Winter looming

amaranth

With the FSA’s monster loan application submitted for review, and the FarmRaiser party behind us, all focus has turned toward preparing for the winter looming ahead of us. The unseasonable warmth we’ve experienced so far this fall can be deceiving, but make no mistake─winter will come to Maine. When it does I intend to be ready.

Over the years I have adopted a series of personal deadlines for winter preparations. By the end of October I like to have my car winterized, housing tightened down, heating organized, livestock in their winter accommodations, and the majority of farm equipment put away. By Thanksgiving I want to have candy boards on the beehives, and any remaining farm or homestead equipment stowed away safe from snow and ice.

The Apiary

preparing bees for winter
Bees do not hibernate through the winter.

The unseasonably warm weather we are experiencing here in the northeast this fall is not great for bees. Bees do not hibernate through the winter. They cluster tightly together around their Queen, shivering their bodies and wings to generate heat as they revolve about her. They are awake and active inside their hives, but are not working nearly so hard as they do in the summer. As a result they consume much less food when it is cold. When the weather remains warm into the fall and winter the bees stay more active, eating up honey stores that would otherwise remain untouched til mid-winter.

In mid-September the fall honey harvest was taken off the hives. The bees continued to bring in nectar and pollen for another 2-3 weeks, finishing uncapped honey that will feed their colonies through the winter. Hives that were light on stores were given additional frames of honey, and fed 2:1 sugar-syrup using a top-feeder on the inner cover.

Mouse-guards and entrance reducers were installed early in September before the field mice began looking for winter dens. For a late-October mite treatment of oxalic acid (derived from the stinging nettle plant) I’ve scheduled to borrow a vaporizer from a beekeeping buddy. Then in November we will make candy-boards, and any white hives in my apiary will be wrapped with tar-paper before my Thanksgiving deadline. The darker painted hives and the unpainted wooden hives I no longer wrap in the winter.

Even with the unseasonable fall, it’s getting to be the time of year that beekeepers dread most. The colder months are hardest on bee colonies, and too cold to allow the beekeeper to work with them. Already we are shutting hives down. I am anxiously reviewing the season─did I do enough? How many of the colonies will survive? What could I have done better? Of course we won’t know til we’re on the other side of winter.

Garden

The garden is in a state of transition. The summer crops are mostly finished in our small homestead garden. We’ve harvested and eaten zucchini and yellow summer squash til it was coming out our ears. We had a harvest of green beans, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, a number of pie pumpkins, and a respectable crate-full of winter squashes of varying sizes.

amaranth
Paul grew Amaranth this year, which was new to me. The leafy greens reminded me of spinach and chard, and it grows well all summer─no bolting. I quickly fell for Amaranth!

It was interesting to see which crops thrived in the sandy soil, compared to those who only tolerated it and those that did altogether poorly. The carnival squash did exceptionally well in our dry, sandy soil and I got a half dozen of this variety grown to an impressive cantaloupe-size. While the butternut and acorn squashes produced a number of fruits, but all undersized for these varieties. My favorite winter sweet kubocha squash fared the worst, only producing 2 “miniature” squashes, one not bigger than a baseball.

This is where working part-time at Johnny’s Selected Seeds can sometimes yield unexpected blessings. I had the opportunity earlier this week to accompany a colleague to the Johnny’s research farm. Not once, but twice in 2 days!─I went to harvest produce for our office-bound co-workers. We harvested bushels of paste tomatoes and beautiful bright colored sweet peppers on Monday afternoon. Then on Tuesday afternoon we went to harvest winter squashes. Thanks to Johnny’s I scored an extra bushel of paste tomatoes, and 3 bushels of winter squashes.

Determined to continue to grow food into the fall and winter, I’ve sown 2 raised beds with cold-hardy crops sown using Johnny’s Fall Harvest Planting Calculator. Timing the sowing of crops for fall and winter harvest is particularly crucial, since they need to reach at least 75% maturity before the start of the Persephone Period (the point at which the day-length drops below 10 hours in duration).

In one bed I have beets, kale, bok choi, hakeuri turnips, radishes, and a couple of heads of lettuce. In the other I have lettuce mix, lots of tatsoi, radishes, spinach, and mizuna.

