Grumpy about Geese

My fields are wet.  It’s winter, we are on heavy clay, so when we’ve had a lot of precipitation it takes a while for things to dry out.  Swales would probably help, but that’s a topic for another day.  When the fields are wet, the rule is to stay off them.  Except that I am force to go for a brisk walk down to the bottom almost daily to send off the wretched Canada Geese (and who decided these things are Canadian anyway?)

I’ve never been crazy about these birds since I worked on a naval base where there was a nesting goose right near the door of the building I worked in (low traffic zone) – and every time I had to enter or leave, the mate that was off the nest would attack.  Those birds are big, I’m telling you.  Fearless military type that I was, I made sure to carry a broom with me going through that door.

Back to my fields – one of my kids suggested that I should be happy to have them because of the poop.  And if that was all they were doing, that would be great.  But they are grazers, these geese, and they eat grass, and their favourite is the greenest tenderest grass.  Where I’ve had the broiler pens, or where I’ve spread composted bedding, they congregate in the “good” spots and their webbed feet and their sheer numbers do pug up the ground.  Their constant grazing of patches of grass in a season when nothing is growing is doing some real damage.

So I shoo them off most days.  It’s kind of a routine between us now. They see me coming through the gate and start honking. but not moving, waiting to see how far I’m going to come. I usually have to get within about 20 feet of the outliers before they’ll take off, and depending on the size of the group, the ones on the other side might decide to hold their position in case I stop there.  I’m onto that.  And I’m onto them flying over the hedge into my other field too.

Today was the first day I remembered to take a camera with me, and the group in the photos is small – about 50 birds.  Most days I’m sending off about 100-150 and one day about a month ago, I counted more than 200.  They don’t very far – Hay Guy’s field usually (sorry, bud).  They live here year round now, probably due to lack of hunting and predation, and the number of corn fields around here.  They are a nuisance in corn season too, and the air guns go off at any hour of the day or night.  Bryce of Saanichton Farm has a right old time with them in his wheat and barley.  Chasing them used to be easier when the dog was still with us, because it gave her great joy to go running at them, and she was far more effective than me with my pitchfork.  But younger daughter might just have hit the best solution yet.  If she gets sent down in my stead, she takes a big frisbee and wings it ahead of her into the group from a good 50 or more feet away.  Works a charm.

Honeysuckle

I’ve been working on that ruddy chicken fence some more today.  I’ve had to start on the section I’ve been avoiding all season.  The HONEYSUCKLE.  It’s probably about 25 or more years old.  I brought it home from a friend’s garden in Vancouver as a gift for my Dad, who used to get all nostalgic about English honeysuckle in gardens when he was a child.  The three or four cuttings I brought all thrived under his TLC and became rampant creatures that took over entire fences, and in the past couple of years, have begun demolishing the fences board by board.

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June 2012, see the chicken house back there?

 

The problem for me is that in the chicken run (Run #1 for anyone keeping track of where I’m at with all this fencing) the honeysuckle affords wonderful shade and shelter for the hens when they’re in that run.  From the house side of the fence, it’s just so darn pretty.  I really don’t want to take it down.  I want it to be there.  Plus, it’s under the walnut tree, and walnuts are well known for exuding juglone, which lots of plants don’t like and won’t grow near.  Honeysuckle apparently thrives on it.

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June 2012, outside the chicken run

 

On the down side, I have to get in there and cut it back pretty hard every spring anyway because it has big ambitions to take over the walnut trees and sends up huge runners every year, that twine themselves around the branches of the tree. Also, the fence under the honeysuckle is falling apart.  And somewhere under there, there is a hole in the wire.  I know this, because the last flock of chickens used it as their entry to the great beyond for their free ranging forays, pretty much daily.  Also, I see the cat emerging from somewhere in there occasionally.  I hate to cut off her access to the rat population, but I do want to contain the chickens, so…the fence has to be re-done, and the honeysuckle has to be dealt with.

