Drought Worries

We’re in for a hot summer, and the water table is lower than it’s ever been at this time of year. I can judge this by the pond, which is lower that it’s ever been at this time of year. Even with the slow melting snow, which blanketed our region in almost 20″, there is not enough water. When it snowed in February, we then had a month of dry cold. This meant no rain, and that trend carried over into March, where on the last two days of winter, we had 79F temperatures for three days. A nice Spring welcome, but a detriment to the temperate rain-forest climate of The Pacific Northwest.

Seedlings are not springing up in lush green pastures. There are few blossoms out because they were trying to peek out in late January before the snow. Now many hang dead and brown from the tips of many trees and shrubs. There is rain falling now, but barely enough to soak the ground. It’s our rain time, and there is so little falling, we won’t rebuild our ground water before the hot summer hits. And it will be hot.

Fire marshals around the state are already in a frenzy. They can’t find enough firefighters to fill their crews. People are burnt out, literally and figuratively from the past five years of scorched earth all around. The heat will not stop, and even when we’ve had record breaking rains in Winter, the Summer fires keep on coming. This summer is going to be very brutal, and anyone not aware of water conservation in our area is going to feel the pain of a dry well, maybe for the first time.

At Leafhopper Farm, we’ve got an extra 20,000 gallons for watering, but that’s for the new orchard, not the gardens and other productive spots in our Zone 1 area of cultivation, not to mention the young oak and chestnut groves in the outer zones. This Summer will be a real test for us all. Besides the plants, I’m also worried about the people. We don’t have air conditioner, there is no filtration on the air from outside to inside, and with fire comes a lot of smoke. Western Washington may end up being a miserable place in summer.

Our stream has not flooded once this year, and that’s unusual, because Fall is a great rain time, and we didn’t get much, winter was too cold for rain, so we lost that, and now, Spring is holding back too. For people who don’t like rain, and there are many, this may seem like an ideal situation, with lots of good weather to go outside in. But for the ecosystem, it’s a death blow. We’ve been struggling with drought issues here for decades, and I think that stress is finally beginning to show in the red cedars.

The Western Hemlocks started crashing first. Many on my farm are half dead or fully dead. They are the first to decline in drought stricken landscapes, for they are major water lovers, and cannot stand too long with their roots dry. Red cedars are also water loving, but can hold up better to the dry months. It’s been too many months of dry, years, even decades. It’s finally showing in our “tree of life” as the native people reverently call the cedars. This life is drying up, turning brown. It’s subtle, like most change on a global scale. Yet many humans are still denying the painful truth; we are causing this change.

We caused it when we clear cut the old growth forests for mindless consumption. We caused it with chemical applications to the soil we eroded by clear-cutting and tilling. We caused it again with our burning of endless fossil fuels into the atmosphere, rendering our thin membrane of protection a greenhouse, cooking us in our own juices. Like a frog on slow boil, we enjoy the hot tub for just a little longer. Many have already drugged themselves out for the ride, while others skim what they can in short term prophet from the surface.

Watching young people marching for change is disheartening, because the only change they will see in their own lifetimes is one of suffering and decline. Slow decline, so we don’t feel it until it’s too late. Sorry to be such a downer, but this is the future of my generation, and those to come. So, while I can, I’ll try to steward a small piece of the world with intention. Leafhopper Farm is about taking what comes and turning it into more resiliency for food security. Nature is a great teacher, and with these lessons in climate change, I’ll also embrace the call of a lark, rustle of a squirrel in the hedge, or the braying of a lamb on the pasture, still clicking teeth on lush grasses as the lazes through a foggy morning. This is the calm before the storm.

Cistern Saturation

We’re all about resiliency here at Leafhopper Farm. A most recent installations to help combat our hot, dry summers is featured above. This 20,000 gallon cistern is holding more than just water- our hopes in jump-starting a food forest starts with saturation. Irrigation of young plantings during the summer on a full sun exposed south facing hillside means drought. If the intact temperate rain-forest were still present, the hillside would retain greater rainfall and bank it in the soil. This aquifer would then safeguard the forest in long term drought. Without the forest, rain cascades down into the valleys, flooding the farms and taking nutrients from the hills where we’re trying to grow things too.

Since the warm up in temperatures, we’re filling the cistern, raw, from our well. Raw, meaning bypassing the filtration system and pulling directly from the ground, which is fine for irrigation purposes. We’ve recently received our raw well tests from the lab, and the levels are reading safe and clear (meaning no biological contamination or industrial pollution). We could drink the well water raw, but continued development by humans, including lawns maintained with chemical treatments prescribed like medication on a landscape already stripped bare by our consumption, means eventually, pollutants will contaminate our drinking water.

