Crescendo e decrescendo

I knew it was coming, the busy part of my farming season. I remembered the rhythm of it from last year, and knew what to expect, but it still hit hard, I think because of the heat we had this summer.

We started quietly enough, just the layers we have had for more than a year. In May, the two piglets arrived, and chores increased slightly. Things were still pretty easy though – the piglets were small and easily contained for a month, eating enthusiastically, but nothing like what they would consume in just a few months. In early July, the 75  new layer chicks arrived and we were tending the brooder as well as the pigs and layers. We butchered a few layers over the course of a couple of weeks, in preparation for giving the hen house and runs a rest before the new flock was to occupy it in the fall (that would be now) fully intending to get the rest of them a couple of weeks later, which never happened. By now, the pigs had been out on pasture for a bit, and daily fence checks were required. They were eating a lot more, growing fast.

At the end of July, just as the really hot part of the summer hit us, 150 broiler chicks arrived and we were hopping. We had 225 chicks in the brooder, in different pens, and it was a nightmare trying to keep the temperature right in there, keep on top of bedding, etc. Chores were now four or five times a day. We left for our anniversary jaunt to Pt Townsend for a couple of days, and the girls were exhausted managing everything on their own in the heat. Once we were back, the broilers went out on pasture and I thought things would settle down, but the heat meant the birds were drinking far more than they usually do out there, necessitating 3 visits daily to keep the 5 gallon water jugs topped up.

The fortissimo moment…One of the pigs had an allergic reaction in early September, causing a lot of anxiety and a vet visit, though by the time the vet saw her, the pig was her normal happy, assertive self. “Something she ate”, the vet suggested. Probably. The broilers went to the processor in late September, and the pullets immediately left the brooder (yes, they were still in there – and not happy about it) and took over the field pens. Things got calmer, even though I was still moving pens daily. The pullets handle the heat better, and in addition, the nights were cooler. The pigs got loaded up last Saturday night, and left Sunday morning for the abattoir – I was too sick to go, and felt very forlorn as hubby and Bryce departed up the driveway, one of the pigs gazing at me in puzzlement through the lattice on the back of the trailer. To suit my mood, the rain began that day and continued for about 4 days.

And suddenly, Autumn has arrived. A new season. I feel hope and optimism again, after months of feeling like I was just barely holding things together, rushing from water jug to bucket to hose, keeping gardens and animals hydrated. I’ve cooked two good meals in the past week after a season where I barely cooked a single meal – using the kitchen mainly to preserve fruit or throw my stuff down as I grabbed a cup of coffee. The pace is so different. My focus is on cleaning up and putting away, trying to think how I will want things in the spring. There’s paperwork sitting waiting for another rainy spell.  As I putter away at my quiet, mundane cleaning up tasks, I’m pondering next year – should I scale up?  Should I scale down?  What went well this year, what needs to change?  I’ve been reflecting all summer that my body had a tougher time physically than in years past – it’s only been the last month where I haven’t been falling into bed aching from head to toe.  Now that I finally feel physically adjusted, the need for all those adapted muscles has ceased, and it has occurred to me that maybe I should get into a strength training class or something so that I maintain some minimum level of strength for next season.

It’s not over precisely – those darn old layers are still hale and hearty, escaping all over the place and grudgingly producing 5 or so eggs a day (18 birds). I don’t have much longer before the serious wet weather begins, and I must have the pullets off the field by then. Garlic needs to go in the ground, and I’m still dithering about exactly where that spot is going to be this year. I picked my last bucket of tomatoes today so that I can dehydrate them, which will be an evenings work tomorrow night.  I have a few rows of potatoes left to dig up.   The pigs bedding needs to go out on the field, and I want Hay Guy to come and harrow the pig pasture a couple of times to level it a bit, so that I can throw some seed on it, and he can harrow it again. There’s some fence mending as well. And if the weather holds, I need to try and finish the eaves on the west side of the house. So it’s not over. But it has slowed down, and feels more peaceful. I’m ready for a bit of pianissimo.

Where did August go?

It’s been quite a month, quite a summer actually. You will notice none of these pictures show progress or completion on the various house painting projects that are STILL on the go (third summer, sigh). We weren’t idle however. The girls made raspberry jelly at the end of July, the younger girl picked 50 lbs of plums most of which she sold, and she picked a few more pounds for me to make plum sauce and chutney.