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Inside the chicken run, just before I started cutting today

 

My plan is kind of fluid.  I’m hoping that my destruction is not complete enough to stop the honeysuckle from starting again, so to that end, I decided to just clip back one side at a time, so that I can see where the main trunks are coming out of the ground, and so I can get the wire off, replace the boards and hopefully leave a few stems of the honeysuckle to come back and take over again.  I don’t know if it will work.  My neighbour and I cut one back pretty ruthlessly about 10 years ago so he could put in some fence on his side, and despite his care and attention, that honeysuckle has never really been as strong again.  Well, maybe that’s a good thing.

Having finished clipping one side today, I have learned that the hole the chickens and cat were/are using is not under the honeysuckle.  Bother.  So why does it look like that’s where they’re coming through when I’m watching from the other side?  I guess I’ll find out eventually.

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Where the chickens are not getting through, but a big part of why I need to redo this part of the fence.

 

Rainy Days and Mondays

Here’s what my driveway looked like this morning:

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Yup, not good fence building weather (happy dance!).  Options included taking down the Christmas tree (necessary but depressing), housecleaning (urgently necessary but boring), or starting one of the many rainy day projects on the back end of my long term list.

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The fabric store was having a big sale, almost as though they had been waiting for me to come in, so that I was able to get a material I wouldn’t normally have been willing to pay for.

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Then it was home to YouTube and a cup of coffee while I learned how to re-cover dining room chairs.

After that, it was time to actually knuckle down and do it.  You can see how direly we needed to make this project happen.

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…et voila!   If only I’d known that this project would be finished in a single afternoon, I might have done it a little sooner.

The lovely chairs make the falling apart curtains look a bit more obvious, but fortunately I’m pretty much guaranteed more rainy days before Spring comes.

Birthday celebration for hubby at dinner tonight – we’ll see if he notices the chairs.

Multi-tasking

I was working on the chicken fences yesterday in the mist and gloom that is Vancouver Island in January and reflecting on just how long the project was taking me (forever) and how long it would last before I would be doing it all again (not forever, unfortunately).  Which took me in a downward spiral to thinking about how pointless it was …which was when I went and got a cup of tea and a leftover mince tart to get my perspective back.

The pointlessness really arises from the fact that the whole quarter acre that I have been busily rebuilding fence on throughout the last several weeks is used only for the layer flock. Despite all the now amazing fencing, no other creatures graze in there, I don’t grow any crops in there; the walnut tree is in one run and it is the only other productive element of the set up.  It’s the same with the pig paddock.  It’s lovely, but it’s just for pigs.  If I keep going this way, the whole farm will be compartmentalized into different bedrooms for every species, and as I heard Gabe Brown remark recently, I’ll be running a bed and breakfast for livestock, instead of having them out there getting their own breakfasts.

In theory all my fencing efforts are to allow me to use my rotation system better.  I am theoretically set up with 4 runs for the chickens to rotate through over the course of the year.  The theory is that I move them to a new run before the run they’re in gets eaten down/worn down too badly.  This allows the plants to regenerate, and breaks the parasite cycle.  This is all good.  But did you check how many times I use the word “theory” there?

In practice, the forage regenerates at different speeds depending on the seasons, how long it’s been resting, the weather, how big my flock is, etc.  Over the course of about 10 years, the runs are basically worn out more or less permanently.  There is some grass in there, but it’s not a kind the chickens like to eat.  There is a lot of thistle, which they definitely don’t eat.  Not much else.  I’ve tried to improve the situation by adding compost, manure, wood chip, etc.  I’ve tried re-seeding.  I’ve tried reducing the flock size, and I’ve tried only letting them into the run in the afternoons.

The fact is that sooner or later, chickens forced to stay in one place will destroy it.  Not only that, chickens develop favourite places within each run and will just go there all the time regardless whether there’s anything to scratch around for or not.

