After the storm

The last four days were unbelievable, but we fared well. We had over 40” of rain and finished with no dead livestock and practically no dead plants.
We had just planted a few hundred seedlings of pac choy and broccoli raab and they seem to be happy. We have extremely healthy soils, very permeable, due to years of not tilling and not exposing the microbes to the elements. That, combined with rotational livestock use, means we can absorb more water and hold it for drier days. We also have the advantage of being 270’ above sea level, meaning the water has somewhere to go, but we would rather keep it in the soil.
All our beds are built high with swales on the sides holding the excess water. None of the newer beds are straight, but are curving to maneuver the water and hold it until it can be absorbed.
Straight beds up and down the elevation lead to runoff. Straight beds across the elevation lead to flooding those very same plots.
Also, we leave grass between the beds. Most times you will see soil or mulch in these areas that would become mud under these circumstances. The grass keeps roots in the ground. Those roots stimulate the growth of fungi, bacteria and the rest of the soil microbes as well as prevent erosion. You can walk in the gardens at any time, no matter how wet.
The healthier soils and better root systems also provide more nutrients to the plants.
So a combination of location, lots of luck, reconsidered farming practices, and planning have helped us survive this catastrophe.
We hope our customers will come out and support farmers at the markets and patronize the restaurants that support us. We will not miss a beat and will be back at the market this week and ready to supply our CSA starting Sept. 6. Please consider joining our CSA.

The keys to healthy soil

1. Armor the soil. Never expose the soil directly to the elements. Soil should be covered with plants, mulch or even weeds to enhance the microbial action.
2. Living roots in the ground as much as possible. We leave the roots of plants that we have harvested because michorrizal fungi only grows on roots. Removing the roots would destroy that fungi and the relationships that exist in the soil. Luckily we can have plants growing all year here in the gulf coast.
3. Do not disturb the soil. The relationships in the soil are complex and we want to allow them to grow without destroying them with plowing. We move the soil as little as possible with a hoe.
4. Provide plant diversity. Different root structures and leaf shapes attract a diverse group of microbes and beneficial insects.
5. Integrate livestock. We raise chickens and rotate sheep into the gardens to provide fertility and aerate the soil. After animals and their fresh manure leave, we will not eat vegetables from that garden for 90 days.

I Do Not Eat Industrial Chicken


Laughing Frog Farm's pastured, organically fed  Freedom Ranger chickens
Laughing Frog Farm’s pastured, organically fed Freedom Ranger chickens

