A Berry, Berry Busy Anniversary

Well, it’s suddenly berry season here at the farm and we have hit the ground running with nearly 82 pounds of strawberries harvested already after only the first week of picking duties. IMG_1388Sheesh! I am still sporting my happy face that I wear around here every year for at least the first week of each berry season but we are currently faced with days of high heat for this time of year (94 degrees today) so picking can be a bit more exhausting than it usually is at this juncture. But my exhaustion isn’t the sole problem here.

What really matters is that the strawberries are ripening faster than normal in this heat and are a bit more fragile as well since their cell walls have expanded rapidly and are a bit thinner than normal. The window of time for picking is also shorter since one normally waits for the dew to dry before beginning to harvest…(I love the droplets on the tips of the berry leaves.)IMG_1390But one should pick in the cool of the morning, as the sugar is still rising in the plant and out to the fruit before the heat threatens and sends the sugars back to the base of the plant. So the heat we are currently experiencing means that the ideal window to harvest is shorter. With the unexpected 4 hours needed to pick the patch yesterday, I was actually picking fruit that was beginning to feel warm to the touch and although I know it to be a no-no, there was no other choice but to continue on as these ripe berries would be overly ripe by the following day. Rain overnight meant that I made the right choice since I would have had a patch of soggy, untenable fruit today if I had waited!

Of course it doesn’t help that I am sometimes distracted by the wonders of the insect world and take out my phone to photograph whatever crosses my path. Here is a mother spider who was a bit startled by my presence and picked up her egg sack and tried to quickly get out of my way and protect her future offspring. Can you see her despite the camouflage of the mulch? She scampered off in short fits of movement. I very much approve of spiders in my berry patch since I know they eat other insects. IMG_1395I’m not quite so fond of the moth world of insects since one of the previous stages of caterpillar can be so devastating but this shapely fellow caught my eye as well. IMG_1443

So, in my defense, I harvested 20 pounds of strawberries the previous day and over 32 pounds yesterday so I cannot say the patch was at all neglected. The good news was that yesterday was the first Saturday we were able to offer strawberries to our CSA customers and we sold all 25 pints that we had to offer from Friday’s harvest. We also had several varieties of Spinaches and Lettuces with much more to come! It was fun to also offer a mini tour of the berry patch to the group so that they could see just where their goodies were originating and hopefully could calculate the value of their purchases when the effort we put into this was on display.

Despite all our sales yesterday, the week of harvesting meant that the refrigerators were chocked full of berries today and I was on notice to do some preserving one way or another. IMG_1471Each pan you see weighs approximately 4 pounds and the slip of white paper floating on top tells me the date it was harvested. So this morning, I started making strawberry jam which is very popular with our customers as well as all family members. Although it is time consuming to wash, hull and quarter the berries and put them into large pots in specified quantities, I have a system after all these years and usually start two batches at once. These stock pots each have 3.75lbs of berries that have been prepared and then smashed with the potato masher to break them up a bit more. The pot on the right still shows the white of the pectin that has not yet dissolved. IMG_1472 2Then the mash is heated to an initial boil after which I add the sugar. Once the prescribed sugar is added, this mass comes to another boil which I carefully time for exactly one minute of ‘roiling boil stage’ – a term which means that no amount of stirring can calm the hot sticky mess that can burn one’s hands if not careful!  (You might espy, my bandaged hand from a previous burn!) Gah!

After the final boil, the mixture is quickly added to the waiting sterilized jars using a funnel and careful handling – again, boiling sticky mess! The rims of each jar are then wiped clean with a hot cloth to remove any remainders. IMG_1475.jpgSterilized lids and bands (a two part system) are then added to a finger tight degree of fastening so that when placed in the boiling water bath for a set number of minutes…IMG_1476.jpg the necessary evacuation of air will occur and create the required vacuum for a safe and airtight closure of the jar.  Violà, two batches (12 jars each) of sealed and cooling jam. IMG_1479.jpgTime to switch to freezing the next few batches of berries! But in the meantime, I’ve spent part of the day integrating the new chicks into the existing flock. This required a spate of my time today but is well worth the effort to get all the hens in a copacetic place for the future.

As you may remember from the previous post, the new chicks (now just over 8 weeks old) have been living in a mini coop within the larger outdoor coop. This facilitated an initial phase of both groups getting to know each other with a wire barrier to keep them separate. As of 8 weeks, the pullets (which are what we call teenage female chicks) are ready to transition off their baby food and graduate to an intermediate food that they can share with the older girls who are considered “layers”.

So, this morning, I cautiously opened the door between the youngsters and the adults (just enough to let the little ones out but kept the big girls without reciprocal access to the mini coop) and allowed the newbies to venture out for a bit if they were so daring. A few of the more adventurous ones took advantage of this opportunity and stepped out with caution.

The first attempt was pretty mild as the babies were cautious. The second attempt was a bit more fraught as I realized that the 30 minute play date I had envisioned was not easily ended if the pullets were not all safely back in their coop. In other words, I did not want to leave the area until it was all re-secured but the youngsters didn’t all realize how to get BACK into their coop and were frustrated at seeing their mates through the wire mesh and not re-joining with ease. This took some careful management but I did it!

