capped are placed in the wire basket inside the extractor (one at each end). A few twists of the hand crank begins the centrifugal force that throws the honey out of the outside combs of each frame. Then the frames are turned around, the process repeated, and the other sides of the combs emptied. The honey flows slowly down the sides of the extractor to the bottom and then is drawn off through the spigot into jars. Bits of comb wax in the honey float to the tops of the jars and can be skimmed off. The only honey that we strain is that from the comb cappings taken off in the decapping.

In some frames, the honey is occasionally of such poor quality that it crystallizes right in the comb, something none of the books warned us about. As far as we can learn, this is honey from certain wild weeds and flowers. You can’t do much with it, and the taste is not very good, so we put it back for the bees to eat. We also put back the cappings and old combs and the bees clean up every bit of honey on them. We then use the wax for an occasional candle or to coat thread for sewing or for grafting. Fortunately, that poor-quality honey is a rarity, and in most years we don’t find any of it in the frames. The best source of good honey in my area is now soybeans, vast acreages of which are a great boon to beekeeping, so long as the crops aren’t sprayed with lethal insecticides.

But the honey is different every year. Some years it tends to crystallize in storage more than in other years. Some years it doesn’t crystallize at all. When it does, we put a quart as needed in a pan of water and set the pan on the wood stove. It takes about half a day to melt the honey back to a clear liquid.

Capturing a Swarm of Bees
If you decide to start beekeeping by capturing a swarm, have your empty hive, smoker, and veil ready at all times. After you have informed local beekeepers and everyone else that you are looking for a swarm, you will almost surely get more calls than you want. But if you follow my advice, be patient and choosy. I believe you should wait for a swarm that is clustered close to the ground. Those high in a tree are too difficult to capture. Banging on a pan will not bring them down after they have clustered, although strange as it seems, there are beekeepers who insist a swarm in the air can be brought down by this ancient custom. Also if there is a hive of bees in a house or building, leave their removal to experts, I say. Such bees are usually not swarming but are a working colony, and they will not take kindly to capture the way a swarm will. In these cases, you can often get a beekeeper to capture the swarm for you (or move the housebound colony).

A swarm you can reach from the ground is fairly easy to coax into a super. Set the super on the ground next to the swarm and take the lid off. Bend over the branch the bees are clustered on (or cut it off) and gently shake and brush the bees over the super and in front of it. Keep your smoker handy but use it sparingly. Swarming bees rarely sting. I was scared to death the first time I hived a swarm. They were on a fence post, and the best I could do was brush them into a cardboard box and then pour the full box over the open super. Don’t waste time trying to locate the queen. She’s down in the middle of the cluster and is difficult to pick out. Usually she crawls right on in the hive with the other bees. You will soon be able to tell, because if she inadvertently crawls under the super or is still back on the post or wherever the cluster formed, the bees will come out of the super and crawl or fly around aimlessly and eventually back to wherever she is. When I had most of the bees in the super — don’t try to get all of them — I closed it up and carried it back to the stand I had prepared for the occasion. I was amazed at how easy the undertaking had been. And more than anything else, the adventure cured me of being overly afraid of bees. After you have raked fistfuls of them into a box right under your nose, they just don’t ever seem so awesome again. Bystanders will think you tremendously courageous or possessed of some gift. They will never believe that bees in swarm are so gorged with honey they hardly ever think about stinging.

A Bee-Hiver
A very old tool can be helpful in capturing a swarm. It is called a bee-hiver and is easy to make. Take an 18 by 14-inch board of regular ¾-inch thickness. (This size of board fits easily inside a super.) Drill about half a dozen holes in the board, sized to accommodate a corncob tightly. Make a sort of hood on the board by nailing another small board, 3 or 4 inches wide and 14 inches long, at one end of the bigger board, with two little triangular wood braces at each side to strengthen the connection between the two boards and to complete the hoodlike structure. Then nail or bolt a long handle to the back of the hood. The handle can be from an old broom, or even better, a longer piece of 1 by 2-inch lumber. Stick corncobs through the holes you have made in the original board. The tool is now ready for use.

Lift the hood up to the swarm and gently work it in amongst the bees. Or tap the branch they are on with it. Invariably, the bees will begin to crawl onto the corncobs, which have a very nice texture for them to hold onto tightly. When the swarm has clustered onto your bee-hiver, lower it to the ground, lay it flat, and set the super over it. The bees will go up into the frames and then you can set the super back on its base.

The original use of bee-hivers was more to lure a swarm than to capture one. Two or three were kept stuck into the ground at a slight angle in the vicinity of the beeyard. When a swarm left a hive, it would most often alight on the bee-hiver.

Some Bee Wisdom
Since there is almost always some grain of truth in the most ridiculous of folklore, I have often wondered about the ancient superstition that when someone dies in the family (i.e. who has been caring for the bees) the bees have to be told. Although literally the notion is ridiculous, I have a hunch it began as a sort of clever or droll way to underline the much less ridiculous belief that bees know their keepers quite well and even distinguish friendliness in humans from fear, if not dislike. This kind of differentiation is well documented in animals, particularly dogs, so why not in so intelligent a being as a honeybee? The hive I started from the swarm I capture has always been friendlier to me than the other hive. Or perhaps I unconsciously am more comfortable around this hive, and so the bees respond in kind. In any case, folklore that teaches us, however drolly, to treat bees as if they were almost human is not ridiculous in the least.

Locate hives in an area where they are protected from harsh winter winds, but where in summer they are shaded in the afternoon. Nearness to water is not as important as some books insinuate. Bees can get plenty of water from dew. But it is important to have your hives located near nectar sources. The farther a bee has to fly for nectar, the less nectar it can gather. Bees are in bad humor on cool days when they can’t find much nectar, but when there is a good flow of nectar, as from an apple tree in full bloom, you can brush the bees in the blossoms without fear. They are too happy to sting. Around the hive, however, try not to get between the hive entrance and the airways the bees generally travel. Approach the hive from the rear.

To lessen the danger of being stung when working around the hives, as in mowing grass and the like, hang a piece of your clothing — any cloth with our scent on it — close to the hive so that it flaps in the wind. The bees get used to this “intruder” in their midst and are less wary when you walk close. Don’t wear perfume, after-shave, or anything of that sort around bees; they’ll go right for you, thinking you’re a big, juicy flower.

Update November 2008: I still take care of my bees the way I described twenty some years ago, that is, by just leaving them alone. Every year I take off the top frame for our honey and every spring put the empty one back on again. I have not had any problems with the new diseases that are plaguing beekeepers. However, I am now down to one hive again, and the bottom brood chamber really does need to be replaced or cleaned up. The hive seems to be declining a little and I fear wax moths will attack. That is one of my jobs for this winter: to get another brood chamber ready and put it on top of the old one or replace the old one next spring.  ~Gene

Stoking Up The Woodstove: Winter’s First Ritual

In Gene Logsdon Blog on November 18, 2008 at 9:39 am


From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

We try to wait until towards the end of November here in Ohio to start up the stove that keeps us warm through the cold weather already howling on our northern ramparts. The “first fire” has become a ritual along with bringing in the last rose of summer, literally, from the garden. The last rose is one of Carol’s miniatures which endures even after the first freezing frosts, and the sight of that brave little thing forlornly alone in a vase can almost bring tears to my eyes. I keep reminding myself that in only about two months, as February approaches, a thaw can bring the winter aconites out of the ground. I have only two months to endure without growing plants.

I stare at the flame of the first fire in that kind of mood. This too is part of the garden farming life: the fire is a harvest feast from our grove of trees. There is sadness in it, but contentment too. I have ranked wood around the walls of the attached garage, at least enough to last until the winter aconites bloom, and filled the woodbox with dry branch twigs to use for kindling. I am ready.

