January 30, 2006

This weekend, in a fit of impulsiveness, we attended the Pacific Poultry Breeder’s Association show in Stockton. Imagine something like 3,000 chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys, each one in their own cage, lined up on long rows of tables in buildings the size of warehouses, and you get the idea. Pretty much every breed of chicken ever developed sits on display to be seen and judged. Some chickens look as large as turkeys, others more like apples with legs. All of them seem colorful, and the variety of feathers, combs, colors and styles is truly astounding. A gentleman to whom we sold one of our turkeys had invited us to come, and we saw what used to be our young tom on display. I have mixed feelings about these shows. On one hand, the work of poultry hobbyists is why many of these breeds still exist–the enthusiasts have kept them going through the years when no one else had interest in them. They promote involvement by young and old, giving everyone a chance to participate in the world of livestock without needing to spend thousands of dollars. And they are interesting and educational. However, I also worry about the potential to spread diseases infectious to birds, since so many types of poultry are all placed together in proximity to each other. I also don’t like the idea of birds spending their lives indoors in cages, as some of these show poultry do. I met many people I knew, and had a good time in the hours we stayed.

Attending the show left us further behind on the “to do” list than ever. Sunday, we met with the farmer who will convert our land, and gained a clearer picture of how the irrigation supply for the property will change. He will remove several old, diseased almond trees and stumps that currently occupy needed space. After all, more fruit trees are a good thing! We finally figured out the schizophrenic edges of our property line. Fortunately I had one wind-free day on Sunday, so I applied Roundup to the masses of sprouting noxious weeds. It’s a delicate job, to try to get as many weeds as possible while preserving all the sprouting desirable flowers in among them. I also applied more copper spray to the stone fruit trees, we  to cut down on some mystery problems that appear to be non-insect related. Ken has begun the installation of the woodstove for our shop, with the generous help of one of our friends in Zamora. The shop is an utter disaster right now. We have to tidy up out there. Too many items of equipment are not working at the moment, and need repair. One or two unfinished projects occupy too much floor space. Junk needs to go…. my contribution to this effort consists of finally painting our dinosaur, which will be moved to the yard. This is the biggest one, a four foot high velociraptor wooden-puzzle. It’s done in five bright colors, and as soon as I put on a good clear coat, I plan to mount it near the road as the latest piece of yard art. Well, the work list is expansive, but this is the fun time of year, when everything starts out. Oh, and the almonds have begun blooming. We saw the first blossom on the 29th, that’s a full week earlier than last year. Winter hasn’t been very cold here, and many plants never fully went into dormancy.

January 12, 2006

If you actually read this site often and are wondering how you missed the December entry– you didn’t. We have been so busy that I never completed the draft until now. During the end of the year, we perform in vocal concerts. I sing soprano and Ken sings bass; we participate in a chorus/orchestra that plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on New Year’s Eve and Day. This year the program also included Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, in which I had a small solo part. That is utterly non-farmer activity, but everyone needs some culture now and then.

Right after all that was over, we drove to Oregon for a visit with a dear friend. Aaaaaand, to pick up our new turkeys in the very small town of Gold Hill. We bought two breedng pairs of Beltsville Miniature White turkeys. For non-turkey folks, the magnitude of this acquisition is hard to explain. These turkeys were the product of the carefully selected breeding of many existing varieties, in the 1930’s. They were, in effect, "manufactured" the good old fashioned way (no biotechnology!) for the purpose of providing a turkey that could be marketed for people wanting a meaty, small turkey meal. Then the broad breasted white (BBW) was developed (you know, Butterballs at Safeway) and mass-produced, rendering these birds pointless, except that they had become a distinct breed with their own entry into the books that discuss such things. Now, they are rarer than an honest politician. As in, there are fewer than 500 breeding pairs of these birds in the ENTIRE COUNTRY; some references put the number closer to 250 pairs. Our birds are the bona-fide laboratory strain from the research facility at Ames, Iowa. It will be an honor to conserve and care for them, and hopefully place many of them into the hands of other breeders.

Our Delaware chickens have grown big, and will become larger yet. One particularly large hen with a bright red comb began crowing yesterday morning, which explained all sorts of things. Our unexpected rooster will be joined by a second rooster from another ranch. These birds at full size will make a good dinner, they are big-bodied and weigh quite a bit. We will allow them to breed to some quantity in the spring, and as they grow up we will manage them for meat and eggs.

