Come out to Chatham Mills tomorrow from 9am-1pm for the Pollinator Festival! You can learn about (and try!) mead, taste different honeys (including our NC Sourwood), watch live bee demonstrations and more. Kids activities, door prizes, and lots of exhibits celebrating our favorite Pollinators. Check out the wonderful local products at the Chatham Marketplace Grocery Co-op and farmer’s market too. While you are at it, why not stay for lunch at Oakleaf? Visit Starrlight Mead and take home a bottle from their amazing collection of meads!
I love learning. Having a farm seems to require it. There is always something unexpected happening that requires immediate knowledge in an unexpected domain. So it is fun to pass on some of our learning. I spend a lot of time working on my bee education in the form of the NC Master Beekeeper program. It requires thorough knowledge and mastery of all topics of bee biology, management, processing, & stewardship. Teaching and outreach is a big part of the requirements. We’ve done a lot so far this year: helping with senior projects, elementary school projects, local outreach, and newbie mentoring. Good stuff.
Months back Hana, a Middle Creek High School senior, contacted me about her senior project about honeybees. I met her mom at a farmer’s market during the year and she followed up). Hana was interested in what people could do to help the struggling bee population. She did an impressive amount of research and crafted a thoughtful paper. But the project required getting your hands dirty, or sticky. So Hana came over for a visit to the bee yard. Together we inspected a hive. Kudos to her for the bravery to jump in for research sake. I think she even enjoyed it or at least appreciated the monumental work the bees do. Her project included a slideshow, essay & video. She gave me permission to post some of it here. Well done Hana!
A few weeks back I also had the pleasure of helping out an investigative group from Exploris Elementary school. Ms. Ruto’s 4th/5th grade class selected honeybees for their research & assist project. One sunny March day, I had the pleasure of hosting them at our bee yard at Ninja Cow Farm in Garner. They already knew quite a bit from other research but we talked habitat loss and what everyday folks can do to help bees. In small groups, they tried being a forager bee in a scavenger hunt, made pollinator seed balls, and inspected a hive with me. A day to remember for me and hopefully them too.
And all the while I’ve started mentoring some new beekeepers. This is the biggest benefit of bee club membership – finding someone to ask those newbie questions. There is so much new & unfamiliar that it is helpful to get another opinion when things seem blurry. I think most beekeepers, regardless of experience, have a mentor. Someone to bounce ideas off or think through challenges. I have several I call on. I got to help a mentee (?) inspect a new hive this spring. How fun to watch someone building their skills and getting swept away by the fascination of bees! I got thanked by a big fat sting on the face. My lip swelled up so much I couldn’t even eat my humble pie.
We love hosting friends and customers to visit our farm babies & hives. And having kids take an interest in our business is the best! There are no greater ambassadors of farming than baby animals. Chicks and ducks top the list for fluffability. Getting kids (and adults) interested in sustainable food production is easy when they can see and touch a well cared for animal. Plus it sneaks in a little science when no one is looking.
We aren’t quite ready to open the farm gates wide for the public. But we are able to invite more and more folks out to see and experience what we are working on. For those who can’t make it to us, we have several outreach events coming up. Pollinator festivals in both Chatham and Wake Counties plus several farmers market events. And as I continue on my Master Beekeeper path, I’ll be attending conferences & workshops throughout the year like this one. Everything in an effort to keep learning & growing the farm without getting schooled.
Last time I wrote about us transitioning from observing cows to owning them. It was a big step given our knowledge of cows is 0 out of 10. But I know a bit about horses and chickens so hopefully barnyard 101 can somewhat transfer.
After many years of heavy herd pressure our pasture was feeling a bit like me in August: short, hot, and tired. Part of our plan was to give the pasture some much needed rest. Overgrazing gives the weeds a leg up and keeps down the grass & clover goodies because they are constantly being knocked back. So we rested. For about 3-4 months we rested the pasture. And amazing things happened. Grass grew! Clover popped up like wildfire! All without any seeding, liming, tilling, or work. We just did nothing. My kind of improvement.
