Category Archives: chickens

Snow Day

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Here’s a rare thing… snow on the Farm! Our little town of Auburn is known for being “above the fog, below the snow”… but, once in a while, Mother Nature ignores our silly human sloganeering and sends a genuinely white Weather Event our way! The very occasional nature of such storms makes them extra-special, as everything familiar is frosted in ice and magically transformed overnight.

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Here’s the Harvest Party field, where we were celebrating on a warm end-of-summer afternoon, barely a couple of months ago! The tipi canvas is packed away for winter, and the chicken coop is snug and warm in the distance.

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And now, to the chicken house, where some of the more adventurous birds are outside — pecking for scratch in the snow and vying for a warmer foothold on the coop’s little ramp.

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This was quite a persimmon year — there are still plenty on the trees, even though we’ve eaten persimmons, dried persimmons, frozen them, given them away… this variety gets sweeter and softer after a frost, and the wild birds are enjoying what’s left on the tree!

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Nobody is home in this bluebird house; it sits under a cozy blanket of snow, waiting for Spring. It was built by Ron Brown, a longtime family friend, and founder of the “Bluebird Chain” — a series of more than 5,000 thousand numbered bluebird boxes that he built and distributed in the area to provide habitat for the Western Bluebird. (There’s a sweet article about Mr. Brown here.)

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The bees are warm and snug, too, in their field…

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…but a closer look reveals minute tracks in the snow in front of the hive: marauding Scrub Jays, who like to stand in front of the entrance, tap on it, and snack on the guard bees that venture out to see what’s going on. You’d think they would find plenty else to eat, what with the juicy persimmons and a whole hillside of glowing red wild Toyon berries… but bees are a nice source of protein, and the hive is such a convenient dispenser! And you do have to admire the birds’ ingenuity… nonetheless, we cover the hive fronts with wire fencing to deter the jays.

And speaking of wildlife… I love the way the snow keeps a record of all the feet that pass by — it’s a reminder of just how many creatures, great and small, call this place home.

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Filed under around the farm, beekeeping, chickens, Winter

Victory Gardens: Everything old is new again…

Have you noticed lately how many “new” gardening trends lately are really reflecting ideas that have been around for generations? Local food, home gardening, keeping chickens, foraging — our ancestors found these things to be second nature, but so many of these age-old skills were laid aside somewhere along the way in the steady march toward Progress and Modernization. If dinner can arrive neatly packaged in a box and be ready in minutes, who needs to cook? When the grocery store shelves are stocked with anything and everything we could possibly want to eat, why go to all the time and bother of growing our food from a handful of seeds?

I’ve been seeing more and more wonderful vintage posters and ephemera resurfacing from the heyday of “Victory Gardens” — the home plots that cropped up across Europe and America during the two World Wars to sustain families as food and resources were diverted toward the war efforts. Both supplies and the land to produce them were limited and precious, and so — in a remarkable effort toward encouraging what we would now call “sustainability” — governments began encouraging people to grow their own, and educating them in how to do it.

But it’s not just backyard plots that are an old idea turned new. Chicken-keeping, school gardens, canning — all these became patriotic pursuits in wartime. And now, once again, we’re rediscovering the value of producing and preserving our own food. The reasons may have changed, but the satisfaction and joy of harvesting your bounty never go out of date. And as we see our economic and food systems become increasingly unstable, it starts looking live a very good, and necessary, idea indeed.

Some of the posters issued to encourage home production are extraordinarily lovely — a tremendous variety of artists, from Harper’s Magazine illustrator Edward Penfield to French schoolchildren, contributed designs to the cause. I think they are just as inspiring today as ever — perhaps even more so because of the history and heritage they represent. Here is a sampling of those that I’ve collected… enjoy!

French WWI poster, 1916: “Let us look after the farmyard: I am a honest hen of war. I eat little and produce much.”

USDA ad, circa 1917: “Don’t sell the laying hen — all spring she will be turning insects, weeds, garbage, and waste into eggs for the Nation… it’s both patriotic and profitable”! Thankfully backyard birds across the country aren’t producing eggs to “win the war” today, but it may be just as important now to learn to produce our own food and be a little more self-sufficient. And as “urban farmers” discover the delights of fresh eggs and free fertilizer, the humble chicken reinstates herself as a part of the homestead, one backyard at a time!

