Incubation Time!

The hens have been laying consistently at 9 a day this winter, and things are beginning to amp up, even with the cold weather we’ve been having. In mid-February, we start selecting eggs to incubate for our Spring hatch. Twenty little mysteries are going into our incubator this week, and we’ll expect baby chicks in March.

How do I pick the eggs? Well, it’s about form and size. Not too big, not too small- just right. I look at shell thickness, shade of color (which can tell what kind of minerals the hen who laid it has), and overall quality of form. Big eggs come from older hens, meaning lower overall quality for breeding stock. Too small an egg may not even develop a chick at all, and was probably laid by a young hen who has not reached her own maturity yet. Last year I selected only light colored eggs to try to maximize the Ayam Cemani probability in the chicks (the light cream colored eggs are from the pure Cemani stock). This year I am going for wild cards- all colors to produce a diverse flock.

Above is a picture of last year’s incubated clutch, all black and mostly Cemani genetics. I say mostly because there were still traits from the diverse hen population. Our ladies are still a rainbow of colors and breeds, which add fresh genetics to the flock. We’ll eventually be a Cemani dominant farm, but still need to bring in outside birds to keep the gene tree broad and healthy. A little line breeding with our best stock is ok, but the DNA wheel has to keep turning to keep health and productivity present.

BlackJack and His Ladies

In sorting breeds, I’ve taken a liking to our speckled Sussex. They are calm, good brooders, great foragers, and tend to get on well within the flock. You can see an example of this breed in the picture above, center stage in her specked glory. We may soon only select one or two other breeds to mix into this flock, but are still experimenting with a few other hardy, larger laying hens, like buff orphington. I do know that Americana crosses with Ayam Cemani are not great- the hens tend to be small, with too much wild streak in them. Great for overall survival, but not for a home flock of hens.

BlackJack is still our breeding rooster, for a second year in a row. His genetics are great, and giving us a dominant Cemani genetic boost in the flock. In the picture above, you can really see his green sheen. In Java Indonesia, where this breed originated, that green color is very prized, and shows the health and character of the bird. BlackJack is a great rooster too, with little to no aggression shown towards people, but plenty of protective spunk when aerial or terrestrial predators threaten the flock. This is the temperament desirable in a rooster, so we’re giving him another year to show off his prowess in the coop and on the farm.

Next year’s genetics will come from a younger rooster we’re cultivating as our next breeding cockerel. Ayam Cemani roosters do not get along, no matter how many ladies are around, so our younger roos have to be penned separately for the main flock. Right now our young one is in the shop where it’s warm, with a lady friend to keep him company. With luck, this up and coming star will switch places with BlackJack next fall, integrating into the flock through two seasons before we select eggs next winter. This young rooster will receive a name once he’s part of our breeding stock. Any ideas what we should call him?

Leafhopper Farm is committed to the continued development of an Ayam Cemani flock. In future, we hope to sell good breeding pairs of this unique bird for other small farms seeking a good homestead breed that is hardy, productive, and unique genetics. The Cemani continues to shine, and it’s genetics are growing stronger here on the farm. We look forward to seeing this year’s newly hatched chicks, and sharing them in future blogs.

Snow Tracking

bobcat- Lynx rufus

Animals are afoot here at Leafhopper Farm. When snow comes, tracks are out, are we’re taking full advantage of the great reveal. The biggest highlight was a bobcat zig-zaging across the back field. We know they are here, but it’s always great to see the sign and get that friendly reminder of how frequent they really are in our area. Though not our largest cat, they still pose a real threat to the livestock of our farm, so we do what we can to keep them happy in the back field, where these tracks were found, and not near the chicken coop.

This bobcat track pictured above gives you a little hit of how big the cat is. It’s a healthy size track, and about twice the size of our domestic feline friends. Its zig-zag pattern is to cover more ground as it searches for potential prey. As the predator moves across the landscape back and forth, it can more easily catch the scent of everything moving across the path. If the cat were to travel in a strait line, it would likely miss the rabbit or deer track only a few feet away by not crisscrossing around. Rabbits, deer, and other prey animals, tend to keep in a strait line from point A to B.

