It’s like this. No matter how many internships you do, farm blogs you follow, groups you read, or books you study, when you hit the ground with a project on your own farm or homestead, you have to make it your own. Other systems may inform and help you, but it has been our experience that almost everything has to be adapted in some way.
I believe that this quality of adaptation is part of life – in general. It’s certainly true to my experience in yoga practice. The form is there, old and solid, but to reach the function that underlies it, I may have to adapt the form of my own body, my practice. Finding the right adaptations makes our practices, our lives, more sustainable, resilient, and enduring. It is an on-going process. I don’t think it ever ends. Hopefully, it just gets smoother as time goes on. This is the story of one of our homestead adaptations that recently took a nice turn.
Following Rudolf Steiner’s ideal of the farm organism, we try to build as much of our own soil fertility as possible on our own land. Ideally, this is where farm animals enter into the picture. Once upon a time, we had a milk cow, but we didn’t really have room for her and the situation wasn’t sustainable. We’ve been keeping small poultry for ten years now, and it has taken some time to find a system for catching their fertility that works for our land. We’re down to a family-sized flock of about a dozen birds, and we may finally be getting there.
The beautiful examples set by our friends on their, much larger, homesteads doesn’t plug into our place so well. The land available for gardens here is small. There’s not much space for large rotations. We tried putting chickens into little portable coops and rotating them around in the garden space. They did a great job of fertilizing and scratching up the strip of garden we moved them over, but we were still feeling the need to haul in big loads of manure from neighbors so we could build a nice compost pile, and we didn’t really like having the chickens so “cooped up”. Also, poultry manure is particularly ‘hot’ stuff – due to the ammonia content – and our rotations were a little too tight to feel comfortable with that. You might have noticed that my fellow farmwives often run other animals, ruminants, along with chickens, in rapid succession, across the field. The mixed function of claw and hoof, the mixed combination of chicken and ruminant manure, makes for a cleaner, more balanced fertility, and good use of the forage.
As our market gardening efforts increased, we needed our whole garden, all the time. So the chickens had to rotate elsewhere, and there isn’t much elsewhere to go. A few years ago, we finally started pulling together our own system. Not perfect, but moving in a good direction.
We put up a rough square of chicken wire – about 20 feet on each side. There’s a door that swings open on one corner, and fastens with a string on a nail. In the pen, the chickens have a combined nest box and feed/watering station, and a small portable coop where they spend the night locked up. For most of the day, they peck at the good selection of grass clippings, hay, and vegetable scraps that we throw in for them. In the evening, they come out and roam the field, hillside, and woods for a couple hours before bedtime. The pen is kept far enough away from the gardens that they don’t make it down that far before bedtime.
After a full growing season or more of throwing in loads of hay and all the other organic matter we can gather, we move the net, and the birds, over. We pile up the nice load of pooped-on organic matter and in another year, we have a beautiful compost pile, made right here.
The weakest point of this system was the hay. If you have spent any time at all with chickens then you know exactly how fast they can work up a piece of ground. Those birds are like Mother Earth’s back-scratchers, and they need new stuff to pick through ALL the time. One year, we dumped an entire round bale smack in the middle of the pen. That was great. The next year, we didn’t buy any round bales, the hay was not stored in a location convenient to the chicken pen, and so throwing more hay in didn’t always run as high as it should have on the priority list. The compost suffered, and the birds weren’t as happy.
This year, a few circumstances collided to make amends to our previous failings.
First, the oats didn’t die. We sowed most of our lower garden in a thick planting of cover crop. We left out the vetch because we were tired of tangling with it in the Spring, and my Fellow Man told the kids and I to just throw on that bag of oats with the crimson clover. The oats were supposed to die over the winter (I’m wondering where that information came from now), and leave a nice thick stand of crimson clover. Both oats and clover came up thick, and the oats didn’t look too good, but they stood all through that wretched cold winter. The clover bloomed beautifully, then faded, and the oats grew taller and set seed. We were unprepared for that success!
IF we had our threshing/hulling game together, we probably would have harvested them for our own groat supply. BUT, we don’t, and the thought of harvesting and storing another round of grain for some unknown quantity of time was not attractive.
When the lawnmower started making funny noises, we bit the bullet and bought the scythe. It’s a beautiful thing, from the Marugg Company, right here in Tennessee. It doesn’t stink and make horrible noises, like the weed-eater, mower, and tractor. It also doesn’t burn fossil fuels and make one’s hands and shoulders vibrate in an unnatural way. It’s skill and muscle-building to use, and my Fellow Man cleared the 50×150 foot swath of oats with it in less than an hour. With the help of the children, we hauled it up to the chickens and threw it in heaping mounds around their pen. They were ecstatic. They will pick the groats (lowering their food bill), scratch the hay for hours on end, and when the whole thing settles, we will have another beautiful pile of compost. The imported resources were nothing more than the scythe and the oat seed, and the pile we make will feed a good deal of our gardens.
This doesn’t mean we won’t haul some horse manure from the neighbors place. We like them, they do a good job with their horses and their manure makes nice compost piles. We will also buy hay from other neighbors who do such a good job cutting and storing it for folks like us. There’s no telling how the cover crops will be next winter, and what the next adaptation will hold for us. But it sure felt good to have seen that process through, to find a sustainable adaptation for our place.
If we can inspire you about the possibilities of this simpler, but still oh-so-beautifully-complex lifestyle, it makes us happy. If you want more details about exactly how our chicken pile-up system works, I’ll be glad to tell you more. But I also encourage you to gather all this information and inspiration and go make it work your own way.
Happy Independence Day Everybody!