Meet Aspen!

We have been looking for the perfect farm pup for nearly a year, finding a dog who meets our criteria proved to be more challenging that we had first thought. With chickens to protect, cats to share a home with and acres of farm and forest to manage we need a dog who can be both a working pup, and a house companion- with appitude to be trained and low prey drive.

In 2016 our chickens were attacked by a neighborhood dog and our rooster was badly injured- he pulled through!- fighting off the curious dog. Last year our flock was attacked by a fox, we lost two hens and a rooster in the fray. Living in the forest means there are predators a plenty- fox, coyote, bobcat, fisher, raccoon, bear, skunk, owl, hawk, mountain lion, weasel, dog- we have had them all in the yard.

After visiting every local shelter, talking with rescue groups and breeders we still had no luck. Would we ever find the right pup for the job?

Our answer came last weekend after a trip to Tractor Supply and a look at their classifieds bulletin board. IMG_5524Meet Aspen! Aspen is an 8 week old Australian Shepherd, she learned her name in just a day and has already picked up a few commands in the short week she has been with us. She met the chickens on her third day here and was the perfect guest in the coop.

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This little pup works hard, plays hard and sleeps even harder! Her first night with us she escaped from the kitchen by squeezing under a book shelf and we found her snuggled on the couch. IMG_5596

Finding the right farm dog can certainly take time, but it was worth the wait. Aspen is just what we were searching for- and we are so glad to have her join us at Olsen Farm. The cats don’t quite agree (Yet) IMG_5612IMG_5614

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The Magic of Silkie Chickens

At Olsen Farm we believe all chickens are special, but there is something especially magical about the silkie breed. Over a year ago we were gifted a few silkie eggs to incubate and once those tiny fluff balls hatched we fell instantly in love.

So, what is it that makes these mini fluffy muppets so special? Here are some unique traits of these sweet little birds:

Silkie hens lay three to four eggs a week. Their eggs are about half the size of a standard chicken egg- but equally as delicious!IMG_2198

Silkies are fibro melanistic, which means they have black skin, black meat and black bones. They were originally bred in Asia and some believe eating their black meat will cure what ails you. While silkies are bred to be both show birds and meat birds, we have yet to eat a silkie because they are just so damned cute!

Three day old silkie chicks- seriously the cutest thing you will ever see. IMG_3110

Silkies have feathered feet, and their feet have five toes- rather than the usual three of standard chickens.

Their feathers remain light and fluffy into adulthood, because of this trait they can become sick or die if they get wet during cold weather. Be sure to keep your silkies dry and warm- they LOVE baths and getting their feathers blow dried! These little fluffs do amazingly well at staying warm during cold weather if their feathers remain dry, they are a winter-hearty breed.

Silkie feathers come in many color variations including black, white, buff (brown/tan), splash (light grey/ black and white mix), blue (dark grey) and partridge (brown mix)

IMG_3627Teen ‘blue’ silkies- this is the awkward phase where their adult plumage is growing in.

Silkie roosters, like most roosters, have larger combs and wattles than hens. They develop these later than standard breeds, and it can be difficult to distinguish a hen from a rooster by looks until they are over six months old and start either laying or crowing. IMG_2802Meet Twister, our ‘splash’ silkie roo

Silkies have a wonderfully gentle temperament and are great for first time chicken keepers. They are calm, tame and very fun to observe. Silkies are also great mothers and will hatch and raise ducks, turkeys, standard chickens- you name it!IMG_2822Even silkie roosters are gentle and calm- they still stand their ground with other roos, but don’t mind being carried around!

 

We have been bringing Maple (below) our sweetest silkie hen, to the local farmer’s market for a few months. Our original thought was that children would love to pet a cute chicken, and it would be a great educational experience for them. What we did not expect was the intense joy and peace meeting a silkie had on the adults at the market. Many residents came to visit Maple each week, bringing her treats, taking photos and snuggling her. Maple became a therapy chicken simply by being her adorable fluffy magicical self. We are so glad to have been able to share our sweet birds with people who needed a little nature medicine. IMG_4547

Silkies are magical birds. They make wonderful pets, are great mama hens and are cute as hell. Plus, they can cure what ails you.

If you are ever having a down day, pet a silkie- they really are the best medicine.

The Kindness of Strangers

It has been a difficult year at Olsen Farm.

In January we lost our father unexpectedly after a short illness. Since then our world has been turned upside down. Trying to manage the sudden death of a loved one is an impossible task. On top of that tremendous loss we are faced with large debts against the land and are at risk of losing our farm and family home. With such urgency focussed on these critical financial pieces there has not been time to properly grieve.