Here’s what the bobcat is most likely to run into as it trolls along- cotton tail rabbit. These lagamorphs like to sit and eat in one spot for a while, making a depression in the snow or sand, as seen below for comparison.

It might be hard for the untrained eye to see what’s going on in these two pictures, but you have a rabbit sitting in a spot for a while, even burming up the sand/snow in front of him/her while they eat, rest, groom, etc. A bobcat is hoping to run across one of these rabbits as they rest and relax. If the cat can catch them off guard, there’s a chance it can hunt successfully and get a great meal out of the deal. This is the reward for zig-zaging across the terrain.

One of the best places to look for tracks in the snow is along fence lines. Above you can see a lot of what i call rabbit chatter. The bunnies were going back and forth along this fence on both sides until they figured out how to get through, or not. I also saw some older, more covered up deer tracks, which I will post below. Sometimes wildlife is moving through in the snow, or between snow fall, so you are often met with subtle divots in the snow, without form. So how do I know it was a deer? Well, that’s another more advanced part of tracking; looking at the spacing between tracks and how the pattern spreads out across the landscape.

Deer have much longer legs than bobcat or rabbits, so they have a longer stride. Still, their path is narrow, so the foot falls are not widely spaces either. Deer also tend to go in a strait line, or on well used paths across the terrain. Rabbits meander around, usually in and out of thick cover, the bobcat crisscrosses, and the deer take a strait shot. These are all usual movements, but there are exceptions. So, the best way to know for sure is watch an animal making the tracks and then study them. Otherwise, you are most likely guessing, which is ok, just be aware that you are not “sure”.

A fun part of tracking involves seeing the small details. There are all kinds of tracks to discover if you take the time to look, and snow offers a rare chance to track the everyday movements of common species like birds as they flit in your garden, yard, or front step. Many species hang out right around human activity, homes, office blocks, and even grocery stores. Keep a look out around parking lots and green spaces. You’re likely to find more activity happening than you might think.

Since we’re in for several more snow blankets in the next week, lots of tracking is in store. The farm is a winter wonderland, with lots of activity happening all around. Though most of the domestic animals are snuggled up in their coops and stalls, the wild animals are moving about in search of food, water, and shelter between the storms. We’ll keep watching the fresh powder for sign of life in this thriving ecosystem. More to come from Leafhopper Farm!

It’s Cold!

We’ve dropped into the teens at Leafhopper Farm! This is wonderful news, and a rough time of farming with animals. The good thing about this deep winter freeze, is that pest insects are getting knocked back, making the season next year a lot easier on our young plants. This does mean some beneficial insects will suffer too, but cold snaps are normal, and we do need them at least once or twice in winter. The bad news is- it’s cold, very cold, and water buckets are freezing, animals are stressed, the whole farm is in a stand still until things warm up again. It adds a lot of work to our plate during a time of “rest”- not a lot of growing going on- and to top it off, Liz has a cold, which does not make going out in the cold easier.

Luckily, WWOOFers are here to help, so things are not too stressful, but with more snow on the way, we’re a little worried about buildings collapsing from the weight of snow, so shoveling might start on the roofs soon. We have already had one casualty, one we knew was overdue on a structure that was already compromised…

The greenhouse was already struggling, and we had planned on rebuilding next year using metal frame to abate wind and snow. The storm this last week was enough to prove the point; plastic pipe cannot hold up in bad weather. That’s a well known fact about PVC construction, but we did get a whopping 5 years out of her, and know we do need a greenhouse, so the investment of a more complex system is now well understood, and we know the ins and outs of what the farm will need. That’s the important take away from our initial “pipe dream”.

Since we’re expecting another storm at the end of this week, precautions are being taken, and everyone now knows what snow on the farm means. Hopefully with this second snow, we go back up into the 40s and melt it all away, this will be a good thing for our pond, and great slow drip watering for all the trees, who are struggling with hot summer drought. We’ll also be watching the snow load on our other structures. Here in Western Washington, snow is rare, and a lot of buildings to not have the construction to hold heavy snow, so we’ll be watching our roofs closely.