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The best that can really be said is that this system is an improvement on the dirt yard off the hen house that is the most common arrangement for layer flocks in these parts.  And that’s fine as far as it goes.  I also have a sheltered area called the lobby on the north side of their house filled with straw, which is where I throw scraps and goodies – they tear this up and do a good bit of scratching around, and every month or so I take all that scratched up, composted stuff and spread it, and put new straw in.  This is also a big step up from the normal hen house/dirt yard set up.  They access whichever run they’re in at the moment from this lobby.  On wet days, they prefer to stay in the lobby.  On hot days , they prefer the lobby.   If I didn’t have 14+ acres, I would be pretty happy with my set up.  Well, actually, if all I had was an acre and 1/4 of it was being used by this chicken run set up – well, it wouldn’t be, would it?  I’d have long ago turned part of it into a veggie patch or put goats in with the chickens or something.  Because it would be a waste of space.  I’m using this much space because I can, not because I should.

Once I had been restored by tea and mince tart I started thinking about Joel Salatin and what he says about stacking principles.  In the winter, his layer flocks inhabit hoop houses that are used for growing crops in the summer.  Some hens are in the building that houses the rabbit cages in the winter, scratching up the bedding under the rabbit cages.  When the birds are out on the fields in the summer, they are in various models of eggmobiles, portable henhouses sometimes surrounded by portable electric fence, rotating around the 100 acres or so of pasture, fertilizing, scratching and moving on.  In no case are the chickens in a single use housing situation. They are stacked with another enterprise.   Out on pasture, they’re following the cattle, sanitizing the pasture, providing some fertility themselves and moving on before any degradation starts.  Inside, they are in buildings that are also used for other purposes/livestock and their fertility and scratching power add their own functions to those buildings.

Salatin works to get multi-use out everything and every creature – there are many more examples available if you read any of his books or check out the myriad YouTube videos that feature himself or Polyface Farms.  He got the idea from permaculture, where stacking is also used – and permaculture got it from nature, where many flora and fauna interact in a kind of symbiosis.  Agroforestry and silvopasture are also techniques that get more than one function out of a patch of acreage.

So back to these chicken fences of mine.  I thought some time ago, working on the second fence in the system (I’ve just finished the third – only one big one to go!) that one way to improve this situation is to get some edible planting going on in these runs.  I was hacking away at a blackberry bush that was reaching from the middle of the run toward the fence, so I could have room to deal with the wire, and thinking I should just hack the whole thing down.  But I was reading Restoration Agriculture at the time, and I could hear Mark Shepard’s voice in my head reminding me how much the chickens love sheltering under those blackberries, safe from eagles and ravens, and how much I enjoy the berries for jam and cooking and even just a handful here and there.  I don’t necessarily want the brambles all over my fences, but a bush in the middle of the run might actually be a good thing.  So it got pruned back severely and left in place.  Still channeling Mr. Shepard I wondered about maybe planting some trees along my fences – apples, nuts.  The walnut tree in the first run is also a favourite hangout with the hens, providing shade and leaves to scratch around in, and since we love hazelnuts here maybe a couple of those could be in each run.  Mulberries – chickens supposedly love them.  Maybe I could plant grapes to train along the fences …you get the idea.  This gives at least a little additional use to the runs, though it doesn’t really address the issue of the chickens ruining the soil, but it will provide shade, some extra food for the chickens, food for humans and a better aesthetic than the current Alcatraz look.

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But wait!  There’s more…this morning I woke up with the idea in my head that I could really change this whole issue with the runs getting worn out by putting the flock out on the field in an eggmobile for part of the year.  This isn’t exactly a new idea – Salatin published about his eggmobile way back in the late ’90’s, and he’d been doing it for a while before that, plus George Henderson, an English farmer from the first half of the 20th century, who wrote The Farming Ladder, and Farmer’s Progress, used a kind of eggmobile system long before Salatin.  Chism Heritage Farm has a pretty skookum one.  I’ve been well aware of the concept for more than a decade, but never taken action on it because there is no likelihood of me getting a tractor ever, and most of them are built on old wagons or trailers, pretty much necessitating a towing device of some sort.