The older girl has picked up a job at the deli in the grocery store in the village, but at the beginning of August was still valiantly trying to do farm stuff, work and have a social life. Now that she is getting ready for university in a few weeks, farming has definitely taken a back seat. Her new plan for her little layer flock (no pictures, but they’re beautiful little pullets – Columbian Rocks and Red Rock Crosses)is to raise them to point of lay and sell them on the local equivalent to Craigslist.

The younger girl has been busy too. She’s whittling away at her end of the painting job, she’s almost finished her online math course (Math 11 Pre-calc), and in addition to picking plums, our neighbour (age 86) broke his ankle (fell of a ladder while pounding in a T post for his bean trellis) and asked if he could hire her for the rest of the summer to walk their dog, and do housework and odd jobs. Plus she’s doing the usual amount of chores here. She’s managed to get some time with friends despite all – an evening at the fireworks at Butchart Gardens, and a few Wednesday evenings at the music in the park in the village.

Due to poor planning, just about the time the little layer chicks turned 3 weeks old, the 150 broiler chicks arrived. The brooder got pretty busy. About then, the weather switched on a few degrees warmer, and our problem quickly became keeping the chicks from getting TOO hot. This week, we got the broilers out on the field which is much better. The layer chicks are still stuck inside because their new home is still occupied by the old layer flock (well, 20 of them, hubby and I processed 25 of them a few weeks ago).

The pigs are thriving. Big pig is around 200 lbs, little pig slightly less. We had a fun morning the other day moving the fence together, the pigs and I, so they could have fresh pasture. Let me just say that this is not a good job to share with pigs. They are just way too helpful. However, they have new pasture – with shade, which delights them, and they have been hard at work building a new wallow. This pair of pigs are expert wallow builders. Their wallows have walls, with an edge above ground level. And room for two to wallow comfortably. I’ll have to do a post another time to show you.

From worrying about being able to sell my extra side of pork when a customer who’d ordered a side in January backed out in May (“I thought I ordered a lamb from you”, she said), I now have the much nicer situation of having a waiting list of 3. Wow. And to think my husband was worried that I’d priced the pork too high. The fact is good pork takes time and money to produce.

Around the time the little layer chicks began flying out of their side of the brooder, and the heat was at it’s most intense for the broiler chicks, was about the time the pigs started dumping their water bucket at various points in the day. This was also about the time that hubby and I went on our three day jaunt to celebrate our 25th anniversary. It was a nutso time to leave the farm in the hands of the not exactly idle teenagers. I wrote a 2 page oporder, which I don’t believe they touched. I had back up plans to back up plans for fans and hoses etc for pigs and broiler chicks. I forgot to buy in favourite teen food before I left, but hubby pointed out (on the ferry where I was bemoaning this) that one of them worked in a grocery store for pete’s sake, they won’t starve). The girls managed marvellously, and nature was kind and provided a spectacular thunder storm the first night we were away followed by rain and fog for the next two days.

Hubby and I went to the Olympic Peninsula, staying in Port Townsend for two nights. We spent our first morning up on Hurricane Ridge, which we had last visited 26 years before, the week after we were engaged. Port Townsend was delightful, especially for sailors. Our bed and breakfast (Commanders Beach House) was amazing. I would happily have sat on the porch all day doing nothing, but…there were all these organic producers of veg, fruit and meat, wine, cheese, and cider. So we spent a full day exploring around the Chimacum and Sequim area, nibbling and sipping contentedly. Our favourite stop was Finnriver Cider Farm, where we tasted cider and wandered for a couple of hours. We drove home via Whidbey Island, where I had last been with the Navy about 30 years ago (and didn’t get to go ashore). What a beautiful spot, even in the fog.

The garden got away on me, but tomatoes are flowing into the kitchen, we’re still pulling some carrots, and the potatoes need to be dug. Lettuce has only just started to bolt, and the runner beans are producing like crazy. Some of them might qualify for longest bean at the fair in a week and a half.

