July 30, 2009

(sub)urban chicken keeping. part I

a little over a year ago, and after much consideration and research, we brought home three young chicks and started on a new journey as backyard chicken keepers.


i must admit, i didn't quite know what we were getting into. i had a romantic notion of backyard chicken keeping - of gathering fresh eggs in the morning, and having my girls scatter feed in the yard while the chickens played at their feet. i also had an overwhelming desire to to revolt against the (sub)urban lifestyle so prevalent in los angeles. to balance out the media blitz my girls see everyday (even without television viewing) with some "livestock". finally, with the girls on summer break, and myself newly relocated to a home office - i thought the time was right.

we thought about it carefully, and decided to purchase the chicks from our local feed store, instead of through one of the many mail-order chick and pullet distributors. our neighbourhood. is hot. very hot. i was very concerned that chicks arriving to us in july from the east / mid-west would be shocked by the temperatures they were confronted with. our feed store gets their chicks locally. and did not pass on the young peepers easily. they were also concerned that we knew what we were doing and not simply acting on a whim induced by the cute fluffiness before us. i was impressed by their concern - their knowledge and support - and their offer of taking back a rooster, if one of the young'uns proved to be so inclined.

following procedure outlined in the many books in our chicken library, my husband built a "brooder box" in advance and we set-up in a corner of our dining room. we used an old floorlamp for heat and carefully monitored the chicks water and mash intake. it was thrilling for my girls to wake to these little peeps. and a little frightening watching how they would simply flop over and fall asleep!

1 - 2 - 3

of course we named them: little red (a rhode island red) - the curious one; chick-a-dee (a buff wyandotte) - the little sister, always trying to get someone to play with her; and annie (an aracauna, we think) - as in oakley - (or fluff, depending on who you ask) who is very brave, a great performer, but also very cautious.

the chicks grew quickly, their feathers started to come in, and little combs started to appear on top of their heads. they were soon trying out their wings in flights from the box to the nearby table, or on occasion to an unsuspecting visitor's shoulder. their personalities started to shine, and they quickly won our hearts.

3 amigas

it was soon time for their move outdoors. after much research, we decided against a permanent coop, and opted for a "tractor" instead. the thought behind this being that we can move it around the yard, fertilizing as we go. we looked at what was available commercially (and were tempted by this), but felt that d could build one that answered all our criteria and was budget-minded as well. we needed a safe place for the chickens to sleep, with good ventilation (the henhouse) and a safe area for them to play and eat in during the day, with extra shade for our hot summers (the run). we also wanted to take advantage of the byproduct of all the food the chickens consume (and they do like to eat!). we settled on a variation of the many "ark" images we found. the droppings in the henhouse fall into bedding of shredded newspaper and all that can go straight into our composter, and the droppings in the run go right on our "lawn". the henhouse contains a perch for them to sleep on, as well as a nesting box, for laying. the run serves and protects them when we aren't home, thought they spend most of their time roaming the yard.

cooped up

for the most part, the romance is there. but it is so much more - and better - than i imagined. they started laying at about 7 months of age, and yes, we get, on average three fresh eggs every day. (chickens lay on a cycle of approximately every 28 hours - if conditions are right.)

three for three

but the best part i think has been seeing how my girls have taken to them - and vice versa. the chickens are very social, have a lot of personality, and are highly domesticated. i am never surprised to see a 5 year old tramping around the yard with a hen under each arm, or an 8 year old quietly telling a chook all her secrets.

Up next: The logistics of it all, the pros and cons to our urban "farm", backyard chicken resources, and answers to any questions you may have! (Please leave questions in the comments - thanks!)

July 23, 2009

Book Review: Farm City

Photo of her allotment garden graciously provided by Kim. Click the photo to see more of her garden photos on Flickr.

Within the first 25 pages of Farm City, I had laughed out loud numerous times and gotten teary once, a sure sign to me that this would be a good book. And it was. Novella Carpenter tells the tale of how she became an urban farmer, harvesting fruits, veggies, honey, eggs, rabbits, turkeys and pigs in an economically down-and-out part of downtown Oakland, California. She weaves research discoveries in with life discoveries, interactions with those around her, and her family history. It is an entertaining (guffawing on public transportation) and inspiring read, and it is intense.