Back in 1950 whole chickens sold for an average of $0.43 per pound. Indexed for inflation that would come to $4.23 a pound today. That would be the cost for a non-organic, farm raised chicken, usually fed farm raised corn, grain and garden scraps.
They no longer offer this type of farm raised chickens in grocery stores.
The industry has developed a bird that grows unusually fast, the cornish cross. This hybrid will reach 6 to 7 pounds in just 45 days being fed only 12 to 14 pounds of feed.
In America we raise 8.9 billion of these meat chickens per year in windowless, dusty, ammonia and feces ridden buildings, similar to the ones egg laying chicken live in. Chickens are exempted from the federal animal protection laws. The broilers pens are never cleaned in the 45 days the broiler lives. Each one has less space than a 8.5” x 11” piece of paper. One typical operation houses 25,000 birds in a 500’ x 40’ building that is inaccessible to anyone but the owner of the facility. Water and feed are automated and the main job for the owner is to go in and pick up and record the dead birds.
Many “ag gag” laws make it illegal to take pictures of these chickens and their conditions.
These chickens have never seen the sunlight, the grass or an edible bug.
Cancer (mareks) is common, even though all these chickens are vaccinated for it. Skeletal deformities, lung infections, heart, and liver disease and developmental disorders make the chicken unable to live much past about 45 days. By then they are so obese they can no longer walk (not that there is any room to walk but they do need to stand up to drink. Many die because they cannot.)
The result is a 4 pound dressed bird with a huge breast for as little as a dollar a pound. Man has developed the efficient, industrial chicken.
GE soy and corn with antibiotics, vitamin D (remember they never see the sunshine) and other additives, make up their limited diet.
29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were used in 2011 on industrial livestock farms. That is four times the amount people were prescribed. American industrial farms use 300 milligrams of antibiotics (a standard dose for a human to prevent infection) to produce one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat.
In 1991 the Atlanta Constitution did a special report on the poultry industry. 81 federal poultry inspectors interviewed said that thousands of birds tainted or stained with feces, which a decade ago (1981) would have been condemned, are rinsed in chlorinated water and sold daily. Poultry plants salvage meat, cutting away visibly diseased or contaminated sections, and selling the rest as packaged wings, legs or breasts.
Richard Simmons, inspector at a ConAgra plant said “Practically every bird now, no matter how bad, is salvaged… I would not want to eat it. I would never, in my wildest dreams, buy cut-up parts at a store today.”
USDA Inspector Ronnie Sarratt: “I’ve had birds that had yellow pus visibly coming out of their insides, and I was told to save the breast meat off them and even save the second joint of the wing. You might get those breasts today at a store in a package of breast fillets. And you might get the other in a pack of buffalo wings”
Inspectors used to condemn all birds with air sacculitus, a disease that causes yellow fluids and mucus to break up into the lungs. In an 1989 article in Southern Exposure, USDA inspector Estes Philpott of Arkansas estimated that he was pressured to approve 40 percent of air sac birds that would have been condemned 10 years before.
The industry has greatly lowered the cost, but at what price to our health, our environment, and our morality. Growers tend to be concentrated in areas near the processing plants putting environmental and tax burdens on large areas to deal with huge concentrations of waste and pollution to the community and the waterways. The corporations are not responsible for the waste cleanup. A typical poultry house produces 250 tons of manure per year plus the dead chicken bodies.
The abuse does not stop with the chicken or the environment.
A 2001 study found that among commercial chicken growers, 71% live below the poverty line. They are contractors, meaning the corporations do not offer any guarantees or pay into social security and insurance.
The grower signs a contract with large corporations like Tyson or Pilgrim’s. The Farm Service Administration make loans available at a low interest rate. The initial investment, according to a University of Georgia report, is typically $500,000 to $800,000. Periodically the corporation makes the grower purchase new upgraded equipment, that is added to the previous debt. The company can cancel the contract due to many reasons, such as not putting enough weight on the birds, or refusing to borrow more money to upgrade, usually leaving the grower with no other purchaser/processor available in that area. The grower typically makes less than $20,000 profit annually.
The corporations own the birds, feed mills, packaging operations and transportation. The only thing the grower owns are the buildings, the equipment and the debt.
Processing the chickens is a highly automated operation, but human employees are required. Recently the USDA decided to allow poultry be processed in China. They also wish to reduce the number of inspectors from four per factory scale plant to one. These plants are processing 175 birds per minute. They have removed the country of origin labels.
All this is to say that $1.29 a pound chicken is not a great deal for us, for our children, or for the planet. I sell my chicken for $7.00 per pound and make a modest profit. They are fed greens, bugs, and fresh, organic feed from Coyote Creek Organic Feed in Elgin, Texas. Laughing Frog Farm chickens spend a lot of time being chickens–scratching, hunting and roaming. These Freedom Ranger chickens could not survive indoor living nor the conditions that go with it.
It is important to note that purchasing “organic” chicken only changes the feed and the fact they have “access” to the outdoors. It does not mean they go outdoors.
In 1950 there were 1,636,705 farms that sold 581,038,865 chickens = 355 per farm.
In 2007 we had 27091 farms sell 8,914,828,122 chickens = 329,070 per farm
I don’t think I was included in that total because I would bring the average way down.
To read more about the industry Pew Trusts has a good study:

Click to access businessofbroilersreportthepewcharitabletrustspdf.pdf

Farmer stories:
youtube of a discontent chicken grower:

Local, Pastured, Organically Fed Chicken

IMG_3679 We are raising Laughing Frog Farm red broilers, aka freedom rangers. The chickens free range all day on pastures and in the woods. They are not confined in “tractors”. At night they go in the electric netting and portable huts that are periodically moved around our pasture. They eat bugs, seeds and grass, and we supplement with duckweed from our pond and farmed soldier fly larva.
Like our laying hens, they are also fed organic chicken feed from our friends at Coyote Creek Organic Feed in Elgin, Texas. We do not use the “natural” feeds, feed that is not free of pesticides, herbicides, synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and additives. All certified organic feed is also gmo free.
The red broilers were developed for France’s famous Label Rouge organic free-range chicken program. After WW II, industrialized farming introduced the now standard cornish cross chicken, with its’ huge breast and soft flesh, a chicken that could be raised to 7 pounds in 45 days, but could not walk or graze, which made it perfect for factory farming.
The French began to demand the taste of traditional poultry. They developed, from heritage stock, a slower growing, more muscular chicken, to be harvested at about 12 weeks.
We follow most of the Label Rouge standards for raising chickens which include:
• All birds have access to the outdoors from 9:00 am until dusk. (I let mine out before sunrise and close the door at dark).
• Each bird must have at least 22 sq. ft. of outdoor grazing space. (They have a lot more grazing space than that).
• Trees and brush are available for shade and browse. (No problem here)
• Feed must contain whole grains and not be medicated. No animal products or growth stimulators are allowed. (Thank you Coyote Creek)
• No pesticide use is permitted (Never happens)
• Birds must be grown a minimum of 81 days.
• There are also regulations about the maximum size of flocks, 4000 birds, and I will only have about 200 in a flock.
• We cannot follow the requirement that the birds be sold fresh, not frozen, due to local regulations and our distribution methods.
Our birds will be sold whole and frozen, with giblets sold separately
The whole birds mostly weigh between three and four pounds and cost $7.00 per pound.

