Friday, December 27, 2013

sunset for Gaspar

Our venerable senior rooster, Gaspar (blogged about here), met his demise today in the talons of a red-tailed hawk. Tonight's sunset echoed the red of his feathers.

He's our third loss in the last 10 days. Last week, on consecutive days, we lost young hens to red-tails. We responded to those kills by moving our mobile coop (flock inside) from the meadow west of the house to the orchard east of the house, hoping that the added cover and complexity and proximity to buildings would deter the hawk. No such luck.

Hawks have never been a problem in our eight years of pasturing chickens during the day and confining them in coops at night, but we're in the most severe drought that we've ever experienced here (and perhaps the most severe drought in the period of record). The drought has caused a crash in the population of voles (microtus) or field mice, a normally super-abundant small mammal that forms the base of the food pyramid for hawks and owls. Our out-of-control non-native turkey population probably played a major role as well. We haven't seen a single vole for a few months.

The hawks are hungry and desperate. The feed store grapevine tells us that other chicken pasturers in the area are also experiencing kills in areas where hawks have never been a problem. And from our hunter-friends we hear that the local pheasants clubs have to wait to release pheasants until hunters are in the field; otherwise the hawks get the pheasants first.

We'll miss Gaspar, a gentle giant who tended his flock gently but competently. He is survived by his son Sandy, almost a carbon copy.

Ethical questions arise. An animal rights activist friend thinks us remiss in allowing our chickens to be exposed to predators (but has worked hard to mandate better living conditions for egg-producing commercial flocks). She may have a point but both practical and (in my mind) humane factors weigh the other way. Practically, we don't have room to confine our 30-bird flock during the day (but will definitely consider it if predation reduces it to half that size). And would it really be humane to confine a flock that has known the many joys of free-ranging, from eating at will from nature's buffet to taking dust-baths whenever they choose to sneaking into the fig tree for snacks when I'm not looking? Having indulged the natural tendencies of our flock, is it headline material when "real" nature blurs the line and bites back?

I was genuinely saddened to find Gaspar headless and with his chest cavity excavated. He got a proper burial and will soon be nourishing a fruit tree.

I don't like the idea of feeding chickens to feed hawks. But I certainly don't blame the hawk for following its imperative. And I pray for rain soon and a rebound of the vole population.
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Wednesday, October 2, 2013


Our shift to production for restaurant and CSA has had me writing for other audiences and neglecting this blog. CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) customers get a weekly foodbox and newsletter. Misty Bell, in the photo above, and Lynne Sabourin, are my co-conspirators. Misty manages the marketing and logistics of delivery and the transactions. Lynne makes things grow and manages our wwoofers (and me). My contribution to this week's newsletter went like this:

What's growing on? 
This delightful early fall weather, with clear skies and highs near 80 and lows near 50, is perfect growing weather, so we're still enjoying a good harvest of the summer "stuff" along with a growing volume of cool weather produce. Your box this week reflects that abundance, with corn, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, spinach, other greens, beets, carrots, and green beans. (Yes, more green beans! The vines are incredibly prolific and we're harvesting close to 100 pounds per week, much of which is going to the food bank.)
The summer production will begin waning soon. This week's corn is from our second-to-last planting, around July 1. The ears on our last planting, on July 15, are still maturing. Ears mature more slowly with less heat and shorter days, giving our two pests, the corn fungus called huitlacoche in Mexico (and a much sought-after delicacy there) and the corn borer worm, more time to do their work. Almost every ear has a worm, which starts at the tip of the ear and works slowly down. That's why we cut off the last inch or two. If we miss a worm and you get one, our apologies. 
The beans will slow and be over soon, and the squash not far behind. To fill the gap we've been planting cool weather crops since July. These include turnips, broccoli, rutabaga, lettuce, and kale and other cabbage family greens. We're planting a bunch more of everything this week, including the onions that will form bulbs over winter and be ready for distribution next May. And we're still using the greenhouse as aggressively as we can. 
Where will this put us in the winter months? We don't know, and that's one of the questions that this trial year of CSA is designed to answer. We also don't know how many of you will want to stick with us as the mix in the box shifts from the sweet and colorful things of summer and fall to the less sexy (but highly nutritious!) greens and whites of winter and spring. Stay tuned! And, in the meantime, we always seek your feedback.
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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

corn wave

Our waves of grain rise, crest, and break in slow motion west to east across the northern half of our primary summer garden patch, as successive plantings sprout, race upward, mature, are stripped of their ears, and then are mercilessly cut down. This year's sweet corn is Sugar Dots, an heirloom hybrid that is a repeat for us. Our first planting was in mid-April; we could tell that we were pushing the season because the plants and ears were both on the small side. Our last planting was a few days ago. The five plantings in between were spaced at 10-14 day intervals. The third planting is giving us dozens of robust and tasty ears this week.