Carpenter, like most farmers, I am guessing, has (or has developed) a certain toughness. She's a brave, can-do kind of gal. A pioneer. I admire her seeming ability to connect with all kinds of people and animals and yet retain a level of detachment. It was at times uncomfortable for me to read the descriptions of the killing of her meat animals. Her descriptions certainly demonstrate though, the huge effort it takes to carefully raise, kill and process an animal.

Now and then in my over my 25 years as a vegetarian, I have considered eating meat again. I would only eat meat if I could do it responsibly—knowing the animal was raised humanely and in a way natural to the animal (ie not feeding a cow corn for ex), knowing the animal was killed in a respectful way, and knowing neither the animal nor the meat have been trucked too many miles. I can fully appreciate the satisfaction Carpenter derives from eating and sharing meat that she has spent time, labor, struggle and enjoyment producing. The eating must become so much more meaningful, so much more thoughtful and valued, even ceremonial. Carpenter's tale proves there is much knowledge and wisdom to be gained from each part of the farming process. (Nevertheless, and despite enticing bacon and sausage aromas, I don't think I'll be converting to meat eating any time soon.)

Farm City is an engaging mixture of storytelling and information sharing. Living in the Bay Area, one hears so many rumors and sensationalistic news bits about the "bad" parts of Oakland. It is refreshing to get a more realistic and personal perspective on living in one of these infamous neighborhoods. Also fascinating are the tidbits about animal behavior/biology and about the long history of gardens and farms within cities all over the world.

With so many people struggling to buy healthy food, it is strange that public spaces, backyards and abandoned lots are not filled with edibles instead of (or at least alongside) decorative flowers. There could be so many more gardens and so much more fresh produce shared/consumed. Hopefully—especially if this economic situation continues—we will have another big Victory Garden-esque garden and farm b(l)oom. And actually, here in the Bay Area, San Francisco Mayor Newsom recently issued a sustainable food mandate that addresses the use of public space for food production!

Veggies growing in the SF Rainbow Grocery parking lot, above and below

Find out more about urban farming on Novella Carpenter's blog. Note her links to other urban farms. Maybe there is one near you...

Other potential summer reading:

Our Life in Gardens by Joe Eck and Wayne Winterrowd
Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness by Lisa Hamilton

(books found on Civil Eats, my favorite agriculture/food-related blog)

July 16, 2009

cloth diapers

I had a baby in January. Before she arrived I had been thinking about what my choices were when it came to diapers. I couldn't help but think about how many diapers I'd be adding to a landfill [5-10 a day for 2-3 years?!?!]. I also really really dislike the smell of some diapers. They add this chemical fake baby powder smell that makes me cringe. If my nose can't stand it, how could I feel OK putting that up against a newborn's skin?? And don't get me started on the dumb cartoon characters. Why does everything have to be cross marketed that way?? I also I knew I'd be drop dead tired and most likely not up for any sort of complicated diapering plan. What could I do to do my part??

I researched g diapers ... but the thought of standing over a toilet with a wand in the middle of the night or saving those diapers until morning really didn't appeal to me.

Then I hit the gold mine in terms of cloth diaper info. I read ask moxie's cloth diaper posts part 1 and part 2 . OK - so the reality check is that even using cloth diapers isn't the best - but as much as I planned on being in tune with my baby, the elimination communication method probably wasn't going to work for me.

Realistically, I also knew there was no way I'd want to launder my own diapers. But there are some ways to make it easier than you'd think. check out soft cloth bunz or diaper pin for all the possibilities - and for articles and support on how to diaper at home. I wish I could be that hard core and good.

