Bug World

Leafhopper Farm made an investment in mealworms a few months ago. The insects have been great learning, a whole new animal system within the farm that has set its own president. By this I mean, you can’t just go to the local grange to talk about insect farming; outside of bees, and the passive cultivation of worms and other beneficial insects for the garden, most people would never think about the livestock potential of bugs. But when you start looking at the numbers, insects really add up.

You get more nutritionnutrition_infographic_from_presentation from bugs per pound than any meat, the cost and time caring for the bugs is also minimal, and the overall impact of an insect growing operation is minuscule on the environment, in fact, one could argue that insect raising is a support to nature. Meat animals demand a lot of space, food, water, and time. If you are growing the animals sustainably they need acres of rotational pasture and hay in winter. Bugs have no where near those constraints. A sizable growing operation uses only a few gallons of water a week, if that, because bugs can get their water from the food they eat, like an apple slice or even a potato peel. They also need only a shoebox sized space for literally thousands of bugs.

While you would be watering and feeding your meat animals every day, bugs can go for a week without fresh apple slice and a month before grain bedding needs changing. The bugs have a much quicker lifecycle, allowing fast harvesting turn around. You can eat bugs throughout their life cycle in all their fun stages. Most meat animals have to grow from months to years before reaching full butchering weight. In the end, bugs are also far less impact on the land then the typical farmyard livestock.

If bug eating is not your thing, think of the insects as fodder for another more favorable livestock you prefer to eat, ledible-final-cover-hi-res-1ike chicken. I feed my laying hens the beetles and mealworms I grow as a supplement to their foraging. The bug bedding is a mix of organic grain so the birds can eat that too. But if eating a bug is only a gross out thing to you, I’d take a moment to explore the advanced world of culinary insect arts. Daniella Martin,  friend and fellow graduate from Marlboro College in Vermont, wrote a book called “Edible” which goes into great depth about hip insect eating.

NPR just ran a story on cricket flour, which is growing in popularity here on the west coast as people with gluten allergies search for nutritious alternatives. Nut flours are an easy go to, but nuts take a lot of water to grow, which is becoming an issue in many drought stricken places. Insects demand far less water than any nut tree or livestock animal for that matter. The great thing is, ground up insects don’t look anything like bugs, but they are full of nutrients and have a nutty flavor.

Folding insects into your diet can also aid in keeping your greater food chain organic. Since bugs are so sensitive to all the pesticides and chemicals around them, they cannot consume roundup ready crops or over sprayed veggies. If these industrial products are killing the sensitive insect, what are these chemicals doing to our more vulnerable cells and membranes? The mealworms have made me start talking to my local suppliers of grain and produce. I was surprised to find that so much of the livestock feeds are too heavily treated with chemical fertilizers and medications which would kill the insects I am trying to cultivate.

In shifting my mindset around bugs and the neglect of one of the greatest living populations on the planet, I’ve come to realize that the answers to some of our biggest problems in getting enough nutrition and feeding an ever expanding population, takes smaller solutions, which ultimately sustain us and keep a better balance with the natural world we are always learning from. Leafhopper farm is exploring the possibility of insects as a staple for the animals and people of its community. Perhaps with patients and a little bit of clever preparation and packaging, American pallets will begin to discover what much of the rest of the world already knows; bugs taste great!

starts

9 new baby hens for egg production!

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raising this brood in the living room this year because the shop is under construction. Highlight of new breeds include: Rhod Island Reds and Black Australorp.

New Baby goats are growing up fast, already grazing with the others and romping quite freely through the pastures. These little guys are both fine young wethers, but they will be keeping their horns for protection.

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The Barbados Black-belly Ewes dropped their lambs, all boys! The electric fence is keeping everyone safe, but trail cam action shows a bobcat and coyotes are close.

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Plant starts are shooting up. I found that a heating pad under the peppers and tomatoes does wonders for getting those seeds into fast growth. Researching greenhouses continues, I think it’s going to be easiest to build what we will need from scratch. Stay tuned!