The other danger of clear-cutting to our established development, like the farm, is wells going dry. In past drought runs, and we’re still in them, wells in the hill country have gone dry. We have a second well dug because of ground water levels dropping with the loss of so much rainwater. Why? Because there was nothing on the hillsides to saturate with rain, so all that water ran down into the valleys, causing 100 year floods every 10… now 5 years. Without vegetation to saturate the rain, holding it on the hillside to sink in, the land drys out. Saturating the landscape with human habitation is contributing too. Mass roof spans send water into torrents which sheet onto the ground forming currents.

In most smart building, the water is directed to a useful place, like a catchment basin to then allow the fast pooling water a place to soak in. Many designs simply pipe the runoff a few feet away from the building and into the landscape, maybe a drainage ditch or curbside runoff to a street drain. This sends that badly needed replenishment for the ground water, and water table, into the ocean, or an expensive sewage treatment facility which uses a lot of chemicals to “fix” the water before releasing it back into the rivers towards the coast. To fix this problem, we need to create saturation.

Because Leafhopper Farm now has this great cistern, we can flood irrigate larger swale systems, allowing slow seep into the soil where the water can be taken up by the trees and shrubs planted below. Our orchard will be easy to deep water, and the ground water from the cistern will nurture the restoration of a canopy to shade and protect the hillside, storing and utilizing more water on site, rather than loosing it to the oceans in runoff.

But we’re filling it with the well right now, right? Yes- and in future, the roof of the Mongolian ger (yurt) shelter will connect in to help fill the tank, but until the next stage of building here on the farm, we don’t yet have enough roof catchment to fill the tank, so we use the well in the wet season to make the total 20,000. That is the minimum water needed to flood our swales several times during the summer for watering needs of the food forest.

The cistern is built by MARS water tanks and shipped from GEI Works to Leafhopper Farm last Fall. We spent a lot of time planning and preping space to make sure the pillow tank would like it’s new home, and fill successfully. After some initial challenged with logistics and weather, we are now filling our tank to water the recent orchard planting in our largest swale field. Mom’s Orchard will produce apples, pears, and cherries, along with edible and medicinal plants with a focus on native species like silverweed. It will also become a place of silviculture study.

The tank was partially paid for by my Dad, rooting another big system of the landscape to family and the generosity and love we share. Leafhopper Farm is cultivating a legacy of stewardship, the tending of space in restoration; fostering awareness of what it means to be human in the natural world.

Mom’s Orchard

WWOOFers at Leafhopper Farm have been working hard to plant our new orchard in the swale system in zone 1 of our permaculture plan. After sinking the trees, deer arrived on the scene so every tree was then fenced for protection. We cannot afford risking the orchard in its infancy, and even with the new perimeter fence going up, the protection is not yet complete, and deer are ravenous for new young growth on easily reachable plants.

Leafhopper Farm will be hosting a “Young Trees” workshop on March 23rd, 10am-2pm. If you are interested, please email info@leafhopperfarm.com for details. We’ll be looking at several different ways to defend young trees from deer, livestock, and rodents. The workshop will cover planting young trees for success, protecting them while they establish, and the plan for long term care to allow a tree its full potential on the landscape.

Mom’s Orchard came about when Mom was with me on a visit, and we found a nice price on young fruit trees while out shopping. She offered to pay for a bulk buy and I jumped at the chance to get an orchard in one go. Thank you so much Mom! This farm would not be possible without the support of family, and their love. The orchard will be a long standing growth of that love and support, and I already love looking out the window every morning to see it and the joy it brings me in thinking about my Mother.

This connection to place is an important founding principle of Leafhopper Farm; cultivating a sense of connection to the ground that feeds us. The orchard is a step towards long term food security on the farm and surrounding neighborhood. A sense of family ties and lineage through my maternal line roots me to this place like the young trees establishing in the swales; to know that in just a few years, we’ll be enjoying sweet apples and cherries, pears, and plumbs, brings delight.

Seeing the trees in, and the cistern filling for summer watering makes me feel so good. We’ve finally got our drought resiliency system started. With a 20,000 gallon tank to flood irrigate, our trees will thrive and grow, establishing a canopy over the pasture. The trees are spaced to allow an under-story of other cultivated plants to also take root. We’ve planted silverweed, a good native ground cover (also food and medicine), and as the trees mature, shade loving companion plants can be added.