We have almost finished placing the annual orders. It was almost the least expensive year ever, until we decided to infill our orchard. We are buying 3 more nectarines, 2 more peaches (it would have been 4 but we lost out on two varieities we wanted) 3 apples, 3 chestnuts, a pear, and 2 pawpaws. We have had rather a bad time in the apple and pear department, and we may have discovered why. We’ve been planting into holes occupied a long time ago by almonds. Most, but not all, of the old roots are out of the holes. Apparently this rootstock can be toxic to other plants…..isn’t that special. So this time around, we dig in other places. This weekend we will be unspeakably busy trying to get ready for bareroot trees. It’s about 4 weeks until the almonds bloom, and the whole wonderful cycle begins anew.

December 15, 2005

Life continues to have more turns that the average river. I visited vsitaprint.com over the weekend to explore some updated business cards, and was paralyzed by indecision in short order–do I have these cards printed to focus on turkeys? Or everything else? Recent events have moved turkeys very much into the limelight. We are poised to raise as many as nature can provide this coming spring, and maybe do very well with sales. However, live animals require more time and focus than plants, and this could add unwanted pressure to our lives. Or, it could be a road to an exciting and profitable venture. It’s hard to know from one side of the fence how the grass is in the other pasture, and looks can deceive. One thing is certain–we refuse to expand beyond the point where we can enjoy our animals and take excellingly good care of them. Some discussion went around recently about marketing the birds that we very small farmers raise. Other farms and ranches do very well by advertising their "free range" turkeys to the public. Except, "free range" often equals hundreds of birds in a very large pen, with fewer than two or three square feet of space to call their own. Because of the corwding, the ground is denuded of vegetation and the birds are fed a prepared ration. My cohorts and I don’t believe that this is "free range" at all. At Nevermore, our birds have at least fifteen square feet of space each, and that’s just in their actual pen. They are never IN their pens, so the number is really more like a quarter of an acre per bird. They do what they want, when they want, get premium supplemental feed, graze all they want, and have great turkey lives. Myself and other small operators locally involved with heritage breeds (who feel similarly about their birds!) are hoping that the conditions our birds experience will mean something to consumers who are able to pay for a premium turkey to eat. We also believe that the advantage isn’t just psychological, because (speaking for myself) the taste and texture of the meat has more similarity to pork loin than anything I’m used to in the way of commercial turkey. This year will be quite the adventure in marketing and economics!

We met another great family recently, who took interest in our Royal Palms. We made a trade of a beautiful woodstove (to heat our workshop) for a nice flock of four birds that will breed this spring. This leaves us with one surplus tom, who has turned into quite the character. It is sometimes said of women, do we dress up to attract men, or to compete with each other? The same might be asked of toms. Do toms strut and display to attract hens, or to impress each other? Each tom now has a dedicated ritual of focused showing off that lasts through most of the daylight hours. Their antics are hilarious to watch, and just when we think we’ve seen it all, something new happens.

I have been working hard to finish the growing cycle for the year. Many gardeners have long since ripped out their dead plants, but since we grow special varieties, we don’t do that. November and December are when many flowers and vegetables set their seed, and I collect as much as I can. I pick baskets and bowls full of pods and seedheads, and spend evenings when we watch television getting the seeds out. I have two gallons of mixed broom cornseed, almost a gallon of okra seed, many many bags of our beautiful zinnias (sorted by color and mixed), a quart of african horned cucumber seed, cups of unusual eggplant, pepper and tomato seed, and on and on. To make it worse, the seed catalogs have arrived, and idle time is spent turning each page again and again, deliberating which varieties to try next year alongside the ones we already love. We have enough seed to plant absolutely acres and acres of stuff–more than we can use and then some. I hope that in another month or so, I may be able to convice a high school agriculture teacher with whom I am acquainted to have his students raise my heritage seedlings in their large greenhouse. We hope to have our own greenhouse sometime in 2006 (here’s hoping the taxes are kind) but it will be too late to raise the amount of seedlings I’d like. I hope that this could be a mutually beneficial arrangement. I’d love to give a talk to students about these plant varieties and why they matter, and their efforts could give us a huge boost toward a successful market garden for 2006. Increasingly we have experienced the importance of meeting new people and making contacts with others who have similar pursuits. One of the best parts of 2005, for us, has been meeting so many  who share our goals and have so much knowledge themselves. As a relatively isolated endeavor we’ve learned and had fun, but it means so much more to participate in a community of hardworking good people.