Monday, October 29, 2012

Batten Down the Hatches!

When you make your living by the land, you have to take notice of the weather forecast.


Well, that headline got our attention.

This picture made us sit up and take notice.

The multiple high wind warnings gave us even more cause for concern.

After the Derecho experience in June, any mention of wind has this area on high alert.  This is not without cause.  A lot of damage still remains.  The “widow makers” (broken trees that have not yet fallen) will cause power outage and “issues” for some time in the future. The winds associated with a tropical storm, hurricane, or in this case, a possible re-play of “the perfect storm” of 1991, are always a concern in the higher elevations of our beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

I realize it sounds odd to say “higher elevations in the Valley”…isn’t that the ultimate oxymoron? 

We are near the edge of the Valley…close to the Allegheny mountains.  Sitting at an elevation of about 2,000 feet above sea level, the weather here is often far different than the weather conditions in nearby Staunton (1395 ft)  and Stuarts Draft (1410 ft).  We often spend a day being socked in by fog and clouds while the surrounding lower elevations are sunny and warm.  We generally have cooler temperatures year ‘round “out here”.  While it is an amazingly beautiful place to live, it does come at a price.

Remnants of hurricanes have struck the Valley with disastrous effects on many occasions.  Remember Camille in 1969?  Fran in 1996?  Isabel in 2003?  There have been others, but those specific storms still stand out in the collective memory of the residents.

Of all the various weather elements, WIND is always our biggest concern.  If I've said it once, I've said it a million times “VIEWS, VIEWS, VIEWS” is just real estate lingo for WIND….WIND…WIND!  We are not nestled in the Valley.  Nope, we are perched on the top of the hill…clinging on for dear life it seems sometimes. With multiple hoophouse structures, the wind is a constant consideration. Nothing like seeing the side of the  hoophouse waving at you in the wind.While I love this place and hope to be here ‘til I die... I absolutely hate the wind!

WIND in the forecast means we make a trip to town for gasoline.  We are fairly self-sufficient in other aspects, but it is essential that we keep our generator running.  This time of year we have small layer chicks that need warmth and light…in addition to that bank of freezers stocked with meat and vegetables that would be lost should we lose power for any length of time. We absolutely cannot afford to lose any of those things for they are our future income.

We know the wind preparation drill all too well. Loose items are secured, the hoophouse doors closed tightly, chickens and gates latched securely, flashlights and candles assembled, some water set aside…and then, we wait. The chilly temperatures meant that the Boss stocked the woodbox, too.  In case of a power failure, which we are thinking is almost a certainty, we won't be cold and we will just cook camp-style for a while.

We know that any damage in our area will be just an inconvenience in comparison to those along the coast.  They will be in our thoughts and prayers as the storm finally makes its anticipated landfall. The newscasts contain frightening words such as “mass transit shutdown”, “devastating damage”, and huge storm-surge”.  I shudder to think what it would be like to be in a big city with this monster storm bearing down on the area.

Presently, the forecast is for a couple of inches of rain and wind between 35 and 45 mph, gusting to 60+ mph.  There have been rumors of snow flurries. We've seen this sort of weather a number of times in the past. It doesn't seem to warrant the media hype, but you never know. We’ll have to wait and see what things look like later in the week after the storm.

For right now….Batten down the hatches, ‘cause the wind is gonna blow!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Wastin' Time

October sunrise

Sometimes I think...

I just don’t do enough around here.

I must work harder…make an effort to succeed.

I should do more here on the farm. Plant more seeds, be more organized, work a little harder…

I really need to get some focus.

If I was seriously committed…I would work dawn to dusk and then some…EVERY day!

If I was a real farmer… I wouldn’t even think of taking a break!

Maybe I should learn to apply myself. Perhaps I ought to put a whole lot more effort into this venture!

moth on hoophouse


                No way.

Let’s just face facts. 

I waste time.  I waste a LOT of time.  …and ya know what?  I don’t really care.  …and I’m not planning on changing. (for the record, the Boss is in absolute total agreement)

There are no timeclocks in our little paradise here on the hill.  It’s been more than 25 years since I “clocked in” anywhere and I haven’t missed it at all! (although that mental calculation made me feel more than a little old)

While there are times when we work incredibly hard, there are also times when we revel in the opportunity to do absolutely nothing at all.  Those empty spaces allow us to re-charge and enable us to work through situations that require that we give way more than 100% effort.

