Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Garden Teaches Hope

A few weeks ago, my sheep razed my garden.  I was particularly hit by the loss of the sweet potatoes - I had 4 different Hawaiian strains from a few slips my niece gave me.  Not only do I love the tubers, I also love the leaves.  The sheep left the turnips, although they at the greens, but they decimated the  collards, Brussels sprouts and carrots. 

When I saw the sweet potato leaves all gone, I just about gave up on the garden.  The fence was down, no one was helping me with protecting the garden or keeping it up, and there didn't seem to be any point to keeping on.

Later, on a walk (I always do my best thinking on the move), I decided I didn't care if anyone was going to help - I was going to fence this darned garden and start again.  Either my determination caught fire in my husband, or he just didn't want to see the hash up I would make of the fencing, but a week or so later, he bought some of that plastic emergency fence and enclosed the olive trees and the garden. 

That's been a few weeks now, and nothing has been done with the garden.  Today, I went out to peruse the area to see what I needed to do.  I learned a lesson about resilience and hope.  The sweet potatoes have sprouted new leaves and are spreading.  The purple variety seems to have crossbred with the yellow variety, because some of the leaves have the shape of the yellow variety, but they are purple. I accidentally bred a new variety, it seems.  The collards stumps left over from the sheep are covered in new growth - even the lettuce is coming back after being eaten to the ground. 

There is still so much I need to learn about plants and gardening - but this was a hopeful, lovely lesson. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Am I Mean?

It's 5:15 pm.  When I went out to feed this morning, I locked the horses out of the stall.  They can stand under trees if they get hot - they hollowed out a stand of waiawi and it's always cool in there. 

I think my husband usually feeds between 4:30 - 5:00, but sometimes it is a darn pain to get everyone where they are supposed to be.  So, I am thinking, if I wait until they're really hungry, the chickens will go where they're supposed to be, the sheep and horses ditto. 

It is just plain hard (and probably pretty funny for the observer) when one or two chickens decide to run around the coop, or forget how to get from the horse stall to the chicken coop.  Twelve hours ago, they successfully navigated the trip from chicken coop to horse stall, but, you know, they are chickens.  In spite of a bad reputation, sheep got nothing on chickens in the dumb department. 

So, here I am, standing at the window looking out at all the animals lined up at their respective gates.  Not the chickens....but they're pecking in the general direction of the right place.  I get a kick out of going out there with the re-purposed coffee can/grain scoop.  The chickens make a mad dash for my legs.  The sheep start running and the horses set up a chorus.  I just hope this vague feeling of guilt for making them wait for half an hour is balanced by the neat marching in file of animals and fowl heading for their respective places. 

Otherwise, I will be chasing chickens with half an eye toward that bad ram. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Food Supply, Real "Farms", and Realities

I was talking to my kids (in the car, where we do our best talking - all facing the same direction somehow facilitates conversations), explaining to my son that he needed to find a ride to his wrestling tournament.  I told him that I would normally be his transport, and not miss it for the world (we'll go later that morning), but that some folks were coming to get a quick tour of the "farm".

I heard the disparaging tone in the repeated word, "Farm..."  (I was spared the eye-roll because, as I said, we were in the car, all facing forward .  Thank goodness.  Eye-rolls drive me bananas.)

My reply was, "To people who live in cities, having chickens and sheep is a farm.  Even if we know better." 

It made me think that even though we've been on these 7.5 acres for nearly 16 years now, usually with some kind of livestock - horses, chickens - it was the sheep that made it feel like a "farm".  I remember as my husband was videoing our first lambs, he said, "Now, it feels like a real farm." 

I suppose real farmers or ranchers would get a good laugh at us.  We both grew up in the suburbs, really;  I, at least, was exposed to horses through riding lessons, earning lessons through stall cleaning and feeding.  But, we are certainly nowhere near where I would like to be with producing our own food.  Some weeks, we do better than others.