Once the ground covers, under-story, and canopy are established, the soil should retain moisture well enough to cut back watering almost entirely. That’s our goal in creating a forest, though its primary focus for us humans is food, for the landscape, its restoration and resiliency. The last two days of winter were record breaking in Seattle. We reached 79F on March 18-19th, far above the average 64F. This summer will test our ability to keep the gardens and orchards alive, not to mention the young oak grove, back field chestnuts, and other young growth established here at Leafhopper Farm.

The First Days

Valentine came home to Leafhopper Farm yesterday, and she’s such a joy. The puppy challenges are real, with sleepless nights and some pee spots here and there, but so far, no poop in the house- yay! She’s such a fast learner (typical of an Aussie) and I’m so proud to call her mine. Val is quick to know her name, come, and stay out of the kitchen. She’s having a lot of fun with her new toys, and loves being outside.

Her first adventure after leaving home was a walk along a causeway by the inland coast, and she paused to hear new sounds and smells everywhere we explored. After only a few hundred feet she was pooped out, and got carried the rest of the way back to the truck. Her smarts are so incredible, she knows to stick with me, stay in the truck when I open the door, and tell me when it’s time to go outside for a potty break.

The hardest night is always the first away from mom and litter mates, and it was a time of little sleep for me, but lots of great training in going outside to pee and poop, all of which happened in the yard and not the kennel. There’s still a lot of anxiety in this little pup about leaving home, but I’ll move the kennel into the bedroom tonight and make sure she knows I’m right there by her side. Kennel training is very important to setting good boundaries with a new puppy, and keep your house from getting torn up. It also gives the dog a safe place to be in the home, like a den.

Valentine is already going in and out of the kennel on her own, and enjoying the adventure that is the farm. This morning she was introduced to sheep, goats, and chickens. The cats are curious, though still keeping a safe distance, and Val is not chasing them, yay! Lucia, who is very pregnant, will have nothing of the pup, and gave her a swipe last night to teach polite distance. Vale (Val-ee) yelped away, but understood to give that black momma cat space. More animal learning to come I’m sure, but the pup is doing great.

Puppy-hood is short lived, so I’m really enjoying her small form and sweet sleepy afternoon nod offs. She’s most happy by my side, and I might be sleeping next to the kennel on the floor for a few days so we can both get some much needed sleep. Whatever it takes to make this pups transition into my home and the farm easier. She’s a bundle of joy and will be a great companion for years to come. Welcome Valentine to Leafhopper Farm!

New Puppy!

So, after a few years of waiting, I finally picked out a puppy for Leafhopper Farm. We had settled on a Large Munsterlander, but the momma dog didn’t get bred this year and I’ve been so patient, it was time to seek other options. I’ve been checking local shelters, contacting rescue organizations, but the final choice was made based on looking for a puppy to train up from a young age on the farm as part of the whole system.

Adult dogs come with baggage, and at the farm, we can’t risk behavioral issues or bad habits. Many of the rescue dogs were pit-bull crosses, and that “breed” is not acceptable on the farm. The other main count of adoptable dogs from the shelter were small breeds with short legs, who won’t keep up on a long hike or help with livestock. Some rescue organizations also have very high standards for a forever home, and since I have barn cats, many were concerned they didn’t have all their vaccines. They do, but it was still a struggle. I was shocked at how hard it can be to adopt a rescue animal in this area.

The puppy that finally became available was through a private household with a litter of Aulstralian Sheperd/Cattle dog crosses. Below are pictures of mom and dad.

Momma Dog

The bitch is a cattle dog mix- blue heeler and Aussie Shepard to be exact. She is great with kids, other dogs, cats, and all types of people. Great temperament! The male is an Australian Shepard show quality dog. That didn’t matter to me, but oh, isn’t he so fancy? He’s also got great temperament, and after meeting both parents on site, I knew I was going to have a special puppy with great temperment.

The choice to go with an Australian Shepard mix means we’ll have a working dog on the farm. She’ll be able to help me move the animals around, keep goats in line, and round up the sheep if they get too feisty. I’m excited to work with this breed and learn all about herding. Aussies are not actually from Australia, but Basque in origin, with a brief stint in Australia and New Zealand working sheep, before coming full circle to California with the Basques who worked on ranches out West here in America.