Squeekie catching a mouse
I waste time when I pet the cats and dogs, when I stand in awe at the sunrise or sunset, when I watch the cat capture a mouse, and when I take countless photos of things that happen routinely. But those "wasted" moments grant me a sense of peace and wonder and the desire to persevere in the face of adversity.

I know I could be working when I am standing outside for 10 minutes trying to get THE shot.  But, sometimes that photo is amazing.  Sometimes that photo touches someone else, teaches them something, or reminds them of something pleasant.

Occasionally, I get lost on a rabbit trail of research, when I really should be doing something else.  But, sometimes that rabbit trail is exactly what was needed to resolve a thorny issue.

I realize that when I sit down at the computer to send an email or silly message to someone that I could be doing something “really productive”, but sometimes that message soothes the heart of one of my fellow humans. Sometimes, it grants a much-needed smile to an aching heart.

Sometimes, when I should be working on a project, I get side-tracked by texting/talking with one of my kids or friends.  The projects can wait… people can’t.

A couple of years ago, I found out just how very unpredictable and incredibly fragile life is.  While it was not my own “near death” experience, it was too close for comfort and it had a profound impact. I’d always been incredibly goal-oriented and a slave to my list-making. Never again will I assume that tomorrow will just be another day. For that matter, I cannot even assume there will BE a tomorrow. Life comes with absolutely no guarantees.

So…I’m wastin’ time.  

Taking pictures, writing notes, reading about interesting things, doing a little blogging, and yes…sending those silly Facebook messages.
2012 garlic crop has sprouted!

Don’t worry; I get all my work done!  (although I KNOW I could do more) and I still have my OCD moments when I’m making a million lists and freaking out that NOTHING ever gets done…but most of the time...


                          I’m so thankful to have time to waste!

For I am fairly certain that when I get to the end of my days, I’m pretty sure I won’t be thinking…"man, I REALLY should have planted more cabbage!"  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

EVERY Day Should Be Food Day

Today is Food Day. 

Did you celebrate?

Did you do something special in observance?

Did you even KNOW?

I must admit...this one sneaks up on me.  I mean to get the word out...I mean to talk it up, blog about it...whatever...but, generally my hands are too dirty with the mess of everyday living to get anywhere near my keyboard!  And so far, all my mental messages to those in cyber-space have gone unanswered.


 “Food Day provides our community with an important opportunity to raise awareness for eating healthy, locally produced food. Purchasing local food is important for our community because it supports our county's farmers, boosts our local economy by keeping our food dollars in the community and provides our families with healthier food choices.” (Gore’s Meat Processing)

Across the nation, Food Day was observed in a variety of ways. There were celebrations, tastings, a few festivals and perhaps even a few sales.  While the goals of Food day are rather broad and sweeping, perhaps a little too vague in their message, they are worthy of consideration and conversation at the very least. 

Here on the hill, every day is food day.


That’s what we do around here.  We grow food, promote food, harvest food, eat food, talk about food, and ENJOY food. 

Every. Single. Day.

It seems that everyone is talking about food of late.  Good food, bad food,healthy food, trendy food, and food/drink that should be banned, taxed, or eliminated…after years and years of taking our food for granted, folks are finally starting to give some consideration to what they put in their bodies.

There are a lot of concern about the food supply and system here in the good ole U S of A.  While it is easy to identify the problems, I’m not so sure we’re going to find the answers easily.  It will take a good deal of thought and discussion and some very real, perhaps very difficult changes as society takes a good long look at FOOD.

In the meantime, here’s a little “food” for thought…

Learn about what you are eating—where it comes from, how it is produced, what all those weird words mean.  You might be surprised at what you learn.  You have absolutely everything to gain, and quite possibly everything to lose if you don’t.

I think EVERY day should be Food Day!

Monday, October 22, 2012

Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other

A little blonde girl walked up to our table at the Market, pointed at the eggs and said to the Boss, “Those are EGGS!”  I could see him melt a little as she looked up with those big blue eyes and said it again. She couldn't have been more than three years old. (…and she was SO cute!)  Something about those eggs fascinated her. When he asked her if she knew where they came from, she thought and then said, “A FARM!”  She wasn't quite sure but with a little prompting from her older brother she said they came from chickens. The Boss applauded her knowledge.  She went skipping off down the sidewalk, following the rest of her family.