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From Chris and Kristen’s wedding party last August: Kristen, Chris, Tommy- our father, Aimee and Todd- our sister and brother in law

One piece that has kept us moving forward during this struggle is the kindness of strangers.

Please- don’t get me wrong- we have an incredibly supportive group of family and friends who have been wrapping us in kindness every step of the way. We are thankful to have this base of support, and know that we could not continue fighting for our farm without friends and family there beside us.

 

A group of friends and family came to help dig and prepare beds for planting this Spring- we couldn’t have don it without you guys! 

But the kindness and generosity of complete strangers is something powerful and provides great hope.

In April we started a ‘GoFundMe’ campaign to try and offset the large amount of money we need in order to save the farm (https://www.gofundme.com/please-help-save-olsen-farm?utm_source=internal&utm_medium=email&utm_content=body_photo&utm_campaign=upd_n)

It has not been easy to share our story, and it certainly has not been easy to ask for help- particularly because it involves money. But we had to put it out there. Since we made that leap we have made so many amazing connections by sharing what we are going through. By taking the risk and putting our vulnerability out there we have been able to connect with people all over the country who are going through, or have been through similar circumstances. We have met people who grew up eating eggs from Olsen Farm years ago, and heard amazing stories about what the farm was like then. We have heard memories about our father from his childhood- these pieces have more value than can be put in words.

-Two sisters shared memories of visiting Olsen Farm as children, riding the tractor and feeding the animals with Great Grandpa Olsen.

-A former Berkshire County resident who recently returned to the area found us on Facebook and reached out via email- making a generous donation and becoming one of our best egg customers and Olsen Farm cheerleaders!

-Tradespeople, including a plumber, two electricians and many skilled carpenters have reached out with offers to help repair the farmhouse pro bono after hearing our story.

-An old friend of our father’s shared that there was a tree he and our dad had carved their names in years ago and we were able to hike to that exact spot and find ‘Tommy Wheeler’ carved there in memoriam.

-A young woman beginning to study archeology and her father introduced themselves and generously offered to survey the property, searching for burried history- and treasures.

-Someone made the purchase of a silver spoon from our first yard sale and came to return it after doing some research that night and finding it was a valuable family heirloom. She polished the spoon, wrapped it up and brought it back to us sharing that she thought we should keep it on the farm.

-A gentleman told us his parallel story that he is currently working through similar circumstances while trying to revive his family store after the death of grand parents.

-A couple from Florida, vacationing in the Berkshires, came to the farm this weekend after seeing us in the newspaper and made a generous donation.

Please take a look at the Berkshire Eagle article here: http://www.berkshireeagle.com/stories/lanesborough-couple-on-mission-to-save-family-farm,515057

These moments and stories are what give us strength to push forward with our seemingly impossible task. Once these strangers made the effort to step in to our lives they became part of the Olsen Farm family.

Please, be kind to a stranger. The impact is powerful and lasting. And please, keep reaching out and sharing your stories with us. Your stories give us hope.

Bee Keeping: Filling a New Hive

Bees are truly incredible creatures. They have complex communication and social systems. They are hardworking, intelligent and organized. They pollinate our flowers, fruits, trees and plants. Without their hard work our gardens would not grow. They make delicious honey- a natural antibiotic and delicious vaccine for pollen allergies. We literally could not live without them.

At Olsen Farm we started keeping bees last year because of the importance of supporting pollinators and our drive to practice natural farm and gardening techniques. We have a responsibility to protect native bees by planting healthy gardens- free of chemicals and pesticides, as well as a responsibility to care for our domestic bees like any other pet.

Our colony survived the winter last year but was not able to survive the unfortunate February early thaw and sudden temperature drop. Bees are powerful and delicate, with our quickly changing climate and growing use of toxic pesticides their world is in great danger- and in consequence so is ours.

This year we have added a second hive, and are continuing our hope for the bees and all they share with us.