This breed is very high energy and smart, the combination can be a curse to people who don’t put in the training and dirt time with their dog. Since the farm is so active, and we’ll be going right into puppy classes with good socialization, our little girl will have the right foundational training to grow up healthy and balanced. She’ll be outside most of the time, working, with long hikes in the mountains, back country ski trips, and agility training.

This week her eyes opened, and I brought her home at 7 weeks in mid March. I’m so excited, and ready to be back in dog land with all the training and responsibility of puppy-hood to boot. This little dog is going to grow up to be an amazing friend and co-worker here on the farm, and we’re thrilled to have found such a great fit for Leafhopper Farm.

Hard Lessons in Hatching

We now have 5 new chicks out of a clutch of 18. This morning I put down two more with deformed feet due to being in the egg too long after trying to hatch. This is so hard, but a lesson that will not be forgotten. Livestock is in your hands, always, no matter the pain or struggle, you as the steward have to make the tough decisions about when to end a life and when to support one. I think if more people had these experiences, they would learn so much about the realities of life and death struggles going on all around us all the time. Maybe then there would be more humane treatment of people, as well as the environment.

It is never easy to take life. Killing is not fun, or even a little satisfying, it’s pain, and guilt about what you could have done differently to save a little creature you chose to activate into this world. I am so thankful I don’t have to do this on an industrial scale. The amount of chicks killed in the industry is mind boggling. Let’s start with the fact that male chicks are never utilized, they are half a clutch, statistically, and they are killed days after hatching for pet food. Just let that sit with you for a moment the next time you buy a bag of kibble with chicken in it.

I’m not trying to scare us all away from pet food, or chicken in the store, but please know the cost of industrial farming to keep the store shelves stocked with all that good choice of consumer product. It’s taking a toll on our humanity, not to mention the environment. How can we help? Well, how about buying from small local farms? How about not consuming from big box stores when it comes to animal products, or byproducts. If you start digging into the facts, you’ll be shocked at how much there is on those shelves. Ask restaurants where they source their meat- and know all fast food is industrialized.

At Leafhopper Farm, we will continue to brood and hatch our own chicks, to keep things small and manageable. This Spring we’ll be culling a lot of our flock to prevent future health issues like weak birds unable to hatch out. I’m not sure if that was the main culprit, but I can look at my flock and see birds that should be culled by size and stature, among other things. I wish I could say size does not matter, but in the layer hen world, small frame= low production= weaker birds.

The chicks that were put down were not gaining weight, struggling to move, and unable to care for themselves at all. That’s not a life for a chicken on a farm. For the five healthy chicks left, we’ll keep our fingers crossed that they continue to develop well, and give the best care possible to ensure safe, healthy birds for our flock.

We do cull most of our male birds, but only after they have grown up eating fresh pasture, organic grain, and matured in a free range environment. When the dominate rooster beguines singling them out and attacking, we know it’s time to cull. Our roosters go in the stock pot and are enjoyed as stew birds. We boil down the bones for rich broth, and are thankful for all the thriving life that is nurtured by every animal on this farm. It’s not easy, but it does teach diligence, grace, and respect for the challenge of survival.

Next year, with a well developed small flock, and good fertility management, we’ll have a new brood of chicks with better genetics. Hopefully the lessons learned this year will prevent another hard hatch like the one we’re experiencing now. I would loose heart if I had to kill baby chicks each year like this. It would become unbearable. I’ll take comfort in the five little peeping balls of fluff that have survived and hope they make it through to maturity here at Leafhopper Farm.

Lessons In A Bad Hatch Year

Well, lessons all around this year in the chick hatch at Leafhopper Farm. It seems the “chicken gods” are telling us not to rear chicks this year. Out of 18 eggs 7 have successfully hatched. Two died after hatching, and one of those three were hindered, with one fatality, after cracking their egg and then drying up in it. There is something wrong with humidity read in the incubator, because though it said over 40%, the little birds were still getting stuck. I think partly because of the freak positions of their eggs. They ended up with their eggs pinned to the side of the incubator, not allowing them to push off the top and break out. I’ve never had that happen with three birds! Also, only 10 out of 18 eggs were even fertile! I should have caught that, seeing as how a rooster can only service about 12 girls well and we have a flock of almost 40 now. *Sigh*

This is one of those very tough learning moments. Here are the solutions-

  1. Separate out the rooster with the girls you want him to breed a few weeks before collecting fertile eggs for incubator, that way you know he’s covered those girls and the eggs they are laying are fertile.
  2. When the rotation of the eggs as done (stopped right as they signal hatching with chirps) also take out all spacers to allow eggs free rotational motion.
  3. Candle eggs still not hatched after the first few days and remove unfertilized from incubator to make more room.
  4. Don’t open the lid of the incubator unless unloading a mass of chicks at once. And only then after those chicks are fluffed up and ready to come out.

