• Category Archives Learning
  • The Farm in Transition 2016

    As the title suggests, 2016 has been a transition year here at Bottle Tree Farm. We said good-bye to the last of the pigs in 2015. Now, thanks to the wily fox, we are down to a small flock of fowl: three turkeys (two toms and a hen), two chickens, and two ducks. The turkeys are free range while the ducks and the chickens share a pen within a pen that seems to be sturdy enough to deter our fox. “Real” farmers would have rid themselves of the predator, but he is beautiful and wild and we just can’t bring ourselves to do it. And, as we head into the second half of our ten year plan, reducing animals means being able to do more traveling together.

    As for those free range turkeys: they’ve wandered off twice in the past month or so. On Thanksgiving Day, we found them entertaining the neighborhood across the street. Today, I found two of them wandering the fence line by the railroad tracks where the third had managed to get himself on the wrong side of the fence. It took about an hour of jumping the fence myself, thrashing through underbrush, basically pushing him back over and then luring them back to the barnyard with a bucket of food. Phew…I’m ready for a nap.

    We continue to nurture two bee hives. We installed a third late in the summer and it didn’t make it. Not sure why: the queen seemed to be doing her job but it just wasn’t strong enough. We would like to add two more this coming spring.

    Our plans for 2017 include a high tunnel, courtesy of a USDA grant. It is an unheated plastic greenhouse that will be installed next week. We’re planning to mostly use it to raise ginger and turmeric but should also be able to get some early crops of lettuces and other greens. We were able to raise a small amount of both ginger and turmeric on our sun porch this year, thanks to seed stock from Virginia State University, where they are experimenting with growing these tropical crops in our climate. We harvested some nice ginger root and are going to pull the turmeric on New Year’s Day. These niche crops have a variety of uses and while we get the crop going, we’ll be looking for outlets to sell them. Our small harvest will be used for root stock and we’ll also be buying plants.

    For now, we are enjoying the wood stove we installed in the den and doing what all farmers do this time of year: browse seed catalogs! Despite its challenges, we continue to love living here. If you’re ever in the area, feel free to stop by.

     



  • Bee Log Plus

    I’ve been keeping an eye on the hives, and one of them has been noticeably inactive compared to the one on the left. A few bees coming and going. I haven’t been able to get down to open the boxes: it’s either raining or just too hot. But, today was pretty perfect for putting on the suit and heading down to the bee yard. I checked the quiet hive, and there wasn’t much brood. There were a few new babies but very little brood. I didn’t see the queen or even queen cells so I may have a queenless hive or a very new queen.

    My other hive had a TON of brood and babies. So, I did something I’ve never done before: swapped some frames of brood into the weaker hive. The idea is that the brood will both provide new bees and encourage the hive to create a new queen. For me, it felt a little like major surgery. I swept the bees off the frames with my brush and then popped them into the other hive. This meant both hives were open at the same time. The bees were busy around me but not particularly aggressive.

    I am traveling for the next ten days and will check when I return to see if the remedy worked.

    Meanwhile, we’re getting steady vegies from the farm: lovely roma beans, kale, yellow squash, chard, beets and turnips. I put up a half gallon jar of pickled turnips and beets using this recipe. I threw some small turnips and beets into tonight’s crock pot chicken. My oven was being used to heat dirt to sterilize it. I have 100 lavender seeds to get started.

     

     



  • Very Overdue Update Plus Angry Bees

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    Four months? Really? I didn’t do an update all summer?

    I was busier than ever with workshops this spring and summer. My flower garden was lovely in the late Spring, early Summer and then I started to travel. Newspaper and mulch helped some but eventually the weeds won out. We also decided to add another 5 or 6 feet to the front to make it easier to mow so those grasses have obscured what flowers might be blooming.

    Ditto for the rest of the farm. Bob got nice hay and early greens. He was keeping ahead of the chaos. And then, rain and heat combined to make it impossible. We did get a nice harvest of pears from our house in Williamsburg that are now lovely sauce in the freezer. But, our produce is coming from others…and I’m discovering the fun of the farmer’s market. I hope I’m a better consumer because I know how hard farmers work to get the food to the market on Saturday morning. It is, I can tell you, a very hard way to make a living, this raising of food essentially by hand.