Rotational grazing is common theme among cattlemen, but with only 10 acres of open pasture, moving cows into new paddocks daily/weekly/whenever seemed like treadmill running. A lot of motion with nowhere to go. But since Dexters are smaller cows they allow a higher stocking rate (or less frequent rotation). They are great foragers, eating some things other cattle breeds would snub. So we laid out a plan to divide our petite pasture into 4 pie shaped slices all with access to the pond. To build our herd, we purchased 4 cows: a 2 year old bred cow (pregnant) and 3 heifer (girl) yearlings. No boys. Chris Green called one day “Ummm, You know your 4 cows? You now have 5.” Our 2 year old mama couldn’t wait. Baby came early but healthy and a girl to boot. The more the merrier!
Mooooving day was surprisingly uneventful. Alan Green & intern Justin delivered mama (Oatmeal) and baby girl (Raisin) plus the 3 yearlings. The girls all hid in the woods for a few days adjusting and exploring the new place. But being new parents, we fretted. Sunday afternoon Oatmeal suddenly started bellowing – constantly. Constant, loud, yelling-type mooing for an hour or more. Baby Raisin was close by her side so I assumed it must be some intestinal distress. Like a Rolaids commercial after Thanksgiving dinner. I panicked. On went the mooing loud, insistent. I was prepared to call a vet (Sunday afternoon, right?). But talked myself off the ledge to phone a friend first. Turns out, Oatmeal was probably homesick. Just looking for her herd mates or maybe her neighborhood bull. (Nonexistent) crisis averted. New parents. Sheesh.
In a few short weeks Oatmeal has quickly learned what a feed bucket looks like. And what a whistle sounds like. Even the sight of the chickens’ scratch container will bring Oatmeal running. A handful of sweet feed makes for a friendly cow. “You do have something, don’t you?” her gaze says. But with her impressive horns, she chases off the little heifers to hog it herself. Soon enough we hope to make inroads with the younger ones. Someday maybe we will venture into a milking experiment. Lots of possibilities. Right now, it is a delight to see them grazing away or play chase in the tall grass. They are so peaceful to watch.
“Why didn’t you get a bull?” people ask. Because we only have 5 cows. Having a bull is handy to take care of the breeding when needed but it begs the question of genetics – you can’t keep the babies to breed back to the daddy. So there has to be some swapping. Since we are just starting out, we may eventually play The Dating Game and take the girls to visit a nearby beau or consider artificial insemination. Pros & cons to be weighed. There will be plenty of time for arranged unions down the road. Right now we’re enjoying & learning. And trying not to call the vet for homesickness or any other bull.
When we purchased the farm a year and a half ago, it came with cows. Kinda. There were cows on the farm. Eating grass, mooing, leaving patties. All doing legit cow business. The problem was, they weren’t ours.
Our new friend Greg had kept cattle on the property for a while. No mowing, no land leases. A win, win situation for both cow and land owner. We had (and still have) so many projects on the horizon, we were happy to leave Greg’s cows munching away in the pasture. They were fun to look at, they do crazy stuff, and they made us new friends. But in the back of our minds we knew someday we would like to have our own herd.
What we lacked in knowledge (like everything – we have never owned cows) we had in mentors. Paul’s best friend just happens to run a grass fed cattle farm, Ninja Cow Farm. Plus we know Greg, experienced hobbyist and highly familiar with our land. Then there is Chatham Extension, Farm Service, and You Tube. Bring it on.
It was actually a long process starting late last year as Greg whittled down the herd on our property and relocated them other land. It was kind of sad the day they took the last ones off the property. I talked to those cows a lot – mostly when people weren’t around. Not everyone gets my level of weird. But we felt committed to the idea of having our own herd.
I’ve written before about our farm’s history as a poultry farm back when the Clouse family ran it, but the Clouses did other things too. Like raise cows. And not just any cows, they specialized in a heritage breed of cattle well suited to small pastures and equally useful for both meat and dairy production – Dexter cattle. There aren’t many Dexter breeders out there, compared to that of Angus or Hereford cattle. Dexters are the homestead cow. Good for pulling carts or plows, good for milking, good for meat, good foragers, and well tempered. But they are small and most cattlemen like big beef. So Dexters are often relegated to the fringes of homesteaders. We knew we’d be laughed at by the big boys, but we don’t have plans to run a commercial ranching operation. We are small.
