At my friend Molly’s farm, chickens that no longer produce wind up in the stew pot. Our Cayuga ducks reached that point, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to dispatch them. I offered them up for adoption via Craig’s List and Freecycle, but because I believe in full disclosure, I revealed the fact that the drake (a.k.a. Drake-ula) rapes chickens. That might have something to do with the fact that there were no takers.

With the exception of Adrian’s retired pet chicken Buttercup, I cannot feed farm animals that don’t produce (and the truth is, I’d just as soon get rid of Buttercup). So when we weighed the stew pot vs. freedom option, we eventually came down on the side of freedom and decided to take them to a nearby lake.

The female has never shown any interest whatsoever in brooding and they never made babies, so she’s not going to mess with the natural order of things. But a drake who rapes chickens could easily breed with wild ducks. This is another part of the ethical quandary. Do you risk messing with the local fauna by introducing a different breed?

Which, of course, assumes they figure out how to do what wild ducks do and fend for themselves. It also assumes they don’t get consumed by an eagle or a coyote.

With all these questions going through my head, we wrestled the ducks into a cat carrier, drove to the lake, set the carrier by the shore, opened the door and waited. “Eureka!” they quacked, and immediately waddled into the water. They dived and splashed, paddled about, explored the neighborhood, and were immediately checked out by the local duckizenry. And then we knew we’d done the right thing. These were clearly ducks who thought they’d died and gone to heaven.

“I wish I could be out there with them,” Adrian said.

However long they live in the wild, they will be happy. If they can’t quite figure the fending for themselves part out, there are homes all around the lake where they can ask for a handout. And soon, there will be people fishing, boating, and swimming there. In the end, I’m thinking that life on the lake is a lot better than the stew pot.

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There are some things that you can learn about only by doing them, and having goats was one of those things for us. We adored the kids, I loved the breed, and I appreciated how personable and intelligent the goats were. But for one and a half years, we cared for them without receiving any milk in return, and the milk-n-cheese pay-off wouldn’t come until we’d fed and cared for them for two years. That pay-off would come with a price: milking every day, which was something I couldn’t imagine fitting into a full-time job and the full-time care of my son.

I realized that, the more I took on, the more stuff I was doing half-assed. I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do everything that I wanted to do and do it well. I also realized that, as a single parent, there’s a limit to how many life-forms I can care for without neglecting some pretty important things.

The people who bought Calypso, Pandora, and Pan are profoundly knowledgeable about goats and will provide a home for them that is far better than any we could ever provide. Calypso and Pandora went to Hillary Kenworthy at Woodland Hills Farm and Pan went to Jacqui Wilcox at Daystar’s Farm. Rhea, our favorite, went to friends on the island.

The problem with all this? Guarding goats was our dog’s job, and since they left, she seems to have lost her anchor. We now have Emma outside during the day, guarding the chickens and ducks, and we have her inside at night, guarding us and the cats. We love Emma and hope that this rhythm will meet her need for meaningful work.

Meanwhile, I miss the presence and energy of the goats, but I don’t miss their demanding bleats whenever we stepped out the back door. I don’t miss paying for and hauling hay–and storing two tons of it in the basement because we don’t have a barn. And I don’t miss having to care for goats in the dark on these short winter days. Both Adrian and I are satisfied with our decision to find new homes for the goats. But it doesn’t really feel like a farm without them.

The egg production of the Golden Laced Wyandottes went down drastically after they molted. We knew we had to get a new generation of birds and, to avoid the over-abundance of accidental roosters that we experienced last time, we opted for a new breed of chicken: the Red Star.

Red Star Chickens

Photo by Adrian

There are professional chicken sexers who examine the crotches of baby chicks to determine whether they’re male or female, but their accuracy rate was off the mark, based on our last order of chicks. Friends and I ordered around 30 female chicks and wound up with at least four roosters. Not a problem with Red Stars! They can be sexed by color (hence the name “sex-link”). The males and females are different colors when they hatch, so no crotch-inspection is necessary.

We have found them to be early and enthusiastic layers. The first ones began laying at four months, as opposed to the usual five to five-and-a-half months of age. The eggs are lovely, and a rich, shiny brown.

