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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Chard Hit Hard

I’m a new fan of Swiss chard, after having grown it for the first time last year. Its edible Technicolor stalks – yellow, orange, red, magenta – alone would make this plant interesting. It keeps growing the more you cut. Add the qualities of leaves that can be eaten raw in salads or cooked, a hardiness that carries it through the winter, and a strong work ethic that keeps it producing even in summer heat when its taste-mate spinach has long ago bolted -- and you’ve got one versatile veggie.

Sounds too good to be true. Sigh.

Last summer when my chard plants were marked by tan, dried-up leaves, I chalked it up to extreme hot and dry July conditions. Everything else was wilted, too, and I thought water stress was the natural cause.

Chard is a biennial, meaning it grows one season and comes back the second, when it goes to seed. My chard plants sailed through winter, bursting forth with new greens early in the spring.

Yet I’ve already noticed the same sort of damage this year that occurred last, and I knew drought couldn’t be the cause so early in the game.

I more closely examined these leaves, practically recoiling upon discovering worms burrowing INSIDE the leaves, making something two-ply that I thought was just one.

I learned that leaf miners are the culprit. These maggots are the larvae of a fly that lays its eggs on the leaf. When the eggs hatch, the maggots go inside the leaves, leaving ugly black-dotted blotches in their wake. Eventually the leaves turn brown. The maggots I found ranged in size from 1/8- to 1/3-inch. After burrowing for a time the maggots drop to the ground, pupate and become another generation of egg layers in fly form.

Beets and spinach are also susceptible to leaf miners. For a leaf crop like spinach, they can be especially devastating.

By the time you see leaf damage, this downward cycle is well underway, and quite difficult to interrupt. These leaf miners know what they’re doing! As maggots they’re safely cocooned inside the leaf tissue, where two standard organic methods – handpicking them off or spraying with insecticidal soap – are thoroughly ineffective.

So what to do? My cursory research on this pest pointed to trying to kill the eggs by using Spinosad, a relatively new product, which is registered with organic growers. The eggs appear on the underside of the leaves. Long and white, they looked to me like tiny grains of rice neatly arranged in the same direction.

Another approach is to try to kill the pupae form in the soil, by adding beneficial nematodes. Using floating row covers is also said to help prevent the fly’s access in the first place. I’d be interested to know if any of you have tried these methods.

Realizing that every damaged leaf houses bugs seeking many great-grandkids, I thought it best to . . . well, nip this in the bud. I started to remove every single leaf with splotches. I cut them off with the stalk, which I separated and saved to take to the kitchen. Rather than composting these leaves, I chose to put them in the trash, because I don’t know if the leaf miners would survive the composting process. If you have chickens, feeding your brood is a great way to destroy leaf miners and their pads!

I also checked the seemingly pristine leaves for eggs. I found a few egg clusters on the top side of leaves, but for the most part the eggs were all underneath. I removed these leaves too, but set them aside for eating, since I can easily rinse or cut off the small sections with eggs.

This picture shows a plant before and after I removed damaged leaves. It was such a drastic transformation, that for the other plants I decided to save myself some time and just cut them down to about three inches off the ground. One of chard’s qualities is it will form new leaves even after such a brutal harvest.

Remember, too, that unlike spinach, chard’s stalks mean that this extreme defoliation was not a total loss. As far as I could tell the stalks were not affected by leaf miners at all. Yet from now on I’ll plant spinach and chard far from each other, so an infestation of one won’t be as likely to affect the other.

I will be more vigilant in my chard patch to remove any leaves with eggs or damage right away. I also hope that through more frequent harvest of smaller leaves there won’t be as many chances (i.e. places) for flies to take roost. If the problem persists on a large scale, however, I may dig up and destroy my plants altogether to try to get rid of these pests, and then plant chard in a new location in my garden this fall. (I saw ants tugging away what looked to me like the maggots-turned-pupae; maybe I could enlist them to help?) I’m not sure how cooler temperatures affect the leaf miner, but I will not let infested plants carry over into winter again, as I unknowingly did this time around.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Butcher Day

Today is butcher day. It is a day of mixed emotions – joy & sadness, stress & excitement, apprehension & relief. We have an appointment at 7:30 am at the Mennonite farm which is a half hour drive away. So we all get up at 6:00 am. The boys and I put the chickens in the back of the pickup with LeAnn on camera. My son Matthew has edited the video below. It is light hearted with Frank Sinatra singing “Killing Me Softly” in the background. I hope no one takes offence.

