bees, farm, honey, Pleasant Hill Ponderings Blog

Beekeeping Blues

Well, we lost another hive. It’s a situation I’m becoming all too familiar with. After increasing to eight hives two years ago, we’re now down to three. We lost several hives last winter, one this summer, and one last week. I’m learning a  good hive can fail fast.

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The pitiful remains of a tiny cluster of bees that froze to death

We had a  drought this summer, and that was  rough on the bees. No rain equals no nectar equals no honey. Despite feeding sugar syrup, the bees never seemed to build up a large population. I’m sure varroa mites probably played a part. So far, I’ve taken the “head in the sand” approach to varroa, hoping that the tiny mites weren’t there or that our bees, which we caught from swarms, were somehow more resistant than normal bees. But, in my gut,  I know varroa is there and playing a part. We had a booming hive last spring that collapsed this summer. That’s a classic varroa sign. And to make matters worst, we not only lost all the bees, but we also lost their comb because wax moths (another pest) destroyed it. A lot of people have had success with the treatment-free approach for varroa, but obviously I’m not doing something right. This year I’m going to monitor mite levels and treat if need be with essentials oils, like thymol, and natural acids, like oxalic acid.

Overall, I just need to do a better job taking care of the bees, from feeding them (sugar and pollen) in times of dearth, to monitoring mite levels, and checking for queen productivity. Natalie is helping me now; she has her own bee suit. Having a second pair of hands while checking hives has made things a lot easier. If the three remaining hives make it, I’m going to try my hand at grafting and raising queens to increase our number of hives again.

It’s disappointing to lose another hive, but hopefully we can learn from it and become better beekeepers. I know it’s no fun to keep losing bees.

farm, farming, garden, Pleasant Hill Ponderings Blog

Old Man Winter is Here

A New Year is here, and it has finally turned winter. With lows in the upper teens, some collards couldn’t hold out and got zapped. It’s a shame because we finally had a buyer lined up who wanted to buy in bulk. One thing I’ve read in countless farming magazines and books is to always have a market lined up before you put the first seed in the ground. I guess that’s good advice, but I’ve never been confident enough yet in my growing skills to try to pre-sell produce. This year I planted 1,000 collards, hoping that I’d be able to find a market if, and when, the time came. Well, the time came and went for some plants.

I was able to sell a good number of collard bunches at the farmer’s market and a few by word of mouth. I had planned to set up a roadside stand, like we do for our tomatoes, but the endless rain didn’t allow for it. I scrambled to try to find a wholesale buyer. One lady who owns a produce stand said she could remember selling hundreds of collards for New Year’s. But she said now people just don’t cook anymore, and young people, if they like collards at all, like them pre-chopped in a bag from the grocery store.

After striking out there, I then called a chef who works in the café of a factory that employs 400 people. To my surprise, he wanted collards. I took him 30 lbs, which is a lot of greens, on Monday. It was a surreal delivery. To walk the boxes of collards through the plant to the cafe, I had to have my photo taken, after which I had to don a freshly-printed nametag with my photo on it, an orange safety vest, safety glasses, and ear plugs. This was a very modern facility, with people manning robotic-type gizmos and tools. The café in the facility would put many restaurants to shame, and the chef was trying to buy as much local food as he could reasonably afford.

He said he would go through those collards in no time, and, in fact, the next day he called wanting more. Unfortunately, the cold snap came through that night, so future delivers might not be as much as I would have liked.

As much as I’m disappointed I lost some collards, the contact I made might be even more valuable, as the chef said he would be very interested in buying tomatoes and strawberries this spring and summer. And that’s how things seem to go with farming. One thing leads to another. From roadside stand to farmers’ market to chef, from chickens to bees to pigs, from tomatoes to strawberries to collards, each is a little gateway drug to the next.

