Thursday, June 21, 2012

Farm Camp

 What do you get when you add together 40 chicks, 8 hens, 3 goats, 1 donkey, 20 kids, and countless bugs, dirt, and creek water? Little Bent Creek Farm Camp!

Last week was an especially exciting and eventful week here at the farm as we hosted one of Woodland Discovery's 2012 summer camps. (For information about other Woodland Discovery summer camps, click here.) Carolyn Walker, Woodland Discovery director and camp leader, had lots of fun, engaging, and educational activities planned. A central part of the Little Bent Creek Farm Camp experience was doing daily chores (grooming animals, feeding hay, cleaning stalls, weeding, and so forth). This was completely new stuff to most of the kids, but they all managed to contribute in some way (sometimes very creatively!) to nurturing the animals and/or tending the garden. They also spent time doing crafts, baking, playing games, singing, experiencing new tastes and sounds, and studying a variety of topics--including farm animals, local wildlife, organic gardening, and environmental stewardship. I think it's safe to say that we all learned a great deal from one another.

All of the photographs below were taken by Patti McKinnon, who, along with her son Niall, provided invaluable assistance to "Ms. Carolyn" and me throughout the week.

Singing and Dancing Together
Grooming the Goats
Chatting with the Goats

Getting to Know the Donkey
Riding the Donkey
Cuddling Chicks
Grinding Wheat
Making Homemade Bread
Exploring the Creek
Hunting Tadpoles and Minnows
Touring the Garden
Weeding the Garden
Harvesting Produce
Enjoying a Peaceful Moment Among the Three Sisters
Listening to the Sounds of a Farm
Gathering Sticks
Saying Goodbye 
We'll miss you!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Farming Ants

The girls started a new industry at our little farm recently: ant husbandry. A couple of weeks ago, they ran inside asking for some plastic containers for their new livestock. "New livestock?" I asked, not sure if I should be alarmed. "Hmmmm. That sounds interesting." "Yes!" they excitedly confirmed, "We're going to raise ants!" Their Auntie Jules (who was with us for another fun-filled working weekend) quickly grabbed several items from the cupboard to give them, and they happily rushed back outside.

Evidently, Segi and Simi had been immersed in their make-believe "playings" in the Enchanted Garden--their name for the little wooded garden area near the bird fountain in front of the house--when they found a few ants crawling around on the ground underneath them. They had quickly agreed that these creatures needed some extra TLC. So they laid down some bedding, put out bottle caps for water troughs, and for feed buckets, set out the plastic containers Jules handed them. Now at each meal of the day, Segi (the 7-year-old) not only lays aside a bit of food for Ragamuffin (the fairy who rides around on her shoulder and sneaks our socks at night) but for the ants as well. She's given them lots of apple, banana and pear bits, as well as pieces of bread, crackers, cookies, chips, pretzels, and vegetables. She says that their favorite food so far is banana slices.

Luckily, it's not too complicated to figure out what to feed members of the formicidae family. They are tiny but voracious omnivores, and even though they are partial to sweets, they will consume nearly anything that has the potential to nourish them: seeds, oils, fruits, vegetables, and sometimes other insects and dead animals. This dietary flexibility has allowed them to thrive on all the world's continents except for Antarctica. Their eating is generally a communal, cooperative endeavor. According to the article "What Do Ants Eat?" at,

Ants will utilize scouts to locate food and then lay down a trail for the rest to follow back to it. They accomplish this by using chemicals called pheromones, which they lay down after finding something to eat. They will eat what they find and then head back to the colony where the pheromones will cause the other ants to get worked up and leave to follow the trail back to the source. They will use their antennae in the air and locate the trail, eventually establishing a path that the rest of the colony can easily follow. The ants need to do this quickly before ants from other colonies discover the food.

Some ants also work together as farmers! Ants whose preferred food is honeydew, a sugary-sticky liquid produced by plant-eating aphids, have been know to collectively raise aphids both for their honeydew and for meat. Researchers at the Imperial College London discovered a few years ago that ants sometimes seem to be sedating their itty-bitty livestock to better control them. According to the study (cited in this 2007 article in Science Daily) they "use the tranquillising [sic] chemicals in their footprints to maintain a populous 'farm' of aphids close to their colony, to provide honeydew on tap." Wow--who knew ants were such complex, fascinating creatures? Actually, quite a lot of biologists, including the founder of sociobiology, Harvard professor and renowned author, E.O. Wilson. But of course, most of the rest of tend to assume they're just another one of those irritating little creatures better shooed from the picnic table than attended to.