I was caught a little by surprise by our first frost. It was only thanks to a colleague’s warning on facebook that Paul and I were able to scurry out to the garden in the waning daylight to cover the beds I wanted to save. By the light of a headlamp we snatched the remainding tomatoes and peppers off the plants. Predictably the cucurbits, the nightshades and many other tender plants were wiped out first thing.

Since then, I’ve been preparing those 2 fall and winter-harvest beds for the next inevitable frost. Many commercial growers use the metal EMT-conduit and a simple bender to make hoops that span the bed and covered with agribon to create “low-tunnels”. Since I am no longer growing for market, but to feed myself and my family, I decided it wasn’t worth the expense of time and money to buy the EMT and borrow a bender to make a dozen hoops. I opted to use a tried-and-true method and went for 1/2-inch CPVC to make my hoops. The agribon I already have on hand; I just need to cut it to length so that I can quickly get it in place in the event of a frost advisory.

Note: This is a method I’ve used for years as a woman farmer. It’s easy enough that it requires little tool-skill, and durable enough that I’m still using the same equipment 5 years later. Check out “How to Build a Mini Hoop-House” for more details!

The Farm

At this point, the “farm” component of Runamuk is comprised of the laying flock of chickens that free-range the property I am currently leasing. Last fall we dramatically reduced the flock numbers in the face of the Great Farm Move. We went from about 90 birds to 40, and then lost another 9 birds during the winter to a series of hungry mink. I bought 10 layers in the spring, and then we received another 12 from the Magoons at Willow Lane Farm.

Since all of the birds are now 2-years or older and are significantly reduced in their production capacity, I’ve decided to send the majority of them to “Freezer Camp” rather than feed them and attempt to protect all of them from predators during the winter.

Older hens tend to be tougher meat, so I don’t sell them to customers, but cooked as stewing birds they feed my family just fine. We will keep 6 to 10 of the youngest, and the rest Paul and I will process sometime in the next couple of weeks. Used sparingly, this meat should feed us through the next year.

Early next spring I intend to purchase 50 started pullets to replenish the flock to have eggs available at the farmers’ market. We’ve decided to transition to non-GMO feed, using scratch grains available at Maine Grains in Skowhegan; it’s exciting for me to raise my birds on grain grown right here in the state.

Homestead

We’re facing another winter in this unfinished trailer. Even if the FSA will finance the Swinging Bridge Farm, the closing date won’t be scheduled til February or March due to the backlog that government office is facing. That means the Final Chapter of the Great Farm Move likely won’t happen til after mud season next year. I’m determined to make the best of things this winter.

changing of the cars
The “new” Forester on the left, and my retired Outback on the right.

Transportation: Experience has taught me the value of properly preparing my vehicle for the winter. Here in Maine we’ve been known to get snow in early November, and there’s nothing worse than driving in slick conditions in an unprepared vehicle. I like to have any major work to my vehicle taken care of well in advance of October, and good tires on the thing no later than Halloween.

Recently my trusted mechanic, Luke Vigneault (of Luke’s After Hours Auto Repair in Madison), pointed out the holes rusted through the frame of the Subaru Outback I’ve been driving for the last 2 and a half years. He had the old girl up on the lift and pointed a flashlight at the rocker panels, indicating how we could see clear through to the opposite side of his garage. He went on to show how I’d worn out the shocks and struts on every tire (that explains why she bounced all over the road so much lol!). So it was with some sadness that we have replaced the Outback with a Subaru Forester in better condition. All that’s left to do is to take my good snow tires off the Outback and put them on the Forester.

Heating & Housing: I like to have my winter heating squared away and the housing tightened up by the end of October too. Paul has been busy cutting firewood from the surrounding forest, and the woodstove has been cleaned and prepared for use. We bought a pop-up garage to store firewood in to keep it dry, and my 2 boys are collecting sticks and kindling into livestock feed bags to add to the stockpile.

There’s not much to be done for the old trailer we’re currently homesteading in; with plans to eventually move on, we’re reluctant to invest too much money in the old place. We’ll put plastic over the single-pane windows to retain more heat and stop drafts. Aside from that I am grateful for the roof that keeps us dry and the woodstove that will keep us warm this winter.