I drive the chickens to the farm and back up to the loading dock of the slaughter facility. I hand the chickens to a young man. He puts them into the killing cones head first and cuts the artery in the throat with one slice of a very sharp knife. As their muscles spasm against the confinement of the cones, their heart pulses increase and they quickly bleed out. It is painless and humane. Anyone who is fastidious about this ought to think about how many times you have seen Jack Bauer slit a throat or worse – torture someone. To what end? Entertainment. We need to keep things in perspective.

The chickens go into the scalder of 140 degree water. A basket rotates the chickens in and out of the water to loosen the feathers. Then the chickens go into the feather picker. This is really quite funny as you can see in the video. As they whirl around, you would think that it would tear them apart, but it is really gentile. It doesn’t tear the skin much less damage the muscle. The chickens go into shackles for evisceration. The young man handles the killing cones, the scalder, and the picker while three Mennonite women eviscerate the chickens. After evisceration, the chickens go into ice water. They are then bagged and go into coolers in my pickup and I take them home to the freezer.

There is a feeling of satisfaction to open the door of the freezer and see the stacked chickens, a year of Sunday dinners.

In the quiet of dusk I walk by the empty pasture coup and my heart sinks because my chickens are all gone. But I thank Heavenly Father that they gave their lives so my family can eat this coming year.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Question from a Reader-Peas

Do you stake your peas? Mine have grown so tall and now are falling over. Any words of wisdom would be much appreciated.


Michael and I have posts set up about 4-5 feet apart along our row of peas. Between those posts, twine is strung from each post in 6 inch intervals. As the peas grow, we weave the peas up the twine.

Another idea is to use bamboo tripods. Plant the peas around the base of each bamboo stick and as the peas grow you can tie them to the bamboo. Click here to view a video on how to lash the bamboo together. Last year we grew pumpkins, melon, and cucumbers up bamboo sticks and did not lash our bamboo together as nicely as the video shows, and we had no problems, so if you aren't an Eagle Scout, no worries!

Here are a few other images I found on the internet to give you some other ideas.

To all our readers out there, how do you grow your peas?


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Admirable stubbornness

We have a hen nesting. She hasn’t left the nesting box in days. Each day when we collect eggs we slip a hand underneath her silky body and take her egg that she has laid that day. When we do this she acts a little perturbed and sometimes takes a peck at our arm but she won’t move.

p.s. Here's Megan's chicken "Donut" during her broody phase last spring. She didn't even have any eggs underneath her!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Man Hands

As I was sitting reading with my 8 year old son, he looked up at me and innocently said, "Mom, you have man hands." I was taken a little off guard as the clip from the show Seinfeld played in my head. I asked him what he meant. He told me that I had short nails and that there was dirt underneath them. I then explained to him that because I like to garden, weed, and work in the yard my nails tend to take a beating. I now take pride in my "man hands" and you ladies out there that sacrifice great looking nails to grow your own food should take pride in yours as well!


Friday, May 15, 2009

Broilers at 9 Weeks

Our broilers are 9 week old and we had to make a decision whether to take them to slaughter or to wait one more week (Tuesdays are slaughter day). Some of the smaller hens are not quite big enough but if we wait another week we risk a couple more dying. At this age we hate to have a nice big chicken die on us before we can get it into the freezer. But we decided to wait one more week. Below is a video that one of our readers requested showing us moving the pasture pen. I enjoy moving the pen. You can tell that the chickens like the new grass. I also enjoy seeing the pasture from a few days before green up from the fertilizer in the chicken litter.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Fieldtrip to a Goat Farm

Close your eyes, take a deep breath and imagine your own personal paradise. What do you see? Do you see a white sand beach in Roatan Bay Honduras, a pristine ski slope with virgin powder in the high mountains of Utah? Do any of you imagine the Teton’s while standing on Table Rock at 11,000 feet, the wild wind blowing you around with civilization 4000 feet below? Many of you might not visualize these specific places like I do but I bet many of you imagine similar places. My wife Marisa and I are weird in that we see paradise in other places that many of our friends and associates would think are strange. A few months ago we had the opportunity to visit one of these areas. Megan, Marisa and I visited Megan’s friends Marsh and Alisa and their small farm south of Spanish Fork, Utah. It is a place I consider to be a small piece of Paradise.

