And then there were ten…

My last post was about losing a chicken. This one is going to be much the same, I think.

This morning, I found a text from my chicken co-caretaker, saying that she found a dead chicken in a nest box the day before. This was sudden — I thought I’d been keeping a pretty good eye on them. I thought I’d see some indication before it happened again. I thought that we were in the clear, now that the days aren’t quite so hot, and we’ve made some revisions to keep the chickens cooler.

I guess things can still happen.

The worst part of it is that today, when I went to visit them, I had the sudden thought of “What if it’s Crosby?” which was swiftly followed by, “Oh God, it’s Crosby.” Sure enough, she was the missing hen. Crosby is gone. She’s not hiding (I looked everywhere). She’s not coming back.

I know you’re not supposed to name your chickens or get attached, but ffs it was Crosby. She was top chicken. She was the one with the most spunk, the most personality, the most gusto about…well, everything. She was our favorite. She was the last one I expected to have a problem, because she always seemed so healthy and so vivacious.

But she’s gone anyway.

The flock doesn’t seem the same without her. It felt weird when the first buckeye was gone, but without Crosby it just feels… empty.

I’m not sure what to do. I alternate between blaming myself and blaming the nature of birds and blaming the weather and… well, hindsight is 20/20, right? If nothing else, I hope I can learn something from Crosby’s death. I made some big changes after the buckeye died — if I hadn’t, maybe I’d be down five chickens instead of just two. But I’m not sure what I can do about Crosby, aside from being more vigilant.

I think it’s time to do some (more) serious work on the coop and run if the problem was overheating while laying. I’m just glad summer is almost over. I hope there aren’t any more casualties.

I’ll leave this post with a picture that sums up Crosby nicely. Such a goof. Such a good chicken.



Chicken Problems

A year ago, I got a flock of chickens for several reasons.

1. I love chickens.

2. We were eating 3-4 dozen eggs per week, so having our own supply was very appealing.

3. I wanted to try building a coop and run, since I’ve never really built anything myself. I wanted to know what went into building something “fairly simple” (ah, naivety!).

4. It was a way to try urban farming, even if the setup wasn’t ideal (living in an apartment and having chickens off-site).

5. I wanted to see if I could do it.


Let’s see how these things have panned out.

1. I still love chickens. They are ridiculous and demanding and hardy and wonderful.

2. My wife learned she is allergic to eggs, so now I’m the only one consuming them. Our household consumption has gone down to about 1-2 dozen/week, depending. At least we can usually sell the rest fairly easily.

3. Apparently I hate building things. I had a LOT of help building the coop from a professional handyman and several friends, and it was still such an ordeal that, if given a choice, I would rather not repeat. Maybe in the future, if I had better tools and more dedicated hands/time, it wouldn’t be so bad. Part of what made it so frustrating was that it just seemed to drag on and on and on… and required more and more and more money and materials…. This is just how building things goes, but I don’t think I realized just how much I underestimated the process with regards to time and money.

4. I’m glad I have chickens, but I am starting to feel the difficulty of having to commute several miles to see them 5 days/week (the person whose yard they’re in checks in on them the other 2 days). I wouldn’t change it, but I also probably wouldn’t do it again. Part of this is due to the fact that I’m feeling pretty done with apartments, and I’m itching to have my own house and my own land. It’s nice to not have to worry about yardwork and repairs and all the added responsibility of a house, but it’s also very limiting sometimes.

5. This is really the main part of the post. I felt pretty successful up until this month, when I lost my first chicken.

I had been out of town at a conference until July 5th. When I got back into town, my wife mentioned one of the chickens seemed like she wasn’t doing very well, so we went over to see her. She was lying down next to the waterer and didn’t stand up when she saw me, which was strange. Usually the chickens all cluster at the door when people come over because people = treat-bearers. She didn’t move when I went to go pick her up, and when I picked her up, she was incredibly light. Her breed (Buckeye) usually weighs 8-9 pounds, and she felt more like 3 or 4. Her feet were curled up under her and she was having a hard time staying awake. We brought her home in a box, cleaned her up, and set her in the bathroom with some electrolyte-water.

The summer before my last year of college, I worked in the baby bird house at a local bird rehab center. I have never been more grateful for my training there.