A WWI-era poster by Edward Penfield for the United States School Garden Army. Its motto — “A garden for every child, every child in a garden” — sounds just as relevant today, as school and community gardens pop up across the nation. When the First Lady enlists a troupe of elementary school students to install a kitchen garden — the first since Eleanore Roosevelt’s Victory Garden — in the White House lawn, you know we’re headed in the right direction!

From this page about the United States School Garden Army: “At the advent of World War I, the Bureau of Education within the Department of the Interior, with funding from the War Department, created the United States School Garden Army (USSGA) to boost the concept as well as morale. This was the one of the first attempts by the BOE to establish a curriculum nationally.  It was also an attempt to help in the war effort by having the schools help grow food. To support this program a series of documents were written and distributed.  Among these were at least 15 USSGA Manuals and Guides, and 17 School Home-Garden Circulars. The target audience was urban and suburban boys and girls, ages 9 through 15, and their teachers. The subjects covered growing vegetables from seed, growing flowers, building hotbeds and coldframes, organic matter and soil health, regional guides and others.”

“ALONG THE EAST RIVER FRONT: Supervised by competent instructors the school children of New York City produced some excellent results in the gardens which they planted in various sections of the city. The very orderly one here shown, with a large number of children industriously engaged, is in Thomas Jefferson Park, 114th Street and East River.” I can’t decide which part of this image is the most extraordinary — children planting an eye-popping school garden in 1918? On a vacant lot in New York City? On the East River??? Wow.

This photograph is from the book The War Garden Victorious: Its War Time Need and Its Economic Value In Peace, published in 1919, documenting the US food gardening program during WWI. You can read it online here — be sure to check out the School Garden Army section. A quote from Woodrow Wilson really sums up the importance given to that program: “Every boy and girl who really sees what the home garden may mean will, I am sure, enter into the purpose with high spirits…. The movement to establish gardens, therefore, and to have the children work in them is just as real and patriotic an effort as the building of ships or the firing of cannon.”

And if the comparisons to ships and cannon fire weren’t enough motivation for the kids, here’s this 1943 edition of World’s Finest Comics, showing everyone’s favourite superheroes getting down to business! Though I worry that Robin is courting a nasty sunburn… it does look like he’s already in the early phases of heatstroke. Maybe gardening without pants wasn’t such a super idea after all?

War Gardens appeared across both Europe and America as supplies were redirected toward the war effort. The British Ministry of Agriculture issued these monthly “Allotment and Garden Guides” in 1945 to give the populace practical advice on growing their own food. (According to this one, before the Romans started meddling in things, August was known in England as “Weodmonath” — Weed Month. Sounds good to me!)

“Every month we shall try to do three things : first, we shall remind you of the things that ought to have been done, but may not have been possible because of the weather or for some other reason; secondly, we shall deal with gardening operations for the month; thirdly, we shall look ahead a month or two and remind you of what you need to do in readiness.” The guides are all available online here; click on over to enjoy their charmingly down-to-earth advice!


Canning? Yep, we’ve been doing that for a while too! I think I’ll skip the peas, myself… but those frilly rickrack-trimmed aprons? Oh, yes please.

“Let us cultivate our kitchen garden”: A French poster from 1917, by Louisette Jaeger, part of a series designed by school children in support of the war effort.

Who doesn’t love vegetables with faces? And isn’t that an enviable sun hat? Really, though — part of what makes the history of wartime gardening so fascinating to me is the massive accompanying efforts to educate the non-farming public on how to “grow their own.” From England to France to the USA, pamphlets flew forth on planting crops, raising chickens, even replacing sugar with fruit. And, once again, we are seeing people in cities and the countryside alike pick up their hoes, roll up their sleeves, and get back to the dirt! We don’t need a war to sow the “Fruits of Peace”…

WWI poster by James Montgomery Flagg, 1918, for the National War Garden Commission.

Let’s sow the seeds of tradition and independence in our own backyards!
Happy Fourth!