Preserving the Harvest: The majority of my homestead preparations revolve around food preservation. In such tight quarters I’ve had to get creative with storage─especially food storage. Potatoes, and onions, are stashed in cardboard boxes in the corners of the back bedroom where the kids sleep. This is the furthest space from the woodstove and we were able to keep vegetables this way into the depths of winter last year. The winter squashes are stowed under their dresser on the floor, and I’m pleased to have so many that they are spilling out into the middle of the floor there.

I am exceedingly grateful to have inherited a chest freezer from Jim Murphy, where I’ve found I can store a year’s supply of meat and vegetables. Tomatoes are in the process of becoming sauce, sealed into ziplock bags and put into the freezer. Green beans and most other vegetables have been blanched and stored in the freezer. Raspberries and blackberries we foraged from the surrounding woods are packaged and frozen. I sliced up peaches we scored a deal on through a colleague at Johnny’s who has a connection, froze them on a cookie sheet, then packaged and stored them in the freezer. Apples are next on the list, and once processed the chickens should fill the remaining space in the freezer. It’s a really good feeling to have so much food stored away for the winter.

Conclusion

Likely we won’t know the results of my efforts to secure the Swinging Bridge Farm until sometime around the New Year. Regardless of the outcome, I have a farm and family to take care of and winter looming on the horizon. I cannot sit idly by waiting for the verdict. The whole thing is out of my hands now. I’ve committed myself to the present, to winter preparations and to the upcoming holiday season, which is always good distraction. Soon there will be snow on the ground, and cozied up inside before the crackling woodstove there will be plenty of time to ponder the possibilities that next year might bring.

Thanks for following along with one woman’s journey as a beginning farmer! Stay tuned for more updates coming soon regarding my mission to create a pollinator conservation farm here in central Maine!

How to Build a Temporary Chicken Coop for a Maine Winter

Housing for the chickens was a big concern during Runamuk’s Great Farm Move. It had taken a full year to rebuild the Runamuk flock following my divorce, and I was up to nearly 90 birds in varying stages of production when I made the difficult decision to let go of Jim’s property in Starks. As we build up our apiary for honey production, selling eggs at the local farmers’ market has been a crucial stop-gap for Runamuk. Without honey we only have our beeswax soaps and salves available, but the rules of our market dictate that vendors can sell only a percentage of craft-items. So the eggs are important in order for my farm to continue to sell at the farmers’ market.

However, while Jim’s farm offered existing infrastructure─a huge asset in establishing a farm─Paul’s place does not. And with Paul busy trying to make the old mobile home there fit for habitation through the winter, he couldn’t spare the time to construct a coop for the birds. What was I going to do with my chickens?

I briefly considered selling and/or culling the entire flock; with the price of grain, selling eggs at $4 doesn’t really turn a profit. But again, not having eggs at market wasn’t really an option so I decided that it was imperative that at least half the flock make it through the move.

Enter the hoop-coop: a temporary chicken coop structure made from a hoop-house.

temporary-chicken-coop-for-winterWhat is a Hoop-House?

I’m a big fan of the hoop-structures: mini hoop-houses, low-tunnels, chicken tractors, cold-frames, high-tunnels─you name it! These are simple and inexpensive structures typically made up of a wooden frame, hooped EMT or plastic piping, and then covered with heavy greenhouse plastic. In many cases these are heated only by the sun and cooled by the wind.

diy-high-tunnel
Here are some of the high-tunnels at the Johnny’s Selected Seeds research farm in Albion, Maine.
hoop-house-how-to
Quick and dirty seedling hoop-house I made back in 2013 using rebar, PVC and 4mil contractor’s plastic.

A hoop-house allows the gardener or farmer to extend their growing season by 4 to 6 weeks in the spring and the fall, provides protection of crops from increment weather, and offers the ability to grow some superior crops. Here in the northeast many growers prefer to grow heat-loving crops inside their high-tunnels because they can keep more controlled conditions for high-revenue produce like tomatoes, peppers, squashes and melons.

