Friday, July 11, 2014

The London Dispatches: Stepney City Farm

Stepney has been around as a part of London for more than 1000 years. Throughout most of its existence it was in a fairly marshy area and mostly as a small rural hamlet surrounding St. Dunstan’s church, which has been on site since the 900s. (A quick historical fun fact in honor of the recent Independence Day holiday, the same foundry that cast the bells of the church, also cast the Liberty Bell!)



Perhaps appropriate to its long rural history, just across the street from the famous church stands Stepney City Farm and Rural Arts Centre. A community farm has been here since the 1970s, another effort to reclaim bombed out areas from World War II that even 30 years after the conflict had not been repaired. However in 2009 the area had fallen into neglect again until the community rallied, organized, and relaunched in 2012.


Now the site operates a farm shop and café, maintains several animals, has a barn, houses countless individual plots for produce, a weekend farmer’s market, and is open for free to the public six days a week. It’s a remarkable turnaround that could have had a very different story ending without such community involvement.

While the animal enclosures and access are both really great and allow for visitors to interact safely with the livestock, it took me awhile to understand what was happening with the garden plots. At first glance, they seemed a mess. But on closer inspection, and after asking a few questions, I learned that almost all of them are individually and privately maintained. Some plots were clearly neglected, but as I went wandering through them, I was pleased to see that almost every single one that wasn’t had their owner actually gardening while I visited.



Many local families are clearly spending a lot of time and work turning modest plots into real food powerhouses. Several plots were dedicated to berries, others to leafy greens, and yet others to herbs. I saw a number of children digging merrily in the dirt with their parents and got to interact with a number of people from all walks of life. Though not as well organized as other farms I’ve visited, Stepney City Farm is quite clearly a labor of a great deal of love and energy.




The other reason I wanted to visit this site in particular was their Rural Arts Centre, which seems to be unique for urban farms in London. Only opened in 2013, they have three permanent craft operations going – woodworking, blacksmithing, and pottery. Alas, on the day I visited, the blacksmith’s forge was unexpectedly closed, but I did get a change to peek in on the other locations. There was a private pottery class in progress who did not wish to have their photos taken, but the woodworkers were much more accommodating.



The workshop spaces are specifically designed to be open for public viewing, to allow people to watch work taking place. Classes are also available and each of the lead craftsmen are artists in their own right and often do commission work as well. It’s a marvelous way to accomplish their stated goal of making traditional arts available in the setting where they were practiced for so many centuries. These are trades that have been virtually lost to modern society, so I find it admirable that people are fighting to make spaces for them in places like urban farms.



Your turn, are there any “rural arts” operations nearby? Do you practice any on your own properties? If so, how and where did you learn them?


Cadence Woodland is a freelance writer, editorial assistant, and marketing consultant. Her journalism has contributed to the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and other venues, but she can be found most often at her blog where she writes about her adventures across the Pond in London.

Monday, July 7, 2014

How do I dehydrate peppers and herbs?

Although you can buy a fancy food dehydrator to dry your own food, there are a number of foods that can be dried in a more low-tech manner. Herbs, such as mint and basil, are probably the easiest to dry. Because they are thin and have low water content, they will dry at room temperature fairly quickly. I lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet and put them inside an oven that is not turned on. To avoid mishaps, I put a sticky note over the oven control knob to remind everyone not to turn on the oven without removing the herbs. The note usually says something like, “Do NOT turn on!!!” The herbs are dried out and ready for storage when they crumble between your fingers. Store dried herbs in a jar with a lid. I usually don’t crush them before storage, however, because the aroma and flavor will dissipate more quickly after crushing.

Smaller peppers can also be dried at room temperature, particularly cayenne peppers, which have very thin skin. The thicker the skin, the more problematic drying can be and the more important it is to hang them up rather than to attempt to dry them on a pan or countertop in a single layer. Jalapenos, for example, are more likely to mold than dry out if they are not hung with good air circulation on all sides. To dry peppers, tie a string around the stems and create a long rope of peppers. Hang it up out of the way where it won’t collect too much dust.

This is an excerpt from Ecothrifty: Cheaper, Greener Choices for a Happier, Healthier Life.

Monday, June 23, 2014

When goats attack...each other!

One of the hardest things for humans to understand is why goats are so mean to each other. And sometimes the goats that are the most outgoing towards humans are the roughest with other goats. They butt heads and slam their heads into other goats’ sides. It can be scary to those of us looking on and tends to be especially bad when a new goat is introduced to the herd. For this reason, I try very hard never to add an individual goat to the herd. When goats have been separated for kidding, I put them into groups of three or four initially so the head butting gets spread around a little more than if only two goats were put together.