And then we got lucky. One of my friends gave us 3 months of a diaper service as a baby gift. ABC diapers is run out of Sacramento, CA and they serve the entire Bay Area. As Hayley mentioned in her last post - it's easy. You drop a bag of soiled diapers on your porch one night and the next day you get a whole bag of clean ones. [see the above blue bag] YES these services use water - and yes water is a scares and precious commodity in these parts - but I still feel better than if I used disposables. I don't have to contribute to what goes into manufacturing the diapers [if you want to know what goes into making a diaper - read here [eeewww] , shipping the diapers, disposing them. Although when my daughter goes to daycare I'll have to use disposables there - at least that will be only part time. YES ABC's delivery trucks use gasoline, but they are looking into bio diesel.... and at least we're talking delivery of a couple hundred miles instead of thousands of miles.

Sometimes I feel as though it's simply important to do what you can when you can. And trust that every little bit helps.

I do wish there was a good disposable that used recycled content. Seventh Generation eschews the chlorine - which is great - but still uses wood pulp [and doesn't list that it's post-consumer content]. There's also tushies diapers which like Seventh Generation are better for baby. But the magic better for the environment diaper that is convenient could be someone's million dollar money maker. [maybe anjolina jolie or some other celebrity environmentally conscious mom should champion this cause]

The cost of this diaper service is comparable to buying disposables. Maybe even cheaper. If you want to find a diaper service in your area try the national association of diaper services . If you are in So Cal... Hayley used this service.

Don't think it's tough to use cloth diapers out in the world. It's really not. Just keep a few extra in your bag... and be sure and keep some baggies [I like to use the bags that our Sunday paper comes in] to hold the dirty ones until you can get them home and into your pail. I ended up getting the vinyl sleeves to hold the diaper - so there is no pinning - just folding and velcro and snapping involved. Every couple of months I have to get the next size up sleeves. 3 has been a good number for me. 1 to wear 1 that's in some state of wash/dry and 1 as backup. What to do with these sleeves when you are done I still haven't figured out. I'd be happy to hand them down to someone - they are technically cleaned and washed [although no longer white and shiny] -- but I'm not sure I'll find a taker.

Plus having the diapers on hand is really a nice thing. They make great emergency breast pads/burp cloths, they clean windshields on cars like there's no tomorrow, they pick up cat puke incredibly well [and i didn't hear a peep of complaint from ABC about the mystery non baby mess], they are quick to catch the pee stream that always happens once you REMOVE the diaper [don't think this won't happen to you], and you can hand a clean one to the babe while you change them to keep them occupied [who knew a cloth diaper could be so fascinating?]

and the cat likes sleeping on them. How could I take away his favorite spot??

July 9, 2009

dish towels

I had always wanted to give up paper towels, but found convenient reasons to keep on buying them. My cloth dish towel collection was accumulating, and I was using them, but only for non-staining messes so not to dirty the towels. When I had a baby I was expected to enter the world of disposable everything. Troubled by the idea of creating excess trash, I made the controversial choice not to use disposable diapers, much to the surprising disgust of almost everyone. Who knew people would be so opinionated about me wanting to put cloth diapers into a bin, instead of disposable? I signed up for the service that dropped off 80 clothes a week, and picked up the dirty ones. Highly recommend to any new parent. Getting 80 cloths a week, that I didn't have to launder myself was one of the greatest things ever. I used them for everything, from spills, spit-ups, breast pads [not attractive but effective around the house], and of course, diapers. The best part was never worrying about running out, or having to go to the store to pick up a bulky case of diapers.

So then a funny thing happened, I ran out of paper towels and didn't notice. When I finally got myself out to the store, baby in tow, I cringed at the fact of lugging the groceries, baby, and towels up to my second floor apartment. It sounds petty, but as a single mom I have to carry everything myself, and when I have a large car load I feel like that farmer at the bank of the river, with the chicken, the bag of seed and the wolf. It's a balancing act that can't end with leaving the baby unattended on either end.

And now I use my cloth towels for everything. For staining messes like pitting cherries, or gross baby messes, or even just to eat an apple without dripping juices. And when they are dirty they get thrown in the wash along with our clothes. My towels may not be in pristine condition, they have stains and holes, the edges are getting raggedy, but I save money, time, armloads, landfills and hope I am setting a good example for my little plum. I am waiting for that day when she turns to me and says, "Can you believe they make towels out of paper and people just throw them away?"

