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Eating locally

How do you make chickens lay richer eggs and produce tastier meat? Do happy chickens mean better-tasting omelets now and divine coq au vin later?

Local farmers Pete Lowy and Jen Hashley of Pete and Jen's Backyard Birds were online Wednesday, July 25, at 11 a.m. to field your questions and comments about local sustainable agriculture.

The transcript follows.

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Jen_Hashley: Welcome to the Live Chat with Pete and Jen's Backyard Birds! We are happy you joined us and look forward to engaging in a productive discussion about our livestock practices! Feel free to begin asking us questions and we'll share our experiences!
food_lover__Guest_: What three vegetables are the easiest to grow in MA with such a short summer
Jen_Hashley: The three vegetables that are the easiest to grow in Massachusetts with our short growing season include crops that grow quickly, such as radishes (30 days), beans (50 days), and peas (50 days - plant in early spring). There are many types of greens that are also fast-growing, lettuce is 50 days and baby arugula can be harvested in 30-40 days. One helpful tip is to begin some of the longer-season crops (such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers) from transplants to give them a head start. Good luck!
cucumber_2__Guest_: Are there any good organic methods to keep pests off of garden vegetables?
Pete_Lowy: There is plenty you can do. It begins with growing the right crop, at the right time of year and knowing what environment the crop enjoys. Simple methods to deter pests including floating row covers which seals out pests, using trap crops to lure bag bugs away from your plants, and using OMRI approved sprays as a last resort...pyganic is one. Good luck!
cucumber_2__Guest_: What is a trap crop? Are their any flowers or herbs that are good pest repellents?
Pete_Lowy: A trap crop is a crop similar to the one you are trying to grow, but is a tastier variety to a given pest. ie, if you are trying to grow broccoli or other brassica crops...you can sorround the entire planting with a variety of collards called Champion which is more appealing to the diamond back moth. This is just one example. The pest then stays on or near the trap crop preventing severe damage to your primary crop. Some flowers are supposed to be repellents but it's better to look and find plants that attract good bugs...which will in turn eat/kill the bad ones. Beneficial plants include dill, cilantro (when flowering!), sunflowers, plenty more...
farmer_AL__Guest_: i have lots of weed grpwing around my crops. what is the best way to control weeds naturally? I am getting back pains of pulling them out by hand..;)
Jen_Hashley: There are several ways you can control weeds - you can pull them by hand (as you are doing), you can use mulch around your plants - either an organic mulch (grass clippings, leaves, chips, other organic matter), or lay down plastic mulches or ground cloth to help prevent the weeds from disturbing your plants. Another strategy is to use a "stale seed bed method" whereby you prepare your garden plot, let the weeds emerge, hoe or burn them back with flame (a propane torch) and disturbing the soil as minimially as possible to prevent additional weed seeds from germinating, plant your crop. Another strategy is to use transplants rather than direct sowing your crops to get a jump on the weeds. Unfortunately, weeds are a part of growing good things!
DartCatch14__Guest_: I have heard that used coffee grinds makes good fertilizer. Is there any truth to this?
Pete_Lowy: I would say that you could certainly mix your coffee grounds in your compost pile to add to your overall fertility needs of your plants, but I am not sure of the nutrient analysis of pure coffee grounds. I have had experience creating a worm bin and using coffee grounds, which the worms then convert to rich organic matter that is good for your plants. Be careful of overloading your plants with too much coffee grounds as it could be overly acidic in a small, concentrated area.
Saramiah__Guest_: How do you think fish based fertilizers like Neptune's Harvest compare to other fertilizers?
Pete_Lowy: Fish emulsions are great, but they are low in nutrients compared to synthetics. So you need to use them more often, as foliar sprays and to the root zone. Careful spraying the fish emulsion, some brands are not screened as well as others and can block sprayer heads. Other organic approved fertilizers include Pro-Gro which is a granular fertilizer that works great. Russells garden center sells it.
Saramiah__Guest_: If you want to plant for a fall harvest when is the best time to plant things like beets, peas, or lettuce?
Pete_Lowy: Peas can go in in a couple weeks, lettuce generally needs 50 days ...so count 50 days back from the last frost date in this area which is October 15th...and you have your approximate last planting date for lettuce...though some lettuce can take light frosts. Beets are also about 50 days to maturity and can handle a light frost. Arugula direct sowed takes only 30 days or less, and can take frost....also still time for beans, carrots, lots of greens, broccoli, ....
Suburbanparent: What's the difference between your eggs and organic, free-range ones in the store? (Is there difference?)