It is also important to be sure that you have plenty of space for all the goats to fit in front of hay feeders and feed pans. If the goats are crowded, the more dominant goats will get most of the feed. When feeding grain in a pan, it is best to use a fence-line feeder rather than a pan in the middle of the pasture because goats will butt heads over the pan and often wind up running through the pan, knocking it over, and spilling the feed. If you already have feed pans, placing them next to a wall or in a corner will reduce head butting compared with placing them in a space where the goats can circle around the pans. 

Usually, in spite of the severity of the head banging, no one gets hurt. Every now and again, a goat might wind up with a little blood on the top of its head, especially if it has scurs, but long-term injury is extremely rare. In most cases one of the goats will give up and refuse to continue fighting, but I did have a buck wind up with a concussion once. I had owned goats for eight years when one night I saw two bucks butting heads at sundown. I ignored it because no one had ever been hurt in the past. The next morning, however, the smaller buck was staggering around and stumbling, and his eyes were operating independently of each other, moving in different directions. Luckily, he did recover, but I no longer ignore bucks fighting.

Even scarier than bucks butting heads, however, are pregnant does fighting. In most cases goats will butt heads for a few minutes when first introduced, and once in a while they’ll hit each other with their heads if they want hay or grain that the other one is eating. But every year or two, there seems to be a doe that simply no one likes. They won’t let her have her share of hay, and sometimes they’ll even try to keep her out of the shelter. It can get especially scary if the underdog is pregnant. In those cases it’s a good idea to put her in a different pen with a younger doe as a companion.

This is an excerpt from Raising Goats Naturally: The Complete Guide to Milk, Meat, and More by Deborah Niemann.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Debunking 9 ill-conceived notions about pet goats


Every spring I respond to multiple phone calls and emails from people who want "a pet goat." They have clearly not done any research on proper care of goats. Here are a few of the real life comments I've heard from people, as well as my responses:

I'd like to buy a pet goat. Do you have one for sale?

You should not have a single goat. In fact, I refuse to sell a single goat to anyone. I have had too many people contact me over the years desperate to find a second goat because someone else sold them a single goat that is now getting into trouble. I've heard of goats that were found miles from home after they escaped and were looking for a goat friend, goats that would never shut up, goats that would get out of their pen and jump on cars, a goat that kept coming back to the front porch where it stayed and peed and pooped, and a goat that kept getting into the horse's pasture and the owners were afraid the horse was going to kill it. Goats are herd animals, which means they are not happy when alone.

But we spend a lot of time with our animals.

There is simply no way that you could give enough attention to a goat to make it truly happy because even if you spend 8 hours a day with it, that leaves it alone for 16 hours.

But we plan to keep the goat in our house.

I have known people who kept a goat in their house, but those goats wound up nutrient deficient and very unhealthy because they were not able to eat a proper diet inside. Because goats have a rumen, they need to be eating for most of the day, which is why they need to be on pasture or in a barn where they can eat hay. It is very cheap to feed pet goats because they only need grass hay and whatever browse they can find in your pasture.

We were planning to keep our goat with our chickens, so it wouldn't be alone.

Goats and chickens do not speak the same language any more than we do, so the goat would still be lonely. Would you be happy as the only human living with a flock of chickens forever? And you do not want your goats to be able to get to your chicken grain because they will overeat and best case, they will get diarrhea. Worse case, they will get bloat, enterotoxemia, or goat polio and die. No, you can't train your goat to not eat chicken grain.

But we were going to keep the goat with our _________.

Unless you fill in that blank with the word "goat," the answer is no. Goats and sheep do not even make good pasture companions because they don't speak the same language. Goats rear up on their hind legs to butt heads, whereas sheep put their heads down and run towards their rival. We use mixed species grazing, and sometimes our herd of goats share a pasture with chickens or pigs, but they pretty much ignore each other and don't interact. We also don't have them sharing the pasture at feeding time, which could result in a fight between the pigs and goats, and the pigs would probably win because they bite when fighting.

But I know someone who had a pet goat and it was fine.


I'm not saying that there are not exceptions, but you won't know that it doesn't work until it's too late -- as in, your goat gets kicked across the pasture and killed by your horse or it gets out and gets hit by a car or ... I could go on and on. And once your goat has developed these bad habits, it will teach its tricks to the other goat if you finally buy a second one in desperation. It simply is not worth it to try because it usually doesn't turn out positively. And there is no reason to have a lone goat.

But I don't have time to take care of two goats.

If you think you don't have enough time to care for two goats, then you do not understand how to care for them. You are not doing anything with them one at a time. They are herd animals. You give them a flake of hay, which they eat together. You give them a bucket of water, which they all drink from. The bucket of water has to be changed once a day because goats do not like dirty water, and three or four goats can drink from a 2-gallon bucket. The only thing that has to be done individually with goats is trimming their hooves every few months, and that only take about five minutes per goat.

I'm tired of mowing the lawn, so I thought a goat would take care of it for me.