    I’ve frozen corn, blueberries and tomato sauce. The blueberries also went into freshly baked hand pies last week and were delicious. There weren’t any this week and the season is almost over. So, our sweet treat this week is going to be peach cake using canned peaches from last year.

    We’ve turned our attention from farming to house work. We haven’t done much in the past four years: added heat mostly. So, Bob is starting with painting the front porch.

    Now to those bees…it is the time of year when you sprinkle them with confectioner’s sugar for mites. I did it last week and all seemed fine. One box had really started in on honey production so I know I’ll at least get a bit in the fall. The other one hadn’t done much. It’s a bigger hive so more space to store honey in the bottom boxes.

    This week, everyone seemed a little edgier and I only managed to complete one hive. My smoker wasn’t helping and eventually failed on. And the bees were going for skin where they could find it. I got stung a couple times so decided to wait on the other hive until another day. Maybe try it earlier or later when it’s cooler, too. The suit is very hot and I think the sweat draws them in even more. Who knows? Just not a happy day at the hive.

     

     



  • Five Months Later

    It was a tough winter here at the farm. We didn’t get a lot of snow but the freezing temperature required extra work keeping pigs and chickens war, keeping water from freezing and worrying about the bees.

    I’m happy to say that both hives survived and are now busy making honey! I added a queen excluder and honey super to each one about a month ago. And for the first time in my tenure as a beekeeper, I saw the queen! I want to go down and give a quick look to see how the honey is coming. Everything I read says to let them alone while they are working so this will be a quick peek into the top.

    We had an unexpected litter of piglets in mid-March. The sow didn’t look pregnant and also didn’t seem to be able to feed her babies so they ended up on our sun porch. We bottle fed them, fought off disease with antibiotics after losing two of them, and have managed to sell four of them in the past few weeks! We also sold six gilts (female pigs ready to breed). All this is a good thing since we have 14 new piglets down with their mothers. Two groups born a week and two weeks ago. Everyone seems happy and we have already sold a couple of them once they are weaned. We have had calls as far away as Connecticut: the pig virus you’ve been hearing about seems to be taking a toll on herd stocks.

    The gardens look better than ever and the vegetables are coming in. I have beans to freeze after this blog post. We welcome visits to the farm and you can find us at the Waverly Farmers Market every Saturday. Starting next Friday, we’ll be at the Claremont Circle Store from 6 to 8 PM.

    I’m going to commit to making a weekly update here on Sunday mornings. The story of trying to be a small farmer is one that is important to everyone, I think, as we struggle to create something that could be a model for others. We have benefited from a project at Virginia State University called 43,560. This demonstration farm has a goal of making $1/square foot and thus, $43,560 on an acre of land. It benefits from volunteers like us who then also learn techniques we can apply on our own land. You can learn more from the article.



  • Making a Life

    Over the holidays, a friend strongly encouraged me to read Kristin Kimball’s memoir of her beginnings as a farmer. I knew I had a copy of The Dirty Life on the shelf but I had someone managed to avoid reading both it and all the other memoirs of life as a farmer. For me, reading is something of an escape, and I wasn’t really interested in escaping to other farms as I settled in to living on mine. I was making my own life and wasn’t ready for outside influences.

    But my friend’s insistence and a lovely long holiday break provided me with the incentive to dive in. Kimball’s story captured me and didn’t let go. It was a story of farming but also the story of her own life journey and how it was impacted by her relationship with her husband. I found myself wondering how things would have turned out if she hadn’t met Mark and been taken in by his passion for living close to the land. As I’m feeding the pigs on a cold morning, I find myself wondering the same thing. I may not have chosen the farm life if it weren’t for my husband. But, like Kimball, I would never go back.

    Kimball’s tale is compellingly honest: her life is not for everyone. I laughed at her description of her fashionable clothing slowly being turned into work clothes. I sympathized with her struggles to become skillful with the horses. And, I completely understood the dirt. There are days when I just strip down in the mud room. After spending the day in a very wet and muddy pig pen, I soaked my jeans in a bucket first because they were too filthy to go into the washing machine. Sometimes, even the simplest chores like feeding the chickens, end in dirt when you step in turkey poop or rub up against a wet hay bale.

    I was awed by the challenge Kimball and her husband undertook to produce more than just seasonal vegetables. From dairy to grains to meat, they are showing the way to not just local but personal eating and some of my favorite passages are her descriptions of the simple meals they shared at some of the toughest junctures on the journey. I am planning to add dandelion greens to my spring cooking this year.