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Filed under chickens, history, in the garden, summer

The Homestead Radio Hour: April is All About Chickens!

I think we’re just gonna go ahead and declare April as Chicken Appreciation Month, or maybe Time To Get Yourself Some Darn Chickens Month! We — Phyllis and Julia, the Homestead Radio gals — are excited to be presenting the talk “Country Chicks, City Chicks – Raising Chickens in Your Backyard” at The Union’s annual Spring Home & Garden Show. The home show and talk are free. Come on by this Saturday, April 28, 3:30 to 4:30, at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley, Northern Mines Building, and bring your poultry-related questions!

And, if you missed this month’s episode of The Homestead Radio Hour, you can listen to our feature on Backyard Chicken-Keeping right here — we had so many listeners call in with some great chicken questions and tales. Too much fun! Just click on the player below, or follow this link to the KVMR podcast page.

We’ll also be out at the Auburn Old Town Foothill Farmer’s Market this Saturday morning, 10am to noon, at the KVMR radio table — come on by and say hi!

(and if you need one more reason to think about getting chickens…..
all together now: awwwww!)

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Filed under chickens, farmer's market, homestead how-to

Make Way for Ducklings!

I’ve been wanting some ducks for a few years now. Why, exactly, I can’t say; I know relatively little about ducks, I’ve never kept them before, and I don’t believe I’ve ever tasted a duck egg, though I hear they’re delicious and phenomenal for baking. But, for some reason, every Spring, I find myself gazing longingly at the duckings at the feed store. Maybe it’s their improbably large bills and big floppy feet, or maybe it has something to do with all the times I turned the pages of Robert McKlosky’s delightfully illustrated tale as a wee tot — but I definitely have a bit of a duck fixation.

So that should explain why, when I walked into the feed store for some chicken scratch a few weeks ago and saw two lanky, fluffy, almost-too-big-to-be-ducklings sitting in a pen out front… there was no way I was going home without them.

They’re fawn-and-white runners — just the kind of ducks I was thinking of getting, as they don’t fly and their penguin-like posture is absolutely adorable and rather hilarious. (I did do my research before impulse-buying birds, don’t worry.) The sweet folks at Family Farm Supply here in Auburn were very glad to find these gals a home, as they were the last two ducklings of this year’s batch, and were getting a little too big to keep at the store!

…and as soon as I saw these kiddos, I knew that it was Meant To Be. They’re totally inseparable, too, so it’s extra-nice that they found an new home together!

Ducks need water, and these two absolutely love the creek — they could spend all day splashing and slurping up slimy, tasty swamp things. We’ve dug out a small pond for them there, and a plastic mortar-mixing trough from the hardware store makes a roomy (and inexpensive) pool to play in when they’re in the chicken pen. They’re getting on fairly well with the chickens, who seem to be so weirded out by the ducks that they generally avoid them altogether. I’ve read that chickens and ducks can easily be kept together, and I’ve talked to a few people who have done it; so far, so good! (See how they keep their distance, though?)

And they’re growing up so fast! These photos are from a couple days ago, just three weeks after the first two pictures above, when they arrived here at The Ranch. The ducks are still shy and nervous, but they seem to be settling in well — and, watching them splash and play in the creek, it’s plain to see that they are just about the happiest creatures on earth. I’m so taken with these gals; if I’m not careful, I’ll find myself knitting little sweaters for them soon… ok, maybe not quite that obsessed. Not that they would need them — look at those feathers! It’s hard to believe that they were fluffy little yellow things just a few short weeks ago.

And they’re teaching us all a few things about keeping cool!

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Foto Friday: Clementine

The chicks have moved outdoors — here’s Clementine (also known as Tiny), testing out her newly-feathered wings in the summer sunshine!

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Filed under around the farm, chickens, foto friday, summer

Meet The Chicklets

It’s been quite the Circle-Of-Life around here lately… we recently lost two of our chickens, Buckwheat and Dot, to egg peritonitis, a complication of older age in chickens. We were able to give them a few extra happy months, thanks to veterinary care of both the professional and home variety — you can read about Buckwheat’s adventures here, and the blog we referred to for home treatment is here. It’s hard to see them go, but I’m glad the girls had some extra time to chase bugs and dig for worms outside; they so clearly knew they were loved and well-cared-for. Wherever they are now, we hope they’re enjoying all the peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, potato salad, sliced bread, and cooked rice they can eat…

Miss Buckwheat

Little Dot

But with the sad news comes the happy… and what could be happier than…

Baby chicks!