I gave her electrolytes and water by dripping it along her beak with a syringe. I tried mashing up pellets and feeding it to her the same way, since she wasn’t eating on her own anymore. Eventually, I found a catheter tube and Kaytee Exact handfeeding formula and tubefed her. It was all too little, too late. She died on Tuesday, after two days (three nights) of trying to nurse her. I don’t know how long she’d been sick, and I still don’t even know what caused her sudden decline (though I know that chickens (and all prey birds) try to hide their symptoms for as long as possible, so “sudden” is sort of a relative term).

For the next few days, I was almost afraid to check on the other chickens in case something similar would start happening to the rest of them. But so far, all of them have been fine. The other Buckeye even seems to be in pretty good shape — still social, still eating and drinking, still gives us a good run for our money whenever we try to catch her.

The only thing I can really think of is heat stress, since it has been really hot lately. Considering it’s summer in Arizona, that’s not too surprising. Since losing a chicken, I’ve tried to cool the others down as much as possible, but I don’t know if it’s going to be enough. I’ve started adding electrolytes to their main waterer (and keeping a smaller, non-electrolyte waterer available as well). I’ve covered half their run with a tarp to provide a little extra shade (though it’s a dark-colored tarp, so I don’t know if it’s really helping). I replaced the shavings in their coop with sand, which stays much cooler. I’ve been putting ice in their waterers, but I’d like to try putting a fan in the coop as well. Since I don’t live there, it’s hard to think of good solutions. I just hope they can all make it a couple more months, when it starts to cool down….

I don’t know.

I feel like my chickens deserve better. I know they could also have it much, much worse.

This has definitely been a learning experience, and it makes me wonder what else they’re going to teach me in the next year.

First harvest!

My wife and I went to the Grand Canyon with her parents last weekend. When we left town, we had a few zucchinis on our plant — they were pretty normal-sized but maybe a little too small for our liking.

We checked the garden yesterday: the first time in a little over a week.

What did we find?

These monsters:

first harvest

The biggest one weighed in at 5.25 lbs. It’s about the size of our cat and will probably be feeding us for a week.

We made noodles out of the smaller three to feed ourselves, my in-laws, and a friend who came over for dinner last night. We also gave said friend the second-biggest one, because seriously, what are we going to do with all these squashes??

And so it begins — it is officially squash season, and friends should expect to get squash-bombed on a regular basis. So lock your doors, unless you want to find bags of zucchini on your tables when you get home!

Another garden update

I know I just posted about the garden, but already things are coming along… sort of. We have some successes and some failures, and I’m not sure what to do about the failures yet.

But first, successes!

Our two tomato plants are beautiful. One even has a flower (or a few), which I totally didn’t expect yet. I’m wondering if I should start the next round of tomato seedlings soon or wait a little longer. It took such a long time for them to get started for this season, but I don’t know if it would go faster now that it’s warmer and sunnier. Also, since my wife is avoiding nightshades for the time being (and possibly for the long term), do I want to dedicate my limited space to more nightshades anyway? I haven’t decided yet, but at least I still have a little time.

Two of our watermelons sprouted, as well as two of our okras. They’re growing at a reasonable pace, and I’m sure they’ll be huge and taking over the plot in no time.

The zucchinis are MONSTERS compared to what they were just a couple weeks ago. I made the mistake of planting them too close together, and now I think they’re a little too big to successfully move around. One might still be okay, so I think it’s going to a friend (who will be starting her own garden in about a month). The other… I’m not so sure. It may just have to be sacrificed to the compost heap.

Under the zucchinis, we also have some little lettuces. I don’t know how they’re flourishing considering there is basically a zucchini leaf right on top of them, but they seem to be perfectly happy anyway. I’m pretty sure the birds pecked away the other sproutlings, and maybe being hidden was the only thing that saved the few that remain. So… good job, zucchinis. You protect your lettuce friends!

Now the failures: all the carrots, tomatillos, and flowers, plus a majority of the lettuces I planted. Either they never sprouted, or the birds got to them before I could even tell. I may never know :/ For some reason, I seem to have terrible luck with flowers in this plot. Last summer, I planted a whole bunch of different kinds of flowers (it was part of a wildflower mix), and NONE of them grew. I thought maybe it was because I just scattered them and raked a little bit of soil over the top. This time I only had one variety, I planted them to the prescribed depth, at the prescribed distances away from other plants, and still I have nothing. I’m more disappointed than I thought I would be, considering the plot is supposed to be primarily for vegetables. I guess it just would have been nice to see a little color and variety… Besides, they were supposed to be bee-friendly, and you have to love bee-friendly flowers because bees.