Farm fresh eggs have long been a staple of the Market, but lately there have been a LOT of questions, too. However, some of the questions just prove how un-informed…no, mis-informed folks are.  I cannot tell anyone how hens for eggs should be raised, could be raised…nor can I say with certainty that we do it the BEST way.  But, we have been doing this a LONG time and are committed to the health and well-being of our animals as well as producing a delicious product in an efficient and economical manner.

Recently, I read an article about eggs. This article chronicled 9 separate labels that eggs may (or may not) have and their possible definitions. Unfortunately, much of the information used to explain the terms is erroneous.  This is simply one more example the lack of knowledge of agriculture that seems to be compounded daily. There is actually legislation before Congress that will affect the housing of laying hens in commercial operations.  To my mind, that’s more than a little heavy-handed, but I won’t get “all political”.

A lot of folks are concerned about the hens’ living conditions.  This is a laudable concern, but keep in mind these ARE chickens and NOT your children.  Chickens need protection from the elements and predation, and laying hens look for a safe, darkened place in which to lay their eggs.  They need food and water…egg production and consistency benefit from a diet high in protein and some amount of fat.  Green matter adds to the rich color of the yolk and they actually seem to enjoy table scraps. But, neither greens nor scraps are essential to egg production. But, our model offers all these things to the hens on a routine basis.  I take issue with the folks who think that they should have constant access to the outdoors.  This provides far too much opportunity for predation.

hens come and go freely
laying their eggs in the safety of nestboxes
Unless you have begun your day cleaning up decapitated chickens, you cannot truly appreciate the need for providing protection to those creatures in your care.  That is indeed what happened to us once long ago.  We were committed to a truly free-range hen environment.  I went out one morning to feed while the Boss was in town.  There were bunches and bunches of headless chickens (I found the heads elsewhere)…I ended up filling the wheelbarrow with the carnage. If I say this is NOT the way I wish to ever start the day again, it would be an incredible understatement.  We never identified the predator, and that made for more than a few sleepless nights following the attack.  But, since we have been locking the hens in at dark, we have never had a repeat performance.  So, our chickens do NOT spend ALL their time outdoors.

Small chicks cannot be exposed to the elements; they must have warmth and light during their very early days in order to thrive. We provide the chicks with light and feed 24/7 for the first three weeks of their lives here on the hill.

There is a lot of talk about fertile eggs, too.  Many folks feel that this must add to the nutrition.  I do not think there is any basis to this oldwives’ tale. Some cultures consider this a delicacy. Other folks think that the possibility of finding an unhatched chick in their morning meal is more disgusting than mere vocabulary can convey.  Personally, I am with the latter group.

In order for an egg to be fertile, the hen must have had physical contact with a rooster.  Contrary to popular belief, every egg is NOT a chick in the making, nor must you have a rooster in order to get eggs.  Nor is the yolk the part of the egg that becomes the chick! The majority of the yolk is actually what provides the nutrition for the chick as it grows inside the shell. …and for the record…most double yolk eggs will NOT produce twins.

Once she reaches maturity, a hen will produce an egg approximately every 26 hours, with or withOUT a rooster.  In operations where eggs are offered for sale, a rooster is rarely kept.  Roosters are aggressive, both with humans and the hens, and in most cases do nothing productive for the flock.  While there are some who keep a rooster to “protect” the hens from aerial predation (hawks, eagles and perhaps owls) but we have found that doesn't work for us.  So, there is no need to candle our eggs, or worry about “babies” inside when you buy our eggs.

While we have had predation problems with hawks in the past, we have found that if the hens have a place to get out of sight of the hawk/other raptor (under the house or vegetation) it is not an issue.  But, there is nothing that will cause a more visceral reaction of an egg farmer than the sight of a raptor lunching on a hen.  (been there…done that) Any large shadow moving over the ground will cause the hens to squawk and run for cover. Their squawking in turn causes the dogs to bark and most birds don’t stay long.

Our chickens eat NATURAL feed…not organic.  It doesn't seem worth the added expense to us and in the end our customers, to pay so much more for an input that may or may NOT make any difference in the end product.  The feed has NO additives in it, and provides protein at a level required by the hens’ bodies to produce large eggs on a predictable basis. The hens also get all the spent garden plants, weeds and the occasional table scraps and uneaten dog food.  Since they do have access to the outdoors, they scratch and peck and eat whatever creepy crawlies they may fancy.  They have been known to eat their own eggs on occasion. When one is looking for any sort of reliable production rate, hens will never be left to scratch on their own.  High protein feed is essential, and in our case does include soybean meal.