Note: See my review of the Tufflite IV greenhouse film for more information about this useful tool for gardeners, homesteaders, and farmers!

Check out Runamuk’s Hoop-Coop in this video!

Features and Benefits of this Design

  • Simple construction
  • Can be built with hand-tools
  • Mostly a 1-person job
  • Relatively inexpensive to construct
  • Sheds snow well
  • Versatile structure for multiple uses
  • Space for 30-40 birds*
  • Tall enough to stand/work inside
  • Birds are under sunlight ALL DAY
  • Moveable**
  • Can attach other equipment to the wooden frame.

*The industry standard is 4 square-feet of space per bird, so I can fit 30 birds in this structure. In the winter however, here in Maine’s northern climate, farmers often crowd a few extra birds together for added warmth at night. I’ve had 37 birds in this coop since the move and so long as there has been adequate roosting space they seem to be fine.

This coop is moveable, however it’s rugged enough where most individuals aren’t going to be able to haul it off through the power of just their body. Probably 2-4 people could drag this coop across the ground, but I’m planning to sink some heavy duty eye-bolts into the base of the hoop-coop’s frame, and I could either use a sturdy rope or a tow-chain to hook it onto my Subaru and pull it where I want it─provided I can get my car to the desired location!

Constructing the Hoop-Coop

I constructed my temporary chicken coop in a series of phases; I’m pretty methodical when it comes to construction.

temporary-chicken-coop
I don’t have a truck at the moment, but Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, where you’re at, right now.”

Phase 1:  I spent weeks leading up to the project researching to see what other farmers had done, and talking with my market peeps or colleagues at Johnny’s about the best way to do this. I put together a design that I liked and made up my materials list. Then I took myself off to Home Depot.

Phase 2:  The appointed day dawned and I set up early, putting my sawhorses in place and hauling out all of my equipment and materials. I’m very careful to measure twice before making any cuts, and I almost always pre-drill my screws. The frame of the coop, along with the hoops were all put together within a few hours.

hoop-house-infrastructure-beginning-farmersPhase 3:  I came back another day to put the door on. Framed in the ends and then added chicken wire.

Phase 4: I had to coordinate scheduling with Paul to get the plastic on over the top. Then I put plastic over the chicken wire to close it in for the winter.

putting-plastic-on-hoop-house
Here is the hoop-house chicken coop with plastic on.

Voila! Temporary chicken-coop durable enough to withstand a Maine winter!

For those who might like to construct their own hoop-coop I’ve created Free Chicken Coop Design Download for you! It has step-by-step instructions with plenty of pictures, a materials list with sourcing information. You’re welcome!

Problems Encountered During & Since Project Completion

Too Much Outside Input:

I have a lot of farming-friends and I asked many of them for their input as I was developing the design for my hoop-coop. I had so much advice that it was difficult for me to figure out which plan would work best for me-as a female farmer─and which method would best meet my skill level in construction. Ken and Kamala Hahn deserve special thanks for their input on the design of the hoop-coop; these farming friends even went so far as to send me pictures of their own temporary coop structure to help me formulate a design.

I really wanted to use the EMT metal conduit as they do in the construction of high-tunnels, but my friend Crymson Sullivan (aka – Krim) over at Sidehill Farm in Madison, reminded me that they use carriage bolts on those, and that there’s a lot of drilling and grinding when assembling the metal hoops of a high-tunnel to prevent sharp edges from cutting through the greenhouse film. He steered me in the grey electrical conduit, sharing that he has a buddy who uses the stuff to construct full-size high-tunnels for his operation, and since I already have an affinity for PVC-structures this option was right up my alley! Thanks Crym!

Extra Hands Needed for a Couple of Stages of Construction

Paul was busy finalizing necessities like plumbing in the trailer-homestead and time was of the essence so it was important that I complete this project on my own. I managed the frame and the hoops just fine, but when it came time to affix the supports for the door I found it tricky to put up the door frame alone. I strongly urge you to recruit another pair of hands to hold the 2x4s while you screw the bottom end to the frame of your structure. I did this by myself, but it was difficult to keep the 2×4 straight and upright with just one hand, while attempting to screw the 2×4 in place with the one other hand. The 2×4 wavered─I wavered─and I clonked myself in the head with the 2×4 so hard that I saw stars. Extra hands would have made this part a lot easier, but you don’t have to take my word for it!