Goats are actually browsers rather than grazers, so they would be much happier eating your rose bushes and hedges. They will eat grass if nothing else is available, but they won't keep it uniformly trimmed across the yard. Some sections will be a foot high while others will be an inch, so it won't look like it's been mowed.

I'm going to start breeding pet goats.

Please don't. As goats have become more popular, it has become harder to find homes for the culls from dairy herds. We don't need anyone breeding goats as pets. Dairy goats actually make great pets, because they are accustomed to being handled daily. Not every dairy goat is capable of being a great dairy goat, and when breeders cull their herds, they butcher the ones they can't sell as pets or brush eaters. Not every buck should remain a buck, so about 90-95% of them are castrated and butchered or sold as pets or brush eaters. If a doe does not grow large enough to safely breed, or if she doesn't get pregnant after a few attempts, she will also be butchered if no one wants to buy her as a pet. The market for pet goats simply is not big enough to support those who simply want to breed pets.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Creating a mission statement for your farm


If you don't know where you're going, you might not get there.
-- Yogi Berra

Do you ever feel like you are working really hard and going nowhere? Do you know where you want to go with your farm or homestead? Are you reaching your goals?

If it is depressing to even start thinking about the answers to those questions, it might be time to create a mission statement for your farm. I know what you're thinking -- but I don't have time to do anything else! Before you decide I'm nuts and head off to read another blog, you should know that there are some distinct benefits to creating a mission statement. It can help you make better use of your time and set goals that are on target.

Ohio State University Extension says that businesses with a mission statement are more successful than those without one:
It does not matter whether the farm business consists of two people or 50, all involved must have a clear understanding of what the business does and why they do it in order to move the business in the desired direction.
What does a mission statement do? The Northeast Beginning Farmer's Project says:
A mission statement incorporates important values for the business into a succinct statement that identifies the purpose and vision of the business. It doesn’t need to include any specific information about your products. In fact, it might help guide your choices of products. Think of it as one of the cornerstones of your farm. You also don’t have to get it perfect right away – it may evolve over time.
So, what exactly is a mission statement? According to Ohio State:
A mission statement is a short statement describing the fundamental underlying reason for the business to exist — its critical purpose. This statement aligns what the business says it does, what it actually does, and what others believe it does. It clarifies what the business is not trying to do and not trying to be. This statement is a reflection of the underlying values, goals, and purposes of the farm and of the management team.
A mission statement only needs to be one to three sentences. Here is an example of a mission statement from Red Fire Farm in Massachusetts:
The mission of Red Fire Farm is to be a year-round local source for high quality food and ornamental crops grown at our farm using organic principles that result in safe food and a healthy environment. Through innovative marketing strategies, we provide an exciting shopping experience and educate our community about the benefits of eating locally grown foods during all four seasons. We seek to achieve these goals for the community while providing fulfilling and sustainable careers for the farmers.
Working on your mission statement doesn't have to be a tedious event where everyone sits around the table hashing out the sentences. You can start by simply asking yourself and family members to think about your philosophy and goals for your farm. A good time to do that is when you are actually working outside. Ask yourself why you do things the way you do them. How do your beliefs and values affect what you do?

And don't worry about getting it right. A mission statement can be changed if you find that it doesn't work for you or if your values and philosophy change.

Monday, June 16, 2014

7 tips for success with a farm dog


Many people think a dog is a dog, but when it comes to working dogs on farms, nothing could be further from the truth. Just as you would never hire an unqualified person to do a job in an office, you should not get an unqualified dog to do a job on your farm. While you might laugh at the idea that a chihuahua could herd sheep, plenty of people have gone to the local animal shelter to get a large dog to "guard" their livestock. The results can be anywhere from merely disappointing to completely devastating.

Just as every dog cannot herd sheep, many dogs have no interest in guarding livestock, and some will even kill or injure them. Many dogs will chase and attempt to play with chickens, ultimately causing the death of the bird. We once had a visitor to our farm who had a shih tzu that immediately took off after the chickens the second she was out of the car. Her owner screamed and screamed, but the dog was completely deaf and continued chasing the chickens until she was caught by my children. I once heard the story of someone who purchased a mixed breed dog to act as a guardian for his goats, and the dog wound up killing and eating a goat kid.


Even if, like me, you have owned dogs your whole life before getting livestock, you have to understand that farm dogs are a totally different animal than what you are accustomed to. Here are a few tips to help you avoid disappointment and heartache:

1. Choose a breed that is known for doing the job you want done. If you want a herding dog, buy a herding breed, such as a Border Collie or English Shepherd. If you want a livestock guardian, buy one of the LGD breeds, such as Great Pyrenees or Anatolian Shepherd.

