Two years strong and planning for our first CSA

We have reached our two year anniversary!

We have done so much and learnt a huge amount in the process. People have been absolutely wonderful and supportive with the journey we’ve had and the philosophy we follow. It has been great to see just how excited children (and quite often, their parents) are when they come for a visit, with our little goats being the highlight for most.

Now that the weather it turning for Winter, we have let the chooks take over the garden patch … and I can tell you that 60 ish birds can strip half an acre VERY quickly. They’ve done a great job clearing out all the slugs and critters while liberally spreading their leavings without me having to do so. Win-win!

Reflecting back on the last year, I would say that I regretted not installing a more robust irrigation system … something worth remediating this Autumn.

Even though the season is coming to an end, with our online sales stopping, we have kicked off the planning of a Community Supported Agriculture programme or CSA. Check it out on our page Our 2016 Spring-Summer CSA. Now that we have a comfortable crop rotation happening and have identified what crops we will be offering as part of the CSA, there is a whole raft of communications, information packs, labels and packaging that needs to be organised and sourced.

Thank you to everyone who has helped make this little geek of a farmer happy. All I can hope is that everyone has the bravery and opportunity to follow their dream. For me, it took several years of planning, lots or research and even more mistakes, an appreciation of the small things that are on offer from people and a truely amazingly patient husband to get me there.

Even though my hubby seriously dislikes my goats, his assistance in all things mechanical or powered by a motor has seen me recover quickly from my bouts of frustration when things need fixing or (usually) I’m stuck unable to start the darn thing.

Thank you everyone.

A request for training

The last few months for us have been beyond hectic. So much so that this little blog has fallen to the way side due to us simply falling into bed at night from sheer exhaustion.

We’ve sold our excess produce at the Foragers Market in Bulli several times, raised a new batch of little egg birds, fended off foxes, broke new ground in our market garden, been asked multiple times to train different groups of people and taken on a full time role managing a very large IT service (you can’t take the techie out of me). Just crazy!

Last week, we met up with a couple who are passionate about permaculture (like us) and who would like to swap a few hours of work a week with knowledge and training of what we have accomplished. Why not! I said.

So today was the beginning of a practical experience “brain dump” for them. Given that we didn’t go around with pen and paper, these blog posts will serve as a reminder for them on what we accomplished and a summary for you out there about what you can do yourselves.

The morning started out with a run down of what they wanted to learn. We decided to start with a bottom up approach and start with soil … the building block of a healthy eco-system and a brilliant market garden. We looked at the difference between sandy loam, pure compost, different mulches and heavy reactive clays (our primary soil type here). We touched on our “lazy” composting technique along with the how and why it works for us. We also explored our experimental, onsite composting piles and the importance of replacing nutrients from another source if you are selling produce from the land.

Next we started looking at some of the different guilds we had set up. Our key discussion points were around our Plum, herb and Tower of Jewels (Echium) planting and those of our Apple, Artichoke and Foxglove planting.

We then had a walking fruit salad by visiting some of our apple trees as a snack then headed back to the house to start preparing our upgraded chicken tractors (see our original Chicken Tractor soil fertility post) for our new generation egg birds. While our trainees assembled some new, stainless steel treadle feeders, I finished rolling out some dough for bread rolls for lunch, then had a break for morning tea.

The upgraded chicken tractors were secured from fox attack and nice fresh straw was added in, we transferred 35 of our 10 week old chicks to their new pens to grow out before being introduced into the chicken caravan in a couple of months. We’ve learned the hard way that the young birds quickly learn to squeeze through the mesh of the electric fence surrounding the chicken caravan and prefer to escape and scratch in the market garden. Sorry girls, you’re going to be somewhat incarcerated until you fill out some more and you get too big to fit through the mesh! Enjoy your home under the old pear tree for a few weeks.

Once we were happy that they figured out how to use the treadle feeders and that the water was set level, the guys set about harvesting some snake beans. They learned the correct technique for harvesting beans to ensure that the subsequent crops are not affected, then we had a break or lunch.

I mentioned that we needed to turn a few of our roosters into dinner, and our guests decided that they wanted to help and learn… so they learned how to calm the birds, slaughter them humanely, pluck them, evicerate them and de-bone them over a couple of hours. Lots of work!

Once we had cleaned up the meat and rinsed it, we used our post hole digger to quickly dig a couple of holes to bury the feathers and carcasses.