But I did get inklings of possibility a couple of years ago at the Salatin workshop I went to at Michael Ableman’s Foxglove Farm.  There, Salatin talked about the prototypes to the eggmobiles he uses now – he first started with a 6’x 8′ shelter on bicycle wheels, with pop holes on each side, so that he could configure the fence around the shelter about 6 different ways before he had to move it – by hand.  He kept something like 40 hens in that. Now I have 50 hens, and a couple of roosters, so that might be a little small for me.  But it did get me thinking, OK, maybe I could put the flock in two shelters and enclose both with portable electric netting.  A woman I met at lunch at the workshop and I were discussing eggmobiles and she told me she keeps a flock of 60 in three little mobile shelters that she moves around her field daily – she says they were like really big wheelbarrows, with handles at the back and wheels at the front, and she could move them alone.  So there was an option that might work for me.  The only problem really is my almost complete lack of carpentry skills.

I believe I could get past the construction challenges, probably by hiring that part of the project out.  This may seem like a cop out, but seriously, someone who knows what they’re doing will do the job faster and better than I could – left to me, the project will probably never get off the ground.  Moving the mobile coops and fencing every few days will definitely add to the chores, but I will be out in the field anyway with the broilers.  I think we’ll put the flock in two coops, with one big fence around both.  They can probably be on the field from May to the end of October.  Then they’d go back into their hen house with the 4 runs, which will probably be lovely and verdant after several months rest like that.

Now I’m starting to get into a win/win scenario – the chicken run area doubles as a fruit/nut orchard.  The layers spend half their year not only providing eggs but plenty of fertility and cultivation all around my fields for six months.  The fertility improves my pasture – in the short term, that’s important for hay, but longer term will be valuable for the sheep/cattle that will come sooner or later.

So now, I just need to make it happen, and then…how am I going to get the pig’s paddock to be multi-functional?

Happy New Year!

Sunny warm Christmas Day.  Well, warm for Canada – about 5 C that day.  Days of dozing in the afternoons, walks at the beach, and tons of wonderful leftover turkey meals.

New Year’s Eve, cold and crisp, about -4 C.  Started the bonfire around 9 pm, started toasting vanilla bean and peppermint marshmallows around 11 pm, and had just enough glowing embers to see the year out at midnight.  Awesome, fabulous way to celebrate New Year’s Eve.  We told stories, sang Auld Lang Syne with new lyrics (because none of us could remember the old ones – our best rendition was just humming, we almost sounded like kazoos).  and star gazed.  Talked over plans and ambitions and dreams and hopes for 2015.  I think we have a new family tradition in the making here.

Here’s hoping that 2015 brings you what you need and hope for.  Happy New Year.

2014 Awards

With thanks to Chism Heritage Farm for the idea and format – I couldn’t come up with anything original that was nearly as good, so decided to just give credit where it is due.

Best Dressed:

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That would be me, March 2014, wading in the Tasman Sea in Hokitika on the West Coast of New Zealand.  I was the only person in my family, I was the only person on our BUS, to take off my shoes and wade in.  And yes, I was the only person that arrived at the Franz Josef Glacier 2 hours later with pants that were still damp from the dunking I got from that wave you see coming in the background.

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Of course, there are better looking people in the family – here’s the rest of them.  A different windy, wet day on the West Coast of New Zealand, this time in Milford Sound.  Stunning scenery, totally worth getting all salty and damp again.  Good thing we’re sailors.

Top Post:

The most popular post written in 2014 was “Crescendo e decrescendo”, while the post that actually got the most visits this year was written not long after I began the blog:  “Joel Salatin workshop part 4-Cattle, poultry and more”.  I don’t know if there’s anything terribly profound about either of those posts, now that I’ve re-read them, but whatever.

My Favourite Post:

My husband’s favourite post is the one about our dog, who died a year ago, almost to the day.  My favourite post? That’s a little harder.  I think it’s “An Alphabetical Summary”, which touches on a lot of aspects of our life here, and has the optimism of spring sunshine in it, sorely needed in this season of frozen mud.