Jen_Hashley: Our eggs are both free-range and fed organic grains similar to what the store advertises, however, on top of this, our eggs are always sold fresh (within a day or two of being laid - no travel time) AND they are also raised on green pasture (fresh grass) that is rotated frequently to ensure ample supply, which allows them to supplement their diet with legumes, clovers, and other grasses, as well as bugs, worms, and other forms of protein. Most eggs you find in the stores are produced from birds that are raised indoors in stationary large barns with "access to the outdoors" but there is no requirement as to what that outdoor access looks like or what type of vegetation (if any) it contains. Our chickens also have up to 4 acres to range on and are not "crowded" - which happens in a factory setting in large indoor barns. Our eggs have bright-yellow yolks, hold together tightly, and are ultra-fresh. A big taste difference.
Saramiah__Guest_: Do you have a farm stand at your Concord farm? If so, can anyone come and buy eggs etc. from you at any time of the year?
Pete_Lowy: I am one of the farm managers at Verrill Farm. There is a large farm stand here which sells the farms produce. Jen also has a private organic garden from which she occasionally sells produce, flowers, herbs, etx... If you contact us directly through backyardbirds@comcast.net we can give you the info about how to get our eggs. We are very small scale and sell directly from our home. Our new egg layers are just beginning to lay so we hope to have enough to meet demand...
farmy1__Guest_: I'm new to gardening and have a been lucky this season with great growth in tomatoes, cukes, squash and herbs. Do you have any recommendations for rotation next year or should I just move the items around?
Jen_Hashley: It is always a good idea to rotate your crops in blocks of "families" - your tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are in the solanum family and should be rotated together (ie, don't plant peppers where you had tomoates last year). Your cucumbers and squash are also in the same family (cucurbits) and should be rotated as a "block". The herbs (if they are perennial) can stay in a similar location, but can also be used to break up your rotation. Many crops in the same family share the same pest complex, nutrient demands, approximate rooting depths, etc., so it is good to move them around so you can avoid potential problems from growing the same crops in the same spot from year to year. good luck.
Ms_L__Guest_: Do you raise animals other than chickens?
Jen_Hashley: Yes, we raise 70 layers, 500 meat chickens, 6 pasture-raised pigs, 2 rabbits, and 6 goldfish. We also provide a healthy diet to resident songbirds, woodchucks, deer, coyotes, skunks, foxes, and possums!
Ms_L__Guest_: Hi! I'm interested in growing my own organic produce, but bugs can still be a problem. How can I keep my tomatoes and cucumbers protected without pesticides?
Pete_Lowy: If you don't want to spray at all, that's just fine. Tomatoes will do fine most of the season but could fall victim to early blight or other diseases as the season progresses. For pests on your tomatoes...you can hand pluck such pests as tomato hornworm. Cukes can get attacked by the cuke beetle, best to cover them with something called a floating row cover or reemay. You can find info online about it. As a last resort you can always spray an organic approved spray, such as Pyganic, Safer soap or other short term broad spectrum spray. Best of luck!
gar_den12__Guest_: What are the best ways to support local farmers like yourself?
Jen_Hashley: The best way to support local farmers is to buy their products! Shop at local farmers' markets, farm stands, and buy much of your food needs directly from the farmer as possible to eliminate a "middleman." Getting involved in land conservation to help preserve available farmland, support legislation that provides opportunities for small-scale growers (the 2007 Farm Bill is being revised this year), and educating yourself as much as possible about the food system and where and how your food is produced are all good action steps to take. It may be more convenient to buy food from a grocery store, but you can't see the face of the farmer that way! Personal relationships are key - especially in light of all the recent food safety scares as a result of our overly centralized, industrial food system. Thanks for all your support!
Suburbanparent_2__Suburbanparent_: I can certainly understand how the eggs would taste different, but is there a similar change in the flavor of the meat?
Pete_Lowy: We think so . . due to many reasons. Any animal develops more flavor as it ages...and since we raise our birds to 8 weeks vs. the industry average of 5 1/2, this contributes to a fuller flavor. Also, the birds are eating a variety of grasses and clovers and bugs, the caretenoids in the plants contribute color and taste as well. And lastly, or firstly...we grow several different breeds which all have slightly different deeper flavors. Just as a Brandywine heirloom tomato tastes amazing compared to a store bought conventional no-name tomato....in the end flavor is influenced by many factors.
baldguy__Guest_: Do you think the chickens know how many eggs they produce? I mean, when you take their eggs and say "who's a good girl? Who's a good chicken?" Do they just forget about the eggs?