Children can teach us so many, many things. One of the most valuable lessons my own kids have taught me (over and over again--like most adults, I need repeated instruction before most lessons even begin to sink in) is the value of looking with wonder and appreciation at objects and beings we've grown to consider mundane and thus uninteresting. When we allow ourselves to do so, the world immediately becomes a much richer place to be. Suddenly, the constant planning, calculating, and fretting most of us spend so much of our time immersed in gives way to awe, and we can--if only for a moment--be truly present. I think this must be the revolution that Alice Walker urges us toward in her poem, "We Alone."

We alone can devalue gold 
by not caring 
if it falls or rises 
in the marketplace. 

Wherever there is gold 
there is a chain, you know, 
and if your chain 
is gold 
so much the worse 
for you. 

Feathers, shells 

and sea-shaped stones 
are all as rare. 

This could be our revolution: 

to love what is plentiful 
as much as 
what is scarce.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Recoveries and Losses

We've had quite a bit of trauma at the farm during the past couple of weeks. First of all, Daisy (one of our Saanen-Alpine kids) developed scours--a polite, old-fashioned term farmers use to refer to diarrhea among young livestock. I wasn't too alarmed at first, assuming that something in the kitchen scraps we had tossed them that day had upset her stomachs (she has four, after all--so chances are one or more of them are going to be upset sooner or later!). But when she continued to be sick the next day, I began to get worried. Like many young dairy goat kids, she and her sister, Snowdrop, are scrawny little things, and it didn't look like she could afford to lose much more of her meager substance.

That evening, I called the farmer who'd sold her to us for some advice, and she recommended we give her some Pepto-Bismol, hydrate her as best we could, watch her closely, and call a vet if necessary. "She could die from this, you know," she said at the end of our conversation. G-P ran to the store for the PB and an oral electrolyte solution, and I--seeing as how I had no idea how to dose a goat--did a quick web search. I found what seemed like some decent tips and made the best dosage guess I could. I also tried to clean her up a bit (she was fairly smeared with the stuff by this point, and quickly rubbing it off on the other goats). Unfortunately, this was all for naught; she was still very ill (and filthy) the next morning. Since G-P still wasn't ready to call the vet yet, I had to leave her in this state when I headed out for my Habitat for Humanity volunteer stint around 7:30. I'm afraid I had a hard time concentrating on the paint job I was completing that day, as my mind kept drifting back to Daisy.

Not long before we finished the interior walls, G-P called to tell me he'd decided to call the vet after all--but not for Daisy. Snowdrop, he reported, had collapsed in the pasture and didn't seem able to get up. What?!? I grabbed my keys and headed back home. When I got there, I found both goats lying close together under some shade trees, Daisy still a desperate mess and Snowdrop now shivering and glassy-eyed. Was she in shock? It was hard to tell. I covered her with a folded sheet and sat there with the two of them waiting for the vet to come, contemplating what might have happened. The best we could guess was that she had been bitten by something. We'd seen a very large snapping turtle around the yard and pasture during the previous week. Maybe Daisy had accidentally gotten too close to it. Or could it have been a snake? The bite mark on the inside of her leg wasn't very large.

In any case, "Dr. Bob" arrived in his mobile-medical-unit pickup a little while (it seemed like ages) later. He gave Snowdrop a couple of shots and oral meds, dewormed Daisy, and gave me a fairly dizzying array of instructions on how to administer the liquids and injections he was leaving with us. "You ever given shots before?" he asked. "Well, uh, yeah, about 18 years ago when I worked at an AIDS hospice, but . . ." "Okay--you shouldn't have a problem. Just grab some flesh and push it in."

So I began another new farming adventure: administering medicine to livestock. It really wasn't that hard (except for the time the needle broke apart from the syringe halfway through one of the injection). And it was awfully satisfying to see the effort pay off, as both Daisy and Snowdrop gradually began to recover over the course of the next several days. Dr. Bob returned in less than a week to check up on Daisy and Snowdrop and to do check-ups/vaccinations/deworming on all the goats and Ellie Mae (the donkey) as well. After that visit, I got another round of meds to administer (all orally this time, thank goodness!)--more probiotics for Daisy, antibiotics for both she and Snowdrop, and Iodine to try to clear up Ellie Mae's strange cough. G-P thought all this was a bit much for a few scrawny goats and a farm donkey. So he couldn't help but deliver yet another one of his mini-lectures on Nigerian animal husbandry. "Back in Nigeria we never gave our goats medicines, and they never died," he announced one afternoon. (He later claimed he was going to qualify this statement, but my older sister and her family were here visiting, bore witness, and readily agreed with me that this one deserves a special place in the Annals of Great G-Pisms.)