At some point, and maybe I’m beginning to reach that point, I think I’ll begin to “just say no” to new farming ideas. Still, it’s kind of hard with farming to know what works and what doesn’t and what’s worth doing and what isn’t until you try it.

farm, Pleasant Hill Ponderings Blog

From Brambles and Bradford Pears to Strawberries and Apples

We’ve owned our little 20-acre farm for about two years now.  One of the first items on our to-do list after we purchased the farm from Natalie’s grandparents was to plant some trees—apple trees. We had a good spot for a potential orchard, an unused quarter-acre patch of land that was grown up in brambles and wild Bradford pears. Wild Bradford pears are vengeful creatures, with spiny thorns capable of puncturing a tractor tire. In the spring of 2014, we carefully cleared the pear trees, burnt off the weeds and brambles, and then plowed the patch.

After that, we planted a summer cover crop of buckwheat (which the bees loved) and a fall cover crop of crimson clover.

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The cover crop of buckwheat

We also planted the apple trees in the fall, in November 2014. We planted 12 Winesap, 12 Arkansas Black, 7 Grimes Golden, and 1 Lowry.  These are all heirloom varieties, which we ordered from Century Farm Orchard in Reidsville, NC. The owner, David Vernon, was very helpful. Both the Arkansas Black and Winesap are nearly sterile, so he recommended the Grimes Golden for pollination. We ordered one tree of the Lowry variety for Natalie’s poppaw’s—his name is Lowry.

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You can barely see the apple trees sticking out above the thick layer of crimson clover in spring 2015

The trees are grafted on M 111 rootstock, so they’ll be about 15 feet tall when they’re full grown. We planted them with 20 feet in between trees.  It will take four to five years till they produce an apple. With the extreme drought this past summer, it may take longer. Thankfully, we didn’t lose a tree, but several failed to put on much growth this first year.

So what do we do for four, five, or six years? Well, we could just wait. But’s that no fun.  Hmmm. I’ve got it—let’s plant strawberries. Yep, that’s what we did: we planted 1,200 strawberry plants between the rows of the apple trees this fall.

Right now, the strawberry plants are under row covers, more to protect them from deer than cold weather. But so far they seem to be doing pretty good. If all goes well (and there’s a lot that could go wrong), we’ll have strawberries in four or five months—and apples in four of five years.

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Rows of apple trees and strawberries alternate–the strawberries are under the white row covers in this photo
garden, Pleasant Hill Ponderings Blog

Bad Carrots

This year Stephen maxed our garden spot to capacity. For weeks we were loaded down with lettuce, carrots, butter peas, brown peas that I don’t have a name for, green beans, tomatoes, and peppers – and this year we wanted to try and save some of our favorites items to use throughout the fall and winter.

Lots of lettuce ready for the picking

There were some successes and failures….we’ll start with the successes because the failure story is a little rank.

All form of beans were nicely blanched, bagged, frozen, or dried. They are all safely stored in the pantry or freezer.

Onions and garlic were harvested, dried, and hung in the barn loft. Now that most of the hay is gone, it is pretty easy to get up there and move about.

And then, there were the carrots. Our carrot crop didn’t do very well this year, but we still had a good plenty to store up. We had heard once that you were supposed to store carrots pretty much the same way that you store potatoes – and I still have no idea how true that is.

Most people around here just store potatoes under the house. Well, to successfully get under our house you need to be about the size of a small child…and since I wasn’t too confident that my cousin would jump at the chance of volunteering her three year old for the job…we decided that another solution needed to be found.

Stephen and I thought about it for awhile, and figured we’d try using an extra styrofoam cooler. After all, coolers are dark, dry, and are easily sealed up. Looking back, I think it was the easily sealed up part that got us in to trouble.

A few weeks later I’m in the kitchen fixing supper and I smell this horrible stink – and I mean unbelievably horrible. Then I notice this toxic brown slime dripping to the floor – where the heck is this coming from!

The carrots…

Carrots can not be stored in a cooler. They will rot and mold beyond belief – colors and stink that you did not know existed! The toxicity of the slime will be great enough to rot through a styrofoam cooler. I thought styrofoam could not be biodegraded!