Two nights ago, hubby and I were dawdling our way through the evening round of chores, enjoying the cool air and the sunset (this amounts to a date for us :)), when our friend Bryce phoned to see if we wanted to see the combine at work. He was harvesting a field just up the road from us – maybe 3 acres total, of malt barley, destined for Phillips Brewery. Those of you in the Mid-West might think this is not very exciting, but grain growing has been absent from the Island for much of the last 80 years, and Bryce is one of the few people with a combine in our area. We each got to ride around the field with Bryce, learning how the process works, seeing how complex the machine is to run. Very cool. And it put my summer in perspective, because Bryce told us that between hay, wheat, lentils and barley, he and his gang have been harvesting for 80 days straight. In between, making runs to the mill on the mainland to get wheat milled for the local bakery. My days suddenly don’t seem as impossible as I thought.

The Fall Fair is next weekend, Labour Day weekend, and always marks the end of summer round here, as the kids go back to school the next day. It rushed up on me, and I didn’t even realize how close it was till I saw the tents starting to go up the other day.



I’ve been prepping the brooder for the layer chicks due to arrive this week. All my helpers have abandoned me temporarily because the building made them feel like Ron Weasley:

Frankly, I feel this to be a slight exaggeration…it’s quite bright in there thanks to a few windows, and I had the door open while I was sweeping out cobwebs, but I will admit that I wore long sleeves and jeans instead of my usual cut offs, because really, the number of spiders was ridiculous and the size of about half of them was disturbing.  While Vancouver Island doesn’t have much in the way of dangerous reptiles or insects, we do have black widow spiders and a couple of other not very good for you sorts.  At one point in the job the sweat trickling down my back made me think the spiders were in my shirt…after an irrational panicky few seconds outside dancing around like a mad thing, I regained my sanity and went and cooled off with a drink of water before heading in to do battle once again.

Not that it was as filthy as all that, actually – I store the pig feed in there, and empty feed sacks waiting for recycling, and I’d already cleaned it out after the broilers vacated last fall.  It’s just…well, the amount of dust and cobweb and spiders WAS rather much considering the place was practically empty.  Anyway, it’s lovely now, rat proof screen on the window, which is slid open to get some fresh air in there, all the feed bags are gone, and most of the spiders.  (not all, a good many scuttled under the moulding around the edge of the floor – this building was the original creamery for the farm but my Dad turned it into a summer bedroom when my Mum was ill so she could be close to her garden.  So it has some fancy touches not usually found in dairies or brooders.

It should have been quite simple to set up this space, since I use it as a brooder every year, but I never do things the easy way if there’s a more complicated way to do it.  And there is.  I’ve got the broiler chicks coming in three weeks.  They also need brooder space, and more of it (there are more of them, and they grow faster).  The layers won’t be ready to go out on the field at that point, so we’re having to prep a second brooder area in there.  It gets better.  I only have 2 field pens.  I will need both for the broilers by mid August, which is about when the layers can go out too – except that I won’t have a field pen for them.  They can’t go to the hen house where they’ll be living once they are laying, because the old layers are still there.  The old layers are not supposed to be there, they’re supposed to be in the freezer already, but helper availability and other circumstances have prevailed and the dratted birds are still around.  Moreover, the hen house is in serious need of repair (there is a hole in the roof, a hole in the door, and the plumbing has a split, to name a few issues).  I really can’t move the new birds in until I’ve repaired part of one wall, the door and the roof.  And replace the nest boxes.  It’s going to take a miracle or two to get all that done before mid August given the other priorities hanging over me.

I still need to sell one side of pork if I’m going to make any money on the current pair of pigs.  I also have to find someone to slaughter them, which is proving tricky.  The pigs are supposed to be in their new pasture as we speak, and they are not.  So close, but not quite.  I need to find time to change their existing electric fence to join the one in the new pasture and I need to do that when the pigs are not helping me, ie when I can lock them in the barn.  They are bored right now (nothing left to dig, or chew or tear apart).  Bored pigs are trouble waiting to happen, so I have GOT to get onto this job in the next day or two.

Despite what this may sound like, pigs and chickens are not in fact my top priority this summer.

