Mom’s Orchard

WWOOFers at Leafhopper Farm have been working hard to plant our new orchard in the swale system in zone 1 of our permaculture plan. After sinking the trees, deer arrived on the scene so every tree was then fenced for protection. We cannot afford risking the orchard in its infancy, and even with the new perimeter fence going up, the protection is not yet complete, and deer are ravenous for new young growth on easily reachable plants.

Leafhopper Farm will be hosting a “Young Trees” workshop on March 23rd, 10am-2pm. If you are interested, please email for details. We’ll be looking at several different ways to defend young trees from deer, livestock, and rodents. The workshop will cover planting young trees for success, protecting them while they establish, and the plan for long term care to allow a tree its full potential on the landscape.

Mom’s Orchard came about when Mom was with me on a visit, and we found a nice price on young fruit trees while out shopping. She offered to pay for a bulk buy and I jumped at the chance to get an orchard in one go. Thank you so much Mom! This farm would not be possible without the support of family, and their love. The orchard will be a long standing growth of that love and support, and I already love looking out the window every morning to see it and the joy it brings me in thinking about my Mother.

This connection to place is an important founding principle of Leafhopper Farm; cultivating a sense of connection to the ground that feeds us. The orchard is a step towards long term food security on the farm and surrounding neighborhood. A sense of family ties and lineage through my maternal line roots me to this place like the young trees establishing in the swales; to know that in just a few years, we’ll be enjoying sweet apples and cherries, pears, and plumbs, brings delight.

Seeing the trees in, and the cistern filling for summer watering makes me feel so good. We’ve finally got our drought resiliency system started. With a 20,000 gallon tank to flood irrigate, our trees will thrive and grow, establishing a canopy over the pasture. The trees are spaced to allow an under-story of other cultivated plants to also take root. We’ve planted silverweed, a good native ground cover (also food and medicine), and as the trees mature, shade loving companion plants can be added.

Once the ground covers, under-story, and canopy are established, the soil should retain moisture well enough to cut back watering almost entirely. That’s our goal in creating a forest, though its primary focus for us humans is food, for the landscape, its restoration and resiliency. The last two days of winter were record breaking in Seattle. We reached 79F on March 18-19th, far above the average 64F. This summer will test our ability to keep the gardens and orchards alive, not to mention the young oak grove, back field chestnuts, and other young growth established here at Leafhopper Farm.

The First Days

Valentine came home to Leafhopper Farm yesterday, and she’s such a joy. The puppy challenges are real, with sleepless nights and some pee spots here and there, but so far, no poop in the house- yay! She’s such a fast learner (typical of an Aussie) and I’m so proud to call her mine. Val is quick to know her name, come, and stay out of the kitchen. She’s having a lot of fun with her new toys, and loves being outside.

Her first adventure after leaving home was a walk along a causeway by the inland coast, and she paused to hear new sounds and smells everywhere we explored. After only a few hundred feet she was pooped out, and got carried the rest of the way back to the truck. Her smarts are so incredible, she knows to stick with me, stay in the truck when I open the door, and tell me when it’s time to go outside for a potty break.

The hardest night is always the first away from mom and litter mates, and it was a time of little sleep for me, but lots of great training in going outside to pee and poop, all of which happened in the yard and not the kennel. There’s still a lot of anxiety in this little pup about leaving home, but I’ll move the kennel into the bedroom tonight and make sure she knows I’m right there by her side. Kennel training is very important to setting good boundaries with a new puppy, and keep your house from getting torn up. It also gives the dog a safe place to be in the home, like a den.

Valentine is already going in and out of the kennel on her own, and enjoying the adventure that is the farm. This morning she was introduced to sheep, goats, and chickens. The cats are curious, though still keeping a safe distance, and Val is not chasing them, yay! Lucia, who is very pregnant, will have nothing of the pup, and gave her a swipe last night to teach polite distance. Vale (Val-ee) yelped away, but understood to give that black momma cat space. More animal learning to come I’m sure, but the pup is doing great.

