May 16, 2008

It was 100 degrees today, and no wind. Yesterday was 100 degrees, with a lot of wind. Neither circumstance was really much fun.

After a great grand opening the week before, attendance at the brand new Arbuckle Farmer’s Market was horrendous yesterday. Not so long ago I read an article about a farm in Texas that had originally gone to Farmer’s Markets but then eliminated them from their business. The reason? It’s really painful to put 8-12 man hours into preparing for and attending a market, and then to earn….$40 or $50 for all the effort and fuel expenditure. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if one does the math that, after gasoline cost is deducted, that equals $1.60/hr in income. The thing I have seen over and over is thus: communities as a whole need to decide if they want a farmer’s market. When a market is valued, customers make an active choice to attend and purchase the best produce available. It’s the only place to have a chance to know that your food is being grown locally, and meet the people who are growing it. When only a few persons care, and most people in the community don’t make any particular effort,  eventually markets fail. In principal I completely support the concept, and I really believe that a market can and should be a vital part of a community. But as a businessperson, it is untenable to make $1.60 an hour for my time, when my time could be spent in so many other ways. OK, off my soapbox.

Today I learned a completely different planting technique. Rows/beds were made in a large garden, mechanically with a tractor. Drip tape was installed several inches below the soil surface for later irrigation (also by tractor). Seeds (in this case, melons) had been soaked in wet paper towels for days, so they were already half sprouted with long root-tails. Small troughs were dug in the dry, powdery soil down to the existing soil moisture level. Next about a quart of water went into each hole, and was allowed to soak in. Then two sprouted seeds were placed at each end of the trough. After all the water was soaked in, about an inch of powdery, flour-like soil was shovelled on top. The theory is that the already-there roots gravitate toward the moisture, which is now trapped under an insulating layer of powdery soil. I am told it is possible, under the right rainfall conditions during the spring, to grow watermelons in a manner similar to this without ever irrigating them. I’ll be interested to see how this works….they don’t tell about techniques like this in the gardening books or on the seed packets; this is "farmer stuff".

Today more turkey chicks were found hatched. What began as an orderly progression of hatches has suddenly seemed rather overwhelming. The first two batches of turkey were all well and good. Then came the surprise chickens. When turkeys sit on mixed chicken and turkey eggs, a lot can go all wrong. Chicken eggs need 21 days to incubate, turkey eggs need 28 days. If chicken chicks hatch under a turkey, it’s critical to notice right away and take the chicks to a "foster hen" for care. Otherwise, the turkey will abandon her own eggs to raise the chickens. It can all work really well until the numbers begin really going crazy. I don’t even know how many chicks are in circulation right now, but it’s quite a few. I am aware of two more turkey hens sitting on nests in the yard. They aren’t very smart and often choose torturous locations….in some grass, almost no shade. But they won’t give up and they don’t want to be moved. It is really amazing from a physiological standpoint that a bird can go for a month with almost no food or water, and then still even be alive much less be in shape to care for the new offspring. They aren’t smart, but there is a lot of instinct there and a good avian mother is worth her weight at this time of year. In fact, we always band the good mothers so that they aren’t turned into Thanksgiving dinner. The entire difference in this year’s level of hatching success is that we have 5-7 experienced mothers, unlike the 2-3 we had last year. Some hens are just psycho, and need to be culled. I have seen upset turkey hens tear open their eggs and begin eating the embryos, or just decide to stop sitting on eggs after two weeks, or be so anxious after hatching that they stomp on all their chicks. Those mamas are named "dinner". This is another interesting aspect of how a small farm raises poultry, versus commercial operations. With commercial birds, no one monitors the genetics of good parenting. It is very possible in a farm setting to select for desirable behavioral characteristics, just as much as body type or feather patterns. So, it doesn’t pay to allow bad mommas to keep on to the next year, no good comes of it.