We will have a limited number available again beginning on April 23.

Please contact me if you want to reserve one or more.
We will be at the Urban Harvest Eastside Farmers Market.


The Owl in the Hen House

great_horned_owl3.jpgTuesday’s encounter with a great horned owl, caught in my electric netting as he tried to grab one of my hens, brings me back to the question of predators, a place all farmers visit occasionally. As a permaculturist I try to mimic nature in my gardens and pastures. I mob graze the sheep through small diverse pastures in an attempt to copy the movement of the wild herds. My gardens are not monoculture, but include diverse plantings with fruit trees nearby, and borders of grapes and berries. We introduce a predator, chickens, to roam around the gardens catching the grasshoppers and beetles.
We welcome predator insects and insect eating wild birds.
The question is not how we can rid our farm of predators, but how we can protect our animals from the owls, hawks, coons and coyotes.
Kenan “nosed” that the owl in question, who rode in a dog crate to the Wildlife Center of Texas for rehab, had recently been eating a skunk, another chicken predator. Did that owl save a chicken from a skunk before he tried to kill one? The owl will eat baby possums, who, when grown, will eat my chickens as well, but possums also eat copperheads and roaches. It is a complicated system.
We have manipulated the system for many years without observing and understanding it.
We consider our a farming practice regenerative permaculture. To regenerate the ecosystem, we have to cooperate with nature, not control it.
The smallest predators, the microbes, live underground. The anthropods eat the nematodes, who eat the protozoa, who eat the bacteria. The chain goes on with earthworms, insects and birds, until you get to the king of the forest.
I do not want to fix mother nature.
That does not mean I want wild hogs and coyotes on my property. I need to protect my animals. I work to discourage the predators and fence them out.
But let’s face it. If we want to get rid of the most effective and destructive predator of all, we would have to kill ourselves.
The owl was doing fine at last WTC report.

Gulf Coast Sheep

We raise Gulf Coast Sheep, a breed known for its heat tolerance, parasite resistance and exceptional flavor. The meat of the Gulf Coast Sheep is so exceptional that it is listed on the Slow Food Arc of Taste.
Our lamb are pastured all the time. We practice rotational grazing on diverse pastures that provide a choice of grasses, brassicas, forbs, honeysuckle, beautyberry, tree leaves, and much more. We call this “forage fed” because they hunt out and eat what they need at that time. When we move them to a new location they might all start eating acorns voraciously for 15 minutes and then run to the honeysuckle before settling to a long graze on the many grasses we have in the pasture. We plant seasonal cover crops to supplement the native grasses and fertilize with compost tea. We never spray herbicides or pesticides.
Our sheep graze in small movable net fenced paddocks and are moved to a new location every one to four days. Their manure is left behind to fertilize the pasture as they move to a new nutritious dinner. Moving them often like this is good for the soil as they grind their manure into the ground, good for the grasses, because they eat quickly, not overgrazing a single species, and good for the sheep, because they get a diverse diet and do not spend much time in the same place with the same food and parasites. They are fed supplements like salt, sulfur, kelp, magnesium, etc. These supplements are fed free choice and come from Coyote Creek Organic Feed.

The lambs are never fed grain.
Forage fed lamb is lower in fat and calories, yet higher in Omega-3 fatty acids. It also has a much higher rate of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Lamb is an excellent source of zinc, iron, vitamin B12, and carnitine.

Saint Arnold and the Lamb

IMG_2724Not only does Saint Arnold make a great beer, but you can fit a nipple on the screw top. Kenan chose to use a “stout” bottle because this lamb needed a little extra vim and vigor. For those of you panicking, we filled it with milk and supplements, no alcohol. Only two times have we had to take a newborn lamb in, warm it up and feed it. Gulf Coast Native Sheep are very good at birthing and tend to be very good mothers. However, yesterday at 37˚ and raining I found a 3 day old ram lamb, born small to a first time mother, alone 25 feet from any other member in the flock. It was lying on its side, which is not normal. When I felt in his mouth it was cold. Quickly I wrapped him in my coat, took him to the house and put a lamp on him. It took about 12 hours for him to start standing again. With help from the foster grandkids we got him back on his feet. I took him back to the flock at 7:00 this morning and his mother, Loretta Lynne, met me at the gate. Loretta was too young to be bred (rams jump fences) and has a severed nerve in her foot. But all day today we have seen the mother and child reunion. They are together every time I go out. Hopefully she will become the mother all her aunts are.

