A Winter Break . . .

Jack the snoozy pooch takes a holiday break!

The period from mid November to the beginning of January was our version of a long break, and it flew by: Lori had to do end of the year reports for her business, which keeps her occupied every December going into January; I had to finish up grading final papers and exams at Linfield; while Thanksgiving (yes, it has been a while since I posted!) was the usual frenzied rush of turkey deliveries.

Just before Christmas my good friend Bob and a colleague of his from Juniata, Doug Stiffler, came out for a visit. We packed a pretty grand time into three days, which included a farm tour for Doug, a trip to Portland and the Japanese Gardens with a nice lunch at an excellent sushi restaurant downtown, a little tour of some fine wineries and wine bars, and a day trip to the coast, during which we drove all the way to Cape Perpetua and stopped for lunch at a favorite fish restaurant in Newport.

Doug on the left and Bob on the right stroll through the fifth largest Japanese garden outside of Japan in the world on a cold December morning.

The Tea House with cherry trees in the garden.

It was a wonderful experience going though the Japanese Gardens with Bob and Doug. Bob and I had been there together before, and, in fact, I think that is part of what motivated Bob to have Doug come along – Doug is a prof of Chinese History at Juniata College in PA, and is fluent in Chinese and married to a lovely Chinese woman whose family lives with them in Huntingdon. My last visit to Huntingdon was made memorable by a fabulous Chinese Hot Pot dinner at Doug’s house over Easter of 2012, when Doug and his family also took me on quite the Pennsylvania farm tour.

Every perspective is a postcard in the garden!

Doug, Bob, and I, I think it is safe to say, are kindred spirits – art, food, wine, language, literature, history, travel, farming – we all have a wide range of common interests (okay, maybe Bob isn’t all in for the farming thing the way Doug and I are!). It was great to hear about the cultural and philosophical concepts behind the Japanese Garden, and Bob has a bee in his bonnet that will, I think, make a graduate student’s career some day: he has the notion that major cultural differences between western and eastern peoples can be teased out in part through their gardens. Greek and Roman gardens, as he has rightly noted to me, are designed on the imperative of symmetry, and this was taken up by Europeans with their love of carefully balanced garden lay outs with their squares, their rectangular campuses and greens, the lines, the circles, the artifice of which is easy to unpack and immediately apparent. From the Roman gardens of Pompeii, to the Renaissance villas of Italy, to the green Commons of colonial New England, the artifice is readily apparent.

Bob in a contemplative moment. I don’t want to embarras you Bob, but you are the true definition of a friend.

Not so with the Japanese Garden. From every perspective that you look in a Japanese garden the views, sights, sounds, fragrances, are nearly perfect. Whether it is a swathe of camellias, a hillside of azalea, a meadow of white stone with islands of moss covered rock, a bamboo fountain, koi in a pond against a wall of green ferns and moss, every perspective is nearly perfect; the green, the murmur of water, the quiet, instantly relax. How do they do this? What is it about the culture that gave them a vision to create a style of garden so beautiful, so seemingly chaotic, whereby the artifice is so well hidden? Unlike the Roman based European garden, there is simply no apparent symmetry yet every view is perfect. It is as though the Chaos of nature has been captured but tidied up. As Bob rightly notes, this is perhaps something that could help to tease out fundamental differences in world view between eastern and western society. But I digress!

Okay, I can never go past the Koi pond without thinking of THIS cartoon . . . 

I AM going to get to this place at peak blossom time this year, the Shinto gods as my witness!

The day we went to the coast was pretty memorable – it was supposed to start raining as a precursor to an approaching storm, but the front was slow in arriving and we had clear, beautiful weather.  We saw the precursor of the storm however in the form of some of the biggest waves and swells I’ve ever seen on the central coast. The spray must have been shooting sixty feet ino the air at some points, and the Pacific was washing onto 101 when we took a pit stop at the Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay, eliciting some poetic observation from Bob about the power of Poseidon. While there we saw a Coast Guard training vessel trying to make it into about the smallest, narrowest, most treacherous harbor entrance anywhere. The seven crew members all stood atop the highest deck and were pitched back and forth by enormous swells. It was positively heart-stopping, and everyone cheered the seven crew members as they raced through the narrow channel, catching just the right wave that would propel them into the safety of the world’s smallest open ocean harbor.

Bob is right – every perspective is a vision of perfection and simplicity, like the cherry blossom at its peak. The Japanese style garden epitomizes the dictum ars est celare artem – art is to conceal art.