Heating effectively with wood requires that one become what I call a woodburning gourmet. To make a really good fire, the wood should be cut and split and allowed to dry for two years in the rick. Dry wood throws at least a third more heat than green wood, and if it burns with a good draft, it does not violate pollution codes and does not block the chimney with creosote. The species of wood makes a tremendous difference too. A cord of hickory, oak, or ash makes twice as much heat as a cord of light wood like poplar or white pine and one and half times more than most common hardwoods like American elm or wild cherry. It pays to study the lists commonly available that rate woods by their output of BTUs especially if you have to buy your wood. Until you have experience, it would be wise to buy only from a seller you trust or have an oldtimer with long experience on hand when a load is delivered. In general the heavier the wood when it is dry, the more heat per cord it will produce.

Woodburning gourmets like to mix woods in the stove or especially in a fireplace: perhaps a stick of apple or hackberry with its fruity smell alongside a stick of hickory for that delectable odor of hickory smoke; or a couple of thinner sticks of very dry wood with a couple of thicker and perhaps not so dry wood— the former burning quick and hot until the latter are dry enough to burn well into the night without smoldering. The more knowing wood gourmet will prefer ash to white oak or hickory even though it delivers a little less in BTUs because he will only have to take out the ashes once a week instead of twice. How the ash got its name mystifies me. It should be called less-ash. And remember the old refrain: “Ash wood wet or ash wood dry, a king shall warm his slippers by.”

Starting fires in a woodstove can be a real pain unless you want to spend money on various kindling sticks sold for that purpose. Your method will vary, I suppose, with your stove, but in my old Defiant from Vermont Castings which loads from the left end, I lay in two split sticks no more than two inches apart, side by side, some sixteen inches long of roughly five inch thickness, put a handful of kindling twigs between them, and then a third stick athwart and atop the first two, and perhaps a fourth stick tilted down on top of the third, slanted the other way. This allows plenty of space for air movement up through the wood, with the starting flames from the twigs licking against the sides of the two lower sticks and rising upwards into the third and fourth sticks. But not too much space. Two pieces of wood several inches apart will not burn as well as two pieces only an inch apart. And sticks love company: a lone piece of wood will not burn as well as two pieces close together. With a wad of newspaper positioned right inside the stove door and snug against the twigs, one match will get the fire started. With the door slightly ajar, the strong draft pulls the flame into the twigs and then up through the wood. As the wood burns, experience teaches you how much to open or close the draft to keep the temperature steady.

Too much draft and the fire will burn too hot. It is wise to have a thermometer on top of the stove and not let it get much beyond 600 degrees F. About 500 is best for us. Below 300 and either your wood is not dry, or not enough draft. Of course if you are cooking on the stove top, you will want a temperature around 300 for most situations.

Draft depends a lot on weather: with a high pressure front moving in, it will be stronger; low pressure, low draft. The chimney design is also important. When the stove chimney rises straight up from the stove about five feet, then angles about three or four feet into the wall to the outside chimney, the draft will be stronger than an inside chimney that exits the stove horizontally into a fireplace and then angles up into the outside chimney. But both will be satisfactory in most cases.

Two important design features of a good chimney are seldom mentioned in “the literature.” If you notice on old houses, the chimney will often have a bend in it, perhaps ten or fifteen feet up before proceeding on to the top. That is not because the builder miscalculated. That bend helps to minimize downdraft. Secondly, on a house with more than one fireplace or stove, which is often the case, the two (or more) chimneys will be side by side going up the outer wall. Insist, no matter what your builder says, that one of the chimneys sticks up higher than the other by at least a foot, and better two feet. If you don’t do that, one chimney will suck smoke from the other down into the house unless both are in operation. I know because we had to add on to one of our chimneys and that ended the problem.

Another thing: put a rain cover over your chimneys, again no matter what your builder says. You don’t want water dripping down. The cover should also have screening to keep out wild animals or birds. If not, I can almost guarantee that some day you will hear faint rattlings and rufflings in your chimney. Raccoons or birds might do a good job of cleaning fly ash and creosote off your chimney walls before they die or get into the house but….You get the picture.

To bring wood into the house you can buy (or make) large wood carriers that hold about eight to ten sticks of cut, split wood in a completely closed bag that looks sort of like a suitcase. No more dribbling bark and pieces of dirt on the rug.

It pays to have a stove that will operate without electricity. The main reason to have a woodburning stove, it seems to me, is to keep the house warm and to cook food even when the power goes out. The security makes all the work worthwhile.
See also Gene’s Wood Is More Precious Than Gold
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credits: © Axel Drosta |
Gene’s Posts
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The Garden Farm Guide To Feeding, Catching, and Butchering Chickens

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on November 11, 2008 at 9:36 am

From Gene Logsdon (1985)
WIth Update – November 2008
Garden Farm Skills

Commercially-Fed Chickens
Every so-called how-to book I’ve read assumes that chickens must be fed milled grains. Malarkey. Little chicks that cannot yet swallow whole grains need milled grains (unless they are following their mothers around the barnyard eating bugs and worms and bits of grass and tiny weed seeds). Hens and broilers do not. They will eat more if fed milled grains, which may mean a few more eggs and certainly more weight in a shorter period of time, but what do you care, in the backyard, if your broilers mature in ten weeks or twelve, or if your hens don’t lay the absolute maximum they might be capable of? You aren’t on the commercial treadmill, working on 14% money, with expenses so high for all that automation that you have to scrape up every possible penny.

This brings up another of my pet peeves: almost all books and articles on raising poultry will admonish you to keep a light on in your henhouse—that your hens will lay more eggs if the amount of light remains fairly constant for 14 hours a day. This practice is total absurdity for the backyard chicken grower. My chickens have never seen an electric light. We have never run out of eggs in eighteen years, never had more than twenty overwinter layers, usually less, and indeed have eggs to sell every month except December.

Home-Fed Chickens
Since chickens have a wonderful digestive system for grinding grains, you can just feed them whole grains as I do. But if you insist on grinding grain for chickens, you’ll be way ahead if you take your grain to the mill and have it ground there instead of buying commercially ground grain. I hear you saying, well, my grains won’t have all those vitamins and minerals and protein supplements in them, all scientifically mixed to give the chicken a “perfectly balanced” ration. I don’t want to get into an argument about the relative merits of these “perfectly balanced” rations,… but in some feeds there are still various antibiotics and drugs…

If your hens have access to the outside at least a few hours every other day in nice weather, they will balance their own rations quite well with bugs and worms and grass and leaves (and your garden fruits if you aren’t careful). If you can’t let your chickens out for part of the day once in a while (the best way is to turn them out 2 hours before sunset—they won’t stray far and will come back to roost at dark), you can bring them grass clippings, table scraps, and garden surplus and provide them with a salt-mineral block, oyster shells, and water. Along with your grains, and in winter a bit of high-quality clover or alfalfa hay (you can dry the clover right off the lawn), you will have provided as balanced a ration as any you can buy. It may be a sight more balanced, in fact, because your egg yolks will have a rich orange-yellow color, denoting a higher carotene and vitamin C content than those pallid-yolked eggs from the egg factories.

If you are into grinding grains, the ration formulas you can use are myriad. The conventional mixture is invariably about 2/3 corn and 1/3 oats or wheat, or oats and wheat. Barley, wheat, and oats can all take the place of corn, but in larger amounts, because corn provides more energy. You can also mix in a bit of protein supplement. If you have good-quality alfalfa, you can feed that instead of the supplement…

Here’s what I feed my chickens: When there are eighteen chickens in the coop, they get six ears of corn per day, a pound or less of wheat, and four seed heads of sorghum, all grown and harvested on the place. If they don’t clean that up, I reduce the ration a bit. In addition, they get a bit of leafy green alfalfa hay regularly in winter, plus lots of table scraps, garden surplus, scraps from butchering, and a bit of salt-mineral block and oyster shells. They roam the woods for part of the day for about 250 days of the year.

Chicks and young broilers get some ground corn alone, but every year I feed the broilers less ground feed and more whole grain, and they get fat just as well, only a bit slower. Speed of fattening is influenced by genetics, by the way. Some animals get fatter quicker no matter what you feed or don’t feed them.

A Simple Chicken Catcher
To butcher a chicken, first you have to catch it. Unless you take it off the roost at night, this first step in butchering should not be taken for granted. You can chase the chickens around the coop trying to corner one, raising dust and pandemonium, stumbling, perhaps falling among the squawking biddies. Each subsequent attempt at capturing becomes more difficult as the chickens get wilder and warier. Both you and your flock get bruised and hypertensive in the process.

There is a time-honored, easier way. Cut a piece of heavy wire about 4 feet long. No. 9 will do, but heavier stuff is better if you can find it. Bend one end around into a longish loop for a handle and bend the other end into a hook shaped like the one in the drawing. The width of the hook at the closed end should be about the width of your little finger or the approximate width of a chicken leg, opening wider at the mouth of the hook.  Then all you do is walk quietly to within striking distance of your unsuspecting feathered friends, hook a leg, and all in one motion, pull the chicken toward you. While keeping tension on the leg with the hook, grab the leg with your free hand. Works like a charm.

Butchering a Chicken
Butchering anything is disagreeable work. But if a person is going to eat meat, he can hardly avoid the work just for that reason and not be a hypocrite. And because chickens are the one animal eminently practical for all homesteads (even the smallest), knowing how to butcher them can be a very handy skill to acquire. Once the technique is learned, the time involved is fairly little. My wife and I can kill, scald, and butcher four chickens in half an hour, if we’re in a hurry.

There are other ways to do it, but I kill chickens by chopping their heads off on a stump. I use a regular axe, not a hatchet, as the heavier tool does the job quickly and more accurately, and the poor animal is dead, as far as anyone knows, instantly, without pain. Nevertheless, it will jump around a lot and bruise the meat after decapitation, so for a few seconds I continue to hold it, with both legs and the wing tips grasped together in my left hand, after delivering the death blow with the ax in my right. If you do not hold the wings, too, they will flap uncontrollably. I stick the chicken, neck down, in a bucket, so the blood does not spray on me. It is necessary in butchering anything to get a good “bleed,” and decapitation does that as well as the more surgical methods of just cutting the veins in the throat.

The next step is to scald the feathers off. Again, there are other ways to remove feathers, but I can assure you that my way is the best way for the homeowner with just a few chickens. Theoretically, the water should not be quite boiling—about 180° to 190°F. is just right. But we let the water come to a boil, then let it sit a bit. Our water is usually a bit too hot, and it cooks the skin a wee bit but this is no problem other than the skin might tear in the defeathering process. A bit of torn skin is no catastrophe either, and eventually you will learn to avoid it. I like to start with the water a bit too hot, so that if we are butchering four or more chickens at once, which we usually do, the water will not be too cool by the time we get to the last one. Better too hot than not hot enough.

Slosh the chicken around in the scalding water for about 20 seconds (less in very hot water, more in not-so-hot water), making sure the water soaks through the feathers to all the skin. Then let the water drain out of the feathers a few seconds and lay your chicken in a pan or bucket or on a sheet of paper while you pluck the feathers. The wing and tail feathers have to be pulled off, sometimes rather forcefully, but the rest of the feathers can practically be rubbed off with the heel of your hand. I generally strip down the thighs first, then pull the wing and tail feathers, then rub down the back, and then the belly and inside of the wings. I do the neck last. With practice you can get 90% of the feathers off in a few seconds. The last 10% takes a bit longer. The hairy pin feathers and the stout feather sheaths that did not come off with the plucking can be scraped with a knife later. My mother used to singe off the hairs that remained after scalding in the time-honored way—over a candle, a kerosene lamp, or with a burning piece of newspaper—which is a good way to set your own hair on fire.

You can scald the lower legs and feet and peel the skin off easily enough. We did so when I was a child, even though there was little meat on the legs. In these days, when we think we are richer, we give the feet to the dog, though this may actually be more economical, since if he is eating chicken feet, he is not eating store-bought dog food.

The plucking finished, the chicken carcass is ready for the actual butchering. Make yourself some kind of work table about waist high and put a pan or bucket under the edge where you will be working. (I use a step of the stairs going up to our outdoor deck.) Set the chicken on its back on a clean piece of paper. A grocery sack is fine; newspaper is not because the print comes off on the chicken skin. Cut off the lower legs first—they are sticking up in your way. Press the heel of the knife blade into the leg joint while bending down the leg with your other hand. The joint will snap open and you can easily cut down between the bones, severing the leg.

Next, turn the chicken around, still on its back, so its neck is over the bucket below. The bulge under the skin at the base of the neck is the crop, and it is full of whatever the chicken had been eating. Cut the skin open over the crop. Be very careful because it is easy to cut into the crop, and then the contents spill messily down the neck. (If that happens, don’t panic. Clean the mess out and pour a little water over it to flush the grain, digestive fluids, or whatever, into the bucket.) I pinch the skin over the crop between my left forefinger and thumb and raise it up (see photo), slicing horizontally and very shallowly through the raised skin. With a slit of an inch or two made, I use my fingers to peel back the rest of the skin and pull the crop out and down, slicing behind it with the knife as I pull crop and windpipe down the neck and into the bucket.

Now turn the chicken around again, on its back still, with the back end facing you. Spread the legs apart with your left hand, and cut crosswise toward the head just under the breast-bone and slightly upward. Do not cut down or even straight in horizontally or you will cut into the intestines nestled inside (see photo). The slit should extend across the chicken from side to side. There will usually be a layer of fat under the skin, and you will have a hard time knowing when you have cut into the interior of the chicken far enough, but not so far as to cut an intestinal lining. If you do cut through an intestine, don’t panic. The mess will clean up.

Next, punch the knife straight downward at one end of the slit you made, holding the knife perfectly vertical, and cut between the entrails and the flesh. With an up and down motion, like using a jigsaw, cut through the skin and fat layer down past the pelvic bone, staying as close to it as you can, down around the anus. As you come around the anus, your knife should come down from its vertical position to almost horizontal as you cut under the anus and the intestine just inside it. Halfway past the anus I stop, go back to the other end of the original slit, and come down in a similar fashion on the other side, passing in under the anus till I meet my first cut. If you have cut correctly, you will not have punctured any intestine.

Now lay the knife down, grasp the chicken across the breast with your hand, and reach your left hand into the interior cavity of the chicken until you feel the oval gizzard—about the size of a large egg. Grip the gizzard and pull out and down. With the gizzard and part of the entrails hanging outside the chicken, reach in again and gently grasp the liver and pull it out, too. Cut the gizzard off and lay it aside. Cut the liver out, being sure to remove the gallbladder (that green gland you see in the middle of the liver), and lay it aside. Now pull the entrails on down into the bucket. The last to go will be the intestines right at the anus, and you may have to loosen these gently so that the whole falls into the bucket cleanly—without a speck of manure getting on the carcass. If the latter does occur, no sweat. Just wash it off.