As for claims that eggs are “drug-free”, hormone free, no antibiotics…etc, many of these claims are simply to assure the customer that the eggs they are purchasing are as NATURAL as possible.  The mis-guided notion that all farms pump their animals full of drugs is one that drives conventional farmers to distraction. (and me, too for that matter!) I will note here that we cannot assure you that the feed is GMO-free.  The whole GMO topic will be covered sometime soon…oh, believe me…it will be covered…no doubt about it. We are committed to providing “the girls” with the best we can, and we are satisfied that we are indeed doing that.

Many comments are made at the Market regarding the aesthetic beauty of our eggs.  While we appreciate the compliments, we can take no real credit for it.  Different breeds of chickens lay different color eggs.  Brown, white and green are some of the colors that come to mind.  Brown eggs can range from nearly white to warm beige to a deep russet.  Some have little freckles and occasionally there are anomalies in the shells like creases or bumps.  It is this variation that adds to the visual appeal of farm fresh eggs. Each hen has her signature egg, so to speak. Since we don’t weigh or grade our eggs, there is some level of variance within every carton.

This week, a long-time customer noted, “I GOT A WHITE EGG for the first time EVER! Like, WHAT is going on?”  I laughed and said, “yeah, there’s one hen who lays these weird light eggs…” I think she was a little disappointed with my calm reaction. “Oh, I thought you might have gotten new chickens. Or maybe something weird was going on…” she said. Nope, no new chickens, just the odd and random anomalies make up our natural world. Cool, huh?

High in protein, fairly low in calories, eggs provide some essential nutrition from which most everyone can benefit.  The whole cholesterol thing is constantly up for study, debate and discussion.  My advice is to follow Julia Child’s wisdom: “everything in moderation!”

Eggs…they’re what’s for breakfast…lunch…supper…ANYTIME!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Not As Bad As It "Coulda Been"

For the record, I do NOT like phonecalls that begin…

             “Mama…just so you don’t freak out…”

She sounded so calm, cool and collected, I wondered why she was even calling to say that she had a (her words) “little boo-boo”.   Apparently, she had lost control of the hubs’ dirtbike and injured her leg with the foot peg.  “looks like I need some stitches… no, you don’t need to come.” and, THAT was the end of the conversation. I had been on the phone with my other daughter(EMT chick) at the time and passed the news on to her.  We both worried and wondered about the situation.

I had no way to know that prior to the phone call, she had injured her thigh after losing control of the dirtbike, she had been transported by ambulance to the local hospital, after rescue had considered flying her over the mountain to UVA, and she had been x-rayed for broken bones.  She sounded so calm.

I mention sounding calm because our youngest daughter didn’t inherit her dad’s laidback approach to life.  She came into this world screaming and has her mother’s tendency to yell first and ask questions later. In retrospect, the calmness was eerie.

There were few further details that night.  I did check with SiL, they were okay and going home.

A “mama check-up” call in the morning revealed that she had gotten 19 staples in her thigh and her elbow was sprained. WHAT? 19 staples? WHAT?

When I passed the news to EMT-chick , she immediately turned into superEMT and began re-evaluating the situation. She got on the phone with her sister. Later, she was the one who revealed the ambulance ride and all the EMS considerations of the situation.  Did I know what could have happened?  Did I know how lucky she was?  You know what the worst case scenario could have been? Gee, and she had sounded SO calm.

The Boss and I were processing chickens, and had promised to do a few roosters that the kids had been raising.  Since she was incapacitated, I offered to come and get them for her.  That’s when I heard the entire story and saw firsthand the damage (sorta).

…and that’s when I realized that this wasn’t as nearly as bad as it "coulda been".  If the wound had been deeper, or in a slightly different location… things could have been more than horrible. The doctors and nurses repeatedly told them how lucky she was. A complete recovery is expected.

When we finished our processing day, I delivered the birds and brought Blondie over for a little “home-care” here on the farm.  I don’t suppose she really needed the excitement of the Battle of the Whistle-pig, but at least it was a change of scenery.