Spring Preparations

Soil is warming up which means seeds are going in! My veggie start manager is filling the small cloche with wonderful starts. My kitchen garden from last year is being revamped with new beds and lots of experimental plantings, including saved seed from last year. I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

The warm weather and sunny days through February and March are lulling us into a false sense of Spring way before last frost dates and even the native plants are out earlier then I’ve ever seen! I tried mulching a few things close to the house, but holding back the turn of a season is impossible. All I can do is hope that mother nature knows what she’s doing. It will be a hot, dry summer.

The swale cover crops are sprouting nicely and plans for the mass planting of perennials later this spring. Our irrigation is not in yet so we’ll be watering this first year by hand and that’s great because checking the growth of young plants is done best close up and walking a hose around invites the level of intimacy needed to nurture new plantings.

Irrigation is still a hot topic and our design incorporates cisterns for the storage of rain water which can then be sent in pipes to flood each swale. This flood irrigation technique will give all the shrubs and fruit trees a deep watering through the dry summer months that do happen here in The Pacific Northwest.

The harvesting of stinging nettle is in high gear and Leafhopper Farm has a few very nice nettle patches to provide abundant young growth. Nettles should be harvested before they reach knee height for the best nutritional use. I pick the tops of the young plant, placing the tender leaves and buds in a dehydrator and then jar them for storage.  The fresh harvest can also be frozen directly for later use in cooking.

The leaves and stems are very hairy with non-stinging hairs and in most subspecies also bear many stinging hairs (trichomes), whose tips come off when touched, transforming the hair into a needle that will inject several chemicals: acetylcholine, histamine, 5-HT (serotonin), moroidin, leukotrienes, and possibly formic acid. (previous sentence taken from wikipedia) These stinging chemicals are actually very medicinal. My naturopath suggested i ingest the plant to help with my allergies. To get the “stinging” chemicals without being stung I dry the plant. Letting some of the patch grow out for reseeding and fiber is also important. A well tended nettle patch will last a lifetime.

Along with nettle and seedlings, all the other plants on the land are also awakening into full life and the blackberry is no exception. I am on a mission this year to really hack back this tenacious vine from all public areas of use. This includes driveways, buildings, and established paths around the farm. Thankfully, the goats are a great natural defense which aid in the management of this invasive foe.

Chicken Lessons

In May of 2014, Leafhopper Farm acquired pullet hens from a local feed store. The tradition of chick raising happens each spring, and the excitement of baby birds in metal stock tanks stumbling around under heat lamps is irresistible to watch. Sometimes impulse buys can happen, but on the day I fell under the spell of yellow, brown, and black puff balls, it was a planned purchase. 12 babes returned to the farm with me in a box, placed lovingly into a larger pen of broken down boxes, where more heat lamp induced relaxation supported the growth of these tiny birds. IMG_0612 Raising chickens is not rocket science, but the finesse around how to maintain healthy, productive animals in all livestock categories is a never-ending journey of learning. I’d taken care of lager chicken systems in the past, mainly 400-600 bird flocks in large barn facilities. The birds in these houses were stressed, often bullied, and missing feathers. It was obvious that the birds were not happy or thriving, just surviving. I wanted my chicken system to be better, more holistic, and well planned. From the start these Leafopper Farm hens were destine to be egg layers, my first flock, and they were going to be healthy, free range chickens. Very quickly the chicks grew large enough to spend time on sunny days outside where they learned to glean and react to the natural world, their home. The chicks were on grassy earth as soon as they began jump testing their wings. Their daytime enclosure was covered with a tarp to keep out ravens, too much sun, and cold rain. The little pen was easy to move around, giving fresh pasture to the young birds every day. I’d always be home when they were outside. I also spent a lot of time talking to them, getting the hens uses to my voice and commands. They quickly taught me their language of food calls, predator alerts, and simple social communication with pecks and pushes. I recommend spending time observing chicks and noting their behaviors so you become familiar with the range of a bird’s habits. You’ll be able to better steward the animals and recognize if a hen is stressed. IMG_0696 By late spring, the hens were free ranging around the farm and living in an old chicken house on the property. The coop is secure enough, though a raccoon or opossum could tear it open if they wanted, thankfully, that has not happened yet. I’ve seen rats around, and set traps, which minimize the rodents, but grain and other feed is sealed in metal bins. Mice are present, but minimal, and the birds roost happily in their dry home. My housemate brought home a free rooster in July. The mature male established dominance in an aggressive way and so we named him Sid Vicious or “Sidney” for short. It took only about a week for him to be top bird and realize he was all alone with his harem of ladies which suited him just fine. The hens began to understand that he plays a protector role and also alerts the others to areas of good brows when they move through the landscape together. I appreciate his guardianship, not to mention his fancy looks. I’m hopeful that he’ll encourage broody hens to produce a flock of youngsters at some point. IMG_1704 For the past nine months as the farm grows, the chickens have been free range. It was not really a problem as main garden spaces are fenced, but this spring, with seeding and planting happening outside the gardens, the birds were becoming a challenge. I seeded two swales after fencing them in to protect against foraging birds and goats. Those seeds have sprouted and I realized to continue seeding, I would have to get more fencing, or fence in the birds. Well, the birds lost in this argument, there is too much space under construction and seeding to let the birds wander freely now. I cover cropped one area on steeper slope, thinking the birds would avoid the unstable angle of ground, but the seeds were too much temptation and the ladies gleaned my whole crop. Now the hens and rooster are penned in an area around their coop. I’ll keep rotating them around the property until we get a chicken tractor or two designed and built. These containment facilities can be larger, as I will use the goats to move them around. The portable fence will continue even though they have to be move frequently. 100 yards of electric poultry fencing caters to this flock for about a week if I stress the land a little bit, but the recovery time of gleaned landscape is high, and the poop makes a noticeable difference in fertility of the grass in the areas they forage.