The heart, lungs, and probably part of the esophagus will still be in the chicken. The heart comes out easily. The lower esophagus, which looks something like the heart, needs a hard pull. The lungs lie over the rib cage and are a bit tricky to remove. Feel the rib cage with your fingers, then slide one finger between two ribs at the deepest groove, under the soft cushiony mass of lung, and the lung will pop loose, at least it will on older chickens. This technique works better if you slide your finger between the ribs from the outside toward the center of the chicken. On younger chickens, the lungs sometimes seem to get lost, and you have to look up in the chicken several times to find them. With practice though, you can remove them quickoy by feel only. The light pink color of the lungs distinguishes them from other vital organs.

I clean everything out of the inside of the chicken. Some folks I know prefer to leave the kidneys in along the back because they like the taste of them. To each his own.

The next step is to turn the chicken over and cut the oil sacs off the tail. About 1 inch forward of the tail, cut in about 1/4 inch and then down toward the tail, pulling on the flap of skin you have cut with your other hand. The idea is to cut under the oil sacs, but the first time (and many other times) you will no doubt cut right into them. You’ll know because the sacs are yellow and exude a yellowish liquid. Tradition says a chicken should not be cooked unless these sacs are removed and as far as I know, everyone follows that tradition.

You still have the gizzard to clean out. It is full of half-digested food. The ideal method is to slice into the edge of the gizzard but not through the inner pouch containing the digesting food. Once you have an opening of about an inch into the gizzard lining that surrounds the pouch, use your fingers to peel the gizzard away from the pouch. Housewives of my mother’s generation prided themselves on their ability to get the pouch out without breaking it. They would say they’d get a new dress for every unbroken pouch. But especially on young fryers, this pouch tears so easily I don’t even try to remove it in one piece—what would I do with a new dress anyway? I simply cut the gizzard open and then, holding it over the waste bucket, peel the pouch off the inner gizzard lining (see photo). Then I wash off the gizzard.

In putting the finishing touches on a butchered chicken, my wife scrapes or picks off any bits of feather missed, and cleans out any particles of windpipe, esophagus, or lung I might have carelessly left inside the chicken. She washes the carcass well inside and out, cuts off the neck to freeze separately, but does not cut up the rest of the chicken before freezing it. In cleaning up the chicken, she is, as old farmers say, very persnickety. There is no untidy speck of anything left on the carcass. For example, on the last joint of the wing, there is a tiny clawlike appendage left over no doubt from the long-ago evolutionary era of pterodactyl flying reptiles. She cuts this tiny claw off. Why? She shrugs. She has no reason. The claw to her is unseemly, that’s all.

Update November 2008: I agree even more with what I wrote here twenty-some years ago, and I hardly ever can say that. Right now I am feeding 16 hens about a quart of whole wheat a day plus table scraps. That’s all. I’ve learned that they eat lots of weed seeds which are richer in nutrients than domestic grains. In winter I will add four ears of corn as whole kernels to that daily feeding plus a handful of very high quality legume hay. ~ Gene

Hunting For Your Dream Place

In Gene Logsdon Blog on November 5, 2008 at 7:18 am

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

I have a hunch that at no previous time in modern history have there been more people getting ready for their long planned-for move to a garden farm than right now. For one thing there is a good chance that a dip in farmland prices, if not a nosedive, might be coming soon, like in the housing market, making land more affordable for those who have been saving for just that purpose. But whether that is true or not, there’s a vast discontent with the high standard of living we’re supposed to be enjoying. We are at the end of the era of unbelievably wasteful consumption and many people are realizing that the old adage is again appropriate: “Root, hog, or die.”

The perfect place for a garden farm probably doesn’t exist, but in hunting for one, you should be aware of some practical assets that you may not have considered. I am referring mainly to those priceless attributes that can come with a piece of property, often at no  extra cost, but which you can’t supply on your own or can only add over a long period of time. There is also land that comes with negative assets that make it sell cheaper but which you can take advantage of or change for the better. I call it paying attention to the W’s:  water, woods, and would-be wasteland.

1. Obviously, the first thing you want to look for is fertile ground. The soil on the perfect garden farm would be a deep rich loam over a naturally well-drained, mineral-rich subsoil, have an organic matter content of over 3% and a pH rating of around 6.5 but most of that kind of land isn’t for sale except in small nooks and crannies not easily accessible to big farm machinery.  In most counties, you can consult soil survey maps that have been developed by the Soil Conservation Service to help you find where the better land is located in any given area. When you scout for good soil by doing windshield surveys, observe the crops and gardens growing in the area you are traversing. Not even the most skillful farmer or gardener can grow good crops on poor land. Note the state of farmhouses and barns. Fine, well-kept farmsteads bespeak good soil, and obviously, good places to put down roots— literally and figuratively.

2. A mature woodlot on your garden farm is invaluable for keeping a house warm and for cooking, at least in emergencies or when other fuels become prohibitively expensive. Five acres of well-managed mature forest will supply you with at least four cords of wood every year, and with some lumber for building too. If you’ve purchased any boards from a lumber yard lately you know you can carry a hundred bucks’ worth out to your truck under one arm. Woodlots make wonderful windbreaks and air conditioners too.

3. A spring, even a seep spring that you can dig out and develop into a little pool, is a priceless gift on the garden farm as a water supply for livestock or, with precautions, for your own home use, or to fill a pond. In bygone times, springs were funneled into spring houses to keep milk and other foods cool or apples from shriveling in storage.

4.  An ever-running creek is an asset to a farm especially one where livestock will be grazed. From the standpoint of the garden farmer a smaller one is better than a larger one or a river, although the latter two have their good points too. Just remember that the larger the creek, the more prone it will be to flooding, the more work you will incur keeping up the gates across the waterway and the fences along the creek banks.  Where springs or creeks are not available, choose land that has proper terrain for a runoff pond.  Many books can help you in this regard including my own, The Pond Lovers. And don’t forget that a deep well with sweet, potable drinking water is a priceless asset too. Put a windmill over it and you have your own independent source of pure water whatever the future brings.

5. The most overlooked factor in hunting for a good garden farm location is soil drainage. There is a tendency to favor level land over sloping land for farming because level land appears to be more fertile, especially river-bottom or creek-side land. But very often, level land especially in the eastern half of the country “lays wet,” as farmers say, and becomes productive only with lots of underground drainage tile or surface draining ditches, both of which can be expensive to install. Even with tile, lowland soil is more prone to flooding or ponding after heavy rains. Ponding especially drowns out growing crops, or delays planting and harvesting significantly. The garden farmer should always prefer gently sloping upland, or even hilly land, especially for growing legumes for hay or pasture, or fruits and early vegetables. The wonderfully fertile Amish dairy farms in Holmes County, Ohio are almost all on hill land. Upland fields may not be as naturally fertile as low ground, but can be made fertile with rotational grazing and good organic farming practices or, on smaller plots, with regular applications of animal manures and compost. Erosion will not be critical for garden farmers on sloping land because they will not be managing large, bare, annually cultivated fields. Very often hilly land sells for less because it is less desirable for large-scale grain farming.

6. Sometimes a piece of land looks like wasteland, or is considered such, but has definite possibilities for garden farming. You have seen my story on this website about reclaiming strip mine lands. Another example I recount in All Flesh Is Grass, page 51, about a young couple who bought hill land that the seller was glad to get rid of at a low price because it was covered with multi-flora rose. They stocked the thorny pastures with sheep and attacked the bristling bushes with a rotary mower. In a few years, grass replaced the thorns and good rotational grazing practices plus lime turned the hillsides into verdant pastures.