Stephen was heartbroken. I promptly sent him outside to get rid of the carrots; he was still speaking out in denial between dry heaves and gagging at the deadly stench radiating from that box.

So friends, what have we learned about food storage and life in Pleasant Hill in today’s post?

  1. Carrots cannot be successfully stored in styrofoam coolers, just stick to the under your house method or preferably whatever a legitimate carrot farmer suggests.
  2. Stephen’s hair really is like mad Bob Ross hair when it hasn’t been cut in several months….and yes his eyebrows are just as big.
  3. We may have discovered a solution to the problem of non biodegrading styrofoam in our nation’s landfills – just seal it all up with some fresh carrots and let nature do it’s thing….if you can handle the eye watering odors that it will emit.
  4. Onions and Garlic in the barn are really nice…plus you feel all old timey when you go cut one down to cook with. Good idea Stephen!
garden, Pleasant Hill Ponderings Blog

Now Spring Has Clad The Grove In Green

Now spring has clad the grove in green,
And strew’d the lea wi’ flowers;
The furrow’d, waving corn is seen
Rejoice in fostering showers

– Robert Burns

Spring is always full of new things and the most vibrant shades of green. Despite the sniffles, sneezes, and itchies…..this spring is particularly exciting. There are lots of new things taking place and growing up around the farm – there’s never a dull moment and always plenty to do.

We are adding three new chicks to our flock this year.

Dangerfield – Golden Cuckoo Marans


Zillah – White Plymouth Rock

Quigley – Easter Egger

We’ve got over 200 new blubs of garlic growing in the garden….plus over 200 onions….and at least 100 carrots.

Not to mention all of the new tomatoes, squash, watermelons, and peppers at the house waiting for their day to move to the big garden.


New leaves on the apple trees.

And the house….waiting for new paint.

garden, Pleasant Hill Ponderings Blog

Sultry Sunflowers

Recently we’ve had plenty of rain and wind, even tornadoes, in our area, and last week the sun disappeared altogether. This week the sun is predicted to return, but I’m ready for the return of sunflowers and the warm weather that accompanies them.

Last year, Natalie and I planted sunflowers for the first time and found them very easy to grow. In fact, the sunflower seeds we planted came out of a bird seed mix, and they germinated and grew quickly. Once, I read in some gardening book that you should always plant sunflowers in your field to act as a watering gauge. If the sunflowers start wilting, other crops will soon follow.

Garden box sunflowers

We planted our sunflowers in a garden box facing south where they received the hottest afternoon sun. Even in the heat, they were slow to wilt and seemed to thrive without much extra water, so I don’t know— maybe sunflowers aren’t the best watering gauges.

I do know that our sunflowers were a big hit with gold finches and bees. The gold finches would often eat the seeds hanging upside down on the flower head. Although I saw a few honeybees on the sunflowers, they seemed more popular with a small brown and yellow bees. At any one time, fifty of these little bees might be gathering pollen and nectar off of the same sunflower head.

There’s an online project called the Great Sunflower Project (www.greatsunflower.org) in which you’re supposed to count the number of bees, during a fifteen minute timespan, that you see on a sunflower each month. This year, I think I’ll do that. It will be interesting to see if my new honeybee colonies work the sunflowers like the little native bees did. I’m going to plant a lot more sunflowers this year, so hopefully there will be enough pollen and nectar to go around.  I saved the seeds from last year’s sunflowers, and I’ve also ordered some new heirloom sunflowers seeds called the “The Evening Sun”: http://rareseeds.com/flowers-n-z-1/sunflower/evening-sun-sunflower.html

Well, even though it’s cold outside, all this sunflower talk has at least got me thinking warm thoughts.

chickens, Pleasant Hill Ponderings Blog

Chickens and Horses

For years, Natalie’s Poppaw has kept horses, and occasionally he’ll rotate them into the chicken pasture. Chickens are entertaining creatures in their own right, but add horses to the mix and you’re guaranteed humorous antics.