Here are some photos of the hive-filling process:

 

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Prepping the smoker, dried grass makes great smoke!
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Chris puts on gear to protect his hands, face and arms while filling the hive
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Prying the lid off to remove the queen’s cage
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Removing lid to expose can of sugar water queen’s cage is attached to during travel
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The queen’s cage is attached by a strap that has to be pried off for removal
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Pulling out the can and queen cage
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This can is covered in bees! As soon everything else will be too…
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Detaching the queen’s cage from the can
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Chris gently brushes bees off the outside of the queen’s cage and into the hive box, setting queen’s cage aside for placement later
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Holding the bee package upside down over the brooding box, Chris gets ready to shake them out
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The most exciting step- shaking, or tapping, three pounds of live bees into their new home. No stings to date!
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Chris carefully places the queen’s cage between two frames so the colony can get used to her pheromones and she can be released in a day or so
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Giving the colony some smoke to calm them
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Chris carefully stacks the super on top of the brooder box
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Stacking on the inner narrow lid
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Placing on the hive lid, or outer cover
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Weighing down the lid cover with a cement flat
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We use a ratchet strap to secure our hive boxes together, making it more of a challenge for a bear to break them apart if ever one gets through our electric fence
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Hive one is live!
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Happy bees, already getting to work cleaning up a honey drip in their new home

Joey the Draft Horse: Farming before technology

Great Grandpa Olsen used his draft horse, Joey, for all his plowing and field preparations on Olsen Farm for decades. In the early to mid 1900’s farmers all used hand tools and animals for plowing and heavy farm work. By the 50’s motorized tractors became available and were ‘the next big thing’ in farming- if you didn’t have a gas tractor you were falling behind.

Great Grandpa preferred to stick with what he knew worked- Joey was steadfast and reliable. He loved Joey like a child and trusted him like a friend. Great Grandpa had a way with animals, he passed this love of nature and compassion for living things on though the generations.

We still have the remains of the first motorized tractor Great Grandpa was given by the agricultural department as an incentive to expand his farm, and produce more. In the late 1950’s more and more farmers were being incentivized like this to make the switch from hand and horse to mechanical tools for plowing and planting. Great Grandpa was set in his ways. He rarely used his gas tractor, it spent much of it’s life taking up space in the shed. He would always lament about how that new-fangled tractor was his nemesis- a feeling we can relate to often today with all the fast-paced technological advancements.

This photo is framed and displayed in our living room to remind us of our roots, and the importance of working the land by hand, and horse. Thank you Joey for all the work you put in at Olsen Farm!

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Olsen Farm: In the News

photo credit: Andy McKeever iBerkshires staff

Olsen Farm, and our story were recently featured in an amazing article on iBerkshires.com. The parallels between our struggle to save the farm now and our great grandparent’s struggles over 80 years ago are striking. Olsen Farm has been here before,  and because of our blood ties to this land we will persevere- like our great grandparents did facing the same odds so many years ago.

The community support and outreach generated by this publicity has been incredible. So many people have contacted us with suggestions, resources, offers to help fix up the farm- people have been recognizing us from the article and coming to talk with us about Olsen Farm’s story. This kindness and generosity, from friends and strangers alike, has helped us feel like the overwhelming tasks we are wrapped up in are not so unreachable.

Being part of an incredible community is what us makes small, local farms a success. Thank you, thank you!! to everyone who has reached out with resources and donations. Each small piece goes toward preserving our family farm, and through your donations and support you all have become part of Olsen Farm’s legacy as well.

 

Please check out the article if you have not already had a chance:

http://www.iberkshires.com/story/54452/Lanesborough-Couple-Fighting-to-Save-Historic-Family-Farm.html

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We were so excited to find this old sign with great grandpa’s name while cleaning out the basement and are planning to re-create a new ‘Olsen Farm’ sign in the same style

photo credit: Rachel Payne 

DIY Chicken Saddles, protect your hens from over mating

Chicken trouble: bare backs

Spring is for the birds and the bees- and this means our rooster is working overtime. Sometimes he can get a little carried away with his ‘rooster duties’ and end up pulling feathers from the girl’s backs. Once the other hens see bare skin on their sister’s back they can’t resist pecking and pulling out more feathers.

When a rooster mates a hen he climbs on her back, standing on her wings and holding her neck and back feathers in his beak to get in position for transfer of sperm. Sometimes he pulls out a few feathers during the process. Over mating, or aggressive mating, can lead to hens with bare backs and at risk of further wounds and infection if not cared for. 

We tried using Blu-Kote Antiseptic spray, which we have had success with in the past when chickens had skin exposed,  on our girl’s backs but it did not seem work. What else could we do to protect our chicken’s backs?

The answer- chicken saddles! I searched around and found this article: here  from Mother Earth News including a sewing pattern and instructions and decided to try it out.

What you will need:

A basic understanding of sewing is necessary for this project, I used my sewing machine but saddles could easily be hand sewn as well.