I have since completed a third successful integration attempt and am very pleased with the group interaction. So far, there have been minor demonstrations from the older chicks of who is boss. This is totally expected since even the younger group already has their own pecking order and so this is all expected behavior and I’m generally pleased.  A few of the older flock were actually needy and jumped up on my lap and shoulder today to show they still wanted some attention from me as I watched the youngsters play. IMG_1483

Our other weekend news: we celebrated our 39th wedding anniversary yesterday… and had the additional pleasure of attending the wedding of dear young friends, Max and Amy Ryan who said it best in their darling little wedding favors of succulent plantings in pots…congrats to all of us! IMG_1489



A Shiny “Mini – Coop-er” at the Farm

What a wildly busy month we have had here at the farm since I last posted. Hard to believe that we managed to fit so much into such a short space of time but perhaps that explains our sore muscles.

First, we finished the construction of the hoop house and got it ‘planted’ with cool season crops despite the lateness of the season but not without some modifications to the overall design first.

What you should know is that although we were pleased with the essential design of the structure we ordered, it arrived with a laughable system to secure it in place. The company provided four small brackets along with 8 measly metal spikes that were intended to secure the whole structure and keep it place. I suppose this hoop house manufacturer had no idea of how a small amount of wind (let alone the type we can get in the Midwest) could blow this whole structure away in an instant.

So Farmer Dave was all over this with a remedy that he was able to source at a nearby company that made heavy duty spikes out of re-bar to his specifications. Here is a comparison of what was supplied on the right and what Dave ordered in re-bar spikes on the left.  What a huge difference!IMG_0810

We happened to have a couple extra helpers to move the metal structure into place one weekend.

Once the hoop house was situated, we hammered the spikes into place…IMG_0827 And then added the sunshade cover…a little tricky but 3 people managed to get it into place with a couple of ladders and not too much more effort which bodes well for changing it out to the “winter” cover which will insulate from the freezing cold.IMG_0831Et voilà…with “doors” front and back as well as “windows” along each side, the summer mesh shade cover was in place and the Velcro tabs secured it all to the frame just so. Yay, now we were all set to plant!  IMG_0835 2We decided to plant the area with a center aisle (east/west) and rows (north/south) on either side of the aisle. The first planting (on the north) was a variety of lettuces, spinaches, Swiss chard and peas. Ten days later, we planted the south side with a similar set of leafy plant seeds using slightly different varieties. With a little time elapse magic, you can see what three weeks of growth looks like in the hoop house now.IMG_1306 The same weekend we moved the hoop house into place, we also had some important work going on in the apiary. I decided to split one of the stronger overwintered colonies (making a second colony from it) and also prepared the area for a new future queen as well as two new hives for ‘nucs’ or nucleus colonies to be installed. Spring is such a busy time for beekeepers.  IMG_0124But oh, man, all those bees are hard at work as well. Here is one of our bees laden with pollen (the orange part in the photo) in the “saddle bag” area of her rear legs, and working away on a dandelion to gather more to take back to the hive. This is one of the reasons I don’t mind dandelions! IMG_0819 All the while, the new baby chicks have been growing like weeds and although we had prepared for the day when we would have to move them from their 170 gallon aluminum trough, we had to be innovative first.

We ultimately built (from a kit) a “mini coop” just for them inside the larger outdoor coop area to accommodate their needs and help with the future integration of the two flocks. The intention here was to give them a separate place to live within the flock area while remaining separate until they are old enough to share the same space. There are technical issues as to the foods they each eat (protein percentages as well as calcium levels are specifically different between the two ages) which requires their separate living arrangement until a point where they can be integrated. Funny, but I doubt my grandmother had such science behind her flock of chicks and they all did just great! Ha!  IMG_0993 Of course this meant they needed to have some initial lighting and heat to make it through the cold nights but they adapted with glee to their palatial digs and the ‘big girls’ as we call the older flock, are adapting well to their little sisters!

The other great benefit of moving to their own coop means that they get to keep their feathers in top notch condition as they are able to dust bathe in the sand.

The leghorns seem to hang close which is fine since there are three of them which keeps them from being picked on. IMG_0996

But one night after they had just moved to the mini coop, I went out to check on them and I COULD NOT FIND the leghorns! What a panic…until I found that they had located to a secondary roost at night…up in the eave of the interior roof line of the new coop! Those rascals!IMG_1109 Besides the hoop house, mini coop and the bees, we have also been following the development of the orchard. We were pleased to find that the final winter blast of the year did not wipe out the fruit trees. Whew! There are fruits on the pears, apples, plums, peaches, nectarines and cherries!

Despite the plethora of strawberry and blueberry blossoms promising successful berry season, I decided to try out a couple of new varieties of bush type fruits in the bird netted area. I found a Bush Cherry, ‘Juliet’ at our local nursery and it sounded too good to resist. IMG_1085

I also added two varieties of thorn-less Blackberries, not unlike what we had at the old house. One is called ‘Chester’ and the other is ‘Sweetie Pie’. I was delighted to see that they are still willing to bloom and set on fruit after what would seem like a late planting. Can you hear me rubbing my hands together with glee at this?IMG_1340

We have lots of strawberries and blueberries set on and have started harvesting (and eating!) the strawberries in the last couple of days. Yum!IMG_1350

April showers brought more than rain…it also included Coulter’s three year old birthday which he celebrated in style with some young friends, having helped make and decorate his own birthday cake… IMG_6287

Besides baking, he has also embraced a sewing project at school…IMG_5435But he can’t help dashing about as a super hero when needed…IMG_1354Of course super heros are exactly what we need now that Kate has ended her maternity leave and Nana and Gramps are in charge of both Ward boys for a bit before summer break begins. Willie is at the ready to join in with a one two punch!  IMG_1190