85% of the food eaten on the Big Island is imported.  This is the biggest island and fairly sparsely populated when taken as a whole.  There is a lot of land available for food production - even large cattle ranges.  It seems both shameful and scary to me that such a large percentage of our food is imported. 

I had a Big Island rancher sit down with me at a family dinner and explain the economics of beef production in Hawaii.  It is cheaper to ship off the yearlings to the mainland to be finished in feed lots on the cheaper grain there then it is to raise a steer to market weight purely on grass.  Grain doesn't grow well here, so if you wish to put on the rapid weight gain grain gives - you would either need to import the grain at high fuel cost or ship the cow to eat cheaper grain.  It takes twice as long to finish a steer on grass alone. 

There is a relatively vocal and growing push for "eating local".  This has undertones it may not have for people outside of Hawaii, but taken at face value - eating food that is produced in the Islands, including grass fed beef is becoming somewhat popular.  It is also somewhat elite, unless you grow your own, because locally produced vegetables and meats are often sold at a premium in natural food stores.  The Big Island is fortunate to have many, many farmer's markets - although I have heard rumors that not all that lovely produce is actually grown locally, that some of it is shipped in by wholesalers from Asia.

Beyond all the fad-like rhetoric, the political overtones, what have you, the fact is that for my family, eating local is a matter of economy.  I honor all my other commitments, like paying my mortgage, buying gas so I can get to work, feeding my animals, keeping the lights on, etc., first; the food budget is what's left over. 

That means when someone asks me what I am doing this weekend and I say, "Probably gardening and baking," what she hears and what I mean aren't probably the same thing. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Into Every Life...

They say a little rain must fall into every life.  As a metaphor for someone who lives in a rainforest, it is a bit lacking.  As you know, between October and November, we easily had 100 inches - not a definition of "little rain". 

However, we've entered the season of drought here. The dry season can be a week or two, or it can last for months.  In 1998, we had four months of dry weather and a 2300 gallon catchment tank.  I used to lie in bed doing geometry in my head - figuring out the dimensions of the roof and the tank and figuring how much rain I would need to fill up an inch of water in the tank.  Figuring out how many gallons of water an inch in the tank worked out to be.  It didn't make it rain, but it kept my mind occupied.  That year, we did haul water in clean covered garbage pails; we had a trailer that made that task easier. 

We don't have the trailer anymore, but we do have 10,000 gallon storage.  It would seem like a much better situation, but the fact is, we have more animals, and the children are much bigger.  We go through water alarmingly, these days.  Some drier years, I am reduced to taking laundry to the laundromat to preserve our water at home. 

We were getting a little low in the tanks last week, but we've had a few days of sporadic light rain.  I am preserved for a bit from the dreaded laundromat runs, but the South winds and vog are back today - so we'll see about next weekend. 

Catchment tanks are a life lesson.  If we lived in the city, the lack of water is somewhat removed.  You intellectually know the reservoir or aquifer is depleted, but you don't see it - it isn't your immediate responsibility.  When you have your own water supply in your yard, that emptying tank is fairly immediate.  When the rain is pounding down and my garden is washing away and the hooves of hoofed animals are getting mushy, in the back of my mind is the awareness that lack is also a possibility in the near future.  I begin to wish that I had more tanks to catch some of the superabundance. 

When the dry weather comes,  you half enjoy the sun and the lack of mud on your floors and the shine of hard healthy hooves and half worry about that tank level.  It's a judgement - when do we start taking minimal showers or take the laundry to the laundromat? 

It seems like every week the morning news program gives away tickets to Las Vegas.  I am not even remotely tempted to try to win those tickets - the water in my catchment tank in January is enough of a gamble for me. 

(Update on Buddy, the lamb, for those of you who are interested:  Against my expectations, Buddy is doing much better.  He is still weak in the hind end, but he is determined.  He gets himself where he wants to go, and I even saw him nursing!  My husband had to go find him yesterday - like the Good Shepherd with his one lost sheep - he'd wandered quite far in his determination to move.  If his heart isn't damaged, he may live - gimpy, but resolved.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lamb Blues

The bad luck sheep (my daughter named him Buddy) is in bad shape - but it's still an improvement over last week.  He is up, somewhat ambulatory, and eating, but it's not great. 