Puppy-hood is short lived, so I’m really enjoying her small form and sweet sleepy afternoon nod offs. She’s most happy by my side, and I might be sleeping next to the kennel on the floor for a few days so we can both get some much needed sleep. Whatever it takes to make this pups transition into my home and the farm easier. She’s a bundle of joy and will be a great companion for years to come. Welcome Valentine to Leafhopper Farm!

New Puppy!

So, after a few years of waiting, I finally picked out a puppy for Leafhopper Farm. We had settled on a Large Munsterlander, but the momma dog didn’t get bred this year and I’ve been so patient, it was time to seek other options. I’ve been checking local shelters, contacting rescue organizations, but the final choice was made based on looking for a puppy to train up from a young age on the farm as part of the whole system.

Adult dogs come with baggage, and at the farm, we can’t risk behavioral issues or bad habits. Many of the rescue dogs were pit-bull crosses, and that “breed” is not acceptable on the farm. The other main count of adoptable dogs from the shelter were small breeds with short legs, who won’t keep up on a long hike or help with livestock. Some rescue organizations also have very high standards for a forever home, and since I have barn cats, many were concerned they didn’t have all their vaccines. They do, but it was still a struggle. I was shocked at how hard it can be to adopt a rescue animal in this area.

The puppy that finally became available was through a private household with a litter of Aulstralian Sheperd/Cattle dog crosses. Below are pictures of mom and dad.

Momma Dog

The bitch is a cattle dog mix- blue heeler and Aussie Shepard to be exact. She is great with kids, other dogs, cats, and all types of people. Great temperament! The male is an Australian Shepard show quality dog. That didn’t matter to me, but oh, isn’t he so fancy? He’s also got great temperament, and after meeting both parents on site, I knew I was going to have a special puppy with great temperment.

The choice to go with an Australian Shepard mix means we’ll have a working dog on the farm. She’ll be able to help me move the animals around, keep goats in line, and round up the sheep if they get too feisty. I’m excited to work with this breed and learn all about herding. Aussies are not actually from Australia, but Basque in origin, with a brief stint in Australia and New Zealand working sheep, before coming full circle to California with the Basques who worked on ranches out West here in America.

This breed is very high energy and smart, the combination can be a curse to people who don’t put in the training and dirt time with their dog. Since the farm is so active, and we’ll be going right into puppy classes with good socialization, our little girl will have the right foundational training to grow up healthy and balanced. She’ll be outside most of the time, working, with long hikes in the mountains, back country ski trips, and agility training.

This week her eyes opened, and I brought her home at 7 weeks in mid March. I’m so excited, and ready to be back in dog land with all the training and responsibility of puppy-hood to boot. This little dog is going to grow up to be an amazing friend and co-worker here on the farm, and we’re thrilled to have found such a great fit for Leafhopper Farm.

Hard Lessons in Hatching

We now have 5 new chicks out of a clutch of 18. This morning I put down two more with deformed feet due to being in the egg too long after trying to hatch. This is so hard, but a lesson that will not be forgotten. Livestock is in your hands, always, no matter the pain or struggle, you as the steward have to make the tough decisions about when to end a life and when to support one. I think if more people had these experiences, they would learn so much about the realities of life and death struggles going on all around us all the time. Maybe then there would be more humane treatment of people, as well as the environment.

It is never easy to take life. Killing is not fun, or even a little satisfying, it’s pain, and guilt about what you could have done differently to save a little creature you chose to activate into this world. I am so thankful I don’t have to do this on an industrial scale. The amount of chicks killed in the industry is mind boggling. Let’s start with the fact that male chicks are never utilized, they are half a clutch, statistically, and they are killed days after hatching for pet food. Just let that sit with you for a moment the next time you buy a bag of kibble with chicken in it.

