Pruning Power

At Leafhopper Farm, there is an old apple grove of five mature trees. When stewarding of the land began, a recovery effort was made to prune back the old fruit trees to bring back production and health. There have been other blog posts about apple production on the farm and updates on the trees as they are reclaimed.

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When the first fall came and only a few apples had ripened on the trees, I knew the pruning would be a much needed encouragement for the crowded out energy of each tree. By removing selected branches, successful buds were given enough sun and space to actually put on fruit. This last summer was the best year of apple production at Leafhopper. With the added grey water system constantly irrigating this grove, there is added nutrients and hydration for the tree’s roots. This might also be supporting greater output.

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 same apple trees after 3rd pruning 2017

This year, the pruning has finally reshaped the grove, allowing the best light and ventilation an old apple tree could want. The two northern most trees pictured above are almost unrecognizable as the once whip infested tangles at the start of this article. Hopefully, the progressive cleanup will offer a longer, more productive life to these two elder apple trees.

The branches have been placed in the raised beds to continue the hugaculture development of more planting beds at Leafhopper Farm. The apple wood is also great for smoking meats. Some of the smaller whips have been stored for future flavoring endeavors. Holistic practices include maximizing biomass created on site. The fruit wood will be great compost nutrients for future food crops. If the apple trees are tended well, they will continue to produce wood as well as fruit and a shedding of nitrogen rich leaves every fall.

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The three raised beds which Bastyre University students helped erect a few years ago continue to develop nicely. The top bed has been replanted with garlic, and mulched with maple leaves and a little aged chicken manure. More dirt will be piled on after the garlic harvest in July. The middle bed will reseed with wildflowers, a few veggie companion plants, and more edible flowers. Chicken manure, straw, woody debris, and dirt are added in layers to continue the shaping of this bed. The southern most bed is all branches right now. I’ll let them settle through the winter and stomp them down next spring before adding animal bedding, manure, and a lot of soil.

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The view from the house shows the east side of the land, folding in the fruit trees, grey water system, chicken rotational grazing, mulching, and hugaculture development. It’s a busy ecosystem to say the least. On the far right of the picture below, a frost peach, also recently pruned, waves. In the background towards the left, three more apple trees stand with branches pruned.

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Enter a Standing at the kitchen door of red barn looking southeast

There are still two pare trees and a lot of nut tree tending to be done, but getting the upper hand on the oldest trees, which involved the most direct action, feels good in the development of Leafhopper Farm’s orchard plan. It’s great progress in a journey that can often become blurred and distorted. The trees stand witness to an effort which will bear fruit in the end.

 

Difficult Ducks

This week I was invited to Skylight Farm in Snohomish to help with processing ducks. The flock was straight run, meaning the ducklings were not sexed in advance, so you don’t know how many males and females are in the clutch. Well, there were too many drakes in the flock, stressing out the hens. It was not worth feeding the extra boys through a winter, and so, culling had to be done.

We rented poultry processing equipment from King Conservation District, which allowed for “faster” work. Well, perhaps it was our choice to work on this project on the coldest day of the year, perhaps it was the fact that waterfowl have very oily feathers that are difficult to pull,  and another hitch; these drakes were older, making the plucking very challenging.

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In the picture above, you see the killing cones, a dunking tank for scalding, and a plucker. We preheated a lot of water on jet burners, to get things up to temperature faster in the large dunking tank. That part of the processing equipment was a great help, allowing us to put many birds in to loosen the down and quills before plucking. We made a mistake the first round, letting the birds cool off too much before dunking and defeathering them.

We had one ill-tempered rooster to process, which went very well. The plucker machine made short work of that bird. However, the drakes would not shed, and instead, began bruising from all the jostling of the plucker. It is not good to keep the carcasses in too long. The chicken was stripped in seconds. After 2 minutes, (the max recommended in a plucking machine) the ducks were still mostly feathered. We had to accept hand plucking, which was not easy in freezing temperatures, holding wet ducks, slippery with oil slick feathers. What comedy we made of the entire situation!

Did I mention the hot water pipes and outdoor spigots were frozen that morning to begin with? All our hydrology needs were only met after spending the morning with heat lamps in tight spaces, coaxing ice back into water. Needless to say, we earned the fabulous duck dinners to come.

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Sometimes you just have to laugh, then make sure you warm up, stay hydrated, and eat. I’m grateful for the ducks, the cold, and the warmth of working with neighbors to produce our own food. It felt so good to learn side by side with others who believe in ethical harvest. There might be more effort, but that’s what I’m willing to pay for consuming holistically.

Cold Times

It’s in the teens at Leafhopper Farm and everyone has hunkered down overnight for the first of three days in freezing temperatures. When the weather gets like this, you have to pay close attention to water and warmth. Troughs are frozen solid and must be replaced daily to allow access to drinking. Sun traps are a must; allowing animals to warm up in the solar heat amplified off reflector walls such as the back of the mobile coop pictured below. The roosters are basking in a comfortable sun trap while feasting on an extra large ration of grain to keep the inner fire stoked. Combs can get frostbitten, so exposure to wind is reduced with sidewalls. The birds can tuck down as the roost to avoid drafts.

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The goats are tucked away in a nice barn stall stocked with alfalfa hay, mineral, and a refreshed water bucket.  They are nesting in organic straw and glad to be out of the cold too. The kids have very thick winter coats right now to keep them toasty through the night.

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The hens are laying 2-5 eggs a day now and not too excited about this cold weather. It’s the slowest time of year for production, and that’s ok. Most of the bird’s energy should be spent on keeping warm and resting through the coldest, darkest time. I could put a heat lamp on them, but prefer to let the hens rest. This seems to encourage longer lasting layers with better quality eggs. Here the ladies catch the first light of morning and bask together in harmony.

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Chicken Commingling

The youngest chickens at Leafhopper Farm are in with the main flock. 8 young birds will begin learning from adult birds as they fledge into young pullets. There are a few young roos in the group who will be culled out as they grow, for now, these birds are safely folded into the flock.

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Leafhopper Farm has kept chickens since its formation in 2013. This winter, our oldest hens will be culled to make way for stronger, younger hens who will lay more eggs and keep up good production. The old hens will go to the stew pot and continue feeding the farm crew in another way. I am so grateful for these birds and their original instructions to scratch and glean around the landscape.

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The flock is now headed by two Ayam Cemani roosters who will continue to develop a black bird leaning gene pool. The young pullets who were hatched in the hen house this summer are the last of our previous rooster Alexander’s line. I notice that Americana genetics are strong in the hybrids. The new clutch that was incubated to term has some of the Cemani crosses in it. Those birds with translucent black feathers are striking. Eventually, the whole flock will shift to black if We keep only the Ayam Cemani roosters.

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In the rooster coop, there are two more of Alexander’s offspring being fattened for the pot. Red as his father’s bright yellow legs, along with a lot of Rhode Island Red from a hen in the flock. It’s tempting to want to keep his looks, but honing in on a specific breed would be better. Perhaps Ayam’s and one other heritage breed, depending on what the crosses turn into.

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Leafhopper Farm is also thinking about joining the egg coop and buy in on a much larger flock of chickens in the coming year. The fields can support a larger flock, but the landscape would then be at the mercy of flock pasture needs. There are endless possibilities with chickens at Leafhopper, and eggs are a must for our daily production wants. Even these stew pot roosters are tilling and fertilizing land as they grow.

The Light Returns

Peas press through the soil for a grasp of grow light magic. We’re kicking off the growing season as New Year’s Eve ushers in 2017.

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This winter, the farm grew two cold frames full of lettuce greens which have survived through a few frosts and continue to develop slowly as light returns.

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The front garden was turned, weeded, and mulched in prep for garlic planting, manure applications, and start transplanting. Leafhopper Farm hopes to have a full garden stated and in by May this year, complete with some of the more challenging crops like peppers and eggplant. In the mean time, garlic bulbs worthy of seeding from our first in house garlic crop will continue the organic garlic cultivation in progress here at Leafhopper Farm.

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Cold frames have definitely been enough to keep hearty winter greens thriving through our low light winter. This week will put the glass to the test with three days of continual freezing temperatures. Hopefully the passive solar will hold. The cloche is working beautifully, and will receive a fresh flight of starts this spring.

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The greenhouse has shown to be the more difficult growing space for winter hearty plants. Most overwintering plants, like peppers and cabbage, froze in our lower temperatures. The space is just too big for passive solar alone. Perhaps rabbits will help control the fluctuations. Their little thermal masses are enough to keep temperatures above that critical freezing point. There is also the possibility of compost systems, but the accumulation of such sizable biomass will be better adapted in a permanent greenhouse setting.

 

The Evergreen State

The magic of living in Western Washington continues as snow comes down from the elevations for a brief visit. Indo and I took a trip up to Campbell Forest for a look at the city from our favorite vantage point. In the picture below, the city seems to float in mists with towering mountains beyond. From here to the urban sprawl span massive evergreen forests and large rivers snaking through to the sound. This is my love affair with Washington in a nut shell. The big city is manageable from afar, close enough for the cultural enrichment, yet spaced nicely with wilderness all around. You can ski, hike, hunt, swim, fish, sail, and anything else outside you can think of.