A few weeks ago, we gave some eggs to our friend Bob, better known to the Kindergartners of Bowman School as “Mr. D.” He hatches a batch of chicks with his class every spring, and, being a friend (and fan) of Timmy the Rooster, Mr. D suggested we bring in a few eggs to add to the incubator. We picked out four nice just-laid ones to add to the twelve he already had, and three weeks later, 13 of the 16 eggs had hatched — an impressive ratio, as it’s usually closer to 50% with incubated eggs. Apparently Mr. D has the touch!

Just call this guy Pop-a-doodle-doo! Timmy has yet to meet his children, but there were several among the new chicks with markings just like his when he was a wee tot. I’ve told him that he’s now a proud father, but I’m not sure he gets it… we’ll see what happens when we bring the little ones home!

And little they are. We’ll keep the chicks in a brooder, a heated contraption designed for raising chicks, until they are old enough to move outdoors to the Chicken Tractor, a mobile pen. (You can also raise chicks with a simpler cardboard box and heat lamp set-up; we happened to have the brooder already in the barn, and it’s a nice luxury, but by no means a necessity.) We won’t actually add the new birds to the adult flock until they are several months old and strong enough to hold their own against the Big Girls and Guy.

The kindergartners named the chicks, too — and what names! Thunder, Darth Maul, “Primces Buttercup,” Lellow, Baby Bee… there’s a little drawing for each one, too, under the “Happy Birthday” sign on the classroom wall. Be sure to click on the photos below for a closer look at their handiwork!

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Filed under around the farm, chickens, homestead how-to, spring

Where We’ve Been Lately

…not blogging, obviously! I have to admit that the many and varied pursuits of glorious Springtime have been distracting me…

But, first news of all, our little farmer’s market stand is starring in a film!

Long story short: local filmmaker Raphael Hitzke needed a honey stand at a farmer’s market to film a scene for his new short film, BEE. And so, we found ourselves watching on a blustery April Saturday morning as camera and sound crews, makeup artists, and actors swarmed around our wee tent and table, filming scenes while fending off the market shoppers who desperately wanted to buy the honey we no longer have in stock. You’ll have to wait ’til July, folks; it’s up to the bees, not us!

(Funny little aside: the actor playing the beekeeper actually started making up astronomical prices for the jars of honey we had on display, and a few people apparently were ready to hand over $43 for a one-pound jar… don’t worry, we’re not getting any ideas.)

Then we raced home to get ready for company — our family and friends were making the pilgrimage from the Bay to the Ranch for Easter the next day!

Greek Easter, that is… a veritable Feast!

(Psst — it’s all about the German egg dye. Super brilliant colours, nothing like the wimpy pastel stuff we get in the grocery store here. For the traditional Greek red eggs, we usually go with the kind made in Greece — a harmless-looking little paper packet filled with harmless-looking powder that immediately stains EVERYTHING a very permanent crimson. No, really; if you let the steam out of the pot, you’re liable to end up with a pink spot on the ceiling. But for the multicoloured eggs, the German-made dyes are dynamite — and check out the wonderfully folk-psychedelic package on this one! Mushrooms! Toads! A rabbit in a bow tie! They claim to be non-toxic, though I’m not so sure… but it’s only once a year, right??)

Then it’s back to work. But even tilling and raking the garden is a happy task this time of year — especially when you have a flock of cheerful chickens that are only too eager to help…

…and everything is green green GREEN! Luminous!

The all-important task of sorting seed packets… I always end up with far too much of something. This year, we’re accumulated something like eight packets of zucchini seed. And don’t even get me started on the basil. Still, necessities of life, right?

The bees are foraging mightily, their wings dusted with this striking golden pollen — but that’s another post in itself. More springtime stories from the Farm forthcoming!

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Filed under around the farm, beekeeping, chickens, farmer's market, honey, orchard, spring