My husband had him out in the lawn where he could see him, and he got a good ways on his own - up a hill and all the way around the house.  I have seen him navigate some pretty good obstacles, but one brush from his sister and he's down. 

The bottle isn't working, so I feed him formula from an oral dose syringe - 10 mls at a time.  It takes quite awhile to give him even 8 ounces.  He is eating grain concentrate and able to graze, so that helps.  Although I don't hold out much hope for him, every day he seems stronger - I feel like I need to give him a chance. 

I know if we had a big commercial operation that the decision would be different, but a small family farm can afford a little sentimentality.  Since he seems determined and not in pain, I will give him that shot at life. 

Thursday, January 19, 2012

White Lambs = Bad Luck

We got home rather late; there was an accident on the way home.  It was nearly dark when we drove up the driveway.  My husband greeted me at the garage with the news that the ram lamb was down and could I come see. 

I still haven't named this one.  He is attractive with the Barbados markings and a white coat.  He was down and in an awkward pose in the sheep pen.  He looked like a bundle of clothes thrown on the ground in a heap.  He kind of flailed away from me, all legs in a different direction. 

Unfortunately, I am still a novice shepherd, so the next step was to run to the Raising Sheep the Modern Way, the internet, and email (thanks, yet again, Deb).  Looking over my shoulder, my son remarked, "There sure are a lot of things that can go wrong with lambs, aren't there?"  So I have a list of possible culprits: selenium deficiency (in spite of free choice minerals, the county extension, and a vet telling me no selenium deficiency in volcanic soil), tetanus (in spite of me giving him an injection when I castrated him), lamb polio, meningitis, an injury (maybe Elvis stepped on him?), and worm overload. 

To cover a few bases, I gave him a dose of ivermectin to cover the possibility of meningitis from a snail and worm overload, a dose of electrolytes and children's vitamin to cover thiamine/B vitamin deficiency, a shot of anti-toxoid to cover possible tetanus issue, and a shot of penicillin, just because.  Basically, I threw everything I had at the little guy. 

This morning, his neck and front legs were under better control, but his back leg muscles are still flaccid - there is no tone to them at all.  He can kind of get up on one of them and scramble along, which is an improvement.  I called a few vets - no one really treats sheep and no one really has BoSe, so I am going to try a cattle version available at the feed store. 

It seems that our white lambs are under a cloud of bad luck - last year, we lost all our white lambs to predation, a uterine torsion, or smothering by other sheep.  It's too bad, because they are so much more attractive than our more usual black lambs with the white patches on their heads.  This is how superstitions are born, I suspect.  It's getting to the point where instead of greeting a pretty white lamb with appreciation, I feel a frisson of unease. 

On a happier note, I just talked through a gardening project with a math teacher.  Part of the māla space in the back is opening up.  We'll keep up with the taro planting, but we're also going to do a vegetable garden.  We laid out our learning goals, skills, and products and we're both excited!  I still feel that urge, even in my novice stage, to spread the message about personal food production.  I love to check in with my dad and to hear about his "inundation" with vegetables from his lanai garden.

Good news is the better than coffee to pick me up at the end of the day.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

I Always Wondered....

When I was a child, I read a lot about the Holocaust;  I wondered what it would have been like to live in a time and a place and watch your country slip away into something you didn't recognize as home.  I couldn't imagine finding myself in a situation where suddenly neighbors have to choose between turning against each other or protecting each other.  I wondered if I would have the courage to hide someone in my home because of their religion or race.