Meanwhile, the seven remaining Wyandottes found a wonderful new home via Craig’s List and Buttercup remains our only retiree.

I have never made jam before, but I had 20 lbs. of nectarines in the fridge and something had to be done with them. Thing is, I remember my mom making jam, and the thought of putting all that sugar into already-sweet fruit appalled me. I wanted to make sugar-free jam–or “spread” as it’s called. But how?

I couldn’t find any satisfactory recipes on the Internet, but I did find Pomona’s Universal Pectin, the secret ingredient to making sugar-free jam. Conventional pectin requires (lots of) sugar to gel. Pomona’s requires calcium.

My initial intention was to sweeten the jam using concentrated fruit juice, but  when I decided to triple the batch, I didn’t have enough of that on hand. I did have a gob of agave nectar, though, so I used that (3/4 cup per batch).

One case of nectarines=a whole lot of work. This picture shows the results of two triple-batches of nectarine jam, which only used up 2/3 of the box. I froze the rest for smoothies. I mean, how much nectarine jam can two people eat?

IMG_4428

This Mother’s Day, all I wanted was to check things off my To Do list, and that meant farm chores. Getting the baby chicks into a bigger brooder,  for example, finishing the installation of a “baseboard” around the garden that will prevent me from tearing vast holes in the plastic deer fence with the string trimmer (note to self: never use plastic fencing again), and brushing the winter coat out of Emma, the livestock guardian dog. Emma’s fur is rather intriguing from a fiber standpoint. Dog fiber actually has a name, “chiengora,” and as a spinner and knitter, I’m thinking maybe I don’t need sheep after all. Maybe all I need is my sheepdog. It’s 80% warmer than wool and sheds water, but I wonder, would my chiengora sweater smell like a wet dog after I’ve been out in the rain for a while? And would the cat sit on my lap while I’m wearing it?

The chicks were a bit freaked out when we moved them to the new brooder, so I took one that seemed in distress and lay down on the hammock with her on the bib of my overalls. The little incubator chick, who has never known a mother, soon fell asleep under the “wing” of my hand. These pictures are a bit fuzzy because the camera was so close to the chick, but it was such a sweet moment that I want to post them anyway.

Gong . . .

Going . . .

Going . . .

Going . . .

Gone

Gone

Our hive and bees arrived today. Adrian suited up and watched David Neel, the president of the Whidbey Island Beekeeper’s Association and owner of Island Apiaries put the three-pound “package” of New World Carniolan bees into our hive. New World Carniolans do better in our cooler, more humid weather than other strains of bees do. They’re winter hardy, build up very quickly in spring, and are good wax and honey producers.

David removed the teeny cage containing the queen from the package and brushed the worker bees off into the hive

David removed the teeny cage containing the queen from the package and brushed the worker bees off into the hive

Her highness, the queen, in her teeny cage

Her royal highness, the queen. She will lay about 2,000 eggs a day during her 2-year lifespan.

David removed the cork from the queen's cage using a dental pick

David removed the cork from the queen's cage using a dental pick

David used a dental pick to remove the cork from the queen's cage

Then he plugged the hole with a mini-marshmallow. This plug is called "candy." The worker bees will eat through the marshmallow in about three days and release the queen.

David poured the rest of the bees into the hive while Adrian watched

David poured the rest of the bees into the hive

Adrian looks on while David gingerly places frames over the bees in the hive. Ours is a second hand hive that we bartered for. The frames have wax and goo on them, but the bees will clean them spotless within the next three days or so.

Ours is a second hand hive that we bartered for. The frames have wax and goo on them, but the bees will clean them spotless within the next three days or so. Here, Adrian looks on while David gingerly places frames over the bees in the hive.

David placed an empty super full of frames over the one containing the bees

After hanging the queen's cage between two frames, David places an empty super full of frames over the one containing the bees

David pours the syrup that Adrian and I made into the top feeder. The bees will consume this and start building comb. How they turn sugar water into wax is as mysterious as cows turning grass into milk.

