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Excerpts from the Homestead Diary

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Farmers market fruit

(I provide some excerpts from the Homestead Journal as an insight into daily routine at the homestead and as a starting point for other topics.  The entries are in italics with commentary in plain type.)

March 12.  Today I collected 10 eggs from our 13 hens.  It's amazing how they respond unanimously to the call of spring, going from four or five eggs a week to 10 in a day in the blink of an eye, like a crowd of violins at last responding to the conductor's baton.

(From the beginning of November the entire flock had shut down except for one Rhode Island Red, Jan, who continued to lay stoically and steadily through the darkest coldest days of winter.  She had been eccentric from the beginning.  Introduced to the flock is an adult, she had trouble fitting in and, as we shall see, those troubles would continue).

March 20.  The snow has  melted some and there is finally some bare ground.  I let the chickens out of their pen and they were like schoolchildren at recess.  They scoured the sides of the driveway searching for any little tidbit.  The chicken - cultivated borders looked like some sort of decorative affect.

March 30.  It looks like Jan is getting picked on again.  Today when I let the chickens out of their pen she stayed inside for a longtime, and when she finally emerged, she clucked nearly continuously and puffed her feathers in the oddest manner.  This behavior was amplified any time another of the flock came near her, even those who don't exhibit much dominance behavior.  Her actions seem to provoke some of the flock, especially Sydney, the rooster, who pursued and mounted her repeatedly until she retreated back inside.

(Back in the fall many of the flock had begun attacking Jan mercilessly.  It got so bad I had to isolate her for a time.  When I reintroduced her everything seemed fine until Spring.)

April 3.  Vince called today to remind me that the farmers market Pavilion needs to be finished before May 17 so it will be ready for opening-day.  Yet another thing to do before we leave for France.  It's amazing how all the unfinished projects of last year reemerge in the spring, whether from beneath a melting snow drift or through the telephone.

(The Gloversville farmers’ market had for years occupied a parking lot about five blocks from downtown.  Vendors were few and clients were sparse.  Our friend, Vince De Santis, a tireless worker for improving community life, conceived of the idea of building a farmers’ market pavilion close to downtown on public land.  After years of preparatory work on his part, beating the bush for funds, materials and volunteers, we were able to take over a parking lot a block from Main Street and begin construction of a 36 foot by 68 foot open-side pavilion to house the farmers market.  We worked on it through the fall of 2007 until early snows brought the project to a halt.  Now as the Sun shone again and days warmed up, interested parties were clamoring for completion.)

April 12.  I decided I needed to separate Jan from the rest of the flock.  I let her out first thing this morning and kept the rest inside.  She still seems agitated but she hangs around the coop close to the others, and at least she's not getting beat up.

April 15.  I let the flock out this afternoon and Jan immediately ran inside.  It seems like she's got it worked out.

April 25.  I lost one of the chickens to a hawk today.  Now I'm nervous about letting Jan out in the morning, especially tomorrow when I have to go and work on the Pavilion.  It seems like either she'll get killed by a hawk or she’ll be killed by her fellow chickens.  I guess I'll just keep her inside.

May 1.  Jan is broody!  She's been in the nest box all day, but I can’t tell how many eggs she's on.  This couldn't happen at a worse time.  With less than two weeks left before we leave for France it means that her chicks will hatch out while we're in Europe.  I don't know what to do. 

(For years Laurie and I had been hoping to be able to raise our own chicks by letting one of our hens brood the eggs and care for the babies.  Three years ago we had gotten an Australorp rooster, two Australorp hens, and two Partridge Rock hens.  These were to be our breeding stock.  We chose Sidney, the Australorp rooster, because they have a reputation for being less mean than other roosters, and Partridge Rocks are supposed to be broody hens.  Of course in the grand tradition of best-laid plans things did not work out as we expected.  One of the Australorp hens turned out to be a rooster.  I called him Peckinpaw because he constantly pecked everyone else.  We sent him out for adoption, but the Partridge Rocks never lived up to their reputation for broodiness.  Sidney, to his merit, did turn out to be a calm and pleasant rooster.  You can imagine our chagrin when we got a broody hen just as we are about to leave town for our first real vacation in more than 20 years.)

May 4.  We decided to let Jan brood the eggs anyway.  We will set her up in the spare coop and make a small run that hopefully will contain the baby chicks.  We discussed it with our house sitter and he agrees to do whatever he can to see that they survive.

May 7.  We moved Jan today.  She was sitting on 11 eggs.  Unfortunately we broke two eggs transferring her from one coop to the other, but she still has nine.  She's on her own now.  We can just hope for the best.

May 11.  Just two days until we leave and it looks like the farmers’ market is on track to be ready for its first day.  I'm sorry we'll miss it, but the official dedication and grand opening are scheduled for June 23 after we return from France.  I promised Vince I will be looking at the markets in Europe for new ideas.

On the Road

We left for our three-week tour of France and discovered that the country has a strong and still-thriving tradition of open markets selling fresh, local produce.  Practically everywhere we went, from the largest cities to the smallest villages we saw at least signs announcing market day, and frequently we stumbled upon the markets themselves.  In the villages, market day happens once a week.  In large cities like Rouen in the northeastern province of Normandy, the market is housed in a permanent open-sided structure (called les halles or the covered market) and open every day.  In Rouen, and throughout Normandy, permanent shelter for the market is a necessity because of the frequent rainfall.  Rouen’s market resides in one of a complex of modern structures built in an area known as the old market.  Other structures include a church, Eglise Sainte Jean, a community house, a park and a surrounding commercial Plaza of sidewalk cafés, bakers, butchers, hotels, etc. all built around a monument commemorating the site where in 1431 Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the English.  The hints were there in Rouen, but it was not until we visited Dives that we realized how deeply the market tradition is embedded in French culture.  Dives is a small fishing village and vacation spot on the northwest Coast of Normandy not far from the famous beaches of the Second World War’s D-Day invasion.  We were not drawn there because of markets or fishing.  Dives gets its name from the River Dives which empties into the Atlantic Ocean at that place on the coast.  It was in the harbor at Dives in August of 1066 that William the Conqueror amassed a fleet of between 700 and 800 ships for his invasion of England.  William had chosen the site because it was close to the border with Brittany.  The Bretons were, at best, reluctant allies in William’s adventure.  For years they had been more interested in bumping off William and exploiting Normandy for their own profit, but they were attracted by his promises of plunder as well as permanent land holdings in England.  William was prepared to offer every accommodation to win their loyalty, and the harbor at Dives fit well with his plan.  But it was a bad plan.  For more than four weeks fierce on-shore winds blowing into the mouth of the river held the fleet prisoner in the harbor.  Thousands of idle, discontent adventurers focused on every ill omen and it was only a bold move by William during a relative calm in September that broke the spell.  Even out of the harbor at Dives, the conquering army’s luck did not change.  The foul weather recommenced and drove the fleet ashore at Saint Valéry, wrecking vessels on the rocks and drowning crew and soldiers in the seemingly angry sea.  In spite of all that, the rest is history.  William succeeded in his conquest catching the fledgling King Harold II in a bad moment at the Battle of Hastings, and England was his.  He succeeded so well, in fact, that within 100 years, Norman-controlled England was at war with a jealous monarch of France, but that's another story and our story still waits at the harbor at Dives.

The day that we arrived, the same strong on-shore wind assailed the river's mouth.  As I walked the eastern ramparts of the seawall beyond the shelter of the sandy hills that surround the harbor, I could imagine for myself that long string of days when no ship could venture beyond the strand.  In the modern harbor with its yachts, expensive sailing ships and newly constructed condominiums there was little else to remind one of William’s great conquests.  Only when we walked a few blocks into the center of the village were we truly transported back in time.  Not all the way back to 1066, but a few hundred years later to the 1300’s.  In the center of the village across the plaza from the ancient cathedral stands the covered market, constructed in the 14th century and expanded to its present size in the 15th.  It is a large timber frame pavilion, 40 feet wide and over 160 feet long (our Gloversville pavilion is 36 feet x 68 feet).  It was built by ship’s carpenters and its longevity is an awesome testimony to the integrity of their craft.  With the exception of necessary maintenance and repairs the building remains as it was originally constructed.  It has been in continuous use as a market for nearly 700 years!  Imagine that when Joan of Arc liberated Orléans, the covered market at Dives was already nearly 100 years old. I try to imagine a plaque commemorating the 700th anniversary of the Gloversville farmers’ market pavilion in the year 2708, but the image will not resolve.

We learned while in France that Jan had hatched out two chicks.  Birds that leave the nest as soon as they hatch are called precocial  and chickens are pre-eminently precocial. The chicks promptly left the nest and, concerned with their welfare, Jan abandoned the rest of the eggs.  We had constructed a run of window screen and metal-roofing attached to the coop, one which we hoped would contain the babies once they hatched.  As a result, the chicks were out on grass from the moment they left the shell.  This was a sharp contrast to our mail-order checks who went from egg to cardboard box to airplane and post office, etc.  Once with us they typically spent three weeks in a brooder with a hardware cloth floor and a light bulb for a mom.  By the third week of their lives these two chicks were already able to get on the roost two and a half feet off the floor of the coop.

One evening shortly after our return from Europe we were working in the garden and Laurie went to close the chickens in for the night.  She called me over, and through the window we could both see Jan on the roost with a baby chick under each wing.  It was an astounding sight and I marveled at the contrast between the experience of these chicks and all the others that we had raised over the years.  A few days later we attended the dedication of the Gloversville farmer’s market pavilion.  Again I was astounded.  The crowd was huge by our standards, there was music and cooking demonstrations, speeches by politicians and local luminaries, and endless conversations with friends and neighbors, all surrounded by an incredible bounty of locally produced food.
Farmers market pavilion
The energy of that day has carried over.  The Gloversville market is thriving, in part, I like to think, because of the beautiful “house” that beckons both vendor and buyer into its welcoming shelter.  But what is the connection between the farmers’ market and Jan and her chicks?  For me it is that almost timeless sense of rightness, of farmers and townfolk meeting in the market; of hens tending babies in the “old-fashioned” way.  The realization that real people grow harvest and process the food we eat, that our local heritage is a thing worth saving, not to be bulldozed for the sake of a quick buck, that our local community is worthy of our focus and effort, and finally, that there is great wisdom in a mother hen.  These are the things that should guide us through the seeming chaos of the "big picture"

Jim Strickland fills reams of paper with trenchant observations on the passing parade while his partner, Laurie Freeman, tries her best to keep him grounded and weeding on their homestead in Meco, NY. 

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