Jen_Hashley: Good question. A chicken generally lays an egg every 24-26 hours (if they are in peak production). In our experience, chickens do their business, lay the egg and move on. It seems to be a curiosity with them - hmmm, I just laid that? Some of the chickens who are mischievous even eat their own eggs (shell and all), but this is not encouraged as it is counterproductive...other hens who become "broody" sit on the eggs as the eggs build up and try to hatch the eggs - but this only works if a rooster is mixed in the flocks to have fertile eggs. Hens to like to lay eggs where there are already other eggs in a nest box as this is deemed a "safe place."
ferretville__Guest_: Do you have any suggestions on watering a vegetable garden? How much is too much? And, any advice on loveable intruders like bunnies, birds and deer?
Jen_Hashley: In general, the rule of thumb is 1 inch of water per week. You can purchase an inexpensive rain gauge at your local hardware store. Another method is the "feel the soil" method where you dig into your soil to the depth of the plant roots and form a ball with the soil to feel if it will hold together. If it does, there is generally enough moisture. If the ball doesn't form, then it may be time to water. It is generally better to water deeply less frequently than to water more often, but to a shallow depth.
Jen_Hashley: As far as your loveable intruders, fencing always works best. For birds, you can use "scare" tactics, like a scare balloons, "poppers" or metallic tape. good luck.
Ms_L__Guest_: My husband discovered an old, broken-down chicken coop in our back yard (in the suburbs) and now he wants to raise chickens. How did you start your flock, and what might some of the plusses and some of the drawbacks be to raising chickens in the suburbs? (We have about 2 wooded acres, and thecoop is in a shady place).
Pete_Lowy: We purchased our first few hens as adults...so we had instant gratification with getting eggs every day. It was wonderful! And we also had an old coop in the backyard. A little fixing, some new feeders and waterers and then we built a brooder for the chicks...and we were off...Then we got a catalog from Murray McMurray hatchery and saw all the beautiful breeds of birds out there...and we got hooked. Chickens are curious friendly animals that are easy and fun to raise. It does take work and worry every day...you have to be sure you're ready to feed them, ensure they have water all the time, keep the coop clean, provide enough space and security for them and on and on. The plusses are they are fun and pay you back with eggs, the minuses are it takes time to grow a chick to an adult layer (5 months!) and all the daily care they need. It's not a ton, but you must be mindful of them daily. Don't forget...most everyone and every animal loves to eat chicken!
Ms_L__Guest_: Can we find you two and your products at any local famers' markets?
Pete_Lowy: No. We only sell direct from our home. We already have more demand than we can supply making a farmers market not necessary! You can contact us at backyardbirds@comcast.net for more info about getting our eggs and meat. Thanks!
VegHead__Guest_: I would like to shop at farmer's markets but the hours aren't always convenient for me. What is a good alternative with better hours for us full-time folk?
Jen_Hashley: There are lots of farmers markets in the Greater Boston area - all with various hours of operations, weekend hours, etc. You can find a complete list of all markets in the state at the Mass Department of Agricultural Resources website. Another alternative to farmers' markets is to shop at a local farmstand or to join in a "share" of a farm. You can often find a "Community Supported Agriculture" or CSA program in your area by logging on to localharvest.org and doing a zipcode search. Many times, the farm will have drop off locations for a weekly share that may have extended hours or you can pick up your share directly from the farm during a more convenient time for you or your family. congratulations for supporting your local farmers!
elizabe__Guest_: Fresh eggs definitely taste better. Is there a difference in nutritional value? Also, speaking of conservation-I heard the town of Concord is destroying part of Walden Woods to install synthetic turf fields. Is this true?
Jen_Hashley: I recently read an article in the Union of Concerned Scientists that they have not found a significant difference in the nutritional content of eggs raised under different management practices. As far as the nutritional content of FRESH eggs, my opinion is that anything that is fresh is closer to the full nutritional value it could potentially have - as a biological process, with age, everything begins to slowly break down and lose some of its initial properties.
Jen_Hashley: I am not entirely up to speed on the proposed project to convert part of the Walden Woods to install athletic fields, this has been a polarizing issue in the area - with players on both sides.
Elaine__Guest_: Do you think at some point organic foods may cost less?
Pete_Lowy: Probably. But the greater issue is that conventionally raised foods are, in large part, subsidized causing their prices to be artificially low. So it's not that organic foods are expensive, it's that conventional food is artificially cheap! That aside, it generally does take more effort, skill, and labor to grow organic food. Less spraying of herbicides sometimes means more hand weeding, more time on a tractor cultivating fields, etx... But with time on a given piece of land, farms using proper organic techniques should be able to grow food very competitively. It's takes good land, a skilled farmer, and dedication to grow good organic food year after year.
Ms_L__Guest_: What is your favorite way to cook your eggs?
