Free-Range Ideas in Action: Chickens in the Greenhouse, step one

 In only two weeks, our baby chicks have already tripled in size.  Awkward and pubescent, these feisty creatures will soon graduate from their cardboard box into a proper chicken coop.  And what a chicken coop it will be!

Our Inspiration: But can it be done?  For $0?  By us?

Our Inspiration: But can it be done? For $0? By us?

 In permaculture, we often speak about “Stacking Functions.”  This means that you design elements of your system to fulfill different needs with shared resources.  A long-discussed example of this is using chickens in a greenhouse.  During the heat of the day, the chickens roam free.  But at night, their body heat can keep plants above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, even in freezing weather.  The inspiration for our chicken coop comes from Bill Mollisons “Introduction to Permaculture”

    As you can see, this design has it all:  Rainwater harvesting, chicken watering, poultry manure for plants, nesting boxes that can be harvested from the hot house, chicken wire between chickens and plants, north facing heat sinks, cold frames, elements that reflect changes in solar insolation– but is it a unicorn?   Going online, it was impossible to find blueprints or even real-life examples of passive solar chicken coop designs.  This meant that I had to do some math, and develop these beautiful concepts into a concrete plan.  It means taking a risk, carefully documenting our work, and hopefully developing a design that would be a point of interest for other farmers.

Junior and Nouri leveling out the ground for our foundation.

Junior and Nouri leveling out the ground for our foundation.

    There are many other factors that go into this design.  We are trying to do this completely with recycled materials from old farm, with a budget of $0.  So far, we’re in the black.  We also have little collective experience with building a structure of this magnitude.  And it’s an adventure– Nobody on the web has really done it before.  So, wish us luck!

Laying our cinderblock foundation.

Laying our cinderblock foundation.

First, we measured out perfect 8X8 Square, using a T-square and 2X4X8 lumber.  We then used a water level and string to determine how to level the ground.  We then moved and shifted soil, using the soil we removed to cover hugulkultur beds.  Finally, we took old cinder blocks to create the foundation for our chicken coop.  We arranged them to have no holes facing outward in order to deter predators from digging in to our henhouse!  We then had a relaxing dinner of Borscht, homebaked bread, fish salad, chicken salad, and cake.  Not to mention the great cross-cultural exchange of ideas concerning permaculture and organic farming in a Haitian and Muslim context.  Is there demand for Halal organic chicken, anyone?

Our solid foundation and solid super-crew!

Our solid foundation and solid super-crew!

 Deep thanks must go two of my students, Nouri Elmeklhi and Junior Beauvais.  Nouri is an engineer from Libya- he brought his two beautiful daughters who started cayenne pepper seedlings for us.  Junior is a Haitian farmer who actually received a permaculture certificate in the Dominican Republic last year, and has been working to establish a permaculture site in Haiti.  These two were a Godsend!  They led the charge today, systematically creating a level foundation for our passive solar chicken house.   Thanks must also go to Tim Naylor for turning our tree of heaven into firewood, and to Mike Heitzman for resurrecting our cinder blocks, one chip at a time.  Finally, thanks to Mo for working to fill our “mosquito pit” as we transform it into a Ukrainian Cranberry bog.   

As far as upcoming events goes, we have two next weekend:

Celebrate spring at the Pysanka Ukrainian Egg painting workshop Sat. 4/12  2-4 pm.

Celebrate spring at the Pysanka Ukrainian Egg painting workshop Sat. 4/12 2-4 pm.

Ukrainian Egg Painting Workshop- Saturday 4/12 from 2:00-4:00

Since 2000 years before the birth of Christ, Ukrainians have welcomed the beginning of spring with pysanky, beautiful beeswax batique painted eggs. Come join us to participate in this ancient pagan turned Lenten tradition. Learn the history, symbolism, and techniques of this beautiful art form. Create your own pysanka to take home! Light Ukrainian Snacks Provided!

Activist and Master Naturalist Starflower O'Sullivan will facilitate our inaugural Shed Talk about the Keystone-XL pipeline.

Activist and Master Naturalist Starflower O’Sullivan will facilitate our inaugural Shed Talk about the Keystone-XL pipeline.

Shed Talx: The Keystone-XL Pipeline Exposed- Sunday, 4/13 from 1:30-2:30

Activist Starflower O’Sullivan talks about the Keystone XL Pipeline, why it’s a problem, and what we can do about it.  Participate in a community discussion following a short film screening of the documentary “Keystone PipeLies Exposed.”  Prepare for 350.org protest in DC on 4/26!   Chicken coop building to follow.