I then drove Bob to some family in southern Oregon (Sunny Valley) in the midst of a pretty nasty rain storm which made the driving a bit tough. After spending the night at Bob’s in-laws I headed home for a nice, very quiet, Christmas and New Years. We kept it low-key because we realize that we have a great deal to do this year, since we are trying to reach maximum capacity.  I am happy to report that we did nothing memorable over Christmas or New Years. However, a few days after New Years, Lori and I did go to the coast to catch the annual migration of the Grey Whales. We saw them both at Depoe Bay and at Cape Disappointment, where we actually saw the full tail of a whale as it breached the surface for air.

Just can’t get enough of that garden around the tea house!

The end of the year and New Years was a nice break, but all too short, and followed by . . .

A Frenzied Rush!

A spectacular winter sunrise that my iPhone can’t capture – just trust me. Our sunsets and sunrises have been beautiful of late, and reminds us why we are breaking our backs working our land.

This is the year that our farm will likely reach peak capacity. At this point we reckon that to be a regular flock of 150 laying hens, 150 broilers annually, 10-20 laying ducks, thirty turkeys, our herd of a dozen goats, and eight hogs. We could expand more later on, but that will depend on our learning how to run hogs in our oak woods, of which we have about thirteen acres.

But in our efforts to reach that goal this year – imminently “do-able” – means that all of January we have been in the thick of a good many projects, including ordering a variety of birds to replace existing ones (layers are good for a year or two but then go into the stew pot) and experimenting with different breeds of turkey; up until now we have only raised Bronze Broad Breasted, but this year will also be getting some Midget Whites, Naraggansets, Royal Palms, Blue Slates, and Bourbon Reds. We are also reworking the infrastructure in terms of how they are kept, so we are in the process of building a new model chicken tractor so we can keep most of our layers permanently out on pasture as we expand. That means six tractors and lots of construction.

It takes a lot of cold hands fueled by hard cider to build one of these in the damp of a northwest winter! I got the idea for the design from the University of Kentucky Extension website.

The last day of the month we at last released our latests and youngest laying flock onto pasture. Soak up that January sun Henny-Penny; the weatherman is calling for lots of rain this week!

All the broilers will be for our customers, while we will probably process one of our older flocks of layers this fall to have stewing chicken for ourselves. We also at last had a concrete slab poured in our goat barn to make mucking easier, and had the roof shored up and repaired (new shingles and no leaks! Hooray!) Our tractor finally got serviced and some desperately needed repairs done to it, and we also purchased a set of forks to attach to the bucket. We should have gotten the forks a long time ago, but file this under “who knew” – we had no idea such things existed until I was chatting with Bob’s brother-in-law John in southern Oregon – he worked construction for years, and was the first to ever tell me about the existence of such a tool! It will make loading and unloading feed, hay, and straw much easier for us.

Thanks for the intro to the forks John! This is going to be a life-saver!

Our neighbor Greg tractos in gravel fill before the concrete floor goes into our barn.

The gravel is in . . . 

. . . and now the concrete.

We had never seen concrete poured and smoothed out – it was actually a pretty cool experience! Now just imagine the Romans doing this on their lofty domes without the use of hydraulics!

January was also taken up with pruning fruit trees and spraying them (this time of year with copper – don’t panic! – it’s considered an organic compound), but I don’t spray them much and don’t even bother with the larger older trees; my main concern is for the peach and apricot trees in this region which can become vulnerable to disease due to the damp. I’ve been worried this year because the weather has been mild but wet, making it essential to spray but causing some difficulties in terms of the timing of it. In fact, we did not even have leaf fall from many if not most trees until December 15 this year – that’s how mild it’s been. I have to say I now fancy myself something of an expert at pruning and training fruit trees – OSU offered a fabulous two-hour workshop on how to prune fruit trees by a renowned orchardist who was an outstanding teacher. He actually increased apple production in one of the central Asian “-stans” by 14%, convincing to give up their ancient methods of cultivation in favor of a more productive method. It was one of my best spent two hours in a long time!

In addition, we had to rewire and reconfigure our paddocks this month. This week we put the first two tractors out on pasture, each with 25 gold sex link chickens (brown egg layers). I had to put poultry netting around each coop (otherwise, I promise, all 50 birds would go into one coop!), and then run a wire to keep the goats (who have access to the same paddock) off of the coops (the chicken feed is secure from the goats, but the tarps which cover the tractors offer enticing possibilities for caprine mischief!), so the paddock is divided into two equal portions for chickens and goats at the moment. Then the three of us wrangled the chickens into carriers and put them finally on grass (after 8 weeks or so in our poultry shed).