David pours the syrup that Adrian and I made into the top feeder. The bees will consume this and start building comb. How they turn sugar water into wax is as a mystery to me.

Adrian places the cover on the hive.

Adrian places the cover on the hive

Adrian screwing on a flangeOur bees are coming soon, and we need to have a stand ready to put the hive on when they arrive. By following the verbal instructions of David Neel (the president of the Whidbey Island Beekeepers Association–web site by yours truly), we built a hive stand today. Having found nothing like it on the Internet, I thought I’d describe the process.

I found a cedar plank that was left over from building the house and cut it in half with a hand saw. Because I don’t have a power saw, this was easier for me than cutting a piece of plywood to size. I knew that if I connected these planks via braces, they would accommodate the 22 x 16.25-inch dimensions of a Langstroth hive‘s bottom board.Adrian screws one of the legs into the flange

It took two trips to the hardware store, but we eventually gathered:

  • four half-inch galvanized flanges
  • four half-inch galvanized pipes (threaded on both ends). These come in various lengths. Ours are about seven inches long.
  • four half-inch galvanized caps
  • three 6-inch galvanized braces
  • 28 one-and-a-half-inch wood screws.

I marked and pre-drilled holes for the flanges. Or tried to. Both drill batteries were dead thanks to the offspring, who got a talking-to.

Once the flanges were screwed onto the boards, I pre-drilled the braces and screwed those on. Then we put the caps on the pipes and screwed the pipes onto the flanges. I suppose you could do it without the caps, but I found that they offered a cool self-leveling feature. It was easy to loosen or tighten them to level the stand.

Adrian with the hive stand. Legs are in tin-can ant moats.The finished stand looks like a little coffee table. We placed it on six 2 x 8 x 16-inch pavers, and placed tin cans under the legs. Pouring oil in these cans creates a “moat” that prevents ants and other invaders from scaling the legs of the stand and entering the hive. This is why I opted not to use regular cinder blocks or a wooden frame as a stand. I like the idea  of keeping uninvited guests out of the hive.

While she stayed at the Writer’s Refuge, Carolyn Gale took the following pictures of our goats, for which I’m grateful. Now that they’re grown, it’s fun to be reminded of how downright adorable they were.

The goats are named after four of Saturn’s 23 moons. The does are Pandora and Rhea, and the bucks are Calypso and Pan. Moon names are inspired by the name of our farm: “13 Moons Farm.”

Calypso When they were smaller, we took all four goats for a "browse" occasionally Adrian would bolt down Foxglove Lane, and the goats would tear after him Adrian would bolt down Foxglove Lane, and the goats would tear after him Calypso was Adrian's favorite Calypso visits Adrian in the fort he made out of fire wood The girls look so much alike, that we tell them apart by their collars. Pandora = purple. Rhea = red.

Our chickens hit the 18 month mark, which is when they molt. They stop laying eggs during that time, so they can devote all their energy to “changing their clothes.” Buying eggs just feels wrong when you have a bunch of chickens and it was a strange feeling to have to ask guests to bring eggs for a pasta-making venture.

Photo by Adrian

Photo by Adrian

Thankfully, they have begun to lay again. After they molt, they lay fewer, but bigger, eggs.

The Big Snow took out the net above the chicken yard, and today some chickens figured that out and flew over the fence. We were dog-sitting for friends while they went skiing over the weekend, and the dog attacked one of the escapees. Adrian thought the chicken should be dispatched right away to put her out of her misery, but despite the deep puncture wounds in her back, she looked like she had a chance to me. 

So I brought her inside and, with Adrian step-and-fetching, held her on my lap while cleaning and dressing her wounds. She remained bright-eyed and calm throughout most of it. We wrapped her in an an old towel and put her in a plastic tub. 

Chicken hospital

It’s funny how conscious we are of the threat that wild animals pose to our livestock. Though owls, hawks, eagles, raccoons, and coyotes could all kill our chickens, none ever have. Three Four have been killed and one has been injured by the dogs of friends or neighbors. And unlike wild animals, none of them did it because they were hungry.

A postscript: the chicken died around midnight of the second night that she spent in my room. Rest in peace, little hen. Thanks for all the eggs.