Thucydides, Fruit Trees, and the Sorrows of the Athenians

We must have done something right with the pruning, because we have a ton of table grapes this year. We’ll crush them, throw in some champagne yeast, and made a few jugs of some heady homemade wine this fall.

We are in high summer gear here at the farm, though this week I am flying solo: Lori is away, Nancy is still out of commission with her ankle. I have thus been forced to stop writing my lecture on the Peloponnesian War for my Greek History course at Linfield this fall. It has been a great refresher, rereading Thucydides this summer – when I am not cheating and reading ahead in the Game of Throne series (spoiler alert: season 4 is going to be a relentless wave of OMG moments!) But for all its horror – the incest, the butchery, the living dead, the court intrigue, it still can’t touch the grand passion play written by this great Athenian who lived twenty-five centuries ago.

Because it happened. It is real. It is bare-knuckled, gritty truth: Greece indulged in civil and interstate war for twenty-seven years. Time and again, Spartans, Athenians, Thracians, Thebans, Macedonians, Corinthians, Messenians, Argives, sacked one another’s towns, butchered the male population, and enslaved the women and children. The invasion of the Attic countryside around Athens by the Spartans became an annual event in the summer: they mowed down cereal crops, cut down olive and fruit trees, and drove off livestock. And all the Athenians could do was to look on in angry frustration, consoling themselves with their naval superiority and launching raids on the Peloponnese, which was under the hegemony of the Spartans.

Perikles, the leading Athenian statesman of the age, had his hands full as the Athenians vented their frustration at his policy of staying within Athens’ walls, leaving the countryside – the homes, estates, small farms, market gardens, orchards, herds, vineyards – to be ravaged by Lacedaimonian hoplite shock troops. It is hard to imagine the rage and frustration the average citizen must have felt, to see one’s sweat, toil, and livelihood, be deliberately destroyed by willful human folly. All the more so, because Attica was and is hard-scrabble. It is not a fat, bossomy, rich land as was western Asia Minor or southern Italy, or Sicily. I would not want to farm land in the demes of Athens; give me the rich flood plains of the Nile or an estate in Magna Graeca any day.

We have dubbed our meat breeding flock the Pink Rangers, because our Red Ranger chickens live in a coop that I painted the ugliest raspberry pink as possible, just for hoo-haws!

The fence was completed this week, much to our delight. We still need to run a wire on it, but I am holding off until I have proof that the animals are in any way shape or form interested in mounting the ramparts.

All of this has been by way of a consolation to me of late, as I have come to appreciate that there will never be anything such as a normal season here, at least as concerns fruits and vegetables. You will have success and you will have losses. Sometimes the metaphorical Spartans (i.e. racons) will cut down (i.e., gobble up) your fruit trees; sometimes you will have success at Sphakteria (i.e. put up electric poultry netting or spread urine), take Spartan hostages (i.e. keep the critters at bay), and dare them to invade Attic territory again.

So far so good with Titus Pullo as rooster of our first flock; he apparently goes for large, mature gals!

All skill is in vain when and angel pees in the barrel of your rifle, or so the saying goes. I had to move to further protect our turkeys after a lethal raccoon attack.

Both the turkey tractor and the chicken tractors are safely behind poultry fencing in wake of our raccoon attack.

This year has been a disaster for my potatoes and apples; the apples are a shared catastrophe on our hill this year though – a few too many badly placed warm days followed by some rain and cold did a real number on the blossoms and certainly did not help our pollinator situation. Heat, I believe, got all of my potatoes except one box, but I have replanted and will try again for a late fall crop. The strawberries, onions, carrots, cabbage, and kale did and are doing great, but it just got too hot for our beets, which I took out, replanting the boxes with potatoes; we figure we have more than enough space for greens in our garden for the fall, so are unconcerned about leaving the beets (the smaller ones we pickled). Our peppers in their raised beds and compost are extremely happy, our eggplant (I had my doubts) has exploded, and our in ground tomatoes are doing very well indeed (I’m estimating that I’ll be putting up a gallon or so of sauce every other day for the next couple of months), though our Brandywines in the raised beds are not doing as well as those in ground (though the ones in the raised bed I grew from seed). What is doing extremely well are the Beaver-Lodge tomatoes I grew from seed that I got from Territorial – it produced a beautiful, round, flavorful fruit, good for slicing, for salads, or for sauce, so very versatile. I will certainly grow them next year.

Puck inspects our second flock of layers on a sunny July morning. He’s great about not attacking the hens, while he’s actually incredibly helpful in helping us herd any strays who have flown the coop.

Benny and Bucky now live in their own digs and are separated from the girls after what, in goat parlance, could only be called “inappropriate behavior”!

