Saturday, July 29, 2017


*from Fletch’es Cardinal Farms Blog Journal...

I am at peace, sitting out in the evening, listening to the crescendos of crickets and frogs, watching the hens nudge each other on their perches as they prepare to meet the night, cajoling the dogs as they bark in hopes of one last treat before the daylight retreats. Catching the now familiar aromas of rich soil and barnyards on the barely moving breeze, I realize what comfort this farm gives me.

Living off the land has always appealed to us, so in 2010 we set out in pursuit of our own American dream. Our quest led us to an overlooked and under-appreciated 1880’s abandoned dwelling, on mostly wooded acreage, in the beautiful, historic Virginia county of Mathews.  There, tucked behind what once was the old Cardinal Post Office, 500 feet down a well-worn dusty driveway, awaited our dream’s canvas.  Surveying the overgrown property from the shade of a hundred-year-old sycamore tree, we instinctively knew we had arrived. Our home farming experiments in becoming self-sustaining, would begin here, what would soon become Cardinal Farms.

Our first challenge was to revitalize that aging dwelling into a livable, workable farmhouse, which we did over the next three years.

Endless convoys of dump trucks delivered dirt and gravel to fortify existing driveways and forge new access ways through mud and mire.  Removing trees and buying local brush clearing goats, we opened areas in which to sow our experiments.  Creating networks of trenches and french drains to divert water run-off and planting berries and grapes to retain the diverted water were back-breaking work.  We chain-sawed, shoveled, hacked and backhoed through the first couple of years, and often when we reached our wits end, knew we could rely on the likes of Mr. Haney, Eb, and Hank Kimball for more expert assistance.   These colorful and helpful characters, along with Sam Drucker and Arnold Ziffle, just happen to live in Mathews County.

Though, eager to start farming, we had much to learn about the challenges of living off the Mathews’ soil -- marshy or incredibly dry, depending on the month, but always well infiltrated by moles.  With na├»ve optimism, we planted a sundry of vegetables, flowers, fruit trees, grapes and berries.  Some of our initial crops were bamboo, tobacco, peaches, plums, apples, pears, figs, cherries, apricots and even kohlrabi and asparagus, crops that were new to me.  We created “berry gardens,” growing strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, currants, blueberries, golden berries and gooseberries.  Sunflowers soon lined the driveways and young grape and berry sprouts clung to newly erected fences.

Asked to elaborate about the successes and failures of our endeavors, I cannot help but recall some of the Master Gardeners’ presentations availed to us at the Gloucester Library, an excellent local resource for learning more about the birds and the bees.  Had we heeded more of Hank Kimball’s advice, we might have been spared some hard and costly lessons along the way?

Spending more on hardy varieties adapted to resist “local” parasites and diseases is essential, we discovered.  Trees and shrubs not adapted to the area’s unique climate or elevation can yield disappointing results.  Though we harvested bushels of fruit during the first couple of years, early blooms and late frosts weakened many of the trees and made them susceptible to boring parasites and disease.  Larger commercial operators control these problems with chemical remedies, but we found that to be inconsistent with our home farming ideas.  Because we and our animals consume our harvest, we stay as close to “organic” farming as possible. Relying on local bees and other pollinators, today Cardinal Farms grows crops and flowers that perform well without use of chemical pesticides.

We made our share of ‘Green Acres’ type mistakes too.  Like the time we accidently mixed watermelon seeds into the Zinnia Sun Flower mix and ended up with 42 melons in the street-side garden intended to decorate the front entrance to the farm.  The garden was not only pretty that year, but delicious too!  Or, when “Oliver” spent three years cross-breeding hen types to develop a camouflage colored egg, only to discover that more than a few customers were actually afraid of green colored eggs with brown spots.

And there was the great grape caper.  As part of our erosion-control plan, we selected and carefully planted a dozen red and green varieties of seedless grapes in strategic locations, only to discover that they somehow cross pollinated and made one single type of grape; sort of pink, sometimes seedless and sometimes not.   We call it, the “Cardinal Grape,” still quite tasty but very rare indeed.  It is super easy to multiply from cuttings and the chickens all love it!