  • machine washable, breathable fabric
  • 1/2 inch elastic
  • sew-on velcro
  • scissors
  • straight pins
  • needle and thread or sewing machine
  • saddle pattern (can be printed from Mother Earth article)

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I chose fabrics that would match the feather patterns of my flock in order to maintain their camouflage while out foraging the yard. While it is cute to have brightly colored and patterned vests for your chickens their feathers are their first line of protection from predators and their safety is a greater priority than their cuteness (although they do look pretty adorable in their feather-tone vests as well!)

Step by step

  1. Print out your saddle pattern from the Mother Earth articleIMG_3069

2. Cut out the paper pattern and pin it to your fabric, fabric should be folded double so you end up with two saddle shapes after cutting.

3. After cutting, unpin the paper pattern and re pin fabric layers with patterned side facing inIMG_2981

4. Cut two strips of 1/2 inch elastic at 7 inches IMG_2979

5. Pin elastic strips to neckline, so that long end of elastic is hidden between pinned layers of the saddle, as shown in photos belowIMG_3001IMG_3011IMG_3023

6. Stitch 1/4 inch seam around the edge of your saddle, leaving a hole (seen on right hand side) unstitched on one sideIMG_3024

7. Using hole left unstitched, turn saddle right side out, like a pillowIMG_3025

8. Sew 1/4 inch seam around outer edge, closing up hole used to turn right side outIMG_3026

9. Cut two pieces of both male and female velcro at 1.5 inches and pin female side to body of saddle and male side to the ends of elasticIMG_3028

10. Stitch elastic in place, fasten velcro and be proud of your beautiful and functional new chicken saddle!IMG_3029

Now it is time to try your saddles on the chickens! Saddles sit with the squared edge against the neck and elastic straps go under each wing to secure at the hen’s armpit.

Here is our Jelly Doughnut modeling her off-white saddle on the grass runway:IMG_3049IMG_3050IMG_3051

Chicken saddles are easy to make and can truly make a difference in the health of your flock. We have had our girls wearing saddles for almost a week now and are already seeing new feather growth returning on their backs.

Spring Means Chicks: Remembering our First Hatch

 

Our obsession with poultry started last April when we incubated our first five eggs in my classroom, and amazingly all five hatched! Three turned out to be roosters, they all turned out to be exactly what we were missing in our lives. Chickens are truly incredible animals with such unique personalities and an ability to both create and be food. They help control pests and enrich the soil simply by going about their daily business. Chickens are the perfect bird, and the perfect friend.

Chicken eggs need to incubate for 21 days, being turned at least twice a day to allow chicks to evenly develop and prevent them from getting stuck to the inside of their shells. During incubation eggs need to stay at about 100 degrees and have 60% humidity. We have incubated using electronic incubators, seen above, so we can watch the eggs crack and hatch, this year we plan to have some of our hens incubate eggs as well. 

We have learned a lot about hatching and raising birds this year, including how to reverse birth defects and treat chicken injuries naturally. How to prevent frostbitten combs and keep chickens from pulling out each others feathers. We have already seen a decrease in ticks and other insect pests in the year we have had our flock. We also discovered that chickens will hunt and eat live mice- a gruesome surprise that has helped manage another pest problem on the farm!

It has been especially interesting to see how chicken feathers change as they mature. A fluffy little yellow chick can transform into a smooth and silky white hen with black speckles, a brown and tan striped chick can turn into an iridescent red and brown rooster. Here is a look at three of our first chicks and their adult selves. (My students are responsible for the awesome names of the first five chickens.)

Jelly Doughnut was the first to hatch, and our first hen to start laying her beautiful blue/ green eggs. 

Our flock narrowly escaped a dog attack because of the instincts and feistiness of our main rooster, Alexander Hamilton, who sustained major injuries protecting his girls. 

Oozie was named such because the children got to watch her hatch and she ‘oozed’ out of her shell. 

Now it is Spring again, and time to start the next generation of our flock. Throughout this year we have incubated dozens more chicken eggs as well as turkey and guinea fowl eggs. We currently have 29 chickens, including 5 roosters, as well as 4 guinea hens (we used to have 4 turkeys and 2 more roosters but we ate them).

Our chickens are both beloved pets and a crucial part of our survival. While we name our birds, give them treats like cabbage and meal worms, we also believed that eating what we raise is a critical part of being a responsible and sustainable farmer. It may not be easy to butcher a rooster or hen we have raised from an egg, but we know our birds live free, happy and healthy lives ranging the yard.

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I don’t think watching chicks hatch is something that will ever get old. Plus, there is nothing quite so wonderful as a handful of freshly hatched chicks. It truly is amazing to realize that a laying hen has potential to create a new chicken each day. A new life, each and every day.

 

Stay tuned for more on this year’s hatchlings coming soon!