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Seattle and Bellevue off in the distance with The Olympic Mountains beyond

On a crisp morning, you’ll find Indo and I enjoying the foothills near where we live, adventuring on the slopes and discovering new terrain to enjoy together. With snow finally here for the season. With that, adventuring becomes a little more risky. This time last year, on a drive up into the hills, the truck almost got stuck. Luckily, east coast winter driving skills took hold and with a few clever tricks (floor mats under the spinning tires) we managed to get out. Chains are a must if you are heading up into back country right now.

Wilderness beckons from so close. Sometimes on Leafhopper, I forget how easy it is to head down town or up stream. The choices are endless, and the farm offers yet another type of paradise. The land has slope, running water from Weiss Creek, and home, a place to den up when it gets really dark and cold outside. But in Western Washington, cold and dark are quite relative. This morning I was up at 5 in the dark moving goats out, and the temperature was almost balmy. About 20 miles away to the East, at elevation, people woke to the teens and a truly frozen situation. Even in the picture below, you can see that the snow and cold stops before arriving at the base of the mountain. Our temperate ocean side river valleys  will always revert back to rainforest.

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left hand slope is Si, Rattle Snake Ridge in the background

The balance of urban, suburban, and rural are so beautifully illustrated in these pictures, because there really is only about a 20 mile distance between us and Seattle as the crow flies. I do not know of many urban hot spots with nature right out the back door. Denver would arguably be close, but no ocean in that land locked state. Also, Alaska is only a ferry ride away and I have yet to take a trip north to visit our frozen sister state.

The farm is located on the foot hills of The Cascades and Cascadia is a place unto its self. This beautiful range of wild peaks stretches from Canada to Oregon with most of the best skiing in Washington. Where Indo stands below is the start of our rise in elevation to the East. You can still see Seattle far off in the distance, but it’s more of a dream scape now, with nothing but forests, clear cuts, and The Snoqualmie River (in it’s 3 branches) thriving in a temperate rainforest ecosystem. We’ll continue to enjoy the view from our hillside and be thankful that all these riches lay around us in our homeland.

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Indo licks her chops at the thought of a venison stake dinner

Winter Reflections

The winter has begun in earnest at Leafhopper Farm. This week, the last of our pears were put to the pot with a pork roast. The Berkshire Gilts were finished on this same fruit this fall. There is so much gratitude in sustenance.

Realizing that the last fresh fruit is gone from the larder, I’ve turned to the dried stock of apple and pear. Its great to still have the nutrition of that fall harvest, but reconstituting with warm water does not bring the crunch of freshness back.

Knowing there is a freezer full of meat, fruit, and veggies offers reassurance to a person in the dark of winter, though here in Western Washington, the temperate rainforest does not bring quite the same haunting grip of cold that New England or Scandinavia might. I must admit my Viking and Scottish roots are scoffing right now.

Hunting and raising livestock has been crucial to sufficient protein production. I’d like to think I could hunt and fish throughout the year for absolute security, but there are seasons and limits now which prevent fully sustainable wild harvest. Perhaps if that was all you did with your time it could sustain you. In fact, I think that is very possible. But what if we all tried to go out and take what we needed from the land? At this time in human history, the attempt would probably prove fatal. That’s actually happening right now on a global scale, but our species chooses to overwhelmingly ignore this uncomfortable or “inconvenient” truth.

As in the wilds, domestic stock is restricted by habitat limitations. To raise enough meat on the land holistically, we’d have to industrialize the farm in a way as of yet unattainable sustainably; but I’m working on it. This year, pork came at a high price, and that was expected. Now, with more planned pasture and heavy rotation, higher numbers of animals will be raised. Pigs and sheep could alternate yearly and become a seasonal crop. I’m taking this next year off to assess fencing, structure, and layout for future livestock efforts.

Animals are necessary in a holistic endeavor if you want enough nutrition to go into your beds for fruit and vegetable production. Chickens are choice, easy, and affordable if you have an egg market.  Use the meat and manure wisely. Leafhopper Farm has implemented a flock system and plans to expand its egg production in 2017. I’m helping to write up an egg coop business plan with some other farmers in the area. Winter is a good time to work on admin at a farm, so there’s more screen time, but less cold exposure.

Trimming the fruit trees, which gave such sweet sustenance, is another winter season activity to promote the growth of future harvest in the orchard. The plan is to take what green wood is trimmed and use it for smoking some of the fine meats on the farm. Right now, work on cleaning the back side of the shop (where butchering is done) will provide clear space for a good working fire pit. We’ll then implement the up-cycled dryer turned smoker. When projects on the farm fold in together like this, we’re layering our systems and maximizing principals best illustrated in permaculture. It’s as simple as that.

Or not, depending on the day, weather, health, and happiness of all involved. As the cold sets in, it’s a comfort to know light is returning. Soon blossoms will bring forth budding pears again, and I look forward to picking them once more. It is good, natural, and hopefully, afforded on this land for future generations.