So we were drawn to this breed. It suited our pasture size, our management goals, and our provenance. We set off Dexter shopping. Well not really, because Dexter breeders are spread across the country (and remember, we know nothing about cows). But through the CFSA Farm Tour, we met the fine folks at Woodcrest Farm. They not only raise Dexter cattle, and chickens, goats, rabbits, etc. but they do cool things like blacksmith and make soap. That made them kindred spirits.
We spent a year thinking about cows and as the time got right, we contacted the Green family at Woodcrest to talk Dexters. Chris Green helped us greatly as we discussed our goals and asked the requisite newbie questions. But the biggest selling feature came down to connections. Many of the cattle in the Green’s herd had lineage to cows from our farm (formerly known as Rocky Hill Farm). Not Greg’s cows, but the Clouse’s Dexters from years ago. So these animals were related to us. Sort of, right? We thought so and jumped in with all four hooves. (More to come in Part 2)
I skipped town this weekend. There was a lot going on around the farm. We are smack in thimble of spring planting, the heavy spring nectar flow, house construction deadlines…. But I carelessly left town in pursuit of the elusive queen. Her royal highness of the hive, mama to all, queen big booty. Despite the 40,000-60,000 worker bees in a hive, there is only one queen (usually -nothing is cut & dry). One who lays eggs. One who passes on genetics. One who sets the tone for the entire colony. She is pretty important – so she gets the imaginary crown.
As beekeepers, most of the challenges we (and the bees) face can be traced back to the queen. Weak colonies, varroa mites, nosema disease, poor foraging, swarming, winter kill, can be linked to queen troubles. And it’s our convenient excuse for colony problems. “Queen wasn’t mated well”. “Queen wasn’t hygienic”. “Queen had poor pattern” “Queen was mean!” Blaming the faceless corporate queen rearers – easy explanations for our woes. The majority of queen bees raised in this country come from hot spots: FL, GA, CA, TX. Places it is warm early in the year to raise the big girls. And they are raised in huge quantities – some breeders up to 100,000 queens/ year.
But there is a growing movement of beekeepers looking for local bees, queens included. In response, the NC Beekeepers Association (NCSBA) introduced their “NC Born & Bred” program to infuse our state with newbie queen rearers. Me included.
This weekend’s class was led by the who’s who in NC beekeeping. Folks who know bees. They drilled into me (and a 100 other inquiring minds) the tactics for raising quality NC queens. It was a rich experience and I left exhausted. (I think I won for most questions asked). I also left inspired but daunted by the complexity of the biology and also by the responsibility to do better by our bees. Plus it requires a whole new set of bee gear – nerd love!
The learning curve sounds pretty steep – true of most things in beekeeping. But I am intrigued. Queens cost $25-30+ plus shipping. And there are no guarantees that they are quality or will be accepted by the bees. I’ve personally watched a hive kill 2 queens in a row this year (for reasons I’m yet to understand). So the idea of raising my own queens can save money. But even better, it will allow me to choose genetics I like from my favorite colonies to reproduce. Plus I like the whole self sufficiency aspect.
People spend their lives dedicated to perfecting their queen production. So little old me in my backyard has got some learning to do. But Carolina was named for the royal King Charles I who granted the land. We should be able to craft some legit crown-worthy women. And I can’t wait to start.
The house project has been moving at marathon pace. Slow & steady. It seems that every project is 2 steps forward, 1 step back. With every board and joint out of square, out of plumb, out of level- we’ve been out of our minds. We’re at the point where I don’t know if it would have been faster or easier to wipe the slate clean and start over. Too late.
We’ve gone through layers of siding, window musical chairs, and a front door shift. And it still looks like a fireman’s training exercise. But we are poised to take some big steps – new siding, new drywall – there is even talk of cabinets. Have we crested the hill of ripping out the old and starting to put in the new? I can only dream.
So we plod on at marathon pace, knowing that the race doesn’t start until the last 6 miles. I’m not sure which mile we are on. But I hope it’s past #13….