Winter’s Gift

Out third week in snow, it’s a once in a lifetime experience, or so the old timers say. I’m not sure this is the last time I’ve seen snow, 18″ to be exact, fall within a week and not melt away. It’s a great drink of water for thirsty soil, trees, and aquifers. We do suffer drought, even in Western Washington. This snow will help, bring resilience to a landscape once temperate and damp.

The animals are struck by the change, and a little resistant to striking out in fields of crusted white impediments that continue to strike at their knees. Can’t say that I blame them, snow overflowing my boot and a wet sock make transporting ones self around the landscape uncomfortable. Better to den up in a warm space with food and water under cover. I can take a page from the livestock. The goats were happy to brows on living material, though briefly. Inside alfalfa flake magic speaks loudest, and there’s not much else to nibble with a thick frosty icing smeared over pastures, even covering blackberry thickets.

The trees were spared, melting fast enough to save most branches, no wind came to our ridge-line. There is still time in the forecast for ice, but most wind occurs in fall around here. At the moment, as I type this documentation, we are socked in by fog. A snowy blanket, which held us in another time; quietly spread across the landscape, melting away. In a few more days of rain and warm temperatures, the hostage green earth will unfurl, continuing her budding out to signal Spring.

Easily read pathways will fade, disconnecting from our attention. Tracks of readable activity vanish into earthly divots upon duff and turf. One does not have to suffer illiteracy when the substrate language changes. But if you are remedial in experience, snow helps to highlight some easy reads. Tracking in snow is paramount to learning the language of movement; dare I say habit? Even at the farm, human paths, our transition of habit across the zone one living space, shows up in well worn footsteps, shared direction towards basic needs.

Hibernation is welcome, though the responsibilities of care for the farm and self mount in times of inclement weather. Taking brakes, warming up, staying dry, these needs merit productivity. Though plans have slowed, projects continue. We’re germinating seeds, incubating eggs, processing food, and eating preserves most enjoyed during the coldest, darkest months. This is winter in all her glory; Leafhopper Farm celebrates this season and shares gratitude for hearth and annual rhythms.

There is also a feeling of change; traveling on the glimpses of blue sky, a beam of sunshine through the clouds. When this snow has melted, our evergreen world will return. Before the winter storms rolled through, I saw cherry trees in blossom, the flowers of oso berry about to unfurl, and nettle was leafing out. These are all heralds of Spring, and she is on her way to The Pacific Northwest. This is winter’s final act, and the finale was huge. Grateful for the frozen wonder, which has captivated our rhythms of daily life, forcing a final reflection of what has come, towards what will be; are you ready for bursting forth? Life is stirring just beneath the ground.

Winter Wonder

Well, we’re breaking snow records here at Leafhopper Farm. Last night we got a full 6″ on top of several other dumps we’ve had in the past two weeks. Supposedly this is the final big storm, and it’s still coming down out there as I write this. Luckily, not much is sticking any more, but that could change as the evening sets in and temperatures drop again.

This morning I did a lot of snow shoveling for the first time here in Western Washington. It was a race against time before the warm up would cause the light fluff to glaze into cement. Yesterday I did manage to get to town, but now, there’s over a foot on the ground quickly turning into hard crust. It’s going to be an adventure to get out tomorrow. I’m still thinking about cutting a path now, but things on the main roads are slick; safety first!

With a lot of snow comes the joy of skiing the farm! I got in a few runs and will get in a few more today. It really is a pleasure to briefly enjoy my favorite winter sport on the landscape. Though the runs are short, the energy of flying down my hill, seeing the land from a different perspective, and hiking back up for more fun is very rewarding. This is the third winter I’ve had the pleasure, but the first without my pup Indo running along. She is deeply missed.

We shoveled the roofs to keep things safe. With over a foot, the older buildings don’t have enough roof pitch to keep the snow shedding properly. We’ll still have to watch for ice dams as the melt begins. Right now the weather keeps going back and forth between snow and rain. I bet the roads tonight will be awful, so I hope everyone gets home safe.

I took the picture above before dawn, granted, we’ve had a few days of slight melt here and there, so this table is stacked with our two most recent snow falls. Not the grand total, which could be well over 14″. I’ve never seen anything like it here, and may never see anything like it again in my lifetime. Or will I? Some experts say this will become the new norm for Western Washington. I do hope not, because I moved here to have a temperate place without snow in the low lands. After years on the east coast, I was ready for a thaw.

Here’s a picture of the snow pile right outside the window by the truck where I shoveled this morning. It’s at the sill! Any more large accumulation and we’ll have some real challenges. I spent an hour digging out stall doors and the coop entrance this morning. The cold is sticking around for another week at least, and there is talk of more snow, though nothing like the dump on us last night. I do love snow, but in the mountains, where I ski, not in the lowlands, where I live in a temperate rain-forest.