Most Valuable Player:

I could not hold down an off-farm job and manage the pigs and broilers were it not for the rest of my family.  Hands down, these three are tied for Most Valuable Player.  With hubby and the older teen both working off farm most days, many of the afternoon duties over the summer fell to the younger teen, who was herself working part time for our neighbour.  When Hubby and I went to Port Townsend for a couple of days, the two teens looked after the pigs, chickens, broilers and chicks completely on their own, as well as their off farm jobs.  There would be no Tyddyn-y-morwr without these three.  Love you guys!

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Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia

 

Most Improved:

I wish I could say the chicken house got the award for Most Improved, but though that was a goal, it is most definitely not an outcome – yet.  The Most Improved award for 2014 has to go to fencing, and the pig pasture and chicken pasture fencing will have to duke it out to see who keeps the trophy.  I want to give it to the chicken paddock fencing, because that is mostly the result of my own blood and sweat, but it’s really not finished yet, albeit vastly improved, and really, the pig pasture fencing had a more dramatic effect – I was able to move the pigs regularly every couple of weeks so that they didn’t turn the ground into a moonscape.  The pig pasture fence was put in by Hay Guy for me, and then I used electric fence to subdivide within the paddock, since two pigs don’t need the whole pasture at one time.

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Favourite Book:

Whooo boy.  Well, as we all know here, a lot of books go past me.  And I actually read some of them.  My favourite?  That I read this year?  Ummm….Well, for the sake of getting this posted this year, I’ll put my money on Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard.   He’s about permaculture principles on a large scale.  He’s practical, down to earth and no nonsense.  I felt inspired as I was going through the book and I know what I read has affected how I think about my future plans for this farm.  Favourite fiction?  Probably “Pigeon Post” by Arthur Ransome, which I re-read sometime in the summer. This is book 7 in an old English children’s series dubbed “Swallows and Amazons” for the two main families of children in the stories.  I loved these books growing up, and have read most of them upward of 20 times each since I got my first 4 as a boxed set when I was 9.  They are a difficult read for modern children as they are very detailed with a lot of technical explanation and how to instruction (they are mainly about sailing and camping).  I tried them as read alouds with my own children, and we never got past the beginning of the third book.  Nor did they find them sufficiently interesting to pick up for themselves, which is too bad, but at least they enjoyed the first two, and understand my occasional references to characters and events in the books. Arthur Ransome was an interesting character quite apart from his children’s books – before the success of the books, he was a writer for the Manchester Guardian and an overseas correspondent in Russia in 1917.

Best Money Spent:

The obvious answer is the trip to New Zealand and Australia, which cost a truckload of money and was worth every single penny.  It really was the best money spent. I could go into detail about that, but really, suffice it to say that we saw a lot, had some great family time, had some adventures, and got to see a part of the world that most of us will never see again.  That’s pretty good value.

There’s also the little trailer I plunked down about $300 for – it gets towed by our little old John Deere lawn tractor, and I used it this year to haul feed down to the broiler pens on the pasture every couple of days, then later to haul composted bedding out to the field, to haul piles of brambles out to the burn pile, etc.   I don’t know why I put off getting it for so long.

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Livestock and Animals:

At the peak of the summer, we had 1 cat, 2 pigs, 40 layer hens, 50 layer chicks and 140 broiler chickens.  We were pretty busy, as I may have mentioned once or twice.  Though I had a few difficult moments, and we lost more broiler chicks than we should have in the brooder, over all, and one of the pigs ate something she shouldn’t have and was sick for a day or two, health was excellent in the livestock.   I want to  increase the numbers a bit for this year; we’re going to raise three pigs, maybe four.  I want to double the broilers, probably doing one batch in early summer, and the other in late summer, skipping the hottest month.  I am hoping to raise our own layer chicks from now on from the layers I now have, aiming to get a dozen pullets annually, and culling out a few of the older, non-producing hens each year to keep the flock balanced.  We’ll see how that goes.  I really, really want to get either cattle or sheep onto the grass to do some fertilizing and mowing, but I think it’s not happening this year – there’s just a lot of legwork still to do to be ready for that (finding a market for the end product, finding transport and processing facility, reaching an agreement with Hay Guy who has been doing the hay here for about 25 years, fencing).