Phew! What a day. Thanks guys for your willingness to get involved and learn things that that most people are too afraid to tackle. I hope you enjoy your ethically grown and much loved rooster pieces. Remember to wait until next weekend to cook them so they are no longer in rigor mortis.

Farm gate produce available from April 27.

We’ve just uploaded our Farm Gate Order Form for next week (April 27). If you would like to pre-order before arriving onsite, please fill in the form and we will invoice you.

All our produce is sold on a first-come-first-served basis so ordering in advance is recommended to avoid disappointment.

Along with fresh produce, we will also be selling a limited number of preserves and DIY kits.

This week, our DIY kits include Home Made Sourdough and Schnitzeled Eggplant with salad and mash. Everything is included with the exception of a couple of kitchen staples (e.g. oil for frying, salt, pepper, water, butter and milk).

On our inaugural Farm Gate opening day, as a one-off offer, in the event that we do not have enough fresh-produce available for you to purchase, you can fill in an order form onsite, pay for it and we will deliver it to you for free on the Wednesday (April 29)!

Here is a link to our Farm Gate Order form for April 27 for your convenience… https://littlefieldmice.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/farm-gate-orders-2015-04-27.pdf

Alternatively you can navigate to our Online Store and find it there. For address details, go to our Facebook page https://facebook.com/LittleFieldMice

Wild mushrooms are nothing short of awesome!

There are so many different things you can forage for a meal or part of one. Dandelions and chickweed are our favourite salad substitutes around here, but nothing is more exciting than mushrooms!

There are a number of mushrooms that are easily considered ‘beginner’ level mushrooms. One of the most easily recognised ones is the Slippery Jack.

These golden fungus grow directly from the roots of pine trees, and are especially prolific in pine plantations after a very good soaking rain followed by warm temperatures. They pop up following a shallow pine tree root where the mycelium (kind of like mushroom roots) has grown in the bark of the root waiting for the perfect conditions to fruit (aka grow mushrooms).

We have around 60 mature radiata pine trees on our property which have been producing Slippery Jacks for more seasons than I remember. We used to stomp out in our gumboots as kids and excitedly decimate them in all sorts of childish madness, not realising how delicious they were.

Wild Slippery Jack mushrooms

This morning, we harvested an unexpected boon courtesy of mother natures’ excellent rainfall and warm Autumn weather. After finishing our morning chores, we collected about 2kg of these glorious mushrooms in our jackets (we had warmed up enough not to need them).

Slippery Jacks are easily identified by several key features…
– they are golden in colour
– they have a slimy top surface (unless it is very hot and has dried out, then sprinkle water on it to check)
– they have a spongy surface underneath (no gills)
– when you cut the stem, it is yellow throughout
– when gently crushed, they bruise very easily
– they only grown under pine trees

Here is a pic of one we split in half. You can see the bruise in the centre caused by us pushing roughly on the cap. Also, you can see how fleshy it is and the sponginess.

Slippery Jack mushrooms split through showing fleshy insides, sponge and bruising

To prepare these guys for eating, you need to peel the top slimy layer off (this part tastes bitter in purpose so other animals don’t eat this tasty morsel). Then remove the stem completely and rinse the sponge as it usually has dirt and or pine needles attached. Set aside to dry off a bit or pat dry with a cloth or paper towel (use an old cloth as the mushroom spores can stain fabric) and then slice up and cook however you desire! Delicious fried with onions and garlic in butter, added into soups or as part of a stroganoff. Yummy.

This basket is off to be shared with our local Seedsavers group.

Basket of prepared Slippery Jack mushrooms

Ants are highway makers … just on a different scale.

Have you ever stopped to wonder at the different little insects around you. There are just so many with a huge variety of niches that they fill. For us, ants have always been a fascination, none more so than meat eating ants.

We have several different colonies of ants on our property. Meat, nectar and plant eaters alike. Whenever we have a chook die (this happens occasionally), we make an offering to the meat ant nest for a day and then bury the carcass at nightfall. It is amazing how quickly they can strip the meat off a chicken to the bone (or near enough)! Within a couple of hours, most of the visceral area is gone and you end up only needing to dispose of bone and feathers. The perfect little recyclers from our point of view!

But one of the most amazing skills that these little guys have, is their ability to transform their environment at will. A trail of meat ants on the move can easily create a visible path in only 2 days! These little guys, by sheer numbers, tread down a swathe in grass that would put weed killer to shame. For those of you who have never witnessed this, here is a pic of the little guys on the move… at the end of their trail was a wild bird. Pretty impressive!