A few tips:
  • Put a bin, basket or bag in the kitchen to put used rags- I use a bag that hangs over a metal storage rack.
  • If you have fancy towels, also buy a cheap set of plain one for the really messy stuff. I like the flour sack towels from Target- either white, or organic.
  • Old shirts and worn out clothes can be upcycled into towels. There are plenty of instructions out there, or just cut & hem.
  • If you do make your own- don't spend too much time on them or you will be less likely to use them. But don't stick with plain ones if that is not your style.
  • Store them in a convenient place where they are easy to grab. I keep a few hanging over a horizontal paper towel holder, and the rest folded in a kitchen rack, and some smaller ones in a pretty bowl.

*towels are a mix of Ikea, organic cotton from Target & vintage

July 2, 2009

spin green

spin green

at first, spinning yarn may seem like an esoteric art. even as a knitter and crocheter, i can't say that i gravitated towards learning how to spin. it seemed very hippie-earth-mother to me. over the years i have become more interested in learning the fundamentals of the most basic materials. this is similar to a baker wanting to grind his/her own grain. to truly understand a material you must go back to the source. since i probably cannot get away with raising my own sheep on my patio in the middle of washington dc (don't think i haven't thought about it), the closest that i can get to the basics of fiber arts is spinning yarn.

recently i took a drop spindle class with a friend at my local yarn store. i wanted to share with you a few things i learned...

first, spinning yarn is harder than it looks.
it is easy to learn because it is a simple concept- spinning animals fibers to add strength to it, but is by no means easy to make perfect yarn. roving, or any fiber drawn out to prepare for spinning, is easy to pull apart, like a cotton ball. amazingly, when you add a little twist to it, it gives it strength. the softer (and usually more expensive) the roving, the shorter the fiber the strands. short fiber strands break easily and are damn hard for a beginner to spin. so no merino, silk, or cashmere for me. boo hoo.

spin green: solitude farms roving
roving from solitude yarns

spin green: rovingfrom c.eye.ber.fiber
roving from c.eye.ber.fiber

second, spinning teaches you an awful lot about plants and animals.
where the fibers come from is integral to how it spins. so spinners are usually very knowledgeable about sheep breeds and the origins of fibers. BFL is a favorite. BFL is bluefaced leicester, a sheep breed known for soft but easy to spin fiber.

third, spinning is old.
yarn was first made by rolling fibers between ones fingers and then wrapping it around a stick- that was the first spinning. drop spindles have been around not hundreds, but thousands of years. there are spindle whorls made from wood, bone, clay, glass, and just about anything. there are whorls from Roman ruins that date to circa 200 ad, as well as whorls found in Teotihuacan Valley in Mexico that date to 200-800 ad. all fabric prior to the 1500s was made using some kind of drop spindle.

spin green: artisan pinkblue yarn

fourth, you can spin anything.
i mean anything. spinning artists have spun everything and anything you can think of- from recycled newspaper to old cassette tape.

spin green: newspaper yarn
photo from greenupgrader.com

fifth, spinning is green.
it requires very little. you don't even need to go out and buy an expensive artisan spindle (although it's awfully tempting)- you can even make your own spindle out of a dowel and an old CD (see directions here).

spin green: a spindlefrom a cd

you can use any fiber that's available to you. try something local, i bought some roving at the farmers market from my local farm, solitude yarns, or you can use recycled fiber, like newspaper or old cloth torn into strips (see here). i suggest that you start with some local roving and then move onto any fiber that strikes your fancy. it's a great thing to teach kids. it is easy and it teaches them to appreciate the work that goes into the clothes they wear.

spin green: folktale yarn
yarn from folktale yarns

in a society where clothes are often temporary- purchased when fashionable and discarded shortly after, spinning reminds you of the history, evolution, and value of a single strand of fiber.

spin green: artisan blue yarn