 

Our Inspiration: But can it be done?  For $0?  By us?

Our Inspiration: But can it be done? For $0? By us?

Chicks, Bees, and New Beginnings: The First Day of Spring

Today is the first full day of Spring, and it’s already off to a beautiful start!

The chicks are in the mail!

The chicks are in the mail!

At 6:30 this morning, I got a call from the Blacksburg post-office, telling me that my chicks had arrived, and that I had better pick them up as possible.  Yes, the chicks were in the mail : )

Spring Sunrise!

Spring Sunrise!

When the lady handed the box to me at the post office, I had to get down on my knees and think “Thank you.”  I could hear little mysterious cheeps and tweets escaping from this magic box.  I turned up the heat in my car, and drove them back up the mountain as gently as possible up our rugged dirt road.

15 chicks traveled for 2 and half days through the US Postal Service.  Thank you USPS for calling us and for making sure they made it home safe and sound!

15 chicks traveled for 2 and half days through the US Postal Service. Thank you USPS for calling us and for making sure they made it home safe and sound!

As soon as I got home, I woke up Maureen and Timmy.  We excitedly hurried to the Octagon house to make a new home for our babies!  Maureen laid a cardboard box with paper shreds (Courtesy of the Language and Culture Institute) as I hooked up the heat lamp and chopped up fresh veggies.  Timmy cooked us a nice breakfast of fresh eggs (ironic, yes) and asparagus.

Maureen gives a chick its first drink!

Maureen gives a chick its first drink!

The chicks had been traveling in the US Postal service for the past two days.  They have never had anything to eat or drink in their lives.  Instead, they are living off nutrients from the yolk of the egg until they arrive in the mail.  We therefore needed to give them their first drink.

Tim gives a chick its first drink! We gave them water with a little diluted apple cider vinegar and fresh-pressed garlic for health.

Tim gives a chick its first drink! We gave them water with a little diluted apple cider vinegar and fresh-pressed garlic for health.

In order to help them understand the idea of drinking and eating, we acted as mother hens.  Each of us took a chick from the mailing box and gently put its beak in the water feeder until we saw it start to guzzle. We added some homemade apple cider vinegar to the water (to add electrolytes) as well as some garlic (for its antibiotic properties).

It's important to give chicks fresh chopped vegetables and wild greens from day 1, just as a mother hen would!

It’s important to give chicks fresh chopped vegetables and wild greens from day 1, just as a mother hen would!

We gave them “free choice” of unmedicated chick starter feed from Blacksburg Feed and Seed as well as fresh vegetable scraps.  As recommended by Harvey Ussery (The Martha Stewart of Chickens), its important to offer chicks fresh vegetables, grass, and dirt from day 1, just as a mother hen would.   In the long-run, chickens that forage and eat a diverse diet of living foods are healthier than those that are fed chicken feed exclusively.

Our chicks in their happy home by the wood stove!

Our chicks in their happy home by the wood stove!

Chick TV!

Maureen and I then sat around our little chicks, watching them until we needed to head off to work.  Each chick has their own personality, and I look forward to getting to know each of our girls on a deeper level.  We have 15 layer hens, all Rhode Island Reds, which are supposed to be great dual-purpose birds (as in good, for laying and for meat) that are resilient free-range foragers.

CZ Beekeeping at Gypsy Wagon Farm in Beach Lake, PA.

Today will be an exciting day, as Maureen and I will head over to a local farm to check out some old beehives.  Our bee nucs will be arriving in about a month and we’ll see what we can reuse.  We’re also hoping that if there is still a live hive there we could transport it to Crow Forest Farm.

Tom and Dennis film exploding fruit for the official Rock the Blocks Promo Video.

Tom and Dennis film exploding fruit for the official Rock the Blocks Promo Video.

This weekend,  the Rock the Blocks Music Festival will kick off in Blacksburg.  Director Dennis Chang filmed some exploding fruit at our farm last weekend.  He also let me smash some watermelons outside our barn.  Very cathartic, and I got some great fruit salad to boot!   Check out his spectacular video here:

Dennis Chang’s Amazing Promo Video for Rock The Blocks Music Festival!

I’ll be volunteering at the Rock the Blocks Music Festival main office this weekend, checking out shows when I can take a break.  Please check out some awesome local bands playing in Blacksburg, including Atoka Chase and Orbit Eyes.  Schedule is here:

 http://www.rocktheblocks.com