We're growing four separate corns this year. A few miles away, at my sister Rebecca's horse facility, we planted about a half-acre of flint corn. The variety is Roy's Calais, one of the original North American corns. It's growing exuberantly in well-fertilized soil, producing thin 15"-long ears. Although only 8 distinct rows of corn ring the cob, each row contains nearly 50 kernels, for ears of 400 kernels. The Calais will become grits and polenta.

Separate from the sweet corn, to avoid cross-pollination, we're growing some heirloom popcorn for our CSA customers, and removed from both of those we're trying a small patch of parching corn. What is parching corn? Stay tuned and we'll let you know.
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Sunday, May 12, 2013


These gorgeous onions (picked for our expanding local clientele) are one of the treats of spring - and in fact they are generally referred to as "spring onions" when picked before the tops begin to die back and while the entire plant is still edible. Flavor and freshness and aroma are so dominant at this phase that it almost seems a waste to let them mature and be cured for storage.

Our onion seeds go in the ground around October 1. We seed heavily and begin thinning in December, when they are at the pencil-thick stage, and we continue to thin through the winter and spring months. We are actually still thinning now, since we harvest those that are crowding others, giving the remainder a last chance for growth. From little to big, they are good eaten fresh or cooked.

In June the tops will die back and we'll dry the bulbs in the shade on a drying rack or, if inspired, braid and hang long garlands from a branch.

The mystery associated with onions is "day-length." The goal is for one's onions to behave like a biennial plant, waiting to flower and set seed until the second year. That's what these onions would do if left in the ground, sending up a new stalk after a period of summer dormancy. But for that to happen, the onion variety needs to be suited to one's latitude. National seed companies sell short, medium, and long-day onions and provide some general guidance in their catalogs and web sites, but we play it safe and generally shop local. We get most of our onion seeds from Lockhart's, a century-old retail seed store in the heart of downtown Stockton. Lockhart's sells locally-adapted varieties with names - like Solano White, Stockton Red, and San Joaquin - that emphasize the local part. We've also found a few heirloom Italian varieties that do well here. A mal-adapted onion variety is going to misconstrue the photo-period signals and "bolt" - create a flower - before it creates a bulb.

During a recent visit, the folks at Lockhart's suggested that we try some "summer onions" and we purchased some seeds of a variety called "Ruby." Instead of planting on waning day-length, these seeds want to germinate after the winter solstice and will bulb up a few months later than the October-planted varieties. We planted Ruby in late March. The Rubies are now at the pencil stage and looking very happy. In theory we'll have fresh onions through August or September.

Celebrate onions - and mothers! - every day.
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Wednesday, May 1, 2013


A spring inventory found a number of shovels with worn and cracked blades and a few with loose handles. The one on the right above has been my favorite for over ten years - thin, strong blade, easy to sharpen, wooden handle, perfectly balanced. Before it lost a lot of metal to the file (a dull blade makes for a useless shovel) and interaction with the soil, it looked like the one on the left. The "oldies" have gone to the community garden for light duty in their waning years.

The inventory was inspired in part by some changes underway here. We've acquired a "junior farmer," which I guess relegates me to the role of "senior farmer"! In a trial of a new way of running Kingbird, we've been joined by Lynne Sabourin. Lynne was a stellar wwoofer* here 18 months ago and was seeking a deeper experience. She's now chief grower and manager of our wwoof visitors and seems to have things well in hand. We'll keep her for as long as it makes sense for her to stay and then, if we think the model continues to make sense, we'll look for a future season-long intern from among the ranks of former wwoof visitors.