I’m not trying to scare us all away from pet food, or chicken in the store, but please know the cost of industrial farming to keep the store shelves stocked with all that good choice of consumer product. It’s taking a toll on our humanity, not to mention the environment. How can we help? Well, how about buying from small local farms? How about not consuming from big box stores when it comes to animal products, or byproducts. If you start digging into the facts, you’ll be shocked at how much there is on those shelves. Ask restaurants where they source their meat- and know all fast food is industrialized.

At Leafhopper Farm, we will continue to brood and hatch our own chicks, to keep things small and manageable. This Spring we’ll be culling a lot of our flock to prevent future health issues like weak birds unable to hatch out. I’m not sure if that was the main culprit, but I can look at my flock and see birds that should be culled by size and stature, among other things. I wish I could say size does not matter, but in the layer hen world, small frame= low production= weaker birds.

The chicks that were put down were not gaining weight, struggling to move, and unable to care for themselves at all. That’s not a life for a chicken on a farm. For the five healthy chicks left, we’ll keep our fingers crossed that they continue to develop well, and give the best care possible to ensure safe, healthy birds for our flock.

We do cull most of our male birds, but only after they have grown up eating fresh pasture, organic grain, and matured in a free range environment. When the dominate rooster beguines singling them out and attacking, we know it’s time to cull. Our roosters go in the stock pot and are enjoyed as stew birds. We boil down the bones for rich broth, and are thankful for all the thriving life that is nurtured by every animal on this farm. It’s not easy, but it does teach diligence, grace, and respect for the challenge of survival.

Next year, with a well developed small flock, and good fertility management, we’ll have a new brood of chicks with better genetics. Hopefully the lessons learned this year will prevent another hard hatch like the one we’re experiencing now. I would loose heart if I had to kill baby chicks each year like this. It would become unbearable. I’ll take comfort in the five little peeping balls of fluff that have survived and hope they make it through to maturity here at Leafhopper Farm.

Lessons In A Bad Hatch Year

Well, lessons all around this year in the chick hatch at Leafhopper Farm. It seems the “chicken gods” are telling us not to rear chicks this year. Out of 18 eggs 7 have successfully hatched. Two died after hatching, and one of those three were hindered, with one fatality, after cracking their egg and then drying up in it. There is something wrong with humidity read in the incubator, because though it said over 40%, the little birds were still getting stuck. I think partly because of the freak positions of their eggs. They ended up with their eggs pinned to the side of the incubator, not allowing them to push off the top and break out. I’ve never had that happen with three birds! Also, only 10 out of 18 eggs were even fertile! I should have caught that, seeing as how a rooster can only service about 12 girls well and we have a flock of almost 40 now. *Sigh*

This is one of those very tough learning moments. Here are the solutions-

  1. Separate out the rooster with the girls you want him to breed a few weeks before collecting fertile eggs for incubator, that way you know he’s covered those girls and the eggs they are laying are fertile.
  2. When the rotation of the eggs as done (stopped right as they signal hatching with chirps) also take out all spacers to allow eggs free rotational motion.
  3. Candle eggs still not hatched after the first few days and remove unfertilized from incubator to make more room.
  4. Don’t open the lid of the incubator unless unloading a mass of chicks at once. And only then after those chicks are fluffed up and ready to come out.

Looking closer at the two deaths-

Chick A was taken out of the egg to quickly for convenience one night to get it under the brooder. There was no reason for this other than my worry that it would be in the incubator overnight- which is fine! My mistake in rushing the hatch. The consequence was the chick not having her little butt fully closed. When I tore her from the shell, I ripped her little bottom and it never had a chance to fully close. She fluffed out, but died because of the open wound on her backside which would never heal once dried.

Chicks are not always fully formed as they are hatching. Giving them time to seal up any open places and slowly dry out as they form is important. By rushing them out of the egg, you are taking an extremely vulnerable little life and causing great stress to the still developing embryo. Just leave the hatched chick alone until it is dry and fluffy.