I am not saying that we are anywhere near that point now, but I was disturbed today to turn on the news to hear that police are gathering to talk about homegrown terrorism - to look for signs like protesting the government, participating in online discussions which protest the government, participating in activities which are viewed as strange or extreme to others.  Coupled with the Re-authorization of the National Defense Authorization Act which now allows detention of Americans for suspected terrorist activity without cause or recourse to the presumption of innocence until proof is offered, I find this perturbing.   

After all, I can point to a dozen people within yards of me as I sit here at my desk who think I am nuts for going home to a farm after teaching adolescents all day!  What if someone decided that growing your own food, either animal or vegetable, was extreme or strange?  What if someone decided that homesteading was a protest - an attempt to be more independent from an economic system which is showing cracks and destabilization?

50% of the American population are against whatever current government is in power - polls show us split down the middle on every issue.  Could it be possible that, using these guidelines, whomever gets elected in 2012 will be able to point to a section of our own people and declare them subversive? 

I like to presume positive intentions.  I presume this is not the intention of these laws and discussions.  I presume that lawmakers and public safety officials intend to save lives.  As an English teacher, I also know that words and ideas have power, that words can be twisted and misused, and that ideas can be beautiful, but also dangerous.  Efforts to protect need to be balanced with an awareness of civil liberty.

Although not labelled as terrorism, the news on raw milk sales, on litigation based on GMO genetics invading open pollinated food crops (and it isn't the farmers using open pollinated seed who are suing!) and other home produced food issues is a bit of the same battle - the battle between "safety" enforced by agencies who sometimes have little understanding of what they are enforcing and the civil liberties of the homesteaders and farmers and their individual customers.

No one has told me, "You can't eat that lamb/egg/cucumber you raised."  However, given the current climate, I could see it happening.   Not so much telling me I can't, but regulating how I feed or handle the food I produce - that would put a big crimp in the backyard homesteader's life!   And it seems, based on my knowledge of history and literature and ideas to be entirely possible.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Shopping for Chicks and Seeds

My internet is poky today, so this has been a rather frustrating hour or so.  I have been trying to find the best price from a hatchery that will ship to Hawaii.  Ever since the bird flu, new rules on shipping birds to Hawaii have been enforced.  It is enough of a pain in the butt that some hatcheries just won't do it. 

I made a deal with the local mechanic's wife that I would raise 25 meat birds for her, that we would process them together (learn together) and that in return, they would do some brake work on the old car our kid drives.  I also wanted to start phasing out the older hens in my yard and possibly to sell some point of lay hens.  So I am actually looking at about 75 chicks - 25 for the mechanic, 25 for my freezer, 25 to raise/sell.  The first 50 will probably be Cornish X, which will mean an 8 week turnaround.  If I go with a more traditional heavy bird, that might be more like 12 weeks. 

As far as seeds go, I have picked out several varieties of different things I know will grow well here and several varieties of things I want to try.  I just need to find the best price.  One of my goals this year is to try determinate tomatoes so I can have enough to can all at one time.  I want a mix of indeterminate and determinate.  Last year, I had 7 jalapeno plants and there was an abundance of peppers - this year, just from a fruit that I let sit too long, I have 17 pepper plants.  I need a lot of tomatoes for all the salsa those peppers will make! 

As a stopgap until the permanent fence replaces the defunct bamboo/electric fence, we have put up orange emergency fence around the garden.  It is not a serious barrier to sheep, but we hope it will fake them out until we can put up the real fence.  Since any seeds I put in this weekend will take a few weeks to look attractive to sheep, it might just work. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Rainfall Totals: Front Page News

You can tell I live on a small island.  Today's top local story was rainfall totals.  The subtitle referred to my community as the wettest spot on the island.  Yup.  I knew that.

The article also said that we only got 64% of what we usually get (which is about 233 inches a year, apparently), but I have seen rainfall totals from the 1980s which were more in the 180-200 inches a year range, so that might be an exaggeration. 

What they didn't mention was that most of that rain fell in the last two months.  Nearly 150 inches of rain over basically 60 days.  In the words of my students, it was rather epic. 