A trail of meat ants has trodden this path in only 2 days!
A trail of meat ants has trodden this path in only 2 days!

Go you little good things!

Apple varieties we have available

We constantly get asked what apple varieties we have available on our farm. So, for those who are not feint hearted, here is a list of all the domestic varieties we have available for cultivation (currently 73 to save you from counting). If you want any scions for grafting, let us know and we will let you know if there are some available and when we can ship them. Alternatively, contact us and we can custom grow an apple tree for you on either a super dwarf (2m), dwarf (3-4m) or large (9m) rootstock. Continue reading

Purchasing property and the importance of having active warrens on it.

It has taken us many years to find the right property for our next adventure, and one of the keys things we looked for every time was warrens … wombat and rabbit warrens.

Most people think that these animals are pests … yes and no. They are destructive to crops if you don’t protect your crops correctly, but they can tell you an amazing amount about your soil without having to do any serious soil testing up front. Here is an example wombat hole.

Large wombat hole displaying soil profile.
Large wombat hole displaying soil profile.

This hole clearly gives a snapshot of the soil profile in this area of scrub. The top 20 cm of soil, is a dark brown sandy topsoil. This is known as sandy loam. It is very easy to work with and provides for excellent drainage.

The next layer is a yellowish sandy substrate for about 60 cm. This substrate was laid down in this region around 20,000 years ago. Doing a little geological research, it was most likely blown onto the slopes when the lower area was infact an inland lake during the last ice age. This sandy substrate allows for easy drainage and will ensure that the soil is not water logged.

Finally, at the bottom of the wombat hole, there is evidence of pebbles of a gravel-like consistency. This gravel has a brownish-red colouration, indicative of high iron. There are also obvious chunks of quartz-like rock with inclusions of granite an glassy sandstone. This indicates that this level of the soil profile is close to bedrock, probably volcanic in nature as the quartz with inclusions can only occur at high temperature.

So, what does this tell us? This region can be used for shallow rooted trees, as evidenced by the dwarfed eucalyptus on the slopes behind. You can also put a structure here quite easily by cutting out and creating a solid packed base or by dropping piers directly to the bedrock. You can also improve the top soil using bio char before adding compost to make a very fertile garden bed for veggies. All this info from a simple wombat hole!

Lazy composting with potatoes

Every now and then, when we open up one of our compost piles after they’ve been sitting for several months doing their thing, we uncover a pile which hasn’t quite broken down everything the way we want or we find lots of plastic strips that were not removed from boxes. Sometimes the odd cake box wasn’t waxed like we thought but rather plastic coated and causes issues in the composting process.

While our wonderful composting organisms try their darnedest to break down the plastics, it’s evident that the plastic short circuited the decomposition on the underside of the deposit. When these frustrations arise, we rise to the challenge and create our spud-compost-mansion.

“What on earth are you on about?!?!” you say. Put simply, it is a chicken wire basket that is lined with mulch on the bottom, composted straw around the sides, half finished compost on the core and spuds all around!
Here is one we started today…

IMG_2504
Create a round wire basket and anchor it with stakes. We used chicken wire offcuts and bamboo stakes. The bamboo stakes are smooth and can be woven through the wire. Chicken inspection is optional.

The wire basket is held in place by bamboo stakes and since we were being lazy, we used our electric mulcher to break down some weeds into a fresh mulch bed.
I’d like to say that our logic is based on scientific fact… Rather it’s based on observation. We need to ensure that the too much moisture doesn’t leach out  from the pile, and anyone who’s mown a lawn before and left a pile of clippings on the garden can attest to the fact that, fresh lawn clippings create a dense also impenetrable layer. So this is our retention mulch.

The next layer is rotten straw. We place a good wad of it on top of the mulch in the wire basket, then start lining the sides of the basket with it. Here is a pic of just that.

Wire basket with mulch base and rotten straw lining.
Wire basket with mulch base and rotten straw lining.

Next, we shovel in a layer of partially finished compost and add our chitted potatoes around the straw edges and back fill it with more compost.
Voilla! You very own compost-potato-mansion.

Top view.
Top view.

Once the spuds have sprouted, be prepared to keep adding straw lined walls and compost backfill all the way to the top of the wire basket. We wished we had a photo of last years’ one. It was awesome!