Chick B was trapped in its egg after cracking the top, unable to free its self because of low humidity or being pinned in some way. Eggs should be allowed to free roam the incubator, rolling around as the chick breaks free. This takes some amount of spacing, so free up that space by taking out broken shells when you take out a clutch of chicks. Also make double sure there is enough humidity in the chamber, and to retain it, don’t open the lid at all! I also think I left the incubator vent open too much. I’ll do some reading up on that in the manual.

I did save two chicks dried out in their eggs. To do this, gently carry the bird and its egg shell to the sink. Run WARM (warm to your touch is fine) water over the chick and egg parts. Add a little soap and gently message the egg shell off the chick. By adding the warm water a soap, you are re-hydrating the liquid viscus of the egg which surrounded the chick and allowing it to release from the tiny feathers on the bird. You’ll feel the slick goo letting go and soon the baby bird will be free of its shell parts. Gently wipe off any remaining viscus and use a hairdryer on low to dry the bird or better yet, put it back into the incubator to finish fluffing out.

These are some of the hurdles you’ll face in brooding your own chicks. This was a strange year of hatching at the farm, as we had ALL of the challenges at once and only got seven living chicks out of our hatch. Let’s hope they all make it to adult hood! Baby animals are a challenge, and I’m not going to beat myself up too much over this learning experience, as I’ll have that much more experience in chick rearing next time. I can also start over this season, as it’s still early on in the year for rearing chicks.

Why do I start now? Well, in the commercial laying world, birds are usually shipped out to big egg farms in January. This leaves time to grow them out so that by mid summer, you have a laying flock. Commercial layer and meat farms don’t usually hatch out their own chicks because it’s a complex processes that takes all your time. Professional hatcheries spend all their time on proper breeding and incubation, then ship all those day old chicks to customers around the country.

Here’s a good hatchery video to learn more about what goes into commercial hatcheries-

I like starting my birds in February/March, not because they will be ready to lay by summer (they won’t) but to ensure they are old enough by fall to endure the damp cold weather. When my hens “rouge brood” aka, wandering off to make a next somewhere on the land where I can’t find them to hatch their own clutch, I find them by late summer, which is very close to the cool down time of fall. Baby chicks struggle in cold weather outside, so I end up having to bring them in and raise them through the fall indoors, which is not fun for me or the young birds.

If I hatch out my chicks by March, they will be on pasture by April, and outside thriving in the warm spring sun. This makes for better chicks, as they learn to forage on the grass and enjoy bugs and fresh greens more than grain. That makes for a healthy bird and healthy eggs for us in future.

Why not let the chickens hatch their own eggs? For the reasons mentioned above and- it’s hard to manage eggs in a coop because hens keep laying in the nest box of the brooding hen, so continuity of hatching is difficult. I could block off that hen’s next box, but then she’s trapped too. There are more elaborate ways to secure a natural hen and egg situation, but right now, I’m not equip, and prefer to select and brood my own chicks for best timing and the personal connection I make with the birds. This allows me to be momma hen and teach the chicks to come to my voice. It helps so much in controlling the flock on the landscape and gaining trust and easy handling of otherwise flighty birds.

When you incubate and brood your own birds, you have eyes on them constantly, you learn their habits, can spot a weak chick and cull it, and provide maximum nutrition, protection, and care to the whole clutch. Though it is not the most holistic way of rearing chickens, it is a more successful way of forming your flock, and long term health within it. We’ll continue to learn and evolve our chick systems, and welcome your input. How do you raise your chicks? Why have you chosen that method?

Get Outside :)

Goats are out enjoying the forage once more as the snow melts. We’re happy to be back on the landscape checking all the newly budded out growth here on the land, and putting our livestock back to work! The goats were very excited to find so many branches down from the winter storms. Everyone is eating evergreen today. Branwin was especially happy to be out, as she is shedding heavily and spent time rubbing on trees for relief. We really should take a brush to her and then play with the hair, it can be twisted into cordage. Would that then make us a producer of textiles?