Jen_Hashley: My favorite way to cook our eggs is with a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, a pat of organic butter, and fried lightly on both sides. I put my egg on a nice piece of hand-crafted Nashoba Bakery "Rosemary Garlic" bread and a slice of cheese. It is a wonderful protein breakfast that keeps me full well into the early afternoon!
heirloom__Guest_: Do you use mainly heirloom seeds? How do you feel about GM foods?
Jen_Hashley: We never use GM seeds or products to grow our crops. We use a combination of heirloom varieties (open pollinated so you can save seed year after year) and hybrids (F1). We source our seeds from Johnny's Selected Seeds, Fedco, Seed Saver's Exchange, Turtle Tree Seed company, Kitchen Gardener's Supply, and many others. The seed catalogs note which seeds are heirlooms vs hybrids. We are against GM foods and believe they should be properly labeled so the consumer has a choice about what they choose to ingest. Many of the common foods we eat everyday are produced from GM crops. I do not think there have been enough long-term studies to properly assess the risk they pose to the environment and to human health.
VegHead__Guest_: How can I find farm fresh fruits and veggies in the winter?
Jen_Hashley: This is a tough prospect in New England, but there are more and more farms practicing season extension and producing crops through the end of the year and start again in early spring by producing in high tunnels. Keep checking availability on local food websites. My advice is to stock up on storage crops (root crops like onions, squash, garlic, etc. that will keep), and try to preserve as much fresh produce as you can during the growing season. We do a lot of canning, dehydrating, and freezing of our summer bounty to carry us through the winter. Good luck!
msts__Guest_: I was thinking of getting some hens and a rooster for eggs and my children to learn where things come from. I would build the coop into the vegetable garden and let them walk freely through the garden. Any advice or guidance to a newbie like myself
Pete_Lowy: Sounds like a great idea. Kids love chickens and if you/they spend time with the birds as they are growing, they will follow you around and coo at you. Some birds love being held, and they are so soft. The kids will love them! AS far as the garden coop is concerned, it sounds like a good idea but unless you want to grow the garden for your birds to eat and enjoy, I would keep them out/separated. Chickens LOVE greens, tomatoes, cantelope, most anything sweet and colorful. And if you are thinking of keeping the birds in a "yard" system where they are kept in one area with the garden just over the fence...good luck! Chickens are not great flyers but if they are not happy in one spot...they will do their darndest to hop the fence to greener pastures! There are a few good books out there on raising chickens...check out murray mcmurray hatchery for all sorts of birds and supplies. Best of luck!
Jen_Hashley: We are almost toward the end of the session - we have 5 minutes to go until our time is up - thanks to everyone who sent us questions!
heirloom__Guest_: I enjoy a particular type of small, tasty blueberry found near a lake at my dad's camphouse near Portsmouth. Any idea as to what breed they may be?
Pete_Lowy: Wild berries are awesome...usually lower in water content and packed with deeper flavor...as you can atest too. You can try and dig up a plant or too and transplant it to your home, but chances are that variety has had many years to develop it's love of that particular spot in the world. So I would say enjoy it where it lives and treat it well so it continues to thrive....
elizabe__Guest_: Are there programs in place to teach low income residents how to grow there own food or prepare fresh food? It seems ridiculous that people think the partially hydrogenated aisles in the center of the supermarket are cheaper than fresh food. Fresh food takes more time but with education on preparation it's seems cheaper than processed food. Is there any movement underway to teach the reasoning and skills to make healthy choices vs. the traditional corporate push for unhealthy synthetic "foods"?
Jen_Hashley: Yes, there are several innovative programs out there that help folks learn to produce their own food. The Boston Urban Gardners group holds "Master Gardener" courses and I am the director of a program, the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project (www.nesfp.org) that assists start-up farmers to begin commercial agriculture production to grow their own food - many of them are low-income and benefit from the ability to prepare their own ethnic and cultural varieties. The Food Project is also another program that helps youth engage in agricultural opportunities.
Saramiah__Guest_: Thank you, this was great.
Pete_Lowy: Our pleasure, thanks for stopping by. We're always around for more info...www.peteandjensbackyardbirds.com !
heirloom__Guest_: What are some good local food websites?
Jen_Hashley: You can try to search: localharvest.org, eatwild.org, eatwellguide, the Food Project has a local food guide, other buy-local program including Essex Grown, SEMAP, Berkshire Grown, and CISA all promote local farmers.
Jen_Hashley: This wraps up our session. Thanks to everyone who participated. For more information or to be in touch, our email address is: backyardbirds@comcast.net. Our web address is: www.peteandjensbackyardbirds.com
Jen_Hashley: Enjoy and support your local farmers!

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