October 16, 2010
Supper with the folks, icecream on the couch, and watching M*A*S*H re-runs with Papa was most definitely NOT how they had anticipated spending their second anniversary.

But, it wasn’t as bad as it "coulda been"!   

                    Happy belated anniversary, kids…and many more!

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Battle of the Whistle-pig

The challenges of food production never cease to amaze me.  There is always something new to learn, an obstacle to overcome, and sometimes it becomes an epic battle just to put food on the table.

We have been battling something in hoophouse #2 for the better part of the summer. We've plugged holes and set traps.  The Boss even has electrified the alley fence. Things seemed to come to a climax back at the end of August when some creature ate nearly the entire lettuce crop in a single night.  That caused the Boss to fortify the hoophouse, hoping to thwart future attacks.
trap on outside covering tunnel to inside
We duly replanted, weeded and watered…only to get the feeling that something had been in the house yet again.  But how? The hoophouse looked like a fortress.  Surely, nothing could make it inside. The damage wasn’t as horrific, but still…I just knew that something was eating my newly planted kale…and it was NOT insects.

While I couldn’t prove it…I was certain that there was evidence of a groundhog. It looked as if there was a fresh trail to the groundhog "condo" in the neighbor’s field.  A trap was baited, but the appetizing apple was never touched. I saw marks of digging, but plugged the hole. There was no further action.  Still…there was that nagging thought…

The brilliant, gorgeous days of autumn, while cool and pleasant, don’t allow for any miscalculations in the hoophouses.  The bright sunshine causes the temperatures to soar, so irrigation is crucial. Often, the sides need to be raised for added ventilation.  To that end, I generally do a walk-though in the early morning and again after lunch.  Sometimes, I check again at afternoon chores.

On my rounds, I generally check for growth and plan for weeding maintenance and new plantings.  The walk-through gives me a chance to plan my harvest schedule and note any pest damage as well.

My stroll through number one was uneventful.  Most everything was looking good.  Some weeds…some spent crops…otherwise, no real issues.

As I looked into #2, I had that same sinking feeling that something had been eating the crops.

 The chard looked like this….

                When it should have looked like THIS!

As I was processing this thought, I was startled by a sound.


My gaze sought the source.  I found myself face to face with the biggest groundhog I had ever seen.  He was sitting in the middle of the lettuce…MY lettuce… having a lovely lunch. Groundhogs earned the nickname WHISTLE-PIG due to the fact that they indeed whistle when alarmed. WEET!

ARGH!  Oh.....You blasted creature!  You Are SO gonna die!   (I do get a little overly dramatic on occasion)

He looked at me again and bolted for the far end of the house. Groundhogs are incredibly quick and agile, despite their roly-poly furball appearance. I have seen them climb trees and run like the wind.  Once, we watched one scurry up a metal clothesline pole. When this one got to the end of the hoophouse, he jumped up in the air and tried to go out through the plastic side.  Boink!  He bounced backward.  He tried again.  Boink!  He was completely missing the opened door. Hmm, maybe I could capture him inside.

Thankfully, he missed the opened door
when trying to escape
I slammed the doors shut on the lower end of the house.  I ran to the upper end where the groundhog was still boinking into the plastic.  I slammed that door, watching him scuttle to the far end again.  He went up over the sill board. ACK!  I thought he would escape.  But, he was so fat that he got stuck between the door and the board.  I then ran around and scared him up to other end.  Realizing that all this running around after the groundhog was getting pointless, I reached for my phone to call the house and rouse the cavalry.  No phone. *sigh* 

The only solution was to run up the hill to the house, get the Boss (and his rifle) and hope that we got back before the giant groundhog escaped.

Running has never been my strong point.  Add to that fact I was wearing workboots…and the path to the house is all uphill…I am sure it was not a pretty sight.

I ripped the backdoor open and shouted breathlessly,

                       “I NEED A GUN…..and I NEED A GUN RIGHT NOW!”


The Boss came flying out of the office. He and our younger daughter, who was visiting for the day (more on that later) were both saying…”WHAT?  what kind of gun?  What is going on?”

I could barely get the words out fast enough.  Groundhog….Hoophouse….hurry!

The Boss was heading out the back door before I knew it.  He eased the hoophouse door opened again.
Yes…the gigantic groundhog was still there.

BAM!  One shot…problem solved.  The groundhog issue is finally laid to rest.