So anyway, now there’s a huge gap between the tomatoes and the watermelons that needs to be filled, and something could probably be squished in around the okras. Since there are already two types of vines (zucchini and watermelon), I’m wondering if I should just give them their space. I was just hoping for a little more variety…

One possibility is planting amaranth between the tomatoes and watermelon. It’s a tall plant, so the watermelon would still have plenty of room (and not as much sun, which is probably fine). It also has pretty tasty greens (a bonus for the wife), and little birds can eat the grains if I let them mature a little longer. I don’t think I’d try harvesting the grains this time– it was quite a process when I did it last year and took way more time than it was worth, considering we still have some of the grains left. We just don’t eat very many grains. Greens, yes. Grains, not so much.

Something else I keep going back to is planting wild luffa. I have NO idea why. I think because it’s a weird plant that produces a weird product, and I just find them kinda cool and interesting. It’s not very practical or useful in terms of food (though you can eat the immature fruits), but maybe they would make good Christmas gifts? I don’t know.

I’ve also thought about sunflowers, since the chickens always love sunflower seeds (or any kind of seed, really). The wild birds would also probably appreciate it, so who knows how many would actually make it to the chickens…but the flowers are pretty, and they wouldn’t crowd the watermelon too much or shade the tomatoes.

For the other space (between okras and zucchini), I might also be able to plant orach. It sounds like this is a green that can tolerate the warmer weather, or at least tolerate it better than kale, spinach, chard, etc. I could also try planting flowers again, but I’m starting to feel a little discouraged.

Do you have any experience with any of these crops (amaranth, luffa, sunflowers, orach, flowers)? Which do you think would be best/most beneficial/easiest to grow?

Although I’m excited about the garden, I haven’t been able to pay it as much attention as I’d like. I hope I can address some of these issues this weekend! I’ll let you know what I decide, and maybe I’ll get some updated pictures too.

Spring garden update

Wow, how time has flown. It’s amazing how, once you stop writing, it’s so hard to start again. I guess a few things have made it a little difficult to start — flu! bronchitis! — and other things are just distracting — getting back to lab work! — but mostly I’ve just been neglectful. Sorry, guys 😦

March is a really exciting time for gardening in Tucson. It’s the month where you start planting your first-round-of-summer plants. Because we have such a short winter, we get two pretty good summer growing seasons in per year. I’m really excited this year because we get to start at the very beginning of the growing season, instead of trying to catch up in July and then running late into fall and having to make some really tough decisions about when to pull everything up and… well. Let’s just say that winter was kind of a wash in terms of gardening. We were hoping for lots of delicious greens and mostly just got a few green onions, a couple beets, and some weird variety of kale that wasn’t actually very good and ended up getting infested with aphids.

But now we’re moving forward and (hopefully) learning from our mistakes.

So what are we planting this season?

Well, first and most important: tomatoes. There are a lot of really great hot-weather varieties for the region, but we chose to go with Flamenco because of its quicker production and its local popularity. We started a few seeds in some makeshift pots way back in February, but so far the plants are growing pretty slowly 😦 They were transplanted into the garden plot last week, so I hope they start taking off soon!

Next up: carrots (Scarlet Nantes), tomatillos (Zuni), and watermelon (May0). We tried really, really hard to get watermelon last summer, but although there were vines aplenty, none of the melons actually ripened by the time we had to pull up the plants :/ Carrots and tomatillos are a totally new addition — we haven’t tried to grow either of them yet!

After that, we have okra. This is the same variety we grew last year (Beck’s Gardenville), because WOW does it produce. It’s huge, prolific, and beautiful (in my opinion, anyway — those leaves are just gorgeous). We had two plants last year, and it was way too much for the two of us to eat. This year, we planted three seeds just to hedge our bets for successful germination, but we’ll probably weed it down to one and donate some seedlings to (unsuspecting) friends.

Finally, we have lettuce (Green-leaf Salad Bowl) and zucchini (Black Beauty). We’ve arranged the zucchini to grow onto a trellis, so it can shade the lettuce during the hot afternoons. The setup is similar to this, which is brilliant. You can’t really see it very well in the photo, mostly because our trellis is not so grand as the one in the link. It’s basically a tomato cage that’s been opened up.