Here i would like to mention how important your flock’s diet is for them, you, and most importantly, the land! I was going to spend hours amending my soil with kelp meal and other amazing minerals, then I realized the birds could do it for me, and much more efficiently, by eating the minerals first. (this is not a new realization) However, the thoughts around skimping on organics because it’s just chicken food is the overlook that is a small symptom of a much bigger problem. Most of our soil is seriously lacking in the fundamental minerals and microbial action that healthy plants need to be nutritious and healthy. By amping up my animal feeds with hight packed nutrients, my soil will get a great dosing too. Everyone wins! Thanks chicks for being such great soil amenders too!

I am not very happy about penning the girls in. It’s very important to let the seeds germinate without disruption, and have space to plant young starts without the fear of hens waylaying them in the nursery areas. However, the hens have become more vulnerable in my opinion. They are now concentrated in one area without the ability to flee. Sure enough, the other day one of the hens had gone missing and I still don’t know what happened to her. Soon the chicken tractors will be built and more fluid movement of the hens around the property can start again. Still, I wonder about keeping them in, and continue to weigh the options. With warmer weather, the girl’s laying is picking up. I entered the coop this morning to find 7 eggs and one broken one in a nest box area that had over crowded. Now that the hens are pinned into an enclosure, they are all forced to the same nesting box area. That is good for the sake of egg collecting, but bad because it’s too small a space. When a hen breaks another egg in the nest, the box is overcrowded, which will lead to more broken eggs. Keeping ahead of laying by expanding the next box numbers is crucial. It’s spring again and I am now looking into the investment of a meat flock. This would be ambitious, considering my current hens are still adapting to the design of the landscape. The chicken system model of Pollyface Farm strikes me, but the terrain here is not completely flat, and honestly, I would like my hens to have more room in their habitat design. Another model I’ve been exploring would involve a permanent henhouse and coop turnouts on a set rotation around the central living space. This design is great for ease of movement, but staged on the same piece of ground. The ideal here at Leafhopper Farm involves lots of rotation to keep the land healthy. When the hens were free, they rotated as needed and responded to the landscape and habitat instinctually. Their stewardship focus was much better honed then my own as they could detect and scratch out invisible bug predators in the soil that my eyes could not see. They would also target areas I’d recently disturbed, including mulch areas around fruit trees which was good and bad. Most of my mulch piles are now spread across the yard, but the parasite count in the orchard is way down. What is the perfect balance? I think time will tell, as always. There is no perfect model, and I am not reinventing the wheel by any means. I can see that the seeds are germinating safely, but the birds are frustrated and pacing the fence line. IMG_2399 fenced hens and a soon to be seeded swale on lower right