Another good reason to embrace this snow is the slow watering our forest will get from it. We’ve been in a long drought here, with no real sign of change coming soon. This summer will be no exception, but at least now we’ll have enough snow to fill reservoirs and give the land a good drink before the heat comes. It could mean a lower risk during fire season, which is a welcome comfort, though not guaranteed. Off to take a few runs on the land again while this whiteout continues. Safe driving out there!

Incubation Time!

The hens have been laying consistently at 9 a day this winter, and things are beginning to amp up, even with the cold weather we’ve been having. In mid-February, we start selecting eggs to incubate for our Spring hatch. Twenty little mysteries are going into our incubator this week, and we’ll expect baby chicks in March.

How do I pick the eggs? Well, it’s about form and size. Not too big, not too small- just right. I look at shell thickness, shade of color (which can tell what kind of minerals the hen who laid it has), and overall quality of form. Big eggs come from older hens, meaning lower overall quality for breeding stock. Too small an egg may not even develop a chick at all, and was probably laid by a young hen who has not reached her own maturity yet. Last year I selected only light colored eggs to try to maximize the Ayam Cemani probability in the chicks (the light cream colored eggs are from the pure Cemani stock). This year I am going for wild cards- all colors to produce a diverse flock.

Above is a picture of last year’s incubated clutch, all black and mostly Cemani genetics. I say mostly because there were still traits from the diverse hen population. Our ladies are still a rainbow of colors and breeds, which add fresh genetics to the flock. We’ll eventually be a Cemani dominant farm, but still need to bring in outside birds to keep the gene tree broad and healthy. A little line breeding with our best stock is ok, but the DNA wheel has to keep turning to keep health and productivity present.

BlackJack and His Ladies

In sorting breeds, I’ve taken a liking to our speckled Sussex. They are calm, good brooders, great foragers, and tend to get on well within the flock. You can see an example of this breed in the picture above, center stage in her specked glory. We may soon only select one or two other breeds to mix into this flock, but are still experimenting with a few other hardy, larger laying hens, like buff orphington. I do know that Americana crosses with Ayam Cemani are not great- the hens tend to be small, with too much wild streak in them. Great for overall survival, but not for a home flock of hens.

BlackJack is still our breeding rooster, for a second year in a row. His genetics are great, and giving us a dominant Cemani genetic boost in the flock. In the picture above, you can really see his green sheen. In Java Indonesia, where this breed originated, that green color is very prized, and shows the health and character of the bird. BlackJack is a great rooster too, with little to no aggression shown towards people, but plenty of protective spunk when aerial or terrestrial predators threaten the flock. This is the temperament desirable in a rooster, so we’re giving him another year to show off his prowess in the coop and on the farm.

Next year’s genetics will come from a younger rooster we’re cultivating as our next breeding cockerel. Ayam Cemani roosters do not get along, no matter how many ladies are around, so our younger roos have to be penned separately for the main flock. Right now our young one is in the shop where it’s warm, with a lady friend to keep him company. With luck, this up and coming star will switch places with BlackJack next fall, integrating into the flock through two seasons before we select eggs next winter. This young rooster will receive a name once he’s part of our breeding stock. Any ideas what we should call him?

Leafhopper Farm is committed to the continued development of an Ayam Cemani flock. In future, we hope to sell good breeding pairs of this unique bird for other small farms seeking a good homestead breed that is hardy, productive, and unique genetics. The Cemani continues to shine, and it’s genetics are growing stronger here on the farm. We look forward to seeing this year’s newly hatched chicks, and sharing them in future blogs.


Snow Tracking

bobcat- Lynx rufus

Animals are afoot here at Leafhopper Farm. When snow comes, tracks are out, are we’re taking full advantage of the great reveal. The biggest highlight was a bobcat zig-zaging across the back field. We know they are here, but it’s always great to see the sign and get that friendly reminder of how frequent they really are in our area. Though not our largest cat, they still pose a real threat to the livestock of our farm, so we do what we can to keep them happy in the back field, where these tracks were found, and not near the chicken coop.

This bobcat track pictured above gives you a little hit of how big the cat is. It’s a healthy size track, and about twice the size of our domestic feline friends. Its zig-zag pattern is to cover more ground as it searches for potential prey. As the predator moves across the landscape back and forth, it can more easily catch the scent of everything moving across the path. If the cat were to travel in a strait line, it would likely miss the rabbit or deer track only a few feet away by not crisscrossing around. Rabbits, deer, and other prey animals, tend to keep in a strait line from point A to B.

Here’s what the bobcat is most likely to run into as it trolls along- cotton tail rabbit. These lagamorphs like to sit and eat in one spot for a while, making a depression in the snow or sand, as seen below for comparison.