Looking closer at the two deaths-

Chick A was taken out of the egg to quickly for convenience one night to get it under the brooder. There was no reason for this other than my worry that it would be in the incubator overnight- which is fine! My mistake in rushing the hatch. The consequence was the chick not having her little butt fully closed. When I tore her from the shell, I ripped her little bottom and it never had a chance to fully close. She fluffed out, but died because of the open wound on her backside which would never heal once dried.

Chicks are not always fully formed as they are hatching. Giving them time to seal up any open places and slowly dry out as they form is important. By rushing them out of the egg, you are taking an extremely vulnerable little life and causing great stress to the still developing embryo. Just leave the hatched chick alone until it is dry and fluffy.

Chick B was trapped in its egg after cracking the top, unable to free its self because of low humidity or being pinned in some way. Eggs should be allowed to free roam the incubator, rolling around as the chick breaks free. This takes some amount of spacing, so free up that space by taking out broken shells when you take out a clutch of chicks. Also make double sure there is enough humidity in the chamber, and to retain it, don’t open the lid at all! I also think I left the incubator vent open too much. I’ll do some reading up on that in the manual.

I did save two chicks dried out in their eggs. To do this, gently carry the bird and its egg shell to the sink. Run WARM (warm to your touch is fine) water over the chick and egg parts. Add a little soap and gently message the egg shell off the chick. By adding the warm water a soap, you are re-hydrating the liquid viscus of the egg which surrounded the chick and allowing it to release from the tiny feathers on the bird. You’ll feel the slick goo letting go and soon the baby bird will be free of its shell parts. Gently wipe off any remaining viscus and use a hairdryer on low to dry the bird or better yet, put it back into the incubator to finish fluffing out.

These are some of the hurdles you’ll face in brooding your own chicks. This was a strange year of hatching at the farm, as we had ALL of the challenges at once and only got seven living chicks out of our hatch. Let’s hope they all make it to adult hood! Baby animals are a challenge, and I’m not going to beat myself up too much over this learning experience, as I’ll have that much more experience in chick rearing next time. I can also start over this season, as it’s still early on in the year for rearing chicks.

Why do I start now? Well, in the commercial laying world, birds are usually shipped out to big egg farms in January. This leaves time to grow them out so that by mid summer, you have a laying flock. Commercial layer and meat farms don’t usually hatch out their own chicks because it’s a complex processes that takes all your time. Professional hatcheries spend all their time on proper breeding and incubation, then ship all those day old chicks to customers around the country.

Here’s a good hatchery video to learn more about what goes into commercial hatcheries- https://youtu.be/83LJtk8T3Co

I like starting my birds in February/March, not because they will be ready to lay by summer (they won’t) but to ensure they are old enough by fall to endure the damp cold weather. When my hens “rouge brood” aka, wandering off to make a next somewhere on the land where I can’t find them to hatch their own clutch, I find them by late summer, which is very close to the cool down time of fall. Baby chicks struggle in cold weather outside, so I end up having to bring them in and raise them through the fall indoors, which is not fun for me or the young birds.

If I hatch out my chicks by March, they will be on pasture by April, and outside thriving in the warm spring sun. This makes for better chicks, as they learn to forage on the grass and enjoy bugs and fresh greens more than grain. That makes for a healthy bird and healthy eggs for us in future.

Why not let the chickens hatch their own eggs? For the reasons mentioned above and- it’s hard to manage eggs in a coop because hens keep laying in the nest box of the brooding hen, so continuity of hatching is difficult. I could block off that hen’s next box, but then she’s trapped too. There are more elaborate ways to secure a natural hen and egg situation, but right now, I’m not equip, and prefer to select and brood my own chicks for best timing and the personal connection I make with the birds. This allows me to be momma hen and teach the chicks to come to my voice. It helps so much in controlling the flock on the landscape and gaining trust and easy handling of otherwise flighty birds.

When you incubate and brood your own birds, you have eyes on them constantly, you learn their habits, can spot a weak chick and cull it, and provide maximum nutrition, protection, and care to the whole clutch. Though it is not the most holistic way of rearing chickens, it is a more successful way of forming your flock, and long term health within it. We’ll continue to learn and evolve our chick systems, and welcome your input. How do you raise your chicks? Why have you chosen that method?