Rocky land can be used to advantage by garden farmers. Large scale farmers with huge equipment tend to avoid such land (one small rock can tear up a $300,000 combine in about ten seconds) so the price is often lower. But those rocks have many uses. New England was once fenced almost entirely with stones gathered from the fields and many gardens can, like Scott Nearing did,  be fenced against wild predators with stone walls. In Minnesota, many barn foundations and walls were made of field stone. Yet another example: so-called ghetto parts of the cities are being transformed into wondrously beautiful little garden farms.

7,  Geographic location is perhaps not as crucial as soil drainage in selecting a good place for a garden farm. You should be aware, however, that some climates are riskier than others. A great amount of land along the Gulf Coast has been almost ruined for farming because of the salt water driven inland by hurricanes. Luther Burbank chose California for his garden farming because more different kinds of plants can be grown there nearly year-round. But much of California is short on water and now, short on affordable farmland. If you have a choice, it is better to seek a place where the rainfall averages 35 to 40 inches per year, and temperatures do not reach very hot or cold extremes.

I am forever puzzled  by the attitude of many new garden farmers who tend to shun the midwest and midsouth in favor of settling in New England or California. They often believe that the corn belt, the largest expanse of fertile soil and favorable climate in the temperate world, is agribusiness country or red state conservative country, both of which they view uneasily. Please be assured. There is as much political, religious, and economic diversity in the midwest as anywhere else. Yes, this land is best for duo-cropped corn and soybeans, but for that very reason it is best for everything else that grows in a temperate climate. And redneck conservatives also have a wealth of knowledge you can benefit from when it comes to farming and rural life.

The notion, dearly held by east and west coasters, that the breadbasket of America is “flyover” country, is a big mistake for anyone looking for good land at affordable prices. Not that we who live there mind being called flyovers. We even boast about it because we know we are less likely to be inundated by tourism or urban development. It is great that many garden farmers welcome this kind of development as a ready market for their produce, but too much of it can overwhelm life on the ramparts that many of us prefer. Ask the Amish.
See also Gene’s The Anatomy of a Homestead Landscape
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming

Image Credit: © Valentinodebiasi |

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Our Hidden Wound

In Gene Logsdon Blog on October 28, 2008 at 8:11 am

From Gene Logsdon (1992)

I’m a hayseed, I’m a hayseed,
and my ears are full of pigweed.
How they flop in stormy weather—
gosh oh hemlock, tough as leather…

—From a children’s rhyme heard in the Midwest in the 1930s and forties.

Most of us grew up in a society where farmer was often merely a synonym for moron, and I am quite sure that many farmers are still haunted by feelings of inferiority laid on them by this kind of urban and urbane prejudice. In fact, I suspect that many of the most competent farmers among us continue to expand their farm empires not out of greed or an insatiable desire for wealth, but because they feel compelled to prove again and again that, by God, they are not inferior to anyone. They want to cram that fact as far down the throats of their boyhood taunters as they can, and, sadly, they spend their lives doing it.

In my high school days in the late forties, supercilious town girls routinely claimed that milking cows caused hands to grow too large and rough and the reason farmers had big feet was that they went barefoot too much. Lord help the girl who wore a print dress made from a grain sack, although the dresses were as pretty as any. A boy who came to school with chicken manure on his shoes, as could easily happen, or with the smell (real or imagined) of the cow stable on his clothes, instantly became an object of derision. Wearing bib overalls, which, ironically, are all the urban rage right now, brought automatic jeers, and after a while we refused to wear them, even at home. When the school lunch program came along, country children whose mothers packed a lunch for them, believing for some strange reason that parents, not the government, should feed their children, were restricted to a separate part of the lunchroom, and this separation soon carried with it a stigma not unlike the segregation of blacks in “their own place.” Farm work was in all cases put down as “nigger work” and it was too bad, we were told, that redneck country kids were condemned to it. One of our textbooks, with all good intentions, I’m sure, had a chapter entitled “Farm Folk Are Human, Too.” My mother, half-amused and half-dismayed, showed that page to my father. He took one look and hurled the book across the floor.

We farm kids came to school possessing intricate and valuable knowledge about manual arts, food production skills, and the ways of nature—all of which our urban counterparts desperately lacked, as is now apparent from the actions of well-meaning animal rightists and overzealous environmentalists; yet most of the teachers not only ignored this treasure trove of information, but belittled it as having no relevance to life. Kamyar Enshayan, of the Sustainable Agriculture Program at Ohio State University, calls this “paradigm negation” and says that rural students coming into the university are still treated as if what they have learned at home, from tradition or through farm experience, is of no importance. “This is, in fact, the way colonial powers always treat their colonies as a way of stripping them of their identity and destroying their independence,” he says. “Farmers don’t yet realize it, but rural areas have become no more than colonies from which cities are sucking the wealth.”

In high school we accepted the urban prejudices against us in a solid, simmering silence that erupted into rebellion only once that I recall—a violent, bloody fistfight in the lobby of our local theater. The fight started when a “townie” called one of us a “clodhopper” once too often.

It wasn’t so long ago, really, that that kind of prejudice was perpetuated all over America. We who are now in our forties and fifties bear the scars of these prejudices as part of what Wendell Berry, the poet and farmer, calls “the hidden wound” in his book by that title. And we know, like the blacks know, that the prejudice is far from gone: it has only become more slyly silken in its displays. Though the scars have healed, they ache whenever the cultural weather shifts.

Some farmers flaunt the prejudice by wearing dirty clothes to the bank to borrow a quarter of a million dollars. Others over-compensate by dressing up to look “respectable” for the banker. That’s also why they get the car washed every time they’re in town. Some want to be called “agribusinesspeople” rather than farmers even if it does take half an hour to get that word out. Almost all of us are suckers for the “urban counterpart” argument. Salespeople know that a good way to get a farmer to buy their product is to hint that it will enable us to live “more like your urban counterpart.” Those who follow that allurement to its logical conclusion become urban counterparts, because it is patently impossible for a farmer to live like a city person.

How many generations does it take to heal the scars of prejudice completely? I wonder. I have a notion that prejudice is never eradicated, just transferred. When the “hillbillies” moved into our county from Kentucky during World War II, the focus of urban prejudice switched to them because they were even more “rural” than we were. Nursing our wounds, we farmers, who should have been sympathetic, joined with the townspeople in inflicting the wound on them. When the Mexican fieldworkers came, another segment of society colonized out of its own farm traditions, the “hillbillies” joined us, glad no longer to be at the bottom of the pecking order. Although there are hardly any blacks in our county, they are still referred to broadly as “niggars” by more than a few whites including most farmers; and “niggars” are still thought to be oversexed beyond control. I suspect, in fact, that farmers tend to hold on to such hoary racial prejudices in retaliation against their own hidden wound. Misery loves company.

Our county has just come through a nasty school consolidation fight in which, as usual, the bureaucracy won and the farmers lost. The school in the village of Harpster was closed (along with another township school). Being on the task force that undertook to study the matter, I was involved up to my ears (how they flop in stormy weather) in that battle. I had all the available figures pertinent to the school closing, and those figures did not show that there were any savings to be had by closing the Harpster school. Nor was there any proof that consolidating the schools meant better education. (In fact, nationally, more and more evidence points to quite the opposite conclusion.) Not even population decline could be cited as a reason for closing the Harpster school, because the area was gaining population. But argument was futile since the state of Ohio, like most states, is committed to consolidation. And latent in that policy is a contempt for rural people. Wayne Fuller, a professor of history at the University of Texas, has soundly documented this contempt in his recent book The Old Country School. In order to gain control of the independent school districts, professional educators undertook a campaign, beginning in the nineteenth century and intensifying in the twentieth, to discredit country schools in the eyes of state legislators. The professionals, often bluntly, said that farmers were too ignorant to be capable of running schools. Fuller points out that in most cases, the farmers’ ideas about education turned out to be better than the professional educators’, and that in following the latter’s course, we now have a large percentage of our population that can’t even read intelligently. My friend Craig Bowman who with his sons farms about 4,000 acres today, was a leader in both of the futile fights to save Harpster’s high school in 1960 and its elementary school in 1990. He nods when I tell him about Fuller’s book. “One reason we lost those battles, especially in 1960, was that many farmers half-believed that those yahoos in the state education department knew more about what was good for their children than they did, and they wouldn’t stand up to them. Of course. Society trained them that way.”