Painting is the number one priority this summer.  It began three summers ago and was supposed to be done then.  And we’re still at it.  And I am determined that we will be DONE with it by the end of this season.  It’s going pretty slowly – that helper availability thing again, and the weather – too hot, too wet – never just right.  Wasp nests in the eaves.  Having to clear brambles enough to get a ladder into one area.  And we’re just talking one side of the house.  Plus a porch. Actually, we are not talking about the porch if you don’t mind.  There were issues with the paint, and I’m not over it.  Suffice it to say that it is almost finished and at this rate might be the only thing on the painting list to be finished.  Should we by some extraordinary chance get through with the west side of the house as well, then there is the barn to be painted, which has been a priority for more than 3 years.  That should be fun.  Wasps live IN the walls.  Some of the walls want to fall apart and have to be repaired as we go.  There are more brambles.  And other stuff to do when we’re not struggling with ladders and scrapers and wasps – like pigs and chickens.

Dauntless is not how I’m feeling right now.  No, I feel a bit like Ron, actually.  Surrounded and overwhelmed and completely regretting what I’ve gotten myself into.  I’m trying not to think how much worse it got for Ron – that was near the beginning of the second book out of seven.  I take comfort from the fact that he came through it all and emerged battle scarred but successful.  I just hope it doesn’t take me seven volumes worth of effort to get there.



Catching up

We’re in that place in the seasons where we’re feeling like it’s a bit of a race to keep up with everything. Since I posted about the farm just over a month ago, we’ve covered a lot of ground, and can’t really say the end ribbon is in sight yet.

First off, my computer succumbed to a virus, so no pictures for a while till I get it back from the fix it guys. In the meantime, I’m limited to the computers at work.

We got 150 broiler chicks at the end of July, and now have portable, modular wooden sides for the brooder set up in that house – a huge improvement over the cardboard I’d been using for the last 3 years. 150 chicks is double what we raised last year and involved a learning curve in brooding yet again. We specifically chose to raise two batches at once (I consider 70 to be a batch, as that is what fits in the field pens), thinking that with the warm steady weather we typically get in August, brooding would be easy, and their first week on the field would occur before the rain usually starts around the end of the month.

Well, we guessed pretty well with the weather, and certainly keeping them warm wasn’t an issue. However, double the number of chicks in the same amount of brooder space required a LOT more carbon material (wood chips in my case), and it was a constant battle to keep this in sufficient ratio to keep them dry and things smelling OK. Also, we barely had enough chick feeders, and by the second week found ourselves having to replenish these every couple of hours. The whole family was trained to go check chicks every time they came or went anywhere. In that first two weeks, we had planned to build the second field shelter that we had bought all the wood and sheet metal for, but off farm work and family stuff got in the way, and by the middle of the third week, we still just had a pile of lumber and a stack of sheet metal. So to relieve the pressure in the brooder, we put half the flock out in the one shelter we already had, leaving about 75 in the brooder, which definitely helped on the number of visits we needed to make through the day, but meant that we were now tending chicks in two places on the farm, as well as doing other chores, as well as trying to tackle the new field shelter.

We got the second field shelter finished last week, and the rest of the birds have been out on the field for about 5 days. There are still 4 in the brooder – a runt that is about 1/4 the size of the rest of the flock, one that I injured moving a pen, and 2 other small birds that I originally kept back to keep the runt company. They’re all growing quite well without the pressure from the rest of the flock, and will probably join the field birds when the rain stops this weekend.

Building the field shelter was something else – you’d think that living in the Pacific Northwest, where we are forests as far as the eye can see, that getting quality lumber relatively inexpensively would be a no brainer. Not so. My options were to get good quality, very expensive wood that was meant for indoor, finishing work, or to go out in the yard and get what the trade apparently calls SPF – for Spruce/Pine/Fir – except that it’s not pine, and not fir. Don’t ask me why they don’t just call it spruce. Whatever it is, it’s crap wood. Warped, twisted, full of knots, and splits when you gouge it with a fingernail (well, almost). We asked for exterior grade fir. Can’t be had – it’s all exported. Two days of working after work got the shelter built, but the truth is, it’s unlikely to last as long as the one we built three years ago – the wood is just so bad. We paint our shelters, by the way – we get so much wet weather here, that paint is a way of holding them together a bit longer.