I was feeling pretty good at this point. Our 40 baby chicks in the brooder seemed to be thriving--eating and drinking greedily and growing by leaps and bounds. Crystal and her chicks seemed happy in the extra barn stall, which we'd equipped with a dog crate (for an extra-safe bed), pine shavings, and food and water. And both Daisy and Snowdrop seemed to be getting back their active, inquisitive, sweet personalities. Maybe they were even gaining a little weight. Ellie Mae's cough persisted, but I wasn't too worried since I knew it might take some time to clear up.

Then, on Memorial Day, when our family went out to a hardware store to get materials for closing in the extra coop for the rapidly growing chicks, we had another visit from a predator. We have no idea what it was, but it got both Autumn and Libre. Unfortunately, it was Segi who found the body of Autumn (her own beloved hen) in the woods by the house. She was shocked and devastated--sobbing and running into my arms, so discombobulated that she couldn't let go yet wouldn't let me hold her. We never found a trace of Libre. Now we had only one chicken left out of the first ten we started with last fall: Crystal, Simi's hen.

Little did we guess that she would soon be gone as well. The next morning, around 11 or so, the girls came running into the front yard to interrupt my flower planting and tell me I had to come to the barn NOW. Two of the Rhode Island Reds were missing, as was Crystal. "Her baby chicks are huddling together in a corner of the crate!" Simi exclaimed. I was once again not overly alarmed. I assumed Crystal had finally left her babies for a few moments to get some fresh air, and the Reds were probably just hiding in one of the stalls of the barn. After all, this couldn't be happening again. But Crystal wasn't out getting fresh air. And the Reds were nowhere to be seen. They were gone. Vanished. The only sign we could find of any of them was a small pile of Rhode Island Red feathers on the ground outside the stall Crystal had been in. It must have been more than one animal. And it/they must have been quiet and fast. (We'd been in the yard planting for quite a while and hadn't heard anything we registered as unusual.) Whatever it/they was/were evidently managed to scale stall walls and hop in to get Crystal, and then scale the walls again to retreat--without leaving a single sign of its/their presence. Could a pack coyotes do that? Or foxes? Raccoons? Weasels????

I was stunned. How could we lose five chickens in two days without hearing or seeing a thing? And, more importantly: What were we going to do now? Were we going to have to give up completely our commitment to letting our animals live free range? The false sense of security I'd had since we bought Ellie Mae a few weeks ago was now gone--especially once I found her shortly after the attack cowering with the goats in her stall, obviously shaken and scared. Poor dear. G-P was less than sympathetic, of course. "What was the point of buying a donkey if she's not going to guard anything? Even in broad daylight?" he wanted to know. "But she did," I countered, a little more meekly than usual. "She was probably in there protecting the goats. And one of the surviving Reds was also in the stall with her, crouched down underneath her tummy." G-P was not impressed.

For the first time since we started putting together our little farm last fall, I'm feeling discouraged. And very tired. It has been really important to us to let our animals live as freely and naturally as possible. Our insistence on free ranging them has not been so much for practical reasons as for ideological--or rather, ethical--ones. We believe that if people are going to keep animals in order to exploit the products and services they provide us, we should treat them as well as possible and let them live as free a life as possible. We have seen allowing them to free-range as an essential part of following our principles. But it's evidently not going to work--at least not within our budget and alongside our other priorities. (We can't afford to make the fence around the barnyard and pasture fully predator-proof, at least not at this stage in our lives. Even if we could, there are probably too many trees hanging over it, allowing predators like raccoons to drop into the barnyard no matter what kind of fence we put up. And G-P is decidedly against buying a trained guard dog to pick up where Ellie Mae seems to be leaving off. (He's allergic to them, and their barking drives him nuts.)

So we're going to spend most of the weekend ahead trying to finish closing in with welded wire that extra stall in the barn (for the 40 baby chicks that will soon be too big for the brooder) and constructing a 6-foot covered run off of the coop. I'm lobbying for making the run as big as possible. But it will still be a small, artificial space compared to the openness our chickens--most of whom are now gone--have enjoyed before. (We'll plan to let them out in the pasture for at least a couple of hours a day, when we can keep a close eye on them.) I'll continue to hope we can figure something else out, but for now, we will follow the Scottish proverb, "better bend than break.," and grieve with Maya Angelou . . .

The caged bird sings with a fearful trill
of things unknown but longed for still
and his tune is heard on the distant hill
for the caged bird sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

(excerpt from "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings")