Common Ground Connection[Sept 27, 2012] How smithing tools and a chestnut tree connect us to MOFGA.
License to Kill[Jun 14, 2012] New digs for Rick and a new license to match.
Forever Farm[Jun 7, 2012] Protecting our farm for future generations.
Ozettes? Oh Joy![May 17, 2012] A long-lost potato variety is located at last.
The Killers[Mar 15, 2012] Coming to terms with the killers in our midst.
Egg Secrets[Feb 16, 2012] Everything you always wanted to know about eggs but were afraid to ask.
Sure Signs of Spring[Jan 31, 2012] Snow? What snow? Spring is on the way!
Changing Hats[Dec 8, 2011] Ever wonder what Maine farmers do in the winter?
Under the Microscope[Sept 29, 2011] Did we pass our organic inspection? Read to find out!
This is the story of two men, both gone from this earth, whose life stories connect our farm to MOFGA's Common Ground in a pretty nifty way.
Waldo Chick (1903-1988) was the last of the Chick family to live at this farm. Charlie MacDonald (1905-1997) was Marilyn's grandfather. As explained in our history of Chick Farm, Charlie and his wife Mildred moved here in the 1950s to help Waldo run the farm, and over the years they became like family.
For Marilyn and her brother Chuck, there was no better place to grow up, and not just because of the country life. There's much to be said for that old-fashioned notion of an extended family, and it came with a bonus: not just their grandparents but Waldo, too, who always treated the grandkids like they were his own.
Besides being a chicken farmer, Waldo Chick was a talented blacksmith who built his own workshop, complete with a forge, anvil, and many other hand tools and power equipment. In his prime, Waldo was known throughout York County as the guy who could fabricate a part for your tractor, truck, or what-have-you when a replacement part was not available.
Charlie MacDonald was a machinist, originally from Taunton, Massachusetts. In 1941 he brought his wife and young son to Maine and took a job at the Kittery shipyard, where he proudly built submarines for the next 30 years. In his spare time at the farm, he painted and repaired the buildings, helped with the chickens, and tended a large vegetable garden and beautiful flower beds. It was Charlie who taught Marilyn the joys of getting hands into the dirt and making plants grow.
Fast-forward to 2008. Charlie and Waldo were no longer with us. Given our big old drafty farmhouse and rising oil prices, we decided to install a wood gasification boiler. But the logical home for it was Waldo's blacksmith shop, and what would we do with all that blacksmithing equipment?
And here's where the MOFGA connection comes in. We had purchased a tree in Charlie's memory 10 years earlier, when MOFGA had moved to their new Common Ground property. But we were never able to find Charlie's tree on our visits to the Common Ground Fair.
In the meantime, a new blacksmith shop was being built at the Common Ground and we heard they needed smithing tools. They were thrilled to hear from us and in no time at all we got a visit from blacksmith John Phelan and Vernon LeCount, MOFGA's facilities coordinator. As they ooh'd and aah'd over Waldo's shop and selected the tools and equipment they would take with them, we mentioned our fruitless searches for Charlie's tree.
John and Vernon promised to look into it, and sure enough we soon had a call from a very apologetic MOFGA staffer. They had a record of our donation but no tree had ever been planted. He assured us we would have our tree in time for the upcoming Common Ground Fair.
Our visit to the Fair started right off with a beeline to the blacksmith shop, and there was Waldo's anvil, being put to good use as John and another blacksmith demonstrated smithing techniques for a crowd of onlookers. When John spotted us, he put down his tools and came outside. "Come see your tree!", he said, and led us just a short distance away to a sturdy-looking sapling. "I hope this is okay," he said, and explained that in light of our donation of Waldo's smithing tools, they had decided to plant a chestnut tree for us and to put it where it will someday shade the blacksmith shop, just like in Longfellow's poem.
We were thrilled. Since then we've checked in on Charlie's chestnut tree at every visit, and even though we didn't make it to the Fair this year, our nephew Brad and his girlfriend Eva did the honors, as you can see in the picture at right.
So even though it's very possible that Waldo Chick and Charlie MacDonald never heard of MOFGA, they connect our farm to the Common Ground in a way that is cherished by our whole family. Thank you, John Phelan and the folks at MOFGA!
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It's been a long haul – two and a half years, to be exact – but Rick finally has his shiny new processing area up and running, with a shiny new State license to go along with it. After all the hard work and aggravation, we just might frame that darned license and hang it on the wall.
Some of you may remember when Rick's picture was on the front page of the Portland Press Herald in a story about some proposed changes to chicken processing regulations. Rick's testimony at that hearing in Augusta was the start of a long journey for us – through the ins and outs of State and USDA regulations, plumbing codes, nutrient management plans, and good places to find used restaurant equipment. We ended up with a two-room processing area that should allow us to process more birds in less time without sacrificing the care we give to our birds.
So what did we gain from all this? Aside from a better and more efficient work space, our new license will allow us to sell our chickens to restaurants and stores. The new rooms would also make it easier to extend our "fresh chicken" season into the colder weather. In the meantime, we're just trying to decide where to hang that picture frame!
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Chick Farm was recently listed as a Forever Farm by the Maine Farmland Trust, so this seems like a good time to talk about our conservation easement – what it means and why we chose to protect our farm.
In 1996 we donated a conservation easement to the Great Works Regional Land Trust (GWRLT), a local conservation group. Although we still own the land – and yes, we still pay taxes on it – we gave up some of our property rights, in essence transferring those rights to the land trust. The details of the easement are complex and took several years to negotiate, but to summarize, we gave up the right to turn our farm into houselots or otherwise alter it in any way that would prevent it being farmed in the future. Wildlife habitat is also protected in several ways.
The easement is permanent and runs with the property, carrying forward to any future owner. In return for granting the easement, we were allowed to claim a modest "charitable donation" income tax deduction. For their part, GWRLT is charged with ensuring that we (and any future owners) do not violate the terms of the easement.
So why did we do it? Simple. We love this land – every rock, tree, and bubbling spring – and it gives us great satisfaction to know that it will still be around for the people and the animals who are here after we're gone.
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Who would have thought anyone could get so excited about a potato. After all, a potato is just a potato, right? Well, not so fast. We used to think like that – before we started growing them – and boy, were we wrong. Just consider the varieties: you've got your waxy ones (great for potato salad), your starchy ones (baked potato, anyone?), your creamy-textured ones, and so on. And all the different colors... and the flavors... and the shapes... and – well, we need to stop right there before we churn out a 30-page newsletter.
But about those Ozettes... they're a knobby funky fingerling potato that we grew several years ago and absolutely loved. They were productive, popular at the markets, and tasted sublime. But then our supplier stopped carrying them. We searched high and low and could find no source for Ozette seed potatoes. Darkness fell over our potato patch. Then this winter we struck gold while searching the Internet – in Texas, of all places – and two days ago we planted our beloved Ozettes, along with all our other potatoes. (Not to worry – we planted enough to share!) Now we wait, not at all patiently, to dig those first delicious new potatoes.
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You're probably wondering why we picked such a gruesome subject line! The Killers is a fascinating book, written by naturalist Daniel Mannix, that tells the fictional but fact-based story of the rivalry between a wild Cooper's hawk and a fighting cock who has "retired" to a farm in Pennsylvania. We both thoroughly enjoyed the book and came away with a better understanding of the predators – hawks, owls, foxes, and so on – that share this piece of earth with us.
The book came to mind yesterday as we watched a big beautiful red-tailed hawk hunting rodents in our back yard, within sight of the chicken pen. Plenty of chicken farmers would have shot that bird on sight. We did worry a bit – and so did the chickens, as they ran clucking into the henhouse every time the hawk flew by – but for the most part we've learned to live with our resident predators and even to appreciate their role on our farm.
There are plenty of critters around here that, given the opportunity, would happily enjoy a chicken dinner. Foxes and raccoons have given us the most trouble, but we also deal with coyotes, hawks, owls, fishers, minks, and weasels. That's why our chickens are almost always protected by fencing. Nice big pens with plenty of space, but fenced in nonetheless. And at night they're safely locked into the henhouse or a sturdy hutch.
So what's the up side of having all these killers around? Simple: organic rodent control. Mice and chipmunks go after the chicken feed, voles chew on the root crops, and woodchucks – well, don't even get us started on woodchucks! Almost all our resident predators feast on the small rodents and the coyotes do a pretty good job on the woodchucks.
So we've learned to co-exist,
even with the milk snakes that live in the cellar (see photo above)
and the weasel Rick spotted in our attic this winter.
(One of the many joys of living in an old house.)
We suppose it's all part of being organic farmers – reaping
the benefits of working with nature instead of against it.
It just feels right.
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Have you ever wondered about the difference between brown eggs and white eggs? Or whether the eggs you're buying are fertile? Or what makes an egg organic?
We get egg questions all the time and are always happy to talk shop, whether it's a potential egg customer who wants to know more about our product or a homeowner looking to get a few chickens for the backyard. But today we finally got around to creating an Egg FAQ on our website, prompted by a question from a fellow vendor at the York market. She had heard that fertilized eggs were healthier than unfertilized eggs because they contain more lecithin. Was it true?
Not having an answer for her, we did a little googling and the consensus seems to be "No" – fertilized eggs are no better for you than unfertilized eggs. We even found an article on the subject from the June 18, 1974, issue of the Deseret News in Salt Lake City, which just goes to show how long this question has been kicking around.
It may be snowing out there, but spring is right around the corner. How do we know? Here are a few sure signs:
Our summer market customers often ask us what we do in the winter. That's a fair question for any Maine farmer and the answers will vary from farm to farm. For us, it's a gradual transition as we change hats with the seasons.
In October and November we're in getting-ready-for-winter mode: harvesting the last of the fall crops, putting away irrigation equipment, moving the laying hens into their winter quarters, and the really fun stuff like shoveling manure out of the chicken house and spreading it on the gardens.
In December we change hats again. For Rick it really is a change of hats – he puts on his hardhat and heads into the woods with chainsaw and log skidder. He spends the better part of the winter harvesting firewood to feed our wood boiler, which provides heat and hot water for our house and the attached apartment. When he's not in the woods, Rick can usually be found working on one of the endless list of winter projects that every farm seems to have in abundance.
Meanwhile, Marilyn puts on her Tax Preparer hat as she gears up for her tenth tax season. After seven years at H&R Block in Sanford, she started her own business and now sees clients at the farm. It's a schedule that fits perfectly with the growing season – busiest in the dead of winter, then slowing down after April 15 so she can get right back into the gardens again.
For both of us, our winter jobs are a nice change of pace... but
like most Mainers, we really look forward to spring!
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Yesterday we had our annual visit from the MOFGA inspector to verify our organic certification. Since we get lots of questions on that topic, we thought you might like to hear about it.
First a little background: all farming used to be organic, of course, but the term "organic agriculture" came into use a few decades ago to distingush it from the chemical-based approach, which favors the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides over more natural methods. (Click here for a good historical overview of the modern organic agriculture movement.)
For a long time, "organic" meant different things to different people. Then in 2001 the USDA finalized its National Organic Program (NOP), which spells out the rules and standards for producing organic foods, fiber, cosmetics, and other products. The USDA doesn't inspect farms; it certifies other organizations to do the inspections. Most farms in Maine, including ours, are certified by the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Organization (MOFGA).
We've been certified by MOFGA since 2002. (Rick says we're certifiable. He's probably right!) Each year we fill out a lengthy application describing our farm operation. This includes a field history for our greenhouse and for each garden plot (crops grown there, fertilizer inputs, pest and weed control methods used, etc.), a list of the crops we plan to grow and our expected yields, and details about our livestock operation such as feed, housing, and health care.
Then the inspector comes to visit. Yesterday we spent about two hours with Jake, who is a full-time MOFGA staff member and an experienced farmer himself. We toured the gardens, the chicken house, our processing (i.e., slaughtering) facility, and the areas where we store our finished products. Jake also sat down with us to review our records, which include planting and harvest data for the crops and feed and production records for the livestock.
To be an organic farmer means more than just avoiding synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. The core concept of organic farming is working with nature instead of trying to control and dominate it. We have to show our inspector that we are constantly working to improve our soil, to keep our animals healthy and happy, and to integrate our farming activities in a sustainable way. Jake was particularly pleased to see that we're shifting our crop production toward crops that do well on our very sandy soil (such as asparagus and berries) and that we're pasturing our chickens in the fallow gardens, which improves the soil while keeping the birds happy and healthy.
Apparently we passed the inspection. Hurray!
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