We were all astonished at how large this groundhog was.  For curiosity’s sake, the Boss weighed it.
      9.8 pounds!

The Boss is fairly certain that it was the largest groundhog he’d ever shot.  I guess so…look at all the good stuff he’d been eating!

Lest anyone think we are horribly cruel folks who go around shooting animals that just want to have a good meal, let me explain a few things about groundhogs.

The Boss saved the day!
...and the lettuce
Groundhogs are a nuisance at best to farmers everywhere.  Not only will they decimate a crop overnight, cows and horses can break their legs by stepping in a groundhog hole.  In hayfields, the holes do nothing for tractor tires and haywagon wheels, let alone farmers' legs and ankles.  Their burrowing causes issues around the neighborhood.  We have lost telephone service numerous time due to groundhogs.

They can harbor disease as well, although perhaps not as often as skunks, opossums and foxes.

Breeding prolifically, the great population attracts predators.  Hawks and other raptors prey on the young.  Foxes, coyotes and the odd and random dog find groundhog an appetizing meal. When the groundhog population dwindles due to the predator pressure, the predators begin to look around for other sources of food.  All too often, the farm animal population ends up being the next in line.

With all these things in mind, we don’t encourage the whistle-pig population at all.  When they start to eat our paycheck on a regular basis, it is time to get serious about ridding the farm of their presence and taking preventative measures to protect our assets.

The giant groundhog was able to scramble
over this wall.

I have wanted screen doors on the hoophouses for some time.  The crops need ventilation, but they also need protection.  We have gone ‘round and ‘round about the hassle factor of doors.  The Boss had put tremendous effort into fortifying the hoophouse, only to find that the groundhog’s immense size rendered the Boss'  end walls useless. While there are probably no other groundhogs quite that big in the neighborhood, there is a colony on the other side of the fence under an apple tree in the neighbor’s field. So…yep…time for screen doors!

Looks like a trip to Lowe’s is in order, because despite the Boss' victory yesterday, the battle of the whistle-pig is never truly won.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Rock On, Charlotte!

I really hope you don’t think spiders are creepy…

...because the anniversary of the first release of Charlotte’s Web got me thinking about spiders, spiderwebs and how much I appreciate spiders here on the farm.

Of all the literary characters I met as a child, I think “Charlotte” was my favorite.  She was intelligent, kindhearted and resourceful. She was also articulate, dedicated and understanding while being tirelessly devoted to her friends and family. It didn’t matter that she was a spider.  She was an awesome character! Garth Williams’ illustrations gave life to all the characters, but “Charlotte” particularly charmed the very young me.

I loved that book.  It was set in a barn, how could I not love it? As a child, I spent as much time as humanly possible in the barn, hanging with the critters. I did have one issue with Charlotte’s Web.  Even as a child, I had a very pragmatic approach to life. There were animals for food and animals for pets…you didn’t mix the two.  …and I really liked bacon! We were taught that farm animals have a job to do, a purpose in life, and that is to provide sustenance for humans.  We were also taught to be thoughtful and careful in our dealings with them, but not to attempt to humanize them…or make them pets.  Apparently, the lesson stuck.  The Boss and I have continued that approach in our animal husbandry here on the hill.  We treat our animals with the greatest of care, and they in turn provide us with the greatest of nourishment.

Great children’s literature and farm ethics aside, Charlotte’s Web may be one of the reasons I still like spiders.  Oh, that pragmatic thing might have some influence as well. But, spiders are just cool!  Such intricate details in those gossamer webs that have strength and durability unmatched by some man-made inventions, they defy description. While I don't like getting caught up in the webs on occasion, the tenacity of spiders must be appreciated.

This is the time of year when spiderwebs are EVERYWHERE!  On the fenceline, in the grass, and yes, even in the HOUSE. I know that makes it look messy, but they are industrious little creatures and I cannot always keep up with them.  A number of years ago, someone pointed out the spiderwebs EVERY time one was noticed. I finally announced that we were operating a spider sanctuary. Nothing else was said.  It may well be that comments are now being made about mama’s sanity…but, that’s a whole ‘nuther story.

A multitude of species of spiders makes its home here on the hill.  I have no idea what most of them are.  There are big ones, little ones, fuzzy ones, rather wispy ones, kinda scary ones,  red, black, brown…and so on. While there are some species that we wish to avoid because of their deadly nature…most of them are innocuous enough and eat a great deal of little nasty bugs.  Those are most welcome!