So far, we have visible tomatoes, zucchini, and a few lettuces. All the other plants are taking their time to get their cotyledons out, and I’m already anxious. Will they sprout?? Have they sprouted and been subjected to birds? Bugs? The cat that sometimes wanders through? What if they grow too slowly? What if they don’t have enough nutrients? What if, what if…

I feel like these are my babies, not my plants. It’s ridiculous to spend so much time worrying about how they’re growing, and yet I do it anyway. Is that weird or normal? I’ll probably be checking it again in a couple days, and I really hope everyone is doing okay!

I’m still here, I promise!

I haven’t forgotten about this blog, I’ve just been having a really, really hard time of things.

I don’t think I can cover everything that’s happened in the last three (wow, really?) months, so I’ll just summarize the biggest two:

First, I passed my comprehensive exams at last! I had my second chance at the oral exam earlier this month, and it was much, much better this time. I had a better idea of what everyone’s expectations were (it probably helped that nobody had been traveling, like they were during summer), I’d done a whole lot of practice sessions with other graduate students and with my lab, and I just felt a lot more prepared, which stopped me from freaking out during the exam itself. So I’m a real PhD candidate! I wasn’t sure I’d make it, it’s just been such a long and frustrating process. This has mostly been my focus since December, and it got really, really rough in January. I was definitely extra-depressed and anxious about it. I was studying a lot, but I also slept and ate and cried and worried a lot. I barely did anything in the lab. I managed to do some revisions for a paper, but that was about it.

Second, my stepfather passed away in December. My wife and I had been traveling to San Diego to visit him and my mom, and to make sure Mom was properly fed while she was dealing with hospitals and work and caretaking and everything. This weekend was our final visit for awhile, to attend his memorial service. It’s still strange to think he’s gone, and how different life must be for my mom without him. Sometimes I wish I were just a little bit closer…. She has a lot of family out there already at least (a sister, cousins, etc.), but I still want to be there if she needs me.

I think life is gradually returning to normal. There will still be some traveling in the next few months (mostly April and June), but at least right now I can breathe. I’m trying to figure out where I left off in terms of experiments. I’m taking a class for funsies, attending a lot of seminars, and trying to get back to reading for work and for fun. It’s a more difficult shift than I thought it would be, but hey, I’m here, and I’m doing it… even if it takes me longer than I think it should.

Hopefully I can get back to updating regularly again too, now that I’m not quite so overwhelmed.

Thanks for sticking with me 🙂

Why Agriculture Is Broken

Soybean Dreams

Copyright Natalie Dee: Soybean Dreams

Last month, I went to a seminar about soybeans. Essentially, it was not so much about soybeans themselves as what we can do with soybeans to suit our needs. At every new slide, I was reminded just how broken our agriculture system is. It was very hard to listen to. Being in a room full of people studying “agriculture,” I could see heads nodding. People were impressed. They want to know how to improve yield, how to improve nutritional value of corn and rice, how to grow soybeans anywhere (even in winter) — i.e. how to make a given crop “better” instead of diversifying.

At every one of these seminars, I hear about how the human population will reach 9 billion by 2050. We’ll solve “the 9 billion people problem” by making more crops with less land. We’ll find out what makes the building blocks of a crop plant and rearrange them to our benefit. This is clearly the answer, rather than not reaching a 9 billion population to begin with (something I also mentioned here). This kind of short-sightedness and narrow thinking drives me up a tree. Monocropping seems like such a terrible, terrible model: nobody can survive on corn/rice/soybean alone (or even primarily). And if we use all our land for a select few crops and cram the livestock into concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), we’re not leaving ourselves with many options. It might solve the problem for tomorrow (at least in terms of volume), but what about farther down the line?

For soybean, people are working on how to make it more nutritious while lowering its allergen content so they can maintain its use in food. Soy is a legume, which makes it an important cover crop, so I can understand why it’s grown. And if a cover crop can produce something edible, that’s even better, right? But now soy is in everything. It might be an emerging allergen because it’s in everything, but the solution is obviously not to remove soy from everything. Instead, we need to modify the soy to get rid of the allergen.