    I may not tackle the rest of the new farmer books on the shelf but if The Dirty Life is an example of their quality, maybe they are worth a try. Or maybe I’m just ready to welcome fellow travelers into this new life we are making.



  • An Autumn Update

    Displaying This morning was one of those mornings that have me questioning the farming life. It was about 20 degrees when I headed out for the chores. Fortunately, I am prepared for such mornings with lots of warm clothes from long underwear to boots to hat and gloves. And the animals seemed no worse for wear, especially the turkeys who spent the night outside, roosting in their usual spots on the wash line and overhead power line.

    We worked until dark last night, digging up the last of the sweet potatoes. We had a bumper crop so if you’re in the market for potatoes, come on by. I’ve been baking pies and did a delicious batch of sweet potato donuts using my new donut pans. For Thanksgiving, I’m making Sweet Potato Tarte Tatin.

    Last weekend, we weaned the baby pigs by transferring them to the pen with chain link for better security and moving the mamas to the wider open pen with electric fencing. It’s pretty amazing that three strands of wire can keep them in. There was a little weeping and gnashing of teeth but nothing that some greens and scoops of food couldn’t fix. The babies merged quickly and they can still see mama so everyone seems happy.

    What a nice day!Well, except for Biscuit, our boar, who is now alone in his pen. He was with the last sow, Hamp, who does not appear to have gotten pregnant. We went ahead and moved her in with the other two females. Biscuit figured out how to look out through the window of the building where he stays. Very cute but we strung a piece of wire just in case. The plan is to get him out into the field, but we need to build a shelter.

    The babies seem to love their new pen. I sat out with them for awhile and enjoyed listening to them rooting in the dried leaves. For those of you who need a cute pig fix, here’s the video:



  • Piglets!

    IMG_0725I am writing this entry from the pig pen. And, I will be attending today’s board meeting from the same place. I declared this a “family emergency” and want to spend every minute with our first set of piglets. Ten adorable babies were born yesterday to Macintosh, our full blooded Tamworth sow. We knew she was pregnant but weren’t sure when the babies would arrive. She seemed perfectly fine yesterday morning, hanging out with the others to get fed. But late morning, she made a bit of a nest for herself and in about four hours, we had ten piglets! They came out easily and were up and moving almost immediately, heading for food!

    Friends arrived and we hung out watching the whole process, taking turns getting coffee or walking the dogs. I stayed until after dark, once everyone seemed to have settled in for the night.

    I am blessed by a great board chair who was willing to let me phone in my attendance today. I probably could have left them alone, but mother pigs have been known to accidentally smother their babies in the first few days. Macintosh seems to be very careful as she moves around, making gentle sounds and lowering herself in the nest first before rolling over. She has been in and out of the nest this morning. She ate a hearty breakfast and has been drinking lots of water. We fed her dog biscuits and water yesterday but she wasn’t all that interested. Right now, my back is to the pen but it is completely quiet.  AAH…Happy Mama

    Bob headed to the farmer’s market with the last of the summer watermelons and baskets of greens. I feel a little guilty for the dogs…they haven’t gotten their morning walk today. Relief is coming at some point and I’ll give them a little attention. We strung up an extension cord down here and I’m thinking I could bring the Keurig down, too.

    So, that’s the big news here…we believe Tam, another sow, is also pregnant. We have a farrowing shed almost ready to go so that will be the afternoon project. Babies never come when they are supposed to, do they?



  • The Evil Wax Moths

    I lost my second original hive, this time to wax moths. It had seemed to be doing well with capped comb and even some honey stores. But last Sunday, I found the first evidence of wax moths, including the moth itself. The moth lays eggs and the worms eat through comb and create cocoons. And they do it quickly…I removed the frames that were infected and put them in the freezer. But when I went back a few days later, there were more and the damage was irrevocable. Today, the hive was completely empty and just very sad. I’ll need to treat the frames and boxes before using them again.

    Meanwhile, my two new hives are doing great! I’ve added a second brood box to one of them and they have already drawn out comb and the queen laid eggs. The second one has built onto three of the five empty frames and there is plenty of capped comb and honey. So, at least there is some good news. A healthy hive can fight off most hive ills including wax moths so I am hopeful.