The garden spider, Argiope aurantiai, is quite common and can grow to an enormous size. Their black and yellow coloration is quite striking and they will eat all sorts of little bugs. They are especially welcome in the hoophouses.  I try not to disturb their webs while I am picking or planting. While I realize Charlotte was a different type entirely, they always make me think of her.

During the summer, I sighted a garden spider trapping and eating a grasshopper.  Grasshoppers are one of the most destructive pests we face…particularly in the hoophouses…so I was more than a little pleased. Not only that…it was a HUGE grasshopper!  ROCK ON, “Charlotte”!

Recently, I noticed a large egg case attached to the wall of the hoophouse. I rather sadly suppose it belongs to “Charlotte-eater-of-giant-grasshoppers”, as I haven’t seen the large garden spider of late, and it IS that time of year. Tucked up close the side of the hoophouse, it will remain undisturbed until the time when “Joy, Aranea, and Nellie” (remember “Charlotte’s” offspring that stayed with “Wilbur”?) and all the other tiny spiders will start the cycle of all natural pest control once again.

Come Spring we will again see the benefit of the spiders here on the hill.   To which I will again say: 

                                Rock on, “Charlotte”, Rock on!

Monday, October 15, 2012

A NATURE Moment on the Farm


What in the world was THAT?

Life on the farm is never really silent. The very thought that there is some sort of “quiet life in the country” is just a myth. (believe you me)   There might be the occasional moment when it seems that nothing is stirring, but those moments are few and far between. Particularly if you are anywhere near the hens.

Chickens “talk” incessantly.  They have different little sounds that communicate different needs.  Early in the day, there is always some level of commotion as the daily egg laying begins.  While there are countless folks who insist that hens only cluck when they have just laid an egg, I beg to differ!  They shriek if they are frightened, cluck loudly if they find some good stuff to eat, and offer “comments” to the other hens on occasion. Occasionally some sort of hen fight breaks out with loud squawking and flying feathers.  They even “snore” in the night.  The henhouse is never, ever quiet.

Generally, they offer a little background noise. A rural muzak. All their little chicken noises are not at all unpleasant (well, except the shrieking). The sounds just add to the ambience of the farm.  If the hens suddenly go completely silent, it means that we better pay attention, because not unlike small children…silence usually spells trouble. Any type of predator, particularly one from the skies, will cause the henhouse and surrounding yard to fall eerily silent.

However, silence was not the issue the other day.  As I picked kale in the lower garden, I kept hearing this odd sound.  BAWWKKKKK!  Chuck….chuck….Brrrttt!  (you know…spelling animal sounds phonetically is hard!)  At first I thought it was an echo of the chickens.  I was down in the “L” of the hoophouses, and sound does some odd things down there, bouncing off the plastic sides.  But, the sides were rolled up and there was no real way to make an echo.  Besides, it sounded like it was coming from the fenceline.

It got louder.  It sounded squawkier.  It no longer sounded like a chicken. It sounded like an alarm call of some sort.  Could it be turkeys in the underbrush? It didn’t sound like the whistle the groundhogs make when they are frightened.   I couldn’t think of any other animals that made noises like the ones I was hearing.  I kept running through the list of bird calls in my head.

Because I canNOT stand an unsolved mystery, I headed out to investigate.  Putting the kale in the shade of the hoophouse, I followed the noise to the back garden.  As I picked my way through the lumpy ground where we had just harvested potatoes, I noticed Squeekie sitting in a hunting stance, staring up at the trees. I was still unable to see what was making the noise…and the noise was getting louder.

When Squeekie is hunting, she changes from the purring feline that will do ANYTHING for cat cookies to a wild, focused hunter with no desire for human contact. The transformation was obvious by the way she glared as I continued my search.

As I attempted to follow her gaze, I saw movement in the trees. A squirrel! 

Squeekie was hunting a SQUIRREL and he was having none of that, thank you very much!  His little barks and calls were getting quite agitated.  Neither the squirrel nor Squeekie seemed to realize that the squirrel was almost as big as Squeekie herself AND he was about 30 feet in the air.

I wanted to look closer, so I walked toward the fenceline.  As I did, Squeekie, the mighty huntress, darted into the underbrush.