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Lessons Learned:

Yup.  Quite a few.  Always.  I need to do better with the bedding in the brooder when I’m raising the broilers.  It’s the one thing I’m still really not doing well with those birds.  I cannot manage this farm by myself.  Not even if I didn’t have an off farm job.  My body is aging, and I can feel it.  I have to get things set up to compensate for that, and I have to get serious about soliciting some help, paid or otherwise.  Plans for this year include making use of Hay Guy’s services a bit more, and getting a good brush cutter (probably Husqvarna, probably at the end of January, in time to start attacking blackberries).   Our kids are really responsible, problem solving, resourceful and capable young people.  Plus they’re articulate, friendly, funny and caring.  When I hear other parents talking, I get a glimmer of just how fortunate we are.

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February 2014.

25th Wedding Anniversary:

We met in 1981, started dating in 1982, and got married in 1989.  That makes 33 years.  Which is the age I was when the eldest daughter was born, and how old I was when my mother died.  To celebrate this togetherness, we took a couple of days out of our impossible August schedules and headed over to Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula for a little getaway.  On the way we explored Hurricane Ridge, which we’d last visited the week we got engaged, back in 1988.  It was a wonderful break, and I loved being able to spend time with the one person in this life who really gets my logic (weird) my sense of humour (quirky) and my moods (highly variable).  I don’t know what he gets in return beyond good meals and clean socks, but whatever it is, he’s stuck it out, and for that I’m incredibly grateful and hugely humbled.

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Christmas Traditions

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A few years ago, we made a decision as a family to each make one gift for each of the others (small family of 4).  For some, the creative, artsy ones, this was not that hard.  For others, they had a plan going in and also found it not so hard – time consuming, maybe, but not hard.  And the last family member? He found it difficult.  He googled, he cajoled, he asked around at the office, he looked for loopholes in the agreement that would allow him to buy something, like, maybe something from a craft fair – that would be home made, right?  But not by him. We made him stick to the rules.

On Christmas Day we were all presented with beautifully arranged mason jar kits to bake cookies or brownies or soup.  The youngest, 13 at the time, had knitted for each of us (mine was a dishcloth).  The eldest, then 16, had made something different for each of us – mine was a cardboard frame for a picture, decorated with beach glass.  I had typed up my trip journal and made a copy for each member of the family from our Europe trip that summer, and added photos of each of them in their copies.  The forethought and effort to think of something the other person would like, that our skills could manage, was far, far more challenging than paying cash for something from the store.  We had plenty of that too, under the tree, but the exercise of just one present for three other people was exhausting – but pleasantly so when we saw their pleasure in receiving it.

So much so, that we did it again the following year.  And the next.  We don’t have an official policy anymore, it’s just if someone wants to do it, and sometimes we don’t – time is a factor for the working stiffs among us, and for the students too.  But there’s always special baked goodies for each of us now, and sometimes something crafted from wood or wool.  Maybe a photo montage.  Last year, the younger one did special little things for each of us in her metal jewellery shop class – mine was a cat shaped pen holder (it’s tail is corkscrewed to hold the pen).

The inspiration for this tradition came originally from reading Bill McKibben’s “Hundred Dollar Holiday”, one of his older books.  But it’s one of those ideas that seems to surface in different places and at different times.  Here in Canada, on our public radio station (CBC Radio) we have a storytelling show called The Vinyl Cafe, hosted by Stuart McLean.  His stories revolve around Dave and Morley and their kids Stephanie and Sam.  The story that resonates with me just now is called The Christmas Gift.  If you have time in the next few days, and need something to doze off to after eating all the leftovers, give it a listen.

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Merry Christmas from all of us at Sailors Small Farm.