Even in our rural county, teachers encourage students not to think of themselves as coming from Harpster, or Marseilles, or any of our little villages or townships, but from the Upper Sandusky School District, which is perceived as a nobler root from which to spring. “Big is better” is a myth behind the myth that country people are somehow second-rate. And that may be why farmers so readily embraced the slogan “Get big or get out.”

But it is not necessary to blame education for the prejudice against farmers, since television, the real educating force in America, reinforces the myth with one prime-time show after another. The bigotry is not even veiled. Night after night, one dramatic episode or another will follow the adventures of a character who just had to get out of a “backward” rural area in favor of the, tah-dah, City. Getting out of rural areas for fame and fortune persists as a story motif even though it flies utterly in the face of reality. The competent farmers and businesspeople who stayed in our county are at least as financially successful as their peers who went to the city, and they don’t have to pay $300,000 for a $90,000 home, either. As one refugee back here from the big city says: “As for the cultural advantages of the city, who needs the traffic hassle? Electronics brings ‘cultural advantages’  to one’s home, wherever it may be.” (The “cultural advantages of the city” is another side of the prejudice against farmers. Why does no one speak of the cultural advantages of the country? For example, is a well groomed, ecologically kept, sustainably fertile farm any less cultural, any less artful, than paintings of fat angels on church ceilings?)

I am sure that the reason for the prejudice so many farmers exhibit against the Amish (the most biased like to infer, with a snicker, that Amish women are oversexed, like black people) is that their lifestyle unwittingly jabs at our hidden wound. The Amish remind us of ourselves fifty years ago, when we lived much like they do now and were ridiculed for it. And it is embarrassing to us that the Amish prove we could all make a decent living in farming by not trying to live like our urban counterparts.

What is so curious about the inanity of prejudice against farmers is that it exists right alongside the opposite prejudice: that farmers are the moral backbone of society. Farmers, of course (including the Amish), can be just as ornery as anyone else. This overly favorable image gains more credence the farther it is removed from agriculture. The wealthy townhouse dweller who has seldom been anywhere except Manhattan and Bermuda (and, as a result, is far more provincial than most farmers), thinks of the “man of the soil” as a kind of yeoman saint in overalls, working without surcease in the peace and quiet of God’s country to feed the world. This image lasts until said townhouser builds a million-dollar home in the country and the farmer next door starts spreading manure. The age-old contempt quickly returns and any farmers who must try to “feed the world” next to suburbs are not even allowed to work in their fields after dark.

The prejudice against farmers carries far from the farm. A New York City magazine editor cannot keep from displaying just a tad of superiority when talking about the work of a farm writer like myself. Usually it is more than a tad. When a Camden, New Jersey, columnist reviewed my book about Andrew Wyeth, which I wrote in 1970 while I was an editor at Farm Journal, she wrote most kindly but expressed surprise that such writing could come from someone who worked on a farm magazine! We farm writers, nursing our wound, aid and abet that prejudice ourselves: invariably, when one of our associates leaves our ranks for work in another field of journalism, we say that he or she graduated to a higher rung on the ladder. Why is Time more important than Farm Journal? It is difficult for the urban mind to swallow the fact that a renowned poet and essayist like Wendell Berry, or an accomplished musician like Elmo Reed, is also a bona fide farmer.

This low opinion of our work causes many farmers to see their land as nothing more than a factory or mine or “resource” from which to extract money. They remain unaware of its exquisite beauty, its natural wonders, and its potential as a sanctuary for the recreation of the human spirit. They ignore its natural pleasures in favor of faraway vacation spots: the same farmer who gasps in awe at a redstart in Cuba (once it is pointed out to him) does not know that the same bird visits his Ohio farm every spring and fall. The farmer who destroys the wild sanctuaries of his own farm uses the money to hunt and fish in Canada. He dines lavishly in gourmet restaurants on food that is not nearly as “farm-fresh,” “free-range,” or “organically pure” as the meats and vegetables he could grow in his own backyard and barnyard. Eschewing the good life of his own farm, he eschews the good life of his own neighborhood. His barn is no longer full of laughing, romping children or grandchildren, his hillsides no longer echo the happy cries of sledders, his pond no longer draws the swimmers and ice skaters of his community. There is no community. The neighbors have all gone to the city. The village churches and schools and taverns and inns that once were scenes of far more delight than the boring, manufactured uniformity of tourism are boarded up.

If we farmers deny the magnificence of our own rurality, how can we blame urban society for treating us the same way?

See also Gene’s Just What We Need: Faster Tractors
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming

Gene’s Posts
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What’s Organic Farmland Worth? Or Is It A Pearl Without Price?

In Gene Logsdon Blog on October 21, 2008 at 6:45 am

From Gene Logsdon

A cash grain farm in the cornbelt sold recently for an eyebrow-raising price just shy of $9000 an acre. It sold for farmland, not industrial development. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising when USA Today reports that yachts over 80 feet long are still selling at all time high levels despite these disastrous financial times. But I can’t see how corn and soybeans will pay for such high-priced land. The grain markets are way down from summer. Demand for grain from developing countries is down. At least five ethanol plants that were supposed to turn corn into fuel have declared bankruptcy. Fertilizer, seed, and fuel costs are still historically high— fertilizer is selling for as much as a thousand dollars a ton. Some farmers have already bought their seed and fertilizer supplies for next year, thinking that these costs would continue to rise along with grain prices. What if grain prices stay down? We could be looking at a possibility of what one farmer I talk to a lot calls “instant bankruptcy.”

One thing is for sure: it is a very good time to be an organic farmer.

If you can borrow money at 7%, the cost for owning $9000 per acre land is $630 per acre by the way I do accounting. Overhead costs for growing a commercial corn crop right now are around $300 an acre or a total of over $900 an acre. Obviously, farmers who pay that kind of money for land are betting on five or six dollar corn or more. (The price as I write is $3.75.) They are speculating on future expectations, the same way the paper money market has been doing.

It is a puzzle to me that in assessing the market value of farmland, seldom is attention paid to whether the soil is organically-managed or not. Surely with its built-in, low-cost methods for avoiding soil compaction and erosion, and its ability to increase organic matter content in the soil, a long term organic farm ought to command a higher price than conventionally farmed corn land. But I bet a hilly organic dairy farm, using manure and legume rotations for fertility, would not bring as much per acre as a level mono-cropped grain farm that has been beat half to death with huge machinery and toxic chemicals. The fields of the dairy farm would hardly be big enough for a huge harvester to turn around in and therefore not desirable. Why so few mentions of this topic, especially now when inputs for chemical farming are so high?

I don’t know what is going to happen with land prices (I think they are going to tank) and bring up this question mainly to show that large scale, agribusiness farming is a risky undertaking and getting riskier. We have accepted the notion that land is a commodity to be bought and sold like paper on the stock exchange. This has led to at least two bad results in addition to high risk speculation with something more precious than paper— our food supplies: 1): Poorer people can’t afford to buy farmland so farms slowly become the property of an oligarchy of the rich; 2): To make a “profit” even rich people must farm for quantity not quality and then the land deteriorates.