It might be hard for the untrained eye to see what’s going on in these two pictures, but you have a rabbit sitting in a spot for a while, even burming up the sand/snow in front of him/her while they eat, rest, groom, etc. A bobcat is hoping to run across one of these rabbits as they rest and relax. If the cat can catch them off guard, there’s a chance it can hunt successfully and get a great meal out of the deal. This is the reward for zig-zaging across the terrain.

One of the best places to look for tracks in the snow is along fence lines. Above you can see a lot of what i call rabbit chatter. The bunnies were going back and forth along this fence on both sides until they figured out how to get through, or not. I also saw some older, more covered up deer tracks, which I will post below. Sometimes wildlife is moving through in the snow, or between snow fall, so you are often met with subtle divots in the snow, without form. So how do I know it was a deer? Well, that’s another more advanced part of tracking; looking at the spacing between tracks and how the pattern spreads out across the landscape.

Deer have much longer legs than bobcat or rabbits, so they have a longer stride. Still, their path is narrow, so the foot falls are not widely spaces either. Deer also tend to go in a strait line, or on well used paths across the terrain. Rabbits meander around, usually in and out of thick cover, the bobcat crisscrosses, and the deer take a strait shot. These are all usual movements, but there are exceptions. So, the best way to know for sure is watch an animal making the tracks and then study them. Otherwise, you are most likely guessing, which is ok, just be aware that you are not “sure”.

A fun part of tracking involves seeing the small details. There are all kinds of tracks to discover if you take the time to look, and snow offers a rare chance to track the everyday movements of common species like birds as they flit in your garden, yard, or front step. Many species hang out right around human activity, homes, office blocks, and even grocery stores. Keep a look out around parking lots and green spaces. You’re likely to find more activity happening than you might think.

Since we’re in for several more snow blankets in the next week, lots of tracking is in store. The farm is a winter wonderland, with lots of activity happening all around. Though most of the domestic animals are snuggled up in their coops and stalls, the wild animals are moving about in search of food, water, and shelter between the storms. We’ll keep watching the fresh powder for sign of life in this thriving ecosystem. More to come from Leafhopper Farm!

It’s Cold!

We’ve dropped into the teens at Leafhopper Farm! This is wonderful news, and a rough time of farming with animals. The good thing about this deep winter freeze, is that pest insects are getting knocked back, making the season next year a lot easier on our young plants. This does mean some beneficial insects will suffer too, but cold snaps are normal, and we do need them at least once or twice in winter. The bad news is- it’s cold, very cold, and water buckets are freezing, animals are stressed, the whole farm is in a stand still until things warm up again. It adds a lot of work to our plate during a time of “rest”- not a lot of growing going on- and to top it off, Liz has a cold, which does not make going out in the cold easier.

Luckily, WWOOFers are here to help, so things are not too stressful, but with more snow on the way, we’re a little worried about buildings collapsing from the weight of snow, so shoveling might start on the roofs soon. We have already had one casualty, one we knew was overdue on a structure that was already compromised…

The greenhouse was already struggling, and we had planned on rebuilding next year using metal frame to abate wind and snow. The storm this last week was enough to prove the point; plastic pipe cannot hold up in bad weather. That’s a well known fact about PVC construction, but we did get a whopping 5 years out of her, and know we do need a greenhouse, so the investment of a more complex system is now well understood, and we know the ins and outs of what the farm will need. That’s the important take away from our initial “pipe dream”.

Since we’re expecting another storm at the end of this week, precautions are being taken, and everyone now knows what snow on the farm means. Hopefully with this second snow, we go back up into the 40s and melt it all away, this will be a good thing for our pond, and great slow drip watering for all the trees, who are struggling with hot summer drought. We’ll also be watching the snow load on our other structures. Here in Western Washington, snow is rare, and a lot of buildings to not have the construction to hold heavy snow, so we’ll be watching our roofs closely.

For the livestock, this freeze is a challenge, but we’ve moved goats and sheep into the old stalls, where they will receive better shelter (complete enclosure) and a sturdy roof- for a shed! We’ll have to go directly to the well house to fill water buckets, but that’s ok, so long as the water keeps flowing at the source. Thankfully, we are small enough an operation to easily do this by hand, I cannot imagine large farms being able to keep up with this without added stress. I actually enjoy the slow down; it gives me a chance to study systems and plan for the future.

Again, we’re all fine here at the farm, and even the cats are thriving, though they are not happy about the snow on their paws. Cold! Many of you who come from much colder places may laugh at what we Western Washingtonian’s consider cold and snow, but to a temperate rain-forest ecology like this, a week of teens where we don’t get above freezing is out of the norm, and a real game changer for our overall forest ecology. If this keeps up, you are going to see major change in this region within our lifetime. Though I’ve spent a lot of time in New England, where winters are long and harsh, I chose to live here in Western Washington, and to farm, in a region that is hospitable in winter. Hopefully this is a rare continuance, and we can get back to our milder winter weather soon.