Fortunately, there are also some successes to report, with the goats brush-clearing some lovely areas in the woods, enabling the construction of outlying chicken coops, rabbit hutches, and barns.  Hens now happily graze in large areas surrounded by fenced runs, patrolled by ever-vigilant dogs.  This watchdog system has proven so effective, that not a single hen has been lost to a fox or other local varmints.  For this to work, the dogs live outside, they sleep and eat with the goats and they participate freely in the usual cluckery of chicken daily politics.

Along the path back to the earth, we have learned many interesting lessons: Rabbit, goat and chicken manure are powerful fertilizers, in one test yielding over 320 cucumbers from 3 plants.  Sweet potato leaves are a perfectly good vegetable when cooked, similar in vitamin value to spinach, but without the iron aftertaste.  Experimenting with cooking our produce can result in some interesting menu options. Deep-fried cucumbers, and cucumber - kohlrabi soup are examples. Some vegetables, shunned for years as bitter or tasteless, are surprisingly delicious when picked fresh and eaten raw from the garden.

We now rarely purchase meat or vegetables, raising most of what we eat, and trading with local farmers for pork and beef. Egg sales and swaps help cover the cost of feed, fencing, shelter and supplies.  Experimentation with different farming methods so far includes raised beds, lasagna and straw bale gardening and grow boxes.  The battle with the weeds and the pests is ongoing, but offers us exercise -- picking bugs off plants to feed to the chickens, and pulling weeds to feed to the livestock.

I had to think long and hard when asked to recall the greatest lesson of this home farming experiment so far.  Finally, I would have to say that it is learning to “listen” to the animals.  Animals have a way of ‘speaking’ to humans, and on a farm, you become even more familiar with language.  Many people already know this, but I am also aware that some do not.  For example, I learned that a hen can hold a “conversation” for a good two to three minutes, maybe longer.  Among other things, she can tell you when she’s hungry or thirsty, or afraid, or if something hurts.  She can alarm and she can complain.  If you listen closely enough, she might even advise you on who to vote for.  A hen can greet you in the morning, and even, she can say goodbye.

For nowhere is the old saying “Death is a part of life” more true than on a farm, after all.  Like it or not, nature will balance herself, and inevitably some will leave.  We never get used to losing animal friends, but we learn to accept it and keep working for those who stay to carry on.  More disturbing is when these are taken in the prime of life, but we have lost chickens, goats, even a dog to venomous snakes.  We know now all too well, that too is a part of farming in Mathews County.

The question of what has been the most challenging is much easier to answer.  In a word; Time.  This is by no means unique to farming, but on a farm it becomes even more obvious that there are simply not enough hours in the day.  Permanently surrounded by half-finished projects, I am often reminded by the ‘glass-half-full-or-empty’ adage, and often come to realize that the finish of something is really only its beginning.  After all, what is farming if not cyclical?

Along with that, there is the pressing need to be in several places at the same time, and to be magically timely.  Because on a farm, mistakes are often irreversible.  Home farming, especially with livestock, is a 24/7 ‘for-better-or-worse’ marriage.

Living off the land is neither for the squeamish nor the lazy, but the rewards can be worth the work and the drama of the barnyard politics; hens vying for the finest roosts and roosters vying for the finest hens; chicks playfully chasing bugs and goats playfully chasing each other; dogs tirelessly patrolling the perimeters and ducks tirelessly floating on the pond. Meanwhile, quietly and comfortably in their hutches, the rabbits chew on grasses and leaves producing loads and loads of high-grade all-natural fertilizer.

In the end, I suppose our Home Farming dream of self-sustenance is nothing really new, just a different version of the same things that those before us have done for hundreds of years.  Perhaps it just seems new or novel somehow in this age of Walmart and the Internet.  And yet to me, it does seem new, for every new day brings with it some new and unexpected events or challenges, I guess that too is really an inescapable feature of farming.  So on with the old, and in with the new.  This fall will bring two new ‘luxurious’ raised bed garden sections to Cardinal Farms, and already we have begun drawing plans for our first greenhouse to be erected next Spring.