In combination with this change, we've expanded sales to our favorite culinary magicians at Magpie Cafe in Sacramento and, in collaboration with another inspiring and energetic young woman, Misty Bell, we've started a small CSA**. Misty is a professional photographer passionate about fresh, healthy, local food. She'll manage marketing, billing, and customer relations. And she's seeking out specialty local products (honey, soap, cheese, hand-crafts) to include in the weekly food boxes. The CSA is called "From the Farm" (find us here on Facebook) and will attempt to serve as a window into the local farm-world for local city-dwellers in addition to providing ultra-fresh, healthy produce grown without the use of chemicals. (What we're in transition from, you may recall, is providing most of what we grow to the food bank in Galt. We'll be scaling back our donations but not ending them. And we'll continue our successful efforts to encourage other local growers to donate and to enable the food bank-dependent population to grow their own at the community garden.)

All of these changes have made for a very busy late winter and spring; hence the hiatus on blogging here. We're going to blog more actively now and use this vehicle for reports of interest to our CSA customers as well as to our extended Kingbird family, providing more detail and background than possible with Facebook (but continuing to use FB for alerts). I'm going to encourage Lynne (and perhaps others) to post here as well, so from now on you'll see signed pieces.

Exciting times! We'll do our best to keep you updated on the evolving adventure at Kingbird. In the meantime, please try to avoid the obvious comparisons between old farmers and old shovels!


*WWOOF is Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
**CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, the concept of linking specific consumers with specific farms. CSA relationships give farmers an assured revenue stream and consumers the opportunity to know exactly where their food comes from and how it is grown.
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Friday, January 25, 2013

wild wood

It's pruning month, and I'm about two-thirds done with the time-consuming work of shaping trees for size, optimal fruit production, and strength of the bearing branches. Learning to prune has been a hard, slow process. Getting it right is immensely rewarding, the successes visible as healthy, nicely-shaped trees. But the mistakes, conversely, live on to the critical eye and trees don't seem to outgrow early mistakes.

Pruning is an exercise in watching and anticipating tree growth patterns. The lesson for me, relearned every year, is that even domesticated trees are wild, each exhibiting a unique growth pattern. Pruning elicits responses that follow general patterns but are never exactly predictable, differing species by species and tree by tree.

These thoughts are triggered in part by recent reading. Sam and Corrinne, blogged about here, sent us a gift book a while back, titled Wildwood, by the late Roger Deakin, English writer, activist and naturalist. It sat on the bedside table for a while, as I worked through a few thousand pages of Dickens, but when I picked it up I was captivated. Deakin takes the reader into the world of old English forest management, where complex codes dictated rights to various parts of the tree and forest management practices had not changed significantly for millenia. That world is gone, along with its rich associated lexicon, much of it associated with the implementation of the Magna de Foresta (Charter of the Forest, 1217), which followed the Magna Carta by two years and defined the forest rights of commoners. Bavin, bill-hooks, boll, broche, coppice, cant, chark, dotard, faggot, fascine, flawing, fogg, frith, frow, futtock, gad, hafts, hurdles, husset, imp, kibble, mongwood, pannage, peel, pollard, reeve, rifletum, rood, rundle, scow, scrog, setts, sherewood, slivery, smokesilver, spars, spar-gads, speck, spinney, talwood, thistletake, trennal, trug, tynsell, vert, wattle, woodmote - all terms associated with the sustainable management of the forest, interwoven with a complex legal system defining use and extraction rights, defining a fierce economy in which nothing, down to the smallest twig, was wasted. With the coming of coal, forests waned in importance; language loss mirrored and fed a loss of knowledge. Deakin walks the reader through a rediscovery.

From Deakin I jumped to Thomas Hardy's The Woodlanders, a novel referenced repeatedly by Deakin. The Woodlanders, published in 1886, layers a human story (involving, as almost always in Hardy, a tragic female figure) on a forest environment and economy. The woodland dwarfs the woodlanders; the people, set against the patterns of the forest, seem small and ephemeral.

In addition to pruning the trees, almost every year we prune the orchard - culling a few non-performing or very unhappy trees and replacing them with new stock. This year we replaced twelve trees, including eight citrus that were proving just too difficult to protect from frost, and a few peaches and nectarines that were heavily impacted by peach leaf curl every year. We're holding steady at one hundred trees, an accidental round number.

Our larger prunings get segmented for the fireplace or bread oven and the small ones go on a perennial brush pile that hosts quail, sparrows, rabbits, and skunk. 
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