For the livestock, this freeze is a challenge, but we’ve moved goats and sheep into the old stalls, where they will receive better shelter (complete enclosure) and a sturdy roof- for a shed! We’ll have to go directly to the well house to fill water buckets, but that’s ok, so long as the water keeps flowing at the source. Thankfully, we are small enough an operation to easily do this by hand, I cannot imagine large farms being able to keep up with this without added stress. I actually enjoy the slow down; it gives me a chance to study systems and plan for the future.

Again, we’re all fine here at the farm, and even the cats are thriving, though they are not happy about the snow on their paws. Cold! Many of you who come from much colder places may laugh at what we Western Washingtonian’s consider cold and snow, but to a temperate rain-forest ecology like this, a week of teens where we don’t get above freezing is out of the norm, and a real game changer for our overall forest ecology. If this keeps up, you are going to see major change in this region within our lifetime. Though I’ve spent a lot of time in New England, where winters are long and harsh, I chose to live here in Western Washington, and to farm, in a region that is hospitable in winter. Hopefully this is a rare continuance, and we can get back to our milder winter weather soon.

To give a final bit of reflection- last week cherry trees were blossoming and crocuses were popping up. Now we are in a deep freeze, and a lot of the young buds of Spring are dead. This might have a major impact on the spring bloom, especially our fruit trees. But that could be the new norm here at Leafhopper Farm. With smart design, and good observation, we’ll continue to evolve with the natural world around us, learning what is possible, and when to plan for the unexpected. For all those experiencing unusual cold this winter, stay safe and warm, we’re with you!

Winter Greens

We’re still growing food through the winter months here at Leafhopper Farm. The cloche is full of greens like mustard, radish, and spinach. Slugs have also found this delicious winter haven, and we’ll plan on putting some beer traps down to address this plant predation. The cloche gets watered about once a week, and stays covered most of the time. Next week sill be a real test for this bed, as the temperatures are dropping into the 20s for the first time this year. The cold will remain for several days, and it could freeze the bed, even with cloche cover.

The two cold frames are also thriving, and the one pictured above was never purposely planted, yet a crop of spinach has risen to the occasion, and looks great. I have not watered this cold frame at all, but the water still finds its way to the plants underground. Perhaps the roots are wicking water up from below? We also have a crop of spinach outside the cold frame, and I’ll be harvesting that before the cold snap hits next week. Otherwise, it will all die in the heavy frost.

My root veggies, like carrots, have also done well under cover. Soon we’ll need to pluck these yummy root crops from the soil, and it might be this weekend, before the ice lock comes. The winter this year has been mind, lulling the farm into a false sense of security. I almost put out cover crop seed two weeks ago, and am very glad now that I did not. When seed directions say wait till threat of last frost has passed, you should do just that. Seeds will be direct sewn after April 28th.

At the farm, we’re working to cultivate food year round, and that’s going to take more covered space. The greenhouse was utterly destroyed this winter by strong winds. Since it’s also about time to replace the plastic, we’ll rebuild the whole structure using metal framework to support long term survival against high wind, something that will continue and could get a lot worse in future.

Next week will also usher in a chance of snow. Though snow is rare in our area, it does usually happen a few times each year. The climate future projects more snow, and that means we’ll have to design strong cover to prevent collapse of our food shelters. Glass is ideal, and the cold frames are easy to set up and move as needed, but glass in general, unless scored from a fee pile, is expensive. It’s also a very heavy material, so making a whole building of it would be challenging and vulnerable to violent weather.

With a few more cold frames, and the planned design of a new greenhouse next summer, we’ll have plenty of room to grow food through the colder months, and hope to cultivate smart design in future so our investment in growing space can sustain its self through wind, snow, ice, and other natural chaos that is mother nature.

Pillow Tank Update

After some seasonal ironing out of logistics and parts, the tank is now sealed and filling. Not from roof catchment, yet, but directly from the well, without filtering, so we can get things flowing for summer irrigation at Leafhopper Farm. It’s not a complete system yet, but getting water put away for the dry times is a must, and our well pump is working a few hours each day through the next few weeks to get us set for summer.

Using a hose was not our original plan, but time is short and filling now while the water table is high assures us a full tank by July, when water will become scarce. After we spread the tank and fenced it off for protection, our only hindrance to filling was a way to keep the tank closed and easy to open once full. A ball valve was on the original packing list, but some how did not make it in the order so we had to get another one on back order, and it arrived this week!

With an open/closed switch in place, we were able to begin filling our 20,000 gallon pillow tank directly from the well, bypassing out filter so as not to overload the black comb filtration system on the well. Because the water we use from the tank will be for irrigation only, unfiltered well water will be fine. The inflow spot is directly above center of the tank, so a hose can be pushed right into the top and keeps the tank filling without and spills. We’ll have to fill only part way, so someone can walk out (with no shoes on) to the center when we are ready to attack the roof catchment system. Till then, we’re running the well a few hours each day to get a jump start on filling.

Water on top of the tank material in the picture above is form rain. The inflow valve has no water leaking out. It’s hard to see in these pictures, but the tank is slowly filling. Right now it feels a lot like a partially inflated water bed. We’ll keep monitoring the water level as the days go by. We only fill for a few hours each day to prevent the well pump burning out, and also to allow eventual approach when we need to attach the roof catchment system.

In the above picture, you can barely make out a slight puffing up of the tank. It’s like someone is slowly filling an air mattress, only it’s a water mattress! The visual change will take a few weeks, and remember, until we get the roof catchment setup, we don’t want to fill things too much, or no one will be able to reach the infill cap when we need to attach the roof catchment outflow. The adventures in water catchment continue here at Leafhopper Farm!

Nursery Crop

Flagging now marks the dozens of plants to be transplanted out onto the landscape at Leafhopper Farm. From oaks to roses, the trees and under-story plants are at a stage of growth to transplant. Some will head to the back field for companion planting with our chestnuts, others will fine their way to establish groves in our Forest Stewardship plan.

The young trees salvaged off logging road edges, where they would be cut back or sprayed, are re-rooted at the farm for planting out in reforestation efforts. These trees are primarily western hemlock, red cedar, and a few Douglas firs. If you were to buy these root stalk in a plant sale or from a nursery, you’d be spending hundreds. Many of our native plants came from conservation district plant sales, a good way to support local organizations while buying your planting stock, rather than from just any nursery.

We’ve take the time to flag all our young stock, to help keep track of all the little buds and twigs of these plants. The flags will stay on after the transplant occurs so we can continue to monitor the health and growth of the plants on the landscape. Keeping track of plants once they are reintroduced into a recovering forest means the plants will sometimes be overgrown with other species. To prevent this, and accidental cutting when you are clearing out blackberry, use brightly colored flagging tap like the ones shown in these photos.

In our tree nursery, many species planted as root stalk from plant sales a few years ago are finally taking root. They’ve grown enough bulk to be transplanted into the hedges and forests of the farm. The apple root stalk will wait another year, to make sure our grafts take hold. The Douglas fir pictured above is almost too big, so we have to move it this season to ensure the root ball is not too big for transplanting.

Some of our nursery stock is ground covers, like salal and Oregon grape. These are common ground cover plants throughout The Pacific Northwest. Pictured above is a log habitat of natives I put together from a foraging mission to save roadside plants. There’s even a young hemlock tree, along with red huckleberry too. Right now, these plants are in the front garden, enjoying a drainpipe outflow with lots of good moisture, and south facing light on our grey days. This entire grouping will have to transplant before summer heat arrives, as these delicate under-story plants prefer the defused light of a forest above.

The introduction of new growth on the landscape at Leafhopper Farm heralds a shift towards replanting, a state of recovery only possible with good conditioning of soil, and the removal of invasives which would otherwise overshadow any new young plants. With the help of some tenacious goats, swell sheep, and cackling hens, we’ve built up healthy soil and good fertility to feed this new under-story vegetation to enhance the forest and field of the farm. With a little positive stewardship, the temperate rain-forest of our region will get a little greener in her productivity.

Grafting Workshop

A great friend and neighbor, Misty, came to Leafhopper Farm to offer a lesson in grafting. Our WWOOFers were eager to hop in and learn with this great lady and her wonderful experience. We focused on the apple trees, specifically the five heritage varieties we have established on the property.

As a group we collected scion wood from the elder trees and then engaged with root stalk that’s been established in our tree nursery the last few years. These root stalks were in serious need of grafting, and it was a perfect chill day to get outside and cut.

It took an afternoon to fully graft the five young stock trees with freshly cut scion wood. Each root stock will have a single variety grafted on to prevent confusion. We labeled each of the trees to remind ourselves of which scion variety came from which mature tree. This record keeping is invaluable in tracking the health and overall success of the different kinds of apples.

Leafhopper Farm considers fruit trees and important part of our food forest plan, and grafting new varieties to further our orchard is a great way to make fruit trees affordable. Apples tend to be the easiest type of fruit tree wood to work with, and we had established root stock for it. The farm also hosts cherry, plumb, and pear trees. We plan to continue our grafting experience with the more difficult types in the future.

We’ll check in with these trees throughout the summer to make sure the grafts have taken hold. Many of our first tries will probably fail, but that’s expected in the learning curve of grafting, and we know we can graft again and again until it takes. This new skill is so invaluable, and it was a pleasure to have an expert come share her knowledge with us here at Leafhopper Farm.

Special shout out to our WWOOFer team, Scout and Daniel, who worked tirelessly in getting all the scion wood harvested and grafted in a timely way. Work is always easier to complete as a group, and it was a pleasure spending this day together in the orchards, establishing long term viability for the land and our larder.

Mealworm Update

The bugs keep churning out at Leafhopper Farm! Our mealworm production continues to grow, and could become a viable cash crop for the farm with a little more investment in space and time. For the past 5 years, the whole operation has been running in the house, under a counter just outside the kitchen. The worms have loved being inside and close to the wood stove in winter. They are easy to maintain, low input for high output, and a niche product.

Right now we are giving a monthly feeding of these bugs to the hens, which is a perfect nutritional boost, but we’d like to grow to weekly, and eventually grasp how much mealworm production it would take to sustain a flock of 50 birds. We feed the worms organic quinoa and oats, with organic apple or potato as moisture. The great thing about these bugs is they don’t need water! It’s one of the best protein sources you can grow, better nutritional value than beef- at a micro fraction the cost, energy input, space, and pollution. Why is this not a thing everywhere?

I’ve even been selective to improve the breed- just like other livestock! You can see in the picture above, the larger worm is being selected for intensionally, giving us bigger bigs for better value. Insects make genetic selection faster, and the results are exciting to track. I’ll continue sorting the larger animals into breeding boxes to encourage the genetic advantage of size. It’s all so exciting to see in action, this is great!

If these hens could speak, they would vote “yes” for mealworms. Yesterday they got a feast of insects, and are out there again this morning continuing to scratch at the grain fragments in search of a still hiding bug to enjoy. They left half their grain in the hopper too, which says to me that they prefer live insects to the grains. We could be feeding the grain to the bugs instead, still giving the chickens their nutrients while delivering it in a capsule of added protein and flavor.

If you are interested in raising your own mealworms, for animals or yourself, yes, you can eat them too! Then do a search for local mealworm producers in your area- you’d be surprised! Make sure the bugs are being fed an organic diet for health and safety, and ask where the breeder got their worms too.

One great example of this system really taking off locally is Beta Farms. I’ve emailed them for more information on their growing systems (if they will share) and asked for a tour of their facilities to help me implement a small scale growing system for future slow food support in holistic production of mealworms for our community. These systems could be the answer to food security worries around the world. Mealworms take very little to grow, and the frass (bug droppings) are a GREAT organic fertilizer for the garden.

Mealworm farming is the future, and Leafhopper Farm hopes to be a pioneer in this new wave of smarter agriculture for a greener future.

Dutch Mushrooms

Laccaria verity

While traveling in Holland, we found many nice mushrooms. There’s a fungus everywhere in the world, yes, even in The Arctic, but luckily, you don’t have to go all the way to the south pole to meet some new ones. Whenever Bernard and I find ourselves in a new place, we keep an eye out for mushrooms and are never disappointed. Even in December, in The Netherlands, with cold wind whipping across the landscape, we found our fungi friends.

puffball- vert mature

We wandered a dune system near The North Sea, where oak savanna dominated. The site was now a park, but was once a military instillation with bunkers and large guns to defend against sea invasion. We saw many bare spots in open fields that reflect great impact from human use. The park is now allowing recovery, and water systems for public drinking water support the larger cities near by.

Tremellaceae- “witch’s’ butter”

Oak groves are a rare treat for those of us living in Western Washington. Even in a very different bioregion on the other side of the world, familiar friends of the fungi kingdom were easy to find. The mushrooms are as recognizable as the oaks themselves, and it was such a pleasure to just look around and see so many knowns. That’s the reward of pursuing nature. She will become a close friend, and you’ll find her everywhere you go.

The soil beneath our feet is often neglected in our search for nature, yet it holds most of the nutrients and living matter that supports all life on earth. Within the leaf litter and debris of the oak savanna where we wandered, mycelia was running, just out of site under the duff. Pulling up a large white cap, we can see the extent of a mushrooms connection into the soil, and better understand the complex living system around us.

Mycelia on foot of a potential Hygrophoraceae

The mushroom kingdom is a wild one, with many new faces in every search. I’m drawn to these little fruits of the woods, because they are so unique and under appreciated in the natural world. Mushrooms have some of the most mysterious and amazing chemical compositions, as well as the ability to consume and neutralize many toxic elements now polluting the earth. There are also some delicious species to eat and enjoy, with confidant identification and awareness.

As mushrooms continue to captivate, Leafhopper Farm pledges full support to fungal farming, and encourages anyone interested in mushrooms and how they can help save the world to contact us-

New Year Update

Common Merganser

Our pond is back to hosting wildlife again after a stint of domestic ducks, and the female common merganser is an example of return species. By removing the pressure of domestic livestock from this sensitive bioregion, we allow wildlife a space to exist. This is often overlooked on farms, and more so in backyards where even a small oasis of green can be a haven for animals, especially birds.

The greenhouse is looking a little underutilized, and in need of fresh plastic. It’s about time for a redesign, and the honest truth is, I really am not taken by greenhouses, so it might just come down permanently while we focus on rewinding forests and tending the landscape which is already growing so much. I don’t need tomatoes every year, and I can’t put starts in here because the slugs get everything. In future, I would love to pair ducks in this environment seasonally to keep slugs down and heat in. I’d try a fall, winter, spring cycle, with ducks butchered before it gets too hot in summer. Another idea to cogitate on. We’ll see!

Pleachered cherries are growing strong, you can actually begin to see the natural fence developing. Many more trees will be pleachered this winter, and I must say that the bitter cherry is a superb candidate for this activity. They also put out a lot of suckers, so replanting offshoots is easy too. Birds love the fruit, and you can make jelly with them, if you add a lot of sugar. Blackberry is still trying to take over in this area, and it’s soo sensitive to brows down with goats, so we’ll spend some time hand removing, which is tedious, but not a forever thing. Once the larger plants establish and block out light to the understory, the blackberry will be unable to get a foot hold. In the mean time, pruning and diligent weeding will have to suffice.

Our cultivated turkey tail logs are flushing nicely, and really taking off through the wet months. I am so glad we can establish a thriving colony of this medicinal friend on the land, and hoping this strain will be here for years to come. I’m very happy with the productivity of these first logs, and look forward to more inoculation with this strain. It was interesting to see how much more productive the logs are on the ends up against another tree. This could be coincidence, but I think something about the moisture on the moss attracted them. It will be fun to keep watching the development of these logs as they continue to produce. I will try not to move these from this spot, accept to harvest. We’ll dry all the mushrooms and grind them to powder to make it very easy to extract their medicine using a decoction.

Our goats and sheep are tending the land for us with gusto, and you can see in this picture just how well they clip the grass by comparing the left side of the fence line (no animals) to the right side where the grazers and browsers have been working away at gleaning green growth, taking out tall grasses and blackberry with no hesitation. I love these fence line shots, and often use them to judge when it’s time to rotate animals. When the goats start going for the trees too much, we have to move them out to safe guard the bark of our arbor friends. A goat can girdle a tree very easily, which only happens when a space is overgrazed. Leafhopper Farm has avoided these devastating issues by keeping up a healthy rotation, and making sure the goats are given regular mineral blocks and good fodder.