But there is no rest, so I had to head out a couple of mornings these past two weeks well before dawn to pick up, one morning, about a dozen ducklings at the post office, and then repeat the ritual a few days later when I picked up another laying flock of Rhode Island Reds from the post office. Poultry management entails, of course, a lot more than all of this; in addition to getting the orders set for the year (our broilers will come from a local hatchery this year which makes us happy), the cleaning of tanks where the chicks will live until they hit ground in our shed, the cleaning of waterers and feeders, the checking and set up of heat lamps, all of this takes lots of time and energy.

And of course, this does not include the preparation for the arrival of goat kids starting the middle of February. Goats need boosters before giving birth, and we need to have our ducks in a row concerning birthing and kidding supplies – thankfully Lori and Nancy are in charge of that. On top of that, organizing the slaughter and sale of three hogs required no small degree of planning. But our four girls were harvested on the 29th, and we were quite pleased with their hang weights, which came in at 202, 225, 240.5, and 254.5. We hope the pork will make some people as happy as it makes us. And no sooner did we process them than we acquired our first set of Berkshire hogs to see how they do for us; and in March we will be getting a half dozen hogs of mixed breed from a local supplier. We are now at maximum capacity with our goats, so this year do not plan on keeping any kids; instead one of our farmer friends will be taking all the males but one, to clear blackberries, and we may well end up selling the does, but it depends on their temperament.

Our biggest girl was harvested on Thursday and weighed in at a hefty 254.5 lbs. hanging weight.

Pinky and Rosey are our newest arrivals – pure bred Berkshires that will marble out better than other breeds.

As far as our garden goes, I have somehow managed to trim and mulch the asparagus in a timely manner this year. We still have some meager lettuce, but plenty of leeks and squash stored up, as well as pumpkins and potatoes not to mention sweet potatoes. The leeks are particularly good, but I planted way too many of them last year (three 3 x 6 boxes), and I think even if we eat them nightly (which we virtually do!) just one box would have been enough. The garden is going to be expanded this year to include a “salsa” section – the OSU extension has an awesome recipe for tomato paste salsa made with paste tomatoes, various peppers, onions, and garlic, and we want to can and sell it as a value added product – it is delicious!

We will also be partnering up with Beth Rankin who will take and process our extra  fruits and veggies under our label, so we look forward to selling some preserves and anything else she comes up with this year. I also got a great idea from composting from Bob’s brother-in-law John – he embedded worm bins in his straw and manure pile (which is not too big so as to not get too hot) in order to work down the pile into a nice rich mix of carbon, nitrogen, and plenty of worm castings; so last week saw me moving our worm bins into our compost heap in our garden (oof, yet another kick-butt task!) and we will see how it goes.

All of this has taken something of a toll on our bodies, and there have been days when we have had to simply say No. No, we can’t lay on the cold concrete today, injure our shoulder, and build yet another chicken tractor. No, we can’t unload the truck tonight – put a tarp on it and we will do it tomorrow. No, we’re too tired to cook tonight, we’re going to Mac for sushi. At one point I took several days off to work on a pet project of mine, a sub-linear translation of some of the more important speeches in Thucydides (I got drawn into Thucydides, whom I’d not read in Greek since 2001, while teaching Greek history this fall – the narrative in his history is generally easy, but the Greek in his speeches, as Cicero noted, is nearly unintelligible and needs to be carefully unpacked).

In sum, we have a great deal on our plate this year, and the year started off busy from the get go and it will stay that way as we look ahead: the fruit trees I mentioned, now that we have over 40 to tend, have taken on a life of their own; we need to build a woodshed and a carport; we need to manage and rotate our pasture and paddocks; and we need to fence in our backyard to keep the dogs on property and off our road; in the midst of this, animals and a garden need to be tended and managed. So there has been no rest, no break, and there won’t be one until next November. In between there is a garden to plant, more pigs to raise, goats to birth and milk, compost to manage, 150 broilers to take to Mineral Springs, fruit to harvest, cider to press, and about 20 markets to attend in Mac. Somewhere in the midst of that, in a couple of small classrooms at Linfield, the Romans will once again gain and loose an empire, and the Greeks will fight amongst themselves for centuries until a youthful Alexander puts a stop to it. Something tells me Thanksgiving is going to come fast.