Blueberry cultivation in the Gulf Coast and Brazos Valley area of Texas


To produce optimum fruit yield and quality, most deciduous fruit cultivars require exposure to temperatures between 45ºF and 32˚F during the winter. This is known as chill hours. With insufficient chilling, plants do not flower and leaf out satisfactorily during the spring. Growth can be weak and erratic. Low-chill cultivars of blueberries are necessary for southern growers.
Two types of blueberries grow well in Texas, rabbiteye (Vaccinium virgatum) and southern highbush (interspecific hybrids of V. darrowii, V. virgatum, and V. corymbosum). The rabbit eye varieties need between 350 to 650 chill hours and the southern high bush need between 150 to 400 hours.
Both rabbiteye and southern highbush thrive in acidic soils, which contain more organic matter than is usually found in our soils. If mulched, rabbiteye blueberries will usually grow satisfactorily on soils with 1% organic matter, but they perform better with soils that have 2–3% organic matter. Southern highbush cultivars are not recommended for soils with less than 3% organic matter. Consequently, most gardeners will have to supply soil amendments and mulches. Peat moss is commonly used to increase soil organic matter and add acidity in blueberry plantings.
Blueberries need a fungal soil and fungi thrive in acidic soils with a ph of 4.5-5.5. 
If you are installing a commercial plot you should get a soil report follow recommendations. A commercial operation should only be set up in areas with naturally acidic soils. A soil report would also benefit the home gardener. In absence of a soil report and the recommendations that accompany it follow these ideas.

Dig your hole about 3 foot in diameter and about 10″ deep. Replace the soil with compost and peat moss filling the  the hole and building a mound about 6″ high.   Mix two cups of rock phosphate in the soil. If your ph is 7.0 (not unusual for the black gumbo soils) mix one cup of sulfur per plant in the soil, cutting that in half for soils of 6.5 ph. The soil ph will not change quickly and we are wanting to get to a ph of 4.5 to 5.5. It would be best to apply the organic matter and sulfur a year before planting if you can be that patient. If you cannot wait a year, make the amendments now and wait one month or more to plant the blueberry. Soil temperature needs to be over 55˚ for the biological activity to happen.

Plant the blueberry at the same height or 1” higher than it was in the pot–never let it sink lower. Make sure the area drains well. Blueberries need good drainage.  Blueberries have very shallow root systems.
 Blueberries grow well in shade but will not flower and fruit without sufficient sun. Set them in a site where they will get at least 5 hours of spring sun per day. Rabbiteye berries should be planted five to seven feet apart. Southern highbush can be planted 4-5feet apart. Of course, you can plant closer for a hedgerow effect, but it will be difficult to reach all the berries. A mature rabbiteye blueberry plant (7 or 8 years old) can reach heights of 15 feet and be 10 feet wide. Most southern highbush will get about 7 feet tall.
 Mulch the berries with 3 inches of mulch out 2 feet from the trunk but not touching the trunk. Maintain mulch past the drip line as the plant grows. This is for maintaining moisture, moderating soil temperature, adding organic matter and weed control. Weed control is extremely important for young plant establishment because blueberries are shallow-rooted plants that compete poorly with weeds for water, soil oxygen and nutrients. Hand weed only. Do not use a hoe. Use of pine bark mulch and pine needle mulch will also provide additional acidity.

Due to their shallow roots they must be watered often, but should never stand in water. In the heat of the summer, daily watering is necessary so an automatic system works well. Blueberry plants do not produce root hairs necessary for the uptake of water and nutrients. Instead, the plants are entirely dependent on symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. The plant provides nourishment for the fungi and the fungi act as root hairs for the plant. For this reason I prefer to avoid chlorinated water.

Blueberries do not require pruning, but remove weak growth and dead branches. During the first growing season, remove all flowers before fruit set occurs. This will prevent fruiting during the first year and promote strong vegetative and root growth and good plant establishment. This is especially important with some southern highbush cultivars that flower heavily as young plants.
 If you prune them for size, do that in the summer after fruiting is complete. I fertilize with micro life fertilizer in March, June and September. Add to that a spray of compost tea in March, May, July, and September and maintain sufficient mulch around the plant. Coffee grounds are good to add to the mulch.
Blueberries, especially the smaller southern highbush blueberries, grow well in containers. Sunshine blue is an especially small variety.  Plant in a wide pot, at least 10 gallons and 18” in diameter. They only need 10″ of soil depth. Increase to a half barrel size in two years.

Different varieties fruit at different times with harvest season extending April through June. Fruit forms on the top of one year old branches.  
Rabbiteye blueberries require two varieties to pollinate and southern highbush berries produce better with cross pollination.