In speaking to Alisa she conveyed her families desire to be as self sustaining as possible. They have a huge garden, chickens, and goats on their family farm. They live on a country road and many of their neighbors have similar goals. They all helped each other dig root cellars last year so they can store their produce. The main reason we visited was for the goats. Our goal is to have goats once we have a bigger property.

Alisa’s husband Marsh and their son care for the goats. They feed them and water them every day. They also have to milk them twice a day. Alisa spent time giving us a goat-milking lesson while the kids fed them to keep them calm. The goats seemed OK with all of the people around and didn’t have a problem with so many hands on their teats. All of us took turns, and it turns out that I am a natural goat milker. I am not good at most things I try for the first time so I think farming runs in my genes.

After the tour of the farm we went inside and watched Alisa filter the milk. She then puts the milk in the freezer for two hours, which is supposed to reduce the bacteria and the goat flavor. Then we had some of the milk they had milked previously with cookies. We loved it and couldn’t tell a difference between the milk they had and cow’s milk.

Alisa and Marsh work hard to be self sustaining and it would be much easier to buy milk at the local mega store. I know that being self-sustaining is not all fun and games. This version of paradise has early mornings, manure, dirty clothes, and long days of weeding but I think real paradise should contain some form of work. They are an example and an inspiration to all of us who want to be more self-sustaining. Whether it’s growing plants on our apartment patio, or raising broilers in our pasture, we can all have a piece of paradise right where we live.

Go out and plant a seed, raise a chicken, support a local CSA, or whatever you do to make this world a better place and find paradise in your backyard.


Friday, May 8, 2009

A Look at at Chicken Coop

These images were sent to us from Rickell in Shelly Idaho. She's one of our readers who wanted chickens, and built this portable chicken coop all on her own in her backyard. She was able to use scrap pieces of wood from family and friends to cut down on the cost. The benefit of having a portable coop is that the chickens have fresh grass to feed on each time you move them, and they never stay in one spot long enough to kill the grass. You will notice that one side of the coop has wheels and the other side has handles for easy moving. She also devised a door to allow the chickens out in the yard. She has two large dogs who always enjoy a yummy chicken dinner, she wanted the option to allow them in the backyard, but needed them to also be safe inside a coop when the dogs were out.
Thanks Rickell for sharing your chicken coop!

If you would like to share your experiences on your own backyard farm, please email us your story and images at backyardfarmingblog@gmail.com.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

“Backyard Farming” is going to the National Small Farm Conference!

This blog will be featured in the poster session of the 5th National Small Farm Conference on September 15-17 in Springfield, Illinois. Marisa and Dale will be there to present the poster and would love to see any of our readers who would like to come along. The conference is organized by the United States Department of Agriculture and the University of Illinois Extension. With short courses, concurrent sessions, posters, exhibits, and farm tours, this conference provides a wealth of ideas for anyone interested in small farms, even backyard farms.

For more information go to:


Click on “Program Tracks” to see the dozens of interesting and useful topics that will be covered.

For example:
Urban farming
Local food systems
Medicinal plants
Internet marketing
Woman working on the land
Beginning farmers
Incubator kitchens
Season extenders
Poultry production
Small ruminants
The tours of farms will be fascinating. We hope to see you there!


Sunday, May 3, 2009

Broilers at 6 Weeks

It is fun to watch animals when they are let out on pasture from being cooped up inside a building. On a visit to Holland in the springtime, I watched a herd of dairy cows let out in the pasture after being in the barn all winter. They ran around and kicking up their heels and it looked like they were playing. Each morning when I let the horses out of the stalls into the pastures they race each other at a full gallop for a couple of minutes. It was they same when I put the broilers out on pasture this week. They jumped around and flapped their wings and you could tell they were very happy to be out of the stinky chicken coop and onto the beautiful green grass.

Nathan building the pasture coop for the broilers.