As Squeekie darted into the underbrush, the small commotion startled two DEER that had been napping or eating under the wild apple tree along the fenceline.  They bolted up the hill right on the other side of the fence.   I was more than a little surprised by that development in the story and missed the photo opportunity.

The squirrel scurried off to another tree, having escaped the mighty Squeekie. He called a few more times, and then all was quiet.

Squeekie gave up tormenting the squirrel and set off to hunt elsewhere.

With the mystery solved, I went back to the kale. 

I must admit…everything seemed fairly anti-climactic after that.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Never Been So Close to Something That Wild

It was a gorgeous October day…I had the tunes cranking on the awesome Xterra stereo system…life was looking much better than it had for quite some time. I was heading into Staunton to finally resolve an issue that has been weighing on my mind for about two weeks and giving me a very real stomachache.

As I crested one of the hills on M’brook road, I noticed yet ANOTHER political sign had sprouted since I last drove to town.  Now, let me say one thing about living “out here”…we are an opinionated bunch…and some of us are extremely outspoken.  An election year means that a whole lot of people feel it necessary to voice their vehement opinions.  …and that’s okay. I’m all for freedom of speech and all that. But, for the record, there are no political signs here on the hill…and I hope there never will be.  And, that is the end of THAT subject. J

That little white dot is an eagle.  Honest!
(photo taken on return trip)
While I was trying to figure which of the neighbors paid to have this ginormous sign in their field, I noticed movement.  I haven’t seen Sam and Joe’s cows and calves for quite some time, so I knew it wasn't a cow.  It looked like a chicken…no…wait…it was WAY too big to be a chicken! And, I don’t know of any white-headed black chickens…besides…

OH MY!  An EAGLE…a Bald EAGLE!  I said it out loud. Yes, I was alone.  An Eagle!  I said it again. AWESOME!  

Oh, my gosh…my camera… home…Oh dang!  Can I pull off and take a picture with my phone?   Because I know at least one of my children will never believe this one! 

It was even closer! SO majestic! 
As I wondered, the enormous creature took flight, completely obliterating the sky as he flew directly over my vehicle.  OH WOW!  I kept looking in the rear-view for another sighting, while trying to figure out if I could pull off, turn around and somehow get a photo.  No such luck.

It did seem oh so very appropriate that Chris Cagle was singing “Never Been So Close to Somethin’ That Wild" at that particular moment.(Okay, I know he was singing about a girl….)

I completed my errand and felt the tension beginning to fade. I made a couple of other stops and headed home, still thinking about the EAGLE.

Lo and behold, when I got to the same spot on M’brook Road, there he was!  Sitting right by the road, completely unconcerned. He had apparently found something tasty by the road’s edge and was not at all disturbed when I slowed beside him.  With traffic behind me, I couldn't come to a complete stop.  I needed to pull off the road. Like...right now! Whoa, NOT in RG’s cornfield that he had just seeded with winter rye! Hurry, hurry…where could I stop?

I pulled off a little ways down the road where Sam and Joe unload their calves and I started walking back toward the eagle.  I got a couple odd looks from car drivers headed southbound.  I wanted to holler “dude…an eagle…you just drove past an EAGLE!” The eagle was still sitting by the roadside. How could they have missed him?  The pick-up truck drivers just waved…I think I knew most of them and they probably just chuckled when they saw me hiking up the fenceline.

again, just two white dots...
Finally traffic caused the eagle to return to the field. Phone pictures just made the Eagle look like a black and white blob.  There was no way to capture the majestic beauty that I was privy to on this October day …and words fail.  Wow…just Wow! I can only hope we see him again when the Boss is along and toting all his camera gear.

Augusta County offers some unique birding opportunities. Rockfish Gap in the eastern part of the county is a raptor “superhighway” of sorts.  The Augusta County Bird Club has noted sightings of at least 307 types of birds in our county.  There are lots of sites specifically geared toward birding and a lot of folks are involved with the activity. Honestly, the wildlife is something most of us just take for granted. Today’s experience may have changed that to some degree.

Just recently, someone asked me about eagles when they learned we are located in M’brook.  Apparently, there is one (some?) that have been spotted repeatedly. Who knew?  We had seen one off in the distance years ago, but I had never seen anything like this.


I looked that eagle in the eye.
...just like this!


                     Now, THAT was a trip to town!