2. Buy a dog from a working farm. The best farm dogs have lived among livestock from the day they were born. My best livestock guardians were dogs that were born and raised in the barn and pasture with a herd of goats. One problem with Border Collies and Great Pyrenees is that they have become so popular as pets, they are now often raised by people who are not on farms, so you will have no idea whether their dogs possess the genetics needed for being a working dog.

3. Buy from a farm that believes in socializing their dogs. There is still an old school of thought that livestock guardian dogs should be handled as little as possible. This can result in dogs that dangerously shy towards people, even their owners. A good livestock guardian will protect its stock from strangers, even if it has been socialized and is accepting of strangers when they brought into the pasture by the owner.

4. Go to the farm that is selling the dog so you can see how it and its parents interact with the livestock. When buying my first two Great Pyrenees puppies, I did not realize that it was a bad sign that one of the parents was chained up 24/7. Had I asked about that, I might have learned that he was a chicken chaser. Both of the puppies I bought from that farm later had to be re-homed as pets because they were constantly chasing and killing poultry.

5. When introducing a new dog to your livestock, keep the dog on a lead until you feel confident that it won't be chasing or attacking your animals. This may be 15 minutes or several days, depending upon the dog.

6. If you do not have confidence that the dog will behave, do not leave it with your livestock, whether it is day one or it has been with the stock for several months. Some dogs will go through a dangerous adolescent stage when they suddenly start chasing animals. Do not ignore this because it could result in the death of an animal. During this time, you need to tie the dog or not let it in the pasture with animals when you are not there to supervise.


7. Re-home a dog as a pet if it turns out to be incompetent as a farm dog. If a dog begins to act aggressively towards livestock, there is no point in keeping it. A good farm dog has to be trusted unsupervised with livestock, and if you can't trust a dog, then it is not worth the risk to keep it on the farm. Not every dog will be a competent livestock guardian or herding dog, even if it did come from the right parents and the right background.

Friday, June 13, 2014

The London Dispatches: A Community Garden in Dalston

Welcome back to East London! The last time I reported from this area, I was getting to know aquaponics in the form of a remarkable “farm in a shop.” This time I got to experience a garden space that’s living up to its design as a natural oasis in one of London’s busiest areas.

The Dalston Curve Garden might be considered a return to roots. Until the 18th and early 19th century, this part of London was primarily agricultural and only urbanized really as a result of the Industrial Revolution. Today it’s another of London’s up and coming areas that teems with activity. Hackney was one of the boroughs to host the Olympics in 2012, for example, and a number of businesses have moved into the area.


Community gardens are a concept that goes back a long way, but the Dalston Curve Garden is quite clearly a 21st century take on the idea. The site itself is a really recent one compared to my other visited locations; it was only established in 2010. Like so many others I’ve profiled, the area is reclaimed derelict space that has been made over as a community improvement.


 Consider Dalston improved! The plants in the public area are all wildlife friendly and British native, and the amount of raised bed space for edible gardening is small but well used by residents. Herbs feature heavily along with salad greens and vine vegetables, and this summer they have plans to expand their planting to encourage local honeybees. They rely entirely on volunteer support but find unique ways to return the favor to the community, including giving away compost and partnering with organizations and charities that focus on good feeding and sustainable consumption.

One of the pavilion spaces.

Apart from being beautiful and spacious, the garden’s real function is to serve as a free local meeting place. In addition to a resident cat (something of a cultural fixture in British gathering places, there are few old pubs without one), there are work spaces, pavilions for special occasions or inclement weather, a conservatory style greenhouse, and even free WiFi. Tables and chairs are scattered everywhere to take advantage of warm weather, and a wood stove is on hand for chilly fall and winter air. And all of it is available to the public for free. The garden is funded by proceeds from its café, which specializes in locavore eats and drinks. Every Sunday in summer a local pizza maker takes over the Garden’s clay oven and bakes sourdough pizza as well, making this a popular weekend hang out.

Books, toys, electronics, and work space all included.
The cafe's true specialty is soup. I can personally attest to that. 
Children’s art and projects make up the majority of the decoration, and most of the events the Curve Garden puts on are aimed at young people. These include gardening and cooking classes, flower shows (another British staple), and holiday events. When I visited, at least half of the people I saw were under 16; a heartening sight!

One of the "galleries.
 Popular belief would have us think that kids are spending their days locked in darkened rooms hooked on digital media and electronics. There’s some truth to the worries, of course, but at every urban farm or garden space I’ve encountered so far on this series, a significant portion of the volunteers and visitors have been children and teenagers. It’s clear to me that when given options and safe places to go outside, get involved with animals and agriculture, and participate in healthy food culture, kids take advantage. Even, and perhaps especially, in urban settings.

Cadence Woodland is a freelance writer, editorial assistant, and marketing consultant. Her journalism has contributed to the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and other venues, but she can be found most often at her blog where she writes about her adventures across the Pond in London.
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