One of the reasons for doing 150 at once was to economize on the processing day. Running up-island with a rented vehicle costs about $150 round trip (includes the rental and the gas). Last year we made the trip twice, different months, with 75 birds or so each time. It made sense to put them all in one load if we could, and this had the added bonus of giving us the volume price break at the processor as well – instead of $4.10/bird, we will only be paying $3.85/bird. We have also had to invest in more poultry crates for this to work, which were not cheap (about $60/each), but they should last us decades, and we considered them an investment. The birds go to the processor September 17th, and then the chore roster will seem pretty empty.

Lessons learned in the brooder were many. If I’m going to brood that many again, I need to have a much deeper layer of carbon down before the chicks arrived (my initial layer was only about 2 inches)…they were producing so much moisture the existing layer couldn’t absorb it and it was probably pooling at the impermeable (lino flooring) layer. I also need a source of much smaller shavings than what my feed store can provide – the big shavings just don’t do the job. I now have enough chick feeders, unlike when we started. The plywood walls worked well. Brooding in early August worked well. Double the number of chicks means double the quantity of feed (I was frequently caught short, and rushing into the feed store 2 minutes before they closed to grab another 4 bags…). I would say that 150 is my maximum brooding capacity for the configuration we have right now.

It might seem from this that broilers are the only thing happening here, but in fact the pigs are growing steadily, and providing challenges themselves. While we were cutting the metal roofing for the field shelter, the high pitched noise of the saw drove the pigs berserk, and they rampaged around their paddock, taking out a whole chunk of electric fence in the process. Fortunately, this was not their first fence fiasco, and there is enough permanent fence up to keep them contained, so we didn’t have to chase them down. Unlike the first time they got out a few weeks ago, when we got back from dinner out, to see the pigs greeting us on the driveway (about 30 feet from their paddock). This was my own fault, as it turned out they’d performed a trick I’d watched them do more than once – simply pulled out a few of the portable fence posts that hold the electric wire (they grab the foot thing at the bottom of the post with their mouth and wiggle it back and forth till the post is loose enough to pull out), and stepped out. Four hours later, at midnight, we stood back and admired the new permanent fence (well semi-permanent – 7 ft metal T posts hammered in 2 ft with hog wire) that cost us nothing much worse than a lot of time and a mashed finger (not mine). In daylight the next morning, it was clear the line we’d chosen wasn’t exactly straight, but it does keep pigs in, and it survived the rampage last week.

The 4-H lady we bought the piglets from had told us to just borrow the scales from the fairgrounds (across the road from us) when we wanted to weigh them, but this requires a truck, which we don’t have, so I did the string measurement method a month ago, and learned that the pigs at that point (Aug 3) were about 155 lbs each, give or take. They are getting processed in early October, so they’re about on track. The string method of weighing sounds like something out of Lilliput, but according to Walter Jefferies of Sugar Mountain Farm,  my “go to” guy for all things pig, it’s pretty accurate.

The pigs enjoyed the dropped plums a month ago, and though I fretted about the pits (which aren’t good for them), they seemed to mostly spit them out, so I relaxed.  Now we’re into dropped pears and apples, and there is a lot of hopeful pacing by the fence when I go by with a 5 gallon bucket (in case it has good things in it).  We’re having a really bad year for wasps, so this ability between the pigs and the chickens to keep getting rid of all the drops is really helpful.

We had family from Ontario visit the second week of August, which was fun and made a nice change of pace, since with so many critters on the farm, getting away for camping or the beach really hasn’t been possible. We got to do a couple of touristy things, eat out, and chat up a storm, about things not related to pigs or chickens. Just before they came, younger daughter and I did a volunteer stint up the fairgrounds weeding and sprucing up the beds in front of the main buildings, along with a cadre of other volunteers – a mix of farmers, gardeners and retirees, we enjoyed a bunwich supper afterwards which was full of interesting local gossip.