To give a final bit of reflection- last week cherry trees were blossoming and crocuses were popping up. Now we are in a deep freeze, and a lot of the young buds of Spring are dead. This might have a major impact on the spring bloom, especially our fruit trees. But that could be the new norm here at Leafhopper Farm. With smart design, and good observation, we’ll continue to evolve with the natural world around us, learning what is possible, and when to plan for the unexpected. For all those experiencing unusual cold this winter, stay safe and warm, we’re with you!

Winter Greens

We’re still growing food through the winter months here at Leafhopper Farm. The cloche is full of greens like mustard, radish, and spinach. Slugs have also found this delicious winter haven, and we’ll plan on putting some beer traps down to address this plant predation. The cloche gets watered about once a week, and stays covered most of the time. Next week sill be a real test for this bed, as the temperatures are dropping into the 20s for the first time this year. The cold will remain for several days, and it could freeze the bed, even with cloche cover.

The two cold frames are also thriving, and the one pictured above was never purposely planted, yet a crop of spinach has risen to the occasion, and looks great. I have not watered this cold frame at all, but the water still finds its way to the plants underground. Perhaps the roots are wicking water up from below? We also have a crop of spinach outside the cold frame, and I’ll be harvesting that before the cold snap hits next week. Otherwise, it will all die in the heavy frost.

My root veggies, like carrots, have also done well under cover. Soon we’ll need to pluck these yummy root crops from the soil, and it might be this weekend, before the ice lock comes. The winter this year has been mind, lulling the farm into a false sense of security. I almost put out cover crop seed two weeks ago, and am very glad now that I did not. When seed directions say wait till threat of last frost has passed, you should do just that. Seeds will be direct sewn after April 28th.

At the farm, we’re working to cultivate food year round, and that’s going to take more covered space. The greenhouse was utterly destroyed this winter by strong winds. Since it’s also about time to replace the plastic, we’ll rebuild the whole structure using metal framework to support long term survival against high wind, something that will continue and could get a lot worse in future.

Next week will also usher in a chance of snow. Though snow is rare in our area, it does usually happen a few times each year. The climate future projects more snow, and that means we’ll have to design strong cover to prevent collapse of our food shelters. Glass is ideal, and the cold frames are easy to set up and move as needed, but glass in general, unless scored from a fee pile, is expensive. It’s also a very heavy material, so making a whole building of it would be challenging and vulnerable to violent weather.

With a few more cold frames, and the planned design of a new greenhouse next summer, we’ll have plenty of room to grow food through the colder months, and hope to cultivate smart design in future so our investment in growing space can sustain its self through wind, snow, ice, and other natural chaos that is mother nature.

Pillow Tank Update

After some seasonal ironing out of logistics and parts, the tank is now sealed and filling. Not from roof catchment, yet, but directly from the well, without filtering, so we can get things flowing for summer irrigation at Leafhopper Farm. It’s not a complete system yet, but getting water put away for the dry times is a must, and our well pump is working a few hours each day through the next few weeks to get us set for summer.

Using a hose was not our original plan, but time is short and filling now while the water table is high assures us a full tank by July, when water will become scarce. After we spread the tank and fenced it off for protection, our only hindrance to filling was a way to keep the tank closed and easy to open once full. A ball valve was on the original packing list, but some how did not make it in the order so we had to get another one on back order, and it arrived this week!

With an open/closed switch in place, we were able to begin filling our 20,000 gallon pillow tank directly from the well, bypassing out filter so as not to overload the black comb filtration system on the well. Because the water we use from the tank will be for irrigation only, unfiltered well water will be fine. The inflow spot is directly above center of the tank, so a hose can be pushed right into the top and keeps the tank filling without and spills. We’ll have to fill only part way, so someone can walk out (with no shoes on) to the center when we are ready to attack the roof catchment system. Till then, we’re running the well a few hours each day to get a jump start on filling.

Water on top of the tank material in the picture above is form rain. The inflow valve has no water leaking out. It’s hard to see in these pictures, but the tank is slowly filling. Right now it feels a lot like a partially inflated water bed. We’ll keep monitoring the water level as the days go by. We only fill for a few hours each day to prevent the well pump burning out, and also to allow eventual approach when we need to attach the roof catchment system.

In the above picture, you can barely make out a slight puffing up of the tank. It’s like someone is slowly filling an air mattress, only it’s a water mattress! The visual change will take a few weeks, and remember, until we get the roof catchment setup, we don’t want to fill things too much, or no one will be able to reach the infill cap when we need to attach the roof catchment outflow. The adventures in water catchment continue here at Leafhopper Farm!