Natalie’s Poppaw can tell the story of a stray hen that “took up” in the barn and made a habit of riding around on horseback, Napoleon style. Apparently, it was a win-win situation: the hen pecked free meals off the horse, and the horse got his back scratched and relief from flies.

Our chickens and the horses

So far, our chickens and the horses get on well together, too. The usually overprotective roosters don’t appear the least bit threatened by their much larger companions, even though the horses sometimes nudge the chickens around the pasture with their noses, as if dribbling soccer balls. Sometimes the chickens walk back and forth beneath the horses, or stand behind them and pull their tails. All in all, the chickens and horses seem to be good pals.

Perhaps the funniest episode between the chickens and horses occurred when Goldseeker got into the coop. At the time, it wasn’t funny at all, but looking back on it, Natalie and I laugh. Instead of wings and wattles, Goldseeker has hooves, a mane, and a very good sense of smell. One day, this sense of smell led him to the chicken coop.

The coop is rectangular, 6 feet wide by 10 feet long. A hen house is on one end of the coop and a door, 2 feet wide by six feet tall, is on the opposite end of the run. We often  leave the door open so chickens can go in and out to get food and water when free-ranging in the pasture–never dreaming that any of the horses could actually FIT through the door itself. Evidently, Goldseeker smelling the chicken feed just squeezed right in and made  himself at home.

Natalie and I had a horrible time getting him out of the coop. Since his rump was blocking the door, I had to squeeze between Goldseeker’s backside and the door frame to get into the run. Thankfully, he didn’t kick me. Once in there, I had little idea what to do. First, I tried turning him around, but he wasn’t cooperating and there wasn’t enough room anyway. Then, I tried removing the feeder. Goldseeker was batting the hanging feeder around like a piñata to spill the feed, which he then licked up off the ground. Natalie brought some hay to the coop to lure him out, but Goldseeker was determined to lick up every single pellet.

So, for what seemed like ages, three chickens, myself included, were trapped in a coop with a horse oblivious to anything but chicken feed. After he had eaten his fill, Goldseeker simply put himself in reverse and moonwalked out of the chicken coop.

In the end, I don’t know who was more thankful to get out of that coop–the chickens or myself! I know for a fact it wasn’t Goldseeker.

Gold and the chickens in the pasture
chickens, Pleasant Hill Ponderings Blog

A Hard Day’s Night

Over the years, our kitchen has produced great fried chicken, or so we’ve been told. We weren’t around to taste it, but our Poppow was. His job was to cull a poor-laying hen or extra rooster from the flock then deliver it to his mother. She scalded the chicken, plucked it, cleaned it, and cooked it. By all accounts, the fried chicken left a lasting impression on the memories and taste buds of those who ate it. Though this great taste was probably attributed to the cook’s skill, we shouldn’t neglect the chicken. According to American Livestock Breed Conservancy, many heritage breeds of chickens, like those formerly common around barnyards, are more flavorful, though slower-growing, than the broilers found in modern poultry houses.

This past weekend, Natalie and I processed our first chicken, testing this theory with one of our New Hampshire Reds (NHR), a popular heritage breed developed for both meat and egg production. Unfortunately, New Hampshire Red roosters have a reputation for aggression. Ours was no exception; we couldn’t turn our back on him without being attacked. Our other two roosters, a golden comet and a white Langshan, are peaceful enough toward us, yet protective of the hens, so they were spared for breeding. Alas, our NHR wasn’t.

Twister

Even though this rooster had been terrorizing us, killing him wasn’t pleasant. I’ve gained a new respect for farmers who raise their animals humanely, yet process them for food when the time comes. Killing an animal you’ve raised, whose coop door you’ve opened every morning and closed every night, to whom you’ve brought food and water daily, isn’t easy. But as hard as we knew it would be, we felt we should do it rather than some stranger from the sale barn.