It's dry now; not as dry as I feared it would be (I loathe having to spend Saturdays in a laundromat with all the other people who are on catchment), at least not yet.  We've had a few inches of rain, here and there and both our 5,000 gallon tanks are mostly full, fortunately.

With the increased sun (with 150 inches of rain falling steadily for two-three months, there wasn't much sun) I am hoping my chickens will bump up egg production.  Actually, I am also hoping I can figure out where their new hiding place is.  They seem to be moving the stash.  I have 14 chickens, and I am only finding about 4-6 eggs, so somewhere there is a jackpot.  I hope I can find it before it is too late. 

As we head into spring, I am hoping to find a new ram and buy a new rooster.  I also need to start planning for new seeds.  There are some new vegetables I would like to try and some new varieties of the usual vegetables. 

The new lambs are doing fine, if still nameless.  I had a few days of worry over the ram lamb,but a nail file taken to the teeth seemed to make the difference (thanks for the suggestion, Deb) and he is getting quite as big as his sister now.  I am not expecting any new lambs for a few months, so we'll have a little bit of a break in that area.  My husband is making some progress in cutting down the thick waiawi in our pasture - he is trying to make a straighter path for the fence- so that project is coming along.  I am looking forward to the animals being where they are supposed to be. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Not a Lot of Farming

Not a lot of farming going on at my house.  I keep my plants watered in the greenhouse - and this weekend I need to transplant quite a number of little seedlings.  The sheep have a routine, which still includes razing what's left of my outside garden every afternoon.  I decided that I am not a quitter, and I am not going to wait for a permanent pasture fence.  I am putting some plastic emergency fence up this weekend to see if that deters them and and the chickens. 

To tell you the truth, the mower deck on the tractor is broken, so I am not all that unhappy that the sheep are eating the lawn.  That is how big landowners who wanted a lawn did it before the invention of lawnmowers, after all.  Frankly, as the kids get bigger and busier, I don't see the point of having half an acre of lawn, anyway.  I want to dig most of it up and have a REALLY big garden - if I could get some help with the pernicious steel cable grass. 

I still feel like I am in limbo.  Things are stable, but in an untenable pattern, and we, as a family, need to make quite a few decisions and changes. About two years ago, I quietly decided I had to be responsible for everything - things went more or less smoothly for some time.  Maybe it was an illusion, because I feel the way ahead is very rocky, right now. 

When I was about 8, I decided I was going to clean up the play area in the basement of our home.  I piled every toy my sister and I owned in a huge pile and then threw a rug over it all.  Some of the toys were play furniture and those big cardboard building blocks, so the pile seemed nearly as tall as me.  My mom was very gracious; I learned the word "immaculate" that day! (I know now she must have been laughing inside).  Perhaps by deciding I was the only adult in the house I have been reliving my 8 year old "cleaning" spree - now it is time to look under that rug and really get the house in order. 

On a good note, my one New Years' resolution that was specific and real is going well.  For years, I have been pretty bad about keeping myself hydrated while working.  Most days, I would drink a cup of coffee with breakfast and that was it for pretty much the whole day.  Sometimes, I would even forget to drink water with dinner.  Obviously, I often felt tired and horrible.  Well for five days now, I have been consistently hitting at least 84 oz of fluid every day.  Good news for my poor body. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Dry January

Unlike most places elsewhere in the state, January is dry here - which means cold (sometimes down to the 40s at night), sunny, and finally, no mud.  It also means conservation time with the water, because we are on a catchment system.  I hope we don't get low enough that I have to start taking laundry down to the laundromat.  That takes huge chunks of time out of my weekend not to mention takes a big bite out of the food budget (that money has to come from somewhere). 

I had some unexpected visitors this week.  I called a friend of mine who used to work for the Department of Human Services to see how to help my co-worker with her very ill husband.  It turned out that he and another classmate were here with their wives for a few days.  They came by one evening and it turned out that one of the wives was interested in doing some small farming.  She was terrified of my dogs (very unscary dogs, unless you are a sheep, I suppose), so I suspect small farming means chickens and vegetables.  We took a flashlight and tromped out to see the lambs and the greenhouse. 