Difficult to Protect Plastic From Chicken-Wire

Because this structure was initially intended for chickens I wrapped chicken wire around the lower third of the inside of the coop, and also used it to close in either end. We had to take extra care to cover the sharp ends of the chicken wire to protect the greenhouse film.

predator-proofing-modifications-hoop-house-chicken-coopPredator-Proofing Modifications Needed

One of the downsides to living in a forest of oak trees where nuts are abundant is that rodents are plentiful, and as a result, so are weasels. In hindsight, lining the bottom of the coop with the same 1×2 fencing material that I used for the fencing would have offered better protection from these chicken predators. Or I could have dug a trench all the way around the base of the coop and laid 1/2-inch wire mesh at least 12 inches down. As it was, we lost 3 birds and Paul spent an afternoon digging a deep trench inside the coop so that he could stretch a length of 1×2-inch wire mesh along the wall to keep out a determined weasel.

So far he has not been able to get back into the coop.

Hoop-Coop Does the Job!

egg-production-in-a-hoop-houseThere were a few hiccups along the way, but now that it’s done I’m very happy with my hoop-coop. The Runamuk flock are exposed to sunlight all day─as soon as the sun begins to lighten the sky, til the very end of the day when the darkness grows, my chickens are receiving 100% of the available light. I don’t need to add lights to stimulate their production and since I’m not going to market right now, I’m just allowing them to produce eggs at whatever rate comes naturally.

hoop-house-in-snowWe live in Maine. We experience serious winter conditions here. Just before New Years’ we received 18-inches of snow that put the hoop-coop to the test, followed by another good dose of snow a few days later and so far the coop remains standing there stolidly. It sheds the snow well, and as an added precaution we have a soft-bristled push-broom that we keep in the coop so that we can push up on the center of the coop-ceiling to make the snow slide off. Easy.

chicken-hoop-house
A deep layer of pine shavings and straw, mix with the chicken poo to create a mass of decomposing material that naturally lends heat to the coop.

The coop is warmed by the sun, in addition to the deep-litter bedding method we’re using, which generates additional heat as the decomposition process happens right beneath our feet. Even when it’s freeze-your-face-off cold outside, the chickens are relatively comfortable inside the sanctity of their hoop-coop. We’ve only turned on the heat lamp on the nights when temperatures are well below zero and we’ve had no frozen combs or wattles whatsoever.

Ventilation of the coop was a concern, but simply leaving the door open, or cracked─has (so far) provided sufficient ventilation for the birds and farmers.

A Great Asset

As we get closer to spring I have every intention of putting together another hoop-structure in order to have space for all the seedlings I’ll be growing for the 2017 growing season. The chickens will get moved from their current location and their winter hoop-coop will house my tomato plants this season. I envision yet another hoop-house for growing greens and carrots into the winter─just like Eliot Coleman, but on a smaller scale mainly meant to feed my family.

It cost me $310 to put this coop together. A third of that expense was in the greenhouse film, but I have enough of that left over to create several more such structures. I really see these hoop-structures as the key to the infrastructure issue many beginning farmers are coping with. Quick and easy to put together, with the biggest part of the expense in the tufflite greenhouse film, and able to be used for a wide variety of purposes on the farm or homestead. Cover it with a tarp instead and you’ve got a sheep-shed or a tool-shed. Hell, I’d even consider living in one if it meant I could continue farming!

Hoop-houses are a great asset, but you don’t have to take my word for it! Try it yourself!

Recommended Resources

Sam’s Hoop-Coop Step-by-Step Instructions – complimentary instructions for you to build your own versatile hoop-house structure for use as livestock shelter, growing space, or other creative uses on your farm or homestead.

Tufflite Greenhouse Film: Tuff Stuff! – Check out my review of the Tufflite IV greenhouse film.