More than a few economists have tried to point this out, especially in the economic literature of the Great Depression. (Look To The Land by Lord Northbourne, published in 1940, reads as if it were written today.) But no one has been able to come up with a workable plan to remove farm land from the commodity market. Money always seems to rule. If you give human beings the choice of taking $9000 an acre for farmland or $8000, they will, of course, take the former.

But not always. I once asked a contrary farmer why he didn’t sell out and live at ease for the rest of his life, which he could have done especially since he was happy to live modestly. He paused a little and then answered. “My farm is not for sale at any price. It is my life. And what would I do with all that money, stick it in my ear?

There’s an old joke that is appropriate here. In a certain village lived a man who was thought to be mentally-challenged or in plainer language, he was an example of classic literature’s “village idiot.” He was made the butt of a cruel joke. Village wiseacres loved to offer him the choice between a nickel and a dime. He always took the nickel because it was bigger, he explained. The jokesters of course got a big laugh out of that. One observer pulled the village idiot aside one day and asked him why he kept on taking the nickel. “Surely by now you know that the dime is worth more.” The village idiot smiled. “Oh I know that, but if I choose the dime, those morons will stop giving me nickels.”

I and many thousands of small farmers are the village idiots of agriculture. We farm because we like to make little paradises out of our land while growing good food on it. What we make as a return on investment in money doesn’t matter as crucially as it does for the dime-takers. We often choose the nickel because we have learned that taking the dime means servitude to commodity markets and agribusiness giants over which we have no control.

Society comforts itself during financial bad times by looking forward to recovery which has always come. But will recovery this time mean a return to the present “sanity” of always taking the dime? Irresponsible and uncontrolled credit is blamed for the current dilemma. What if that is an effect of the dilemma, not the cause? Dare we contemplate the notion that some economists are suggesting, that natural resources can no longer keep up with exponential money growth, that the kind of money-lending we have been doing only works when it is tied to the realization that resources like oil and farmland are limited? When real resources and therefore real money (organic money) start running out, will we need a new kind of financial system that finds other ways to keep the economy going than piling fake money on top of fake money until the whole house of credit cards collapses?

If a new day comes, a farm will be priced by how much health and happiness it produces.
See also Gene’s Wood Is More Precious Than Gold
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming

Image Credit: Dave Smith, Village Acres Organic Farm, Mifflintown, Pennsylvania

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A Chicken Coop for a Small Flock

In Garden Farm Skills, Gene Logsdon Blog on October 14, 2008 at 12:20 am

coop house

From Gene Logsdon (1985)
WIth Update – October 2008
Garden Farm Skills

A backyard henhouse for only a dozen or so chickens year-round should be commodious, a minimum of around 5 square feet of floor space per hen, which is much more than a commercial poultryman can afford. My henhouse design, based on what I’ve learned so far by building three coops of my own, differs from the standard designs in a few other ways, which you might find interesting to think about when building your own.

1. Predator Proofing. I would have preferred that my latest chicken coop be built on a concrete footing to make it more or less predator-proof. But pole construction was cheaper and easier. The bottom wall boards are of treated wood for rot resistance, and the wall is sunk into the ground 6 to 12 inches. Cats will not dig that far under to get in, and cats have always been my most troublesome predator—not my own, though, which I train not to bother chickens, but feral cats. I keep the dog tied next to the coop for further insurance.

2. The Size. I knew that for part of the year I would house approximately forty-five to fifty chickens, although there would be less than twenty year-round. Every year we buy six Rhode Island Red chicks and about thirty White Rock broiler chicks, the latter for meat, the former to add to the laying flock. The broilers are butchered when about ten weeks old, and later on I’ll butcher some old hens as they quit laying, so that the flock dwindles to around fifteen through winter. We buy chicks in June so have no need for brooder facilities. (The first few nights I might use a heat bulb on the chicks.) Anyhow, by my own idea of space requirement, a 10 by 20-foot building is more than ample. And it is tall enough so I can walk inside without hitting my head, as I did in the old coop.

3. The Roof. A slanted shed roof is adequate for a chicken coop, though if it pleases you, you can build a gable roof. The coop should face south with ample windows on that side for winter warmth. Ideally, the roof should extend out far enough over the windows to cast shade on the glass to keep out summer’s piercing sun. On a slant roof, that means adding a cowl-like extension on the front.

4. Divided into Two. The coop should be divided into two sections, with a door between, and a door for each section to the outside—three doors altogether. The divsion allows you to raise young chicks on one side separate from the adult hens on the other. Old hens drive young chickens away from the feeder, and so it is best to keep them apart. When the broilers are butchered and the pullets grown, I open the door between the two secitons and let the chickens meld into one flock. The dividing wall is of chicken wire fencing only, so the two groups of chickens have had a long time getting used to each other—growing up across the fence from each other so to speak—and this cuts down on the ferocity with which the older hens establish a pecking order when the two flocks are joined

The division of the coop is handy another way. Occasionally, a chicken will get out when you don’t want it out. Then you can run the inside chickens all to one side, close the between door, open up the other outside door and run the errant hen back in, close the outside door, and then open up the between door again. Without the division there is no way to open an outside door without all the other hens running out. You will find this feature very handy on occasions. You can also use one side in an emergency for other animals. I had a pair of quail in one section last spring. Occasionally I have had a need for a place to put a lamb or a pair of ducks.

5. The Roosts. I do not have catching boards for the manure from roosting hens to drop on. I don’t need one, with all the space in the coop, and the small number of hens. Catching boards for manure are only necessary when you crowd hens into a coop at a ratio of something like one per square foot. My roosts are two 2 x 4s, one in each section, nailed across a corner of each section, hardly 2 feet off the ground and about 12 feet long. With plenty of bedding, the hens scratch the nightly manure deposit under the roosts into the straw, making of the whole a crumbly moist compost that does not stink. Catching boards, on the other hand, collect putrid piles of pure manure where flies can breed and disease infections begin if not cleaned out often.

In a situation like mine, if the bedding gets wet and foul, you either aren’t putting enough down or you have too many chickens for this system. I hardly use two bales of straw per month for bedding. If the coop were as small as customarily built, relative to the number of hens, I’d have to spread more straw than that, so with straw at $2 a bale, eventually my extra space will pay for itself. The compost the chickens make of the bedding is garden-ready for use every June—and the most effective fertilizer I know of.

6. The Floor. I have no floor in the coop other than the dirt nature put there. I strongly advise against floors in chicken coops. Rats and mice get under wood or even concrete unless there is a good, deep footer around the concrete. Rats kill baby chicks. But the rodents will not live in coops without floors because there is no place for them to escape to when a hen takes out after them. My hens eat mice if they can catch them.

If you have to build up the floor above the surrounding ground level to keep it high and dry, I advise dirt rather than gravel. I made the mistake of putting limestone dust gravel in mine, and in summer the chickens scratch through the gravel, which sends clouds of dust into the air. And gravel is not the best material for hens to ruffle their feathers in to protect themselves from lice, either.

7. The Windows. The windows have to open for summer ventilation. Rather than installing elaborate sliding windows and screens, I used old windows I got for next to nothing—most builders have a supply they don’t know what to do with. I made the openings in the wall a little larger than the size of the windows. Then I (actually my son did the work) built a frame on the outside of the wall that these old windows would fit against from the inside, the way a picture fits into its front frame. To hold the window vertically in place, all that is needed is a bit of sill on the bottom and two door knobs from scrap wood at the top. When I want to open the window for ventilation, I turn the knobs at the top and lean the window back about 6 inches. To hold it there, I either nail a board across the studs for the window to lean on, or I attach two pieces of string or light chain between the window and wall. Very little rain can get in with windows tilted open in this fashion.