I took advantage of the weather and indulged myself in a walk today. I went five miles, but when I was almost home, my daughter was walking out to find me.  We walked another mile or so and then came home.  I (always) have so many chores to do at home, so a walk is a real indulgence.  We're planning to go to church this evening, so I need to get chores done in the next four hours or so:  baking the week's bread and snacks, laundry and some transplanting in the greenhouse.  On that note, I suppose I had better get going. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Feels Like a Crossroads Point

Usually in the thick of life, I just forge ahead and crossroads moments appear in the rear view mirror, as it were.  Perhaps because it is the beginning of a new year, I feel like I am standing in a decision point, trying to figure out which way to go. 

The last three months have been a blur of constant rain, a rush of end of semester activities at work, and preparation for the holidays.  Because money was tight, I made up for it by baking and making other treats, to keep that holiday spirit with the very few presents we were able to buy.  In fact, going back to work felt like a respite!  Because of the rain, everything on the farm slowed down - repairing the fence was impossible, upkeep on the animal pens was more about damage control than actual deep cleaning, and the garden was literally a washout.  What survived the rain in the garden was eaten by sheep as they treated the non-functional and sagging electric fence as if it weren't there. 

The fact is, my job alone is not quite enough.  We slide into payday each time and any kind of variation from the monthly budget (car repairs, doctor's visits, etc) are not easy to cover.  We've done a lot to mitigate this by lowering some of our utilities, trying to grow more food, cutting down on groceries that aren't the building blocks for scratch meals, getting more creative about feeding animals, etc.  There are a few more places to cut in that sort of budget-level, but the squeak room there is really just a few dollars, and doesn't contribute to a more tenable, long-term situation. 

I did apply for some online and local tutoring agencies and so did my currently unemployed husband.  I am not having much luck, because there seem to be a glut of English tutors and my full time job has to take precedent over any other opportunity.  I think my husband will have more luck, because of his skills in upper level math and science, but he will need to brush up a bit on the vocabulary, etc.

Although these steps are part of the choice of ways at the intersection I feel myself at now, the biggest decisions are about what to do with the farm in 2012.  It would be stupid of me to continue to plant in the outside garden until the permanent field fence is put up between the yard and the pasture.  I have been planting in the greenhouse, but it is a fairly small space so it won't be productive in a way that will really put a dent in our food bills.  My husband has plans to build a bigger greenhouse, but he doesn't have any plans beyond building it - I know I can't teach, tutor, scratch cook/bake, hang laundry (takes 3 days to dry in our normal weather, so it is an all-week chore for five people), keep my small greenhouse going and handle an 800 square foot additional green house, too.  I let the small greenhouse get shockingly neglected during October - December.  Once I cleaned out the dead and dying and nonproductive plants, I planted more greens, more tomatoes, more peppers (probably way too many peppers in several varieties - I will be making lots of salsa), but the fact that I let it get so bad in the first place tells me that it will be difficult in the coming months.  Second semester at my new school is full of extra duties for staff - and my son is graduating, which is a whole other proposition.  I have financial aid forms galore to fill out, too!  Even if I often make big plans, overestimating my capacity, I am trying to be more realistic. 

In big dreams, I want to get a dairy animal or two (if goats).  I want a huge outside garden and a productive greenhouse garden for tomatoes and peppers and greens.  I want to work an extra 15 hours a week to bring in the money I need to feel secure, to handle extra expenses.  I want to continue to bake all our breads, make breakfast each day for my family (instead of the increasingly expensive cereal that has been so easy for years), cook ahead on weekends so weeknights aren't so slapdash for dinners (burritos again, Mom?) 

The Crossroads Decision is which one of these big dreams do I work and which several do I have to put on hold because I am one middle-aged woman who does need to sleep and to read at least one hour a day?