Fending off predation

It’s always difficult to discover a missing animal in the herd or flock. For our birds, free range comes with higher risk of potential predation. Leafhopper continues to allow free range for now, even though for the first time in five months, we lost a bird. It is still not clear how the duck disappeared, but our conclusion is land or air predator. The farm dog was in alarm for two days in a row with aggressive barking and posturing in the morning and evening hours. Even with her warnings our household of three was unable to intercept the attack and drake went missing. His mate was calling with impassioned pleas to no avail.
Since this incident the farm has been on watch, ministering the birds to see if more lives are lost. The dog is out day and night now as darkness comes sooner and colder nights usher in hungrier bellies who become braver. We do have electric poultry netting, but wish to avoid corralling the flock if possible. So far there has not been another incident, but my intension is to put out a live trap in hopes of intercepting the culprit next time.

Rooster culling

My boss has chickens in a more heavily residential part of town. His rooster was crowing early at 5 AM every morning which began to upset his neighbors. This is a good lesson for backyard chicken enthusiasts. Roosters are loud and proud. Well, the neighbors won out and Mr. Cock came home with me to go in the pot. He was dispatched humanely and processing time from start to finish was 2 hrs. Not the fastest time, but at 4:30am, I was in no rush. Bird is in a nice red curry now and the Neigbor is glad to have her rest. My rooster lives safely with his hens in a rural setting were all the neighbors have crowing fowl and no issues with the early bird action. Keep that in mind suburban chicken hopefuls. 😉

Harvest and coyotes

2am waking, howls in the night signal the lurking danger. Head lamp and an excited dog come with me to the back pasture where I find, to my great relief, all 4 leggeds safe and sound, though stirred and ready to defend. We are all preset and accounted for. The electric fence is clicking with a healthy pop. Coyotes drift further away and I am glad for the light sleeping of a farmer’s nerves. May I never have to confront these sacred wild dog people. I honor the wild predators by reminding them of my place here, yet I understand that they were here first, their ancestors watched us cut down the trees, terrace the land, and domesticate the other beings for our own needs first. This is the truth they howl back at us in the night. What fools we are to think our ego above that of Mother Nature. Thanks to the earth for her safe keeping on this night.

Fruit harvest

The Asian pear tree has the juiciest fruit I’ve ever tasted. Usually I am not a fan of this particular hybrid like Apple/pear, but these little darlings are small, soft and very juicy. We’ve got so many on the tree its branches are breaking. The deer are also helping with this destruction. Too bad she’s a doe, otherwise my bow hunting housemate who happens to live right next to the tree would have had his tag filled on opening day.

The apple trees are ripe and heavy too. Three different kinds of delicious varieties offer crisp crunch, sweet baking, and fabulous flavor. We use orchard ladders with a wide base for harvesting. It makes it easier for those who fear elevated plains to feel somewhat more stable while reaching into lofty crowns where gems of offset magnificence hang in emerald splendor. To pluck treasure out of orchard, bringing home a harvest of juicy delight; this is homesteading magic.

Year One

chop wood, carry water
chop wood, carry water

Officially, this blog will begin on July 31st. This is the landmark date of when the owner took charge of the land and created Leafhopper Farm. Hello, my name is Liz, and I am the current owner and operator of the farm. My vision steers this ship. There are other strong people helping to carve out this place, but they will evolve over time, as all things do. For now, it is me, my dog, and a few other two and four legged beings working this beautiful place for the sake of remembering. What does it take to make a place home? How do you define home? What about community? How are things connected and what does it mean to own land? What do we do with our dreams once reality comes crashing down? We reassess and open new doors of opportunity. We strive to live each day fully, being true to ourselves and this place. Place, a belonging we all long for in this life. Truly, people are nothing without place. (think of the recent Hobbit films) ((or not)) The point is, being connected. Tune in, sit with it, grow. This is the mantra of Leafhopper. We hope you appreciate this little adventure into cultivation of people, place, and being.