We try not to fret too much over these things and give ourselves some slack. We’ve never grown tomatoes from seed before and for the most part things are going well. But who knew that mushroom compost contained too much salt? And some of our cool weather crops, such as the sugar snap peas, did well despite the heat, while other cool weather lovers, such as our fennel, simply bolted and never bulbed up. Some of our cucumbers bit the dust as well, suddenly collapsing within hours, I am guessing due to a family of voles tunneling beneath them and damaging the roots. But so far so good with the squash and pumpkins, which seem indestructible.

We also received some unwelcomed news about our goat herd: a visit from the vet confirmed that Anna and Obie did indeed have false pregnancies and are likely sterile. That, on top of them being difficult goats with problematic personalities and bad behavior clinched it for us: they will be going with our fat little buck (named Bucky) off to slaughter as soon as we can arrange a date. For all that we have been getting more milk than we can keep up with from our girls – anywhere from 7-9 lbs. of milk from each daily. While Lori is away, however, we are letting the kids nurse on the mothers so that my hands don’t give out from milking three animals. Only Janet gets milked twice daily since we sold her two buck kids to a neighbor to help him clear blackberries on his property. The week before last we mucked out the barn, which really takes it out of you: we use a deep bedding method, so only muck once every six months, but hauling that much hay with all the manure and urine in it is an all day task, and about the heaviest labor we do here on the farm. The benefit is we will end up down the road with great compost (in a year or two) that will provide great nourishment for our soil. Hopefully we will not have quite so much of a mess in the barn any longer, now that our pasture is fenced and we can send the goats out to graze for the day. If there first day out on pasture is any indication, their grazing on forage is going to save us quite a sum on bills for hay, so we are happy to have them out, and they seem happy to be out, although they have no idea how to relate to Puck, and Puck obviously thinks they are just big dogs with whom he tries to play.

Our barn is nice and clean after a thorough mucking . . . 

. . . but on the whole, removing a couple of tons of a 12-18″ deep layer of straw, manure, and urine on a 90 degree day is one of the less pleasant farm activities. Ibuprofen anyone?!?!

Cheese making is done on the fly: we have down now how to produce nice, creamy batches of ricotta and chevre, but are still getting our mojo with feta. I refuse to move on before we have perfected our method, but hope to start to produce Havarti soon as well. The chevre is excellent on salads, and first rate with home grown tomatoes. But there has been little time for cheese making while I have been handling the farm chores solo. Birds in particular take up a good deal of my time, since they need to be checked three times a day for food and water. We have eight separate flocks currently: our laying ducks, out two hen laying flocks, our flock of turkeys, and no less than four flocks of broilers (one of 50 in the barn, 2 of 25 on pasture, and a breeder flock of around 25 broiler chickens in our pink Henny Penny Hilton – we’ve dubbed that flock the Pink Rangers). We have had some loss – something natural with so many birds. We lost a young turkey poult to a raccoon (we suspect) one night. We had 14 birds but I could only get a head count of 13 one morning. Finally I noticed some slight disturbance of the chicken wire on their coop and a small amount of blood and feathers. A raccoon will bite the head off a bird then drag it through a wire to consume it; another turkey was slightly injured but has since recovered. One thing about broilers is that they are very fast growers by design, so they are subject to heart failure. You can see a happy flock of birds running around and one will suddenly collapse; initially I was afraid it was somehow our management practices, though we run a pretty tight ship, keeping the birds on as clean a pasture as possible. Then I discovered that this sort of mortality is pretty common with the meat birds, not so much the layers, and is simply a matter of genetics.

The birds have turned out to be an unexpected surprise and might propel us to market come next year. It turns out that there is no poultry vendor at the McMinnville market, and they would like one and are interested in us. We will try to raise 1000 birds, which should not be too much of a stretch since we’ll have done over 250 this year – we’ll also offer duck and chicken eggs, turkeys for the holidays, and maybe ducks as well; in addition we may do a few value added products – herbs, pesto, and maybe some jams. But we need to decide if we want to make the commitment to raise the birds, invest in the chicks and feed, and spend the time at market.

It is official, we are goat herders! It’s great to have our animals out on pasture – the amount of hay we have had to give our animals in the past few days is minimal, and with this few goats and this much forage, it should stay that way, well, forever!

We are also at that time of year where we are struggling to keep up with watering the gardens around our house. The artists who owned the place before us put in lovely landscaping around the house, which needs watering in summer due to drought, and which we want to keep in place, though we are doing some renewal and renovation. The back area in particular is a spot where we are trying to put in some raised beds for annuals. We also plan to put in several fountains to create a soothing symphony of water, where people can sit, read, play music, relax, meditate, and chat. We will have a place that will be like one of Kimon’s fruit groves or Perikles’ estates in the Attic countryside, but in this instance, hidden from history’s marauding legions.