And so begins the brokenness. For the first part of the seminar, the speaker talked about modifying soy in a general sense: is it possible to increase the total protein content of soy? (No.) Is it possible to change the composition of proteins, as long as total content is unchanged? (Yes.) This gives us a way to “build” a soybean to our liking, which will contain more proteins that are nutritionally valuable to us while decreasing proteins that we don’t care about. Why? Why not just look for an alternative? Why do we need to “fix” this at all? And from a more ethical standpoint, at what point does something like this no longer become a soybean?

For the second part of the seminar, the speaker talked about allergenic proteins. It is possible to decrease allergenic protein expression in a transgenic plant (though other proteins will have increased expression to compensate, since total protein content is still a fixed value). However, since getting GMOs through the FDA screening process is very time- and money-intensive, the speaker instead decided to screen a whole lot of natural (organic) varieties to see which produced the least amount of this particular allergen. Scientifically, this is valid. Ethically, it seems valid. But the speaker’s attitude was so condescending towards organic farming (“Why don’t they just accept GMOs already?”) that I really, really wish it were not representative of the field as a whole. People in my department love GMOs. They can produce nutrients that we’re deficient in (e.g. Golden Rice). They can produce their own pesticides (e.g. Bt-anything). They can produce their own herbicides (e.g. RoundUp-Ready anything). But in terms of big picture, I feel more and more that the general populace might be right on this one. GMOs aren’t going to save us, and I wish scientists like this seminar speaker would 1. stop pretending GMOs are The Answer, 2. think about some of the outcomes aside from “more food” or “better food,” and 3. think about the bigger picture. Again, why are we modifying these things? Why modify one crop when we could just diversify?

For the third part of the seminar, the speaker talked about incorporating vaccines and antibiotics into the total protein content of soybeans. Soy is a common component of animal feed (which is still ugh), and so many animals are now raised in CAFOs that it’s easier for disease to spread and affect a larger population. Obviously, the solution is not to change the model of feeding operation: it is to modify the feed to automatically include vaccines and antibiotics to prevent or patch up disease. At this point, I was close to walking out. It just seems so ludicrous to me that this is going to be our grand, smart, science-based solution. Actually, it offends me. We can do better than this.

For the fourth and final part of the seminar, the speaker talked about a new legume crop which could be grown in snow, since “all that land is just going to waste” during the winter. Land is never going to waste. Viewing land solely as a means to produce something is archaic and short-sighted. For the speaker (and most people in my department), it all comes down to yield and production: increasing our benefits as much as possible. But all benefits have a cost. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Any ecologist or evolutionary biologist can tell you that. Even Robert Heinlein can tell you that, for goodness sake.

The main things I took away from the seminar were not at all the main points the speaker wanted to make (that soybeans contain a fixed amount of protein; that we can make soybeans that tailor to our needs; that we should be growing crops year-round to increase land use). The main things I took away were, instead, reflective of how broken our agricultural system is:

1. Why do we insist on using the same few crops on so much of our land? I understand that equipment is expensive, and that equipment is set up to harvest one (or a few) types of crops. But if we instead diversify what we grow, even if it’s just a little bit, we can have a more nutritionally complete diet while boosting biodiversity and facilitating formation of a greater number of ecological communities.

2. Why do we insist on “fixing” those crops if we start to find a problem with them? Again, the answer may be to look elsewhere instead of at the same plants we’ve been using for years. If we need more vitamin A in our diets, why are we adding it to rice? Why don’t we reserve some land for carrots or pumpkins or leafy greens instead?

3. Similarly, why do we insist on “fixing” the disease in CAFOs via vaccines and antibiotics, rather than taking the livestock out of the situation in the first place? I get that land is a hot commodity, especially with our growing population, but I am not convinced that growing acres upon acres of corn is a better use of land than fields for beef or chickens. Livestock provides more nutrients than corn, and they deserve more respect (and a more natural life) than they’re getting.

4. We have become so focused on a few problems (e.g. one type of nutrient deficiency, one allergenic protein in one major crop, one symptom of feeding operations) that we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture.

5. “Unused” land is not “wasted” land. It’s still land. Just because it is not currently producing a crop for humans doesn’t make it any less valid or any less deserving of your respect.

Don’t get me wrong here: I don’t want to see anyone starve, and I realize that more people will need more food. But the problem is not that we don’t have enough corn, or soy, or wheat, or whatever. The problem is that we keep looking at one crop at a time and try to fix that one crop, instead of looking at other options. If we keep up this extremely narrow view, we’re not going to be able to support ourselves, and we’re definitely not going to be helping the planet.