    I am so lucky to have a mentor. I called him when I discovered the wax moth damage and we talked through the possibilities but agreed that there was little I could do. He is so generous with his expertise. And I am reminded of how much I have to learn. Beekeeping is definitely one of those hobbies that needs lots of practice. You can read books, attend classes, but ultimately you learn on the job.

    This Saturday, I’ll be going to the club’s Honey Extractaganza. I don’t have any to extract but I’ll get to see the process and talk shop with other beekeepers. One of the perks of belonging to a club is getting access to equipment like extractors. But the fellowship of others is probably the best reason to belong.



  • Long Overdue Update

    I know why farmers talk about the weather…because it is so important. A lovely long spring that produced wonderful peas and spinach turned into a wet early summer that washed out the squash crop, rotted the onions, and made it impossible to get into the fields to plant or weed. Things have gotten a bit better with a break in the heat wave and plenty of corn flooding in from the second planting. The beans are blossoming and there are eggs on the eggplants. We get about 2 dozen of fresh eggs each day. The four turkeys spend the night with the chickens and then free range during the day. At least one is a tom who is practicing his prancing.

    Bee Update

    Sunday, July 14, I picked up two “nucs” from my bee buddy. These boxes of bees include five frames of bees and a queen. The frames have capped comb that will hatch into new bees along with lots of honey. The honey is for the use of the bees. And, I’ve gotten fancy feeders that sit in the top of the frames with wire where the bees can feed. Nucs have to be fed nonstop so the bees have enough food to build up their own stores for the winter. I also added a small hive beetle trap to my original hive. It is filled with vegetable oil and appears to be doing its job.

    The nucs appear to have different personalities. One is quite mellow while the other seems full of mean bees. When I went down last Sunday to check on them, they managed to find one small space of skin on my ankle and stung me. I swelled up and itched for days. I have to go back down today to feed them and I’m going to put on my suit even though I shouldn’t have to. Better safe than sorry.

    Pig Update

    We think two of the sows are pregnant. They gestate for 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. However, since we don’t when they got pregnant, we really don’t have any idea when we’ll have baby pigs. They are happy with their bigger pen and I find them sleeping in a pile in the mornings.

    In general, all goes well although the farm is really too much for just the two of us. We’re working with Virginia State University to see if we can get interns or an itinerant farmer to help us out.



  • Taking the Bad with the Good

    July has arrived, and the rain has finally stopped. An early tropical storm in June soaked the place and then it just seemed to keep raining. We lost the early squash and zucchini plants that had just started to produce. Some of my flower seeds came up (you can always count on zinnias!) but others either drowned or rotted. We still have hay in the field as we just haven’t had the necessary dry days to be able to harvest it. What we did harvest was good and is now tucked safely in the former corn crib. The chickens and pigs love having a bale of hay to scratch and rutt. We added on to the pig pen and now they have a little woodsy area and plenty of space to run.

    The bees continue to be a learning challenge. The split hive did produce a queen but she just couldn’t lay eggs and get babies hatched in time to save the hive. It might have been possible to pull frames of brood from my healthy hive to get them through but I just didn’t know enough to even ask. My mentor said he doesn’t think I lost all the bees. They probably joined the hive next door.

    That hive seems to be going gang busters. I added a third medium box a couple weeks ago but they haven’t started it yet. The bottom box has three empty frames and the second box has about four. I suppose they will move up when they are ready. There’s capped brood and honey throughout the two boxes, and the frames are heavy. I’ve been feeding them and they go through a quart in about four or five days so they aren’t taking much considering how many bees are in those boxes. I didn’t see the red queen anywhere, but I also didn’t pull out all the frames. Perhaps she has been replaced.

    I did get to try out some new equipment. Smaller gloves made it much easier to handle the frames. And I love my frame hangers. I put a new ventilated inner cover on that box and gave them a fancy hive excluder.

    The plan is to get a nuc or two from another keeper in hopes of getting three hives up and running. I’ll have to feed them but he thinks I can get them through the winter. I’m impatient to get them going but am waiting for new equipment to arrive. He will swap me five deep frames for five empty ones and I’m waiting for those deep frames to arrive. I ordered lots of other stuff: top inside feeders, ventilated inner covers, stands, more mediums, a whole kit so we have two veils and other tools.

    Your reward for reading this…a few photos from the farm.