We decided night would be the best time. Although it was drizzling, windy, and cold, we wanted it over with. We removed the sleeping chicken from the coop and proceeded as quickly as possible. We used a killing cone, in this case just an orange traffic cone turned upside down, in which the chicken was placed with his head sticking out the small end. The cone kept the chicken still and prevented him from flapping. I cut the jugular vein on the side of his neck. In about a minute, though it that seemed like ages, his eyes closed for good.

Thinking back about that night, I still feel a little repulsed. Although I believe it was the best thing to do for our flock, killing the chicken was an unpleasant experience.

Nevertheless, my wife and I went ahead and plucked and cleaned him. In our minds, to eat him was to honor him. This part took a while, but eventually we ended up with a roasting bird of 4.3 lbs. The next day, Natalie roasted him whole in the oven. Since the bird was about 6 months old, compared to 6 weeks old for modern broilers, his texture was slightly stringy, but his taste was superb. Natalie soaked the bird in a saltwater brine for about two hours, then  buttered and seasoned it with salt and pepper. Then, into the oven, it went.

Two hours later, we were eating chicken, a free-range chicken, a chicken we had raised from a day-old chick. Of course, we tried not to think about this. We ate him, thankful to be rid of a mean rooster, yet thankful for him, as well. People who say chickens are, well, just chickens have never interacted much with them. Yes, they’re livestock, but they’re smart animals, whose personalities, for lack of better of word, become apparent as you raise them. Some, unfortunately, turn out meaner than others.

History, Pleasant Hill Ponderings Blog

Fledgling Farmers

Natalie’s great-great grandparents

My wife, Natalie, and I live in a white clapboard farmhouse built in the 1800s, and slowly but surely, we’re learning about farm life—by trial and error, by research, by watching my wife’s Poppaw.  He lives next door, and we rent the farmhouse from him.

My wife’s Poppaw comes from a long line of farmers, living in Shelby, NC, the self-proclaimed “City of Pleasant Living.” His grandfather built our house in 1893, when just about every square inch of the region was farmed for cotton. Now widespread cotton fields and ubiquitous fiber mills are gone.  But Shelby is still a pleasant place to live.

On some evenings, from the front porch, we watch three goats play beside a stoic quarter horse. The goats and horse live together in the pasture of our neighbor, Asa. We watch barn swallows hunt insects over the pasture, as the sky changes from blue, to pink, to purple. And as the sun retreats over Asa’s red barn, we talk about our dreams of raising sheep and alpacas, of selling produce and eggs at the Shelby farmer’s market.

My wife and I are in our mid-twenties, and we were raised in a generation mostly separated from the farm. Sure, our families had gardens, but food came from the grocery store and our parents’ livelihoods came from jobs unrelated to the soil.  Unlike our parents, who were born of cotton and tobacco farmers and who can remember the horses and cows and chickens, my wife and I remember other stuff—like my video game Age of Empires, in which tiny medieval farmers plow and harvest fields at the right-click of a mouse.

To say the least, we’re a little detached from farm life. But we’re trying. Although Natalie and I will probably never quit our day jobs, we like working in the garden and raising chickens in our free time. Indeed, in the past year, we’ve learned about several old farmstead activities, like making lye soap.  At an arts and crafts sale at a local university, our Bishop’s Tallow: Handcrafted, Hand-milled Soap was one of the biggest sellers there. After creating several fragrant varieties, from milk and honey to lavender and rosemary soap, we learned that soap-making is mostly a down and dirty process and that rendering tallow (a euphemism for purifying beef fat) renders the kitchen smelly, at least until you wise up and do it outside.

Wising up is what we’re trying to do. We like living in an old farmhouse. We like learning that deer aren’t eating our tomato plants, but cutworms are. And who would have thought that night crawlers aren’t the best composting worms because at night they have a tendency to crawl out of the compost bin and dry up on the floor? Indeed, while living in this old farmhouse and trying our hand at hobby farming, we’ve learned a lot from making mistakes. Most importantly, we’ve learned to have fun making them.