In the garden, we’re planting our potato seed- I did an experiment, starting them on plates with water to grow out a few rootlets before planting them. Hopefully it’s not too early to get these potatoes outside and into the ground. They were at their limit of growth in only water, shooting up little tubers to seek soil. Two plates worth is small, but we’re still experimenting with potatoes so large plantings are yet to materialize. Last fall we had our largest harvest yet!

Greens are still growing strong under the cloche. That mini greenhouse was buried in snow for weeks, and still, the greens beneath kept up! I’m really impressed by this way of keeping a winter garden, and hope to design more in future as needed. I would highly recommend this style of overwintering, and have continued to see great results.

Our stream is flowing strong with all this spring melt. It’s not flooding, but in the sunlight, our water feature is picture perfect winding through the forest on it’s way to The Snoqualmie Valley a few miles down hill. While the snow is in retreat, shrubs and trees are budding out, and crocuses are popping up. All my bulbs are waking from the soil, poking out little green thumbs to remind me where not to plant potatoes.

Turkey tail mushrooms are in a second flush on our inoculated logs. It’s great to see that they were not phased by the snow too much, though the cold temperatures probably halted growth for a little while. Our shiitake logs still lay silent, maybe by next fall we’ll have some flushes. So far, out of all our log plugs, the turkey tail are the only ones flushing out so far, but patience is a virtue, especially with fungi. We’ll keep working on inoculation strategies and diversifying our strains till we find mushrooms that work at Leafhopper Farm.

Final Melt

The sun is breaking through at Leafhopper Farm. It feels like we’ve been held in winter’s frozen grip for almost a month now, and that was just about the experience, what with multiple dumps of snow, record breaking cold, and no redemption (unless you’re a skier). The farm managed to prevent any roof cave ins, frostbite on animals or people, and the water buckets were kept unfrozen. Lots of lessons were learned about what to do on the farm when heavy snows to come, and we’re now more prepared than ever for the unpredictability of climate change.

With all the fast melting snow inundating the landscape with water, our pond is filling up fast. We’re hoping the water line might crest at the outflow this year, marking the first time this water feature has reached capacity. I might finally get to swim in the farm pond! This slow melt will give our land a deep watering in preparation for spring. Hopefully, the extra moisture will help protect against summer drought to come. We’re still slated to have a bad fire season, even with the snow.

As mentioned in previous posts about this weather, we got the snow of a lifetime for Western Washington, and even after weeks of melting, you can see in the picture above, we’ve still got a good layer of precipitation on the ground. It will be March before all this white stuff is gone. It’s also turning into cement, making it impossible to move our electric mesh fencing, transplant young trees, or even see many of the plants in the garden nursery.

Blue skies and sun are a welcome return, but the temperatures remain cold, making it a very slow melt here on the farm. In other parts of the country, snow has also been record breaking. Mom is visiting from Tucson Arizona, where her flight was delayed 8 hours due to the first “heavy” snow in southern Arizona since 1915. L.A. got 4 inches, and even Las Vegas got a dusting. This is indeed a snowy winter across America. Hopefully not a new precedent in our weather patterns. After all, I moved out here to farm and live in a temperate rain-forest!

Our salmon bearing stream is flowing strong, and the spring melt will see flooding across the region. We’re surprised the creek is not higher by now, but the soil has been drought stricken for years, so, like the sponge it is, all that slow moisture is being sucked right up, and banked for the trees. Let’s hope some of our western hemlocks get the deep watering they’ve been hoping for. That particular species is starting to look very stressed around the farm, mostly due to the heat, and longer drought stretches of recent summers.

We will miss this snow, but getting back to soil will make spring planting happen sooner. We’ve got a lineup of cover crops, early spring greens, and those young trees to transplant out into the landscape. Our cloche did make it through the weather, and there is still a bright green carpet of yummy greens to eat through the last of winter’s lean time. Leafhopper Farm is such a resilient place, and with each year, we’re learning more and more about what’s possible in restoration, production, and stewardship.