The laying birds (about 55 or so) have been a ruddy pain in the neck.  Before the broilers came, I was working on mending some of their fences, but I had to drop that task when the chicks in the brooder took over my life.   The reason I was mending fence is because the layers live in a permanent house with four large runs through which I rotate them, with access to a fifth from three of them (consider it my stockpile paddock).  This is not an ideal set up, but I’m a bit stuck with it in the short term, not least because it has power and water hooked up, making me reluctant to give it up (no other barn or outbuilding has this).  Our long term plan is to transition this flock to two eggmobile type structures, only small, so that I can move them myself – with electronet around them, so that I can pasture these birds out on the hayfields.  This would be better for the birds, easier on my fencing abilities, and improve the fields – BUT – when we are going to get the construction on those shelters done, I have no idea, and we will also continue to need somewhere for them to live in the winter (the fields are far too wet Dec-early Apr).  Hence the permanent chicken house continuing.  Anyway, to get back to the topic, the fences between the runs are full of holes, and the chickens have learned that if they push hard enough they can create a hole almost at will.   So instead of resting three runs and using a fourth, the hens are basically free ranging over all 4, as well as the lawn, the garden and occasionally my neighbour’s garden.  A lot of time is wasted chasing them back from places they shouldn’t be, and a lot of eggs are lost to nests deep in blackberry thickets.   Moreover, when things got busy with broilers, I got behind on chicken house maintenance and the nest boxes ran low on hay.  Eggs broke, which led to egg eating, which is bad.  Because now the birds have developed a taste for the eggs, and despite getting back to better nest box maintenance, the damage is done, and broken eggs are a constant find.  This has led to collecting eggs 3 or 4 times daily, using up more time no one really has. I would do this flock in in 2 seconds if I could realistically get a new flock up and laying before Christmas, but I refuse to buy point of lays around here as they come from the commercial side of things, always debeaked, always ISA Browns, often in poor condition, and I’ve missed the hatchery deadline for layer chicks. So, we’re just going to have to make the best of things, and make do with this flock for now.

One of the escapee hens turned out to be broody, as we discovered this week, when she appeared out of a blackberry bush with 2 wee chicks.  The odds of this happening were incredibly low – first off, the rooster is my lame “Rusty” – who, let’s face it, is no longer quite as assertive as he used to be, and is also the lone rooster with 55 hens.  Also, these hens are hybrids, bred for laying (Red Sussex), so though we’ve had a few go broody, I wouldn’t have expected a lot of dedication to seeing the job through.  It’s rained every day since those two chicks hatched, and she was down to 1 within 24 hours.  Since then, I’ve managed to pen her and her chick, mainly to keep them safe from the many predators around just now (the cat, eagles, ravens), and also dry.  I don’t quite know what I’m going to do with one lone chick, which given the sort of odds with egg hatching, is most likely a rooster – in the long term, he’ll either replace Rusty or get eaten, but meantime housing him once the hen is done being a mama is a question mark. One of the kids suggested we get serious about letting all the broodies set and see what we can get in replacement birds that way, but assuming this worked, we’d be dealing with chicks till Christmas – and I think I’d lose my sanity.

The World Youth Climbing Championships took place the 15th-19th August, and both eldest daughter and I were volunteers, she as a judge for the lead/difficulty climbing, myself in registration and as a backup timer for speed.  It was an amazing experience to be part of something international like this – 35 countries participating – almost 500 athletes.  It was the first time this event has been held in North America, so there were large Canadian and American teams (47 from the US!), as well as the usual strong representation from Japan, Russia and France, where sport climbing is better established.  For me, registration really brought home what it entails for a family to support an international caliber athlete – I registered 2 youth who were each the sole representatives of their countries (Slovakia and Serbia).  Each had a parent as their coach, and were familiar with the European competition circuit but had not travelled off their continent before.  With none of the sponsorship or government subsidy that youth from larger countries got, these families paid for the competition, spent months getting visas from Canadian embassies beset with rotating strikes and work to rule situations, and paid for flights and hotels.  Just so their child could have a 4 day opportunity to compete at this event.  Neither of the two athletes I’m referring to here had podium finishes, but the youth from Slovakia managed to get into the semi-finals for lead climbing, and I felt almost as proud as his own parents must have felt.   There’s a lot of footage and photographs on the web for the event, but here’s a highlight clip:

And that’s the kind of month August was. With school for the younger daughter beginning in less than a week, and the midway being set up across the road at the Fairgrounds as we speak, summer is starting to feel over. I have buckets of pears to can, buckets of blackberries to make into jelly, and in the background, as one of the committee fondly dubbed “The Feasties”, I am starting to gear up for the community harvest feast taking place in less than a month. When we sit down to enjoy all that turkey and fixings, I will know we’re heading into fall.