Low-Cost, Versatile Hoop Houses – Mother Earth News

High Tunnels – a great pdf resource from the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Hoophouse & Quick hoops crops – Good information from GrowingforMarket.com listing the types of crops that perform best in hoop-house and season-extension conditions.

Winter Vegetables in Your Hoop House – more details about growing crops into the winter in your hoop-house. From Mother Earth News.

Make a Hoop-House to Extend Your Growing Season – via the HomesteadingHippy.com.

The fall garden

fall turnips

fall turnipsI excused myself from the farmers’ market yesterday to spend some quality time with the farm. Perhaps that sounds funny, but to this farmer there is a very real need to spend time outside in nature, working the land that I have devoted myself to. Having to work off the farm means that there are a number of chores that are lined up, waiting to be taken care of, and with workshops, bee-schools, the BeeLine, kids, and market, some of those chores have been waiting for me for a while…

fall herbs n flowersIt was a tough decision to let go of my CSA and market-garden this year, but I have not regretted it. For the business of Runamuk, I chose to focus on the bees instead, so that I can ensure that I am giving these colonies all the attention required in order to raise healthy hives. I still had a garden, but I was producing only for myself and my family. I found it much less stressful not having the pressure of producing for others and I enjoyed the garden much more this year.

I kept it “small” for the following reasons: it’s a first-year garden, we arrived here late into the gardening season, and I’m currently working off the farm to support my personal living expenses so time is exceedingly limited.

And I tried to mulch wherever I could to block the weeds.

compost pileThe soil in Jim’s engineered garden came as a bit of a shock to me. Having dealt with a heavy clay soil in the past, working with this sandier loam was very different for me. I struggled to get seeds going partly because the garden soil has incredibly good drainage, but also because the pump in the pond doesn’t seem to have the strength to push the water all the way to the garden and then through a hose with any amount of pressure. Watering was a big challenge this year. We made do this year, but next year I will work out a new irrigation system.

I managed to get a harvest though, of potatoes, summer and winter squashes, cucumbers, and even a few tomatoes before the blight took out the plants. I tried for carrots, but when I saw what I was dealing with in the soil and weeds I gave up the idea pretty quickly. Even the green beans, which are notoriously easy to produce and which I’ve always had very good luck with, took me three sowings before germination occurred.

cold-frame hoop houselow tunnel

 

I’ve wanted to try my hand at fall gardening for a number of years now but hadn’t managed to get my act together to extend my growing season─til now. I’ve read Elliot Coleman’s books The Winter Harvest Handbook and The New Organic Grower, and I’ve studied the concept independently and discussed it on occasion with other farmers and gardeners, and finally, this year I managed to make it happen. I’m so thrilled!

inside the low-tunnelI don’t have a lot of cold-crops planted, but I have a little patch of lettuce, beets, carrots, and turnips. I have a little tatsoi, a fair amount of swiss chard and an eight foot row of snap peas. I may not have gotten a spring harvest, but I’ll get a fall crop and I’m psyched!

Hardening seedlings in a mini hoop-house

After the devastation of last year’s seedling fiasco (read about that here), I was more than a little anxious about hardening off my seedlings this year.

My mini hoop-houses (more about that here) have been working so well this spring that I decided to construct something similar to protect my tender tomato and pepper seedlings during their hardening off period.  The only real difference between this hoop-house and the others I’ve made this season is that this one is not built on top of a raised bed. Read more

How to build a mini hoop-house

mini hoop-houseI’m a big fan of season extenders like cold-frames and mini hoop-houses for the family garden. Last year I managed to erect a mini greenhouse of sorts, using PVC and plastic, and with that I hardened off my seedlings in anticipation of the growing season.  This year I not only want to use that method to protect tender seedlings, but also to get a jump on the 2013 growing season. Read more

CSA Underway

onion seedlings

Spring is here and things are getting underway here at Runamuk Acres in Anson, Maine!  With all this sun and heat, the snow is gone from the backyard and the ground is drying up; I should be able to start cleaning up the upper garden soon–and what a mess it is!  Last fall when the growing season what coming to an end I just abandoned the garden–thinking that we were a shoo-in for a home loan and that we wouldn’t be here this spring to deal with the mess.  How wrong I was! Read more