This design tends to keep possums away from you spuds too, which is handy in an urban setting, and then when it’s time to harvest the potatoes, you don’t need to do anything special than pull apart the wire mesh, harvest and spread out the spent compost on your garden. Almost no work at all!

We have started setting up a few of these baskets all around our garden so that when we are weeding, we slowly fill the basket and it composts away. Then we can use it straight in the garden without having to use a wheel barrow to cart it around. Win-win!

What’s the name of that apple?!?! A Peasgood Nonsuch?

We love heritage apples and all this simply means is that the apple in question is no longer grown commercially for the mainstream market. There is nothing wrong with these apples … in fact, most heritage apples have superior flavour and texture over the regular apples you find at the grocer. The reason they are not stocked? Because they don’t last as long in the refrigerator!

“Regular” store bought apples.

When you go to a store today, you will always find apples on the shelves. Fresh and sometimes not so crunchy apples are a staple in our society. But in reality, to ensure that there are apples available all year round, they need to be kept in storage for a VERY long time.

As with all natural things, there is a season for apples. Apples flower from early Spring to mid Summer (late August to December here in Sydney regions). So depending on the variety of apple, you can have fresh fruit from as early as mid Summer through to mid Winter (late December to mid July here). So what about the other months?

This is where the genetics of an apple are very important. Early fruiting varieties (such as the Israeli variety ‘Anna’), mature early in the season but in doing so sacrifice their ability to be stored long term. But is their flavour affected? No way!

Generally speaking, if an apple is ripened on a tree before it is harvested, it is capable of developing mind blowing flavour. But to store an apple long term, certain characteristics need to be taken into account. Mainly the acidity of the fruit and its sugar level.

If the sugar level in a fruit is too high, it ripens quickly. When you buy a “floury” apple from a store, this texture is due to the apple being stored with a higher than normal sugar content and then while in storage, the sugars get converted into fibre too quickly … hence the “floury” texture.

But a fruit with too high an acidity, generally produces a tartness which most customers find unpalatable. So there is a fine balance between when to pick and how to store. Actually, there is a real science behind it as apples need to be stored in a climate controlled environment to ensure peak condition.

Heritage apples

In today’s economy where we have grown accustomed to having everything we want when we want it, eating in season foods has fallen by the wayside. This means that anything that cannot be stored and transported long distances falls out of flavour. Most restaurants and food businesses don’t change their menu based on the season, which means that only food which can be sourced all year round are available. But if you are so inclined, there are some small operators (ourselves included) who are dedicated in ensuring that some of the most flavoursome apples are available to farmers markets in season.

At this time of year, some of the larger varieties are ready to harvest. These are the mid season fruits. The likes of Red Delicious, Pink Lady and Granny Smith are no where near being mature enough to harvest in our region; this means that these varieties on shelves are almost 12 months old.

When it comes to flavour, two of our all time favourites ripening now are the Gravenstein and the Peasgood Nonsuch (yes this mouthful is its real name!). The Gravenstein is an old European apple variety which originated in Denmark. It has a beautiful rich red skin with little spots all over it, white flesh and tastes nothing short of divine. It has a slight tartness (indicative of high acidity) but is complemented with a good deal of sweetness when tree ripened. It is great fresh and is excellent for cooking as it keeps it shape well.

Similarly, the Peasgood Nonsuch is a great cooking apple but is better known as a saucing apple, creating a really smooth puree that complements soooo many dishes! This one though is a bit of a giant in the apple world, regularly 50% larger in size than a red delicious, meaning it is around double the weight too! We have included one in the photo above.

So next time you buy an apple, have a think about what it took to get to your table. Visit your local farmers market to find someone nearby who grows fruit in season … you will never regret the flavour. Ask to try something you don’t know. Remember, local farmers (generally) enjoy their job and would love to talk to someone who appreciates the effort they put into providing quality produce.

Being the accountant, the marketing manager, the supervisor and the labourer all at once!

When people think of farming, they think of wonderful farmers markets, great produce and friendly people. Very few consider what goes on behind the scenes to get the produce to them.

This week was a hectic once for us with lots of milestones achieved, but it meant that we had to wear the hat of accountant, marketing manager, supervisor and labourer all in one week!

So here is a run down of our mad-cap week…

We got our logo revamped!

Our little mouse needed some inspiration, so we took her to our local graphic design studio and the guys at Avenue de Flaunt came up with some awesome ideas. So bye-bye little blind mouse and hello cute little field mouse. Pity we didn’t have three blind mice to work with!

Little Field Mice Pty Ltd logo
Our old logo. We didn’t realise it looked blind without the pupil!
littlefieldmice
Our new logo. We love it!

 

 

We started prepping our beds for Winter

The start of Autumn sees us clearing out all our old and tired tomato plants and their trellises. We burn all the dried up plants to reduce fungal disease in future crops, a job that Master 7 truly enjoys (there must be a little pyromaniac in every child as Miss 5 is now wanting to learn how to help with this).

Once the beds are cleared, we add wheel barrow loads of fresh compost straight from one of our compost bins, some ash, trace elements, rock dust, chicken manure and plenty of dried lawn clippings …. then its dig, Dig, DIG!

*Phew, glad its not high Summer*

We started planting our beds for winter crops.

Once all the digging is done, We form up our beds and lay down irrigation pipe. This then gets turned on for a test run and to both moisten and settle the soil before planting.

Where the water drips out is where we plant our new seedlings. All plants can’t stand oxygen at their root zone … this causes them to die back. We always ensure that our new seedlings go into moist ground and then get watered in afterwards as well. This helps settle them into the soil and removes any air holes in the soil surrounding the roots.

This week we planted out…

  • Lettuce (red, green and bronze oak leaf; endive; mini cos; red and green coral; red romaine)
  • Fennel
  • Sorrel (green and red veined)
  • Basil (sweet and mini greek)
  • Brassicas (broccoli; broccolini; cauliflower; pak choi; red russian kale; tuscan kale)
  • Carrots (purple; white; yellow and orange)
  • Parsnips
  • Strawberries
  • Garlic (Monaro purple; Italian purple; Italian white)
  • Herbs (curled and flat leaf parsley; sage; rosemary; thyme; lemon thyme; oregano; garlic chives; nasturtium;
  • Onions (red)

We got some new hens delivered to our farm.

We are very strict with bio-security and only source our new breeding stock from eggs which we incubate and grow on ourselves. Our only exception to this is our meat birds, which are grown in a climate controlled and sterile environment then shipped straight to us within 24-48 hours of being born.

Since the devastation of a lot of our breeders due to the local fox population, we have decided to introduce ten new hens to our flock. They have been treated for external and internal parasites so that they do not pass any untoward problems onto our stock. These girls will be placed into their breeding pens shortly.

We started building chicken tractors 3, 4 and 5.

As the breeding season will be coming around soon, we have started to build some new Joel Salatin style chicken tractors. It will start looking like a fleet soon. Can’t wait till they are finished.

We will have one breeding pen each of Plymouth Rock, Araucana and Barnevelder. There will also be a meat bird pen and then a growing pen for all the chicks we hatch older than 6 weeks. Then with our move to our new farm on the horizon, the chicken tractor fleet is set to boom!

We introduced our resident hen to the garden

When our hens go “clucky” (that is they want to sit on and hatch eggs), we schedule their hatch with one of our incubators. That way she can adopt a few extras for us.

Hens are natural Mum’s and they make the funniest noises. Now that her little ones are more than 2 weeks old, they are smart enough to listen o their Mum (mostly) and are at a lower risk of falling down a crack in the ground and dying (yes, this happens).

On the first day out in the garden, the hen only ranged around 3m from the shed she calls home. But once she saw us pulling up the tomato trellises, her curiosity was obvious … and calculated. As soon as we sat down for lunch …. she had called her brood over and was happily showing them how to scratch out bugs and insects from the soil. A few times knocking a chick over in the process due to her enthusiasm.

She makes a different noise for her chicks for different reasons; when intruders approach (like us or the cats), when there is a predator spotted, when there is a nice tidbit of food, when its time for a nap or sleep (yes, chicks sleep during the day just like all babies). It’s quite entertaining to listen to.

Here is a picture of her in the garden near our sweet potato and berry patch.

Hen and chicks free range
Plymouth Rock hen free-ranging with twelve two week old chicks

 

… then we did some tractor shopping.

We have been on the look out for a small tractor for our new farm for the last few months. Now that the land has settled, we can start looking in earnest as we have somewhere to store it now. 🙂

Checking out tractors is like checking out cars … if you don’t know what you want to begin with, you’ll only be attracted to the new and shiny gadgets.