8. The Nest Boxes. Nest boxes need to be installed, of course, in one of the sections. Five-gallon buckets turned on their sides make nest boxes in a pinch. Nest boxes should be semi-dark inside to discourage hens from examining the eggs too closely and getting a notion to peck one open. We built our nests with slanting tops so the chickens can’t roost on top of the nests, which they otherwise will invariably do. Our nest boxes are a little too open, as you see in the photo. If I run into problems of egg eating, I will drape the fronts of the boxes halfway with pieces of burlap to make it darker in the nest. (Chickens have poor eyesight in the dark.) My nests are too big, too. Ten inches square is enough. I built these bigger as an experiment. It seemed to me that with only twelve to fifteen hens laying, more than three nests was ridiculous, but my hens, which continually remind me of people, all decide to do everything at the same time, including laying eggs. This resulted in two chickens trying to occupy the same space at the same time, which anyone who has taken physics knows is impossible. So I decided this time to build the nests big enough to accomodate two hens. The result? You guessed it. Three hens trying to occupy the same space at the same time. Whether they step on and break more eggs with a bigger nest than a smaller one I don’t know yet.

9. The Waterers and Feed Troughs. You can spend money for a fancy waterer, but I prefer the bottom half of a plastic jug. One or two of these, refilled morning and night, suffice for a small flock. Such waterers are practically imperative for me in winter, since I think it is silly to go to the expense of a heated waterer for so few chickens. The water freezes in my plastic jug, but all I have to do is rap the container sharply on a solid surface and the ice cracks out. Simple and cheap. If the plastic cracks, I make a new container from another jug. For feeding troughs, I have built some out of boards, with a broomstick above the trough, inserted by way of nails driven into each end into holes in the ends of the trough. The broomstick rools over if a chicken tries to roost on it. But mostly, I use two metal troughs I’ve fallen heir to over the years that have wire covers over them. The larger one is handy not only for feeding but to set the container of water inside. Then the chickens can’t spill the water.

My neighbor hangs his feed trough (and waterer) from the ceiling, regulating the height to the size of the chickens—chickens do not like to roost on a swinging perch. Also, as the layer of bedding builds up, you can raise the trough. Mostly though, the reason for a hanging feeder is to keep the hens from scratching bedding into it.

10. The Door. One goes in and out of a henhouse frequently, in most cases needing to close the door afterward. So a door latch is needed that can be worked from inside or out, but still be cheap and uncomplicated. My son built one that answers the requirements. It is a sliding bolt of wood, with a handle that extends on through a slot in the door so it can be worked from either side.

Curing the Egg-Eating Hen

There are various folkways proposed for curing the egg-eating hen, the only foolproof one being to roast her for Sunday dinner. However, the problem is often solvable by other less drastic measures. Some hens, for example, will just quit eating eggs all of a sudden and then maybe start up again four months later. Hens usually get started on their addiction because of a soft-shelled or weak-shelled egg being laid by the sisterhood. As hens scramble in and out of the nest, such eggs break. Pecking at the yolk, the hens learn soon enough that they can break weak eggs easily with their beaks too.

Therefore, to avoid the problem in the first place, it helps if the chickens are getting enough calcium in their diet—through good wholesome grains and greens (alfalfa hay) plus oyster shells or bonemeal. Bonemeal is one of the folk remedies for egg-eating hens. In my experience, it doesn’t cure the addiction, but the increase in shell strength tends to cut down on egg eating or the incidence of broken eggs that leads to egg eating. By the same token, having enough nests so none are crowded with three hens at a time is helpful. And providing fine particles of sand or gravel, which allow the hen to digest her food better (and thereby makes nutrients like calcium more available to her body) is a part of the regimen for curing egg-eaters.

A neighbor says that bedding the nest with torn strips of newspaper will cure egg eating. The newsprint gives the eggs an odor hens dislike, so the theory goes, ruining their appetite. Newsprint often does that to me, so there may be some truth in this.

I haven’t tried the newsprint remedy because I’ve found a couple of other ways that suffice. If hens can range outside, egg eating diminishes rapidly. Instead of standing around in the coop bored to death, the hens can chase flies and scratch for worms and get their minds off their addiction. Or perhaps they balance their diet better and have no urge for an egg.

Penned in the coop, a hen can be discouraged, if not cured, from egg eating by putting curtains (pieces of old burlap bag) over the front of the nests, or otherwise making the nest boxes dark. The explanation given is that hens can’t see well enough in the dark to aim a good shell-cracking peck into a solid egg. But I’m not sure. I think the reason has more to do with psychology. The hen likes a dark, hidden corner for a nest, and it prompts her to act more according to her nature, which is not to eat eggs. And while she likes the darkness for laying eggs, she wants afterward to get back off the nest and out into the light of day quickly. Perhaps instinct still rules in such a situation, and the hen does not linger there so as not to draw the attention of predators to the nest. Or maybe she is a bit afraid of the dark.

A modification of the darkened nest box theory has proved to be my most effective way of curing egg eating. I discovered it by accident. One day I decided to move a 4 by 4-foot piece of plywood that was in the coop—left there from construction days for reasons I don’t rightly recall. I started to carry it out of the coop, but it began raining and I didn’t want to get the plywood wet. So I leaned it “temporarily” against the wall. It will probably stay there forever. What happened is that the hens loved that dark, narrow lean-to. Most of them began laying their eggs behind the plywood and avoided the nest boxes. And for unfathomable reasons, they do not eat these eggs. What’s more, you can’t build a faster, cheaper, or better set of nests than leaning a piece of plywood against a wall. Just tip it back and pick up the eggs.

Lights in the Henhouse

Here’s the history behind this henhouse lighting business. Back when utility companies were stretching elecric lines out into the country, there wasn’t much money in rural electricity. To remedy this situation, the utilities went to all lengths to get farmers to increase the amount of electricity they used. (It took a great deal of social pressure just to get some farmers to “take the electric”—which is another of those facts the speechifiers of wonderful technological progress never mention in their biased histories. There was a whole class of country people who didn’t particularly want electricity.) Since it was known that the egg-laying season in nature is influenced by the amount of available sunlight, wouldn’t egg production increase if the chickens were kept awake longer in the shorter winter days? Agricultural researchers (with money from the utilities) leapt into the breach, and sure enough electric lights did increase egg production… for a while. So what if the hens suffered egg “burn-out”? Get new hens.

So egg production was increased at an increased cost in chickens, in electricity, and in feed because the hens ate more. The increase in egg production (which actually was more the result of up-breeding chickens) only made the price of eggs go down so badly after World War II that farmers sold their small commercial flocks because eggs “don’t pay no more.” Of course not. The poor farmer had been duped into spending his profit on off-farm supplies, including foolish things like lights in his henhouse.
Update – October 2008: What I wrote in Practical Skills still stands. Still using the same coop, even the same feeders. A tree fell on the coop a few years ago in an ice storm and I had to replace some roofing and patch some more. What I would add is that when a “make-do” coop like this gets to be 30 years ago, it develops holes which need to be covered with hardware cloth. Otherwise, as happened, mink or weasels will get in. The boards next to the ground started to decay even though it was treated wood, so I put a row of old concrete blocks all around the bottom of the coop, dug in a little, sort of like a makeshift footer. Keeps raccoons and skunks and possums out, so far. ~Gene

See also Gene’s Garden Farm Guide to Feeding, Catching, and Butchering Chickens