... but more on that in the next installment of Fletch’es Cardinal Farms Blog Journal.  Until then, have another egg please...

Some helpers visit at harvest time, or any time.  A farm is always exciting for children, and some adults as well.  One regular egg customer jokingly refers to her visits as “farm therapy.”

Separate facilities were put up to allow selected hens to hatch eggs the natural way.  “We tried both ways,” said Fletch, “but discovered that mothers can teach hatchlings about bugs, worms and weeds and they go on to develop behaviors and instincts that incubator chickens simply do not have.”

 “We hate to kill anything wild, and prefer nature should balance herself,” said Joe Cardinal.  “But we made an exception for this six foot fellow who kept strangling chickens to get their eggs.  After losing livestock to venomous snakes, we also now have to exterminate copperheads when we find them inside animal facilities.”

Cardinal Farms expanded egg production in 2015.  Since then, a great part of our egg sales are advanced email orders from vacationers who visit local marinas for sailing, and who consider farm fresh eggs a healthy feature of their city escapes.

 Anytime is a good time to take a break and watch the ducks swimming in the pond.

With rake and shovel in hand, Fletch and Joe Cardinal begin their journey of discovery in the woods behind the Old Cardinal Post Office in Mathews County.

Goats are an excellent option for clearing areas of out-of-control brush, especially poison ivy and thorny brambles.  The fertilizer is a bonus!

“WE planted sunflowers and such to encourage bees and other local pollinators,” said Fletch.  “We limit pesticide use to extreme cases only, and prefer other methods such as Bat Houses and chickens to deal with destructive insects.”

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Playing All Weekend

This weekend was another fun-filled one that went by way too quickly. Saturday, after crunching as many farm chores into the day as I could, I cleaned up and headed to join friends at a party to renew their wedding vows. The night before, I had received a text from one of my friends, suggesting that I bring my guitar along. I did, and, to my surprise, I was drafted into playing with the talented singers of Irish music, Celtastrophe!

Did I know the music? No. Did I have sheet music to read? No. Was there a talented guitarist playing, whose fingers I could watch and mimic? Yes! And, who needs to know the words to unfamiliar tunes in order to sing harmony? Ha! We had a good time! Of course, I had to retune my E string after every song, because the silly thing kept slipping, but that just added to the general fun. And we did actually sing one song that was not an Irish ditty. We played an impromptu “I Can’t Help Falling In Love With You.” Everyone joined in the singing, and it was wonderful.

Sunday, after church I made the drive to Ft. Monroe, where my son and his wife were having a cookout for family and friends. I had a lot of fun catching up with people I had not seen in ages, including some I had not seen in 20 years! We talked and ate and talked some more. The kids played and the grownups kept an eye on them. Some even ventured to the beach and took a dip, cooling off from the hot muggy weather that has defined the Tidewater, VA area this week.

I realized only when people started leaving, that I had not taken pictures, I had been so busy gabbing! So, I took a few, just to have a record of the event. I’m sure there were people who came and left before I arrived, so I will just have to catch them next time.

All, in all, it was a good weekend. We did have a sad end of the day today, however, when one of the latest six hatched chicks passed away. He had never eaten on his own, and only drank a little water.

The mother hen shunned him after the first three days during which he cried constantly if not allowed to simply hide under her and feel her warmth. It was clear from the beginning that he was probably not going to make it, but it is always sad when any of the little ones die. So, as of today, our total count of surviving chicks hatched this summer, stands at 21. So, we will count our blessings, and look forward to watching them grow.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Japanese Beetles - A Chicken Treat

I hold the bright red plastic bowl in my hand as I move slowly along the grapevines. At my feet, a couple of hens follow, eager to take advantage of the “ones that got away.” My eyesight has never been anything to write home about, but the coppery gleam in the setting sun allows me to spy my quarry easily. At this time in the evening, approximately an hour before nightfall, they are more sluggish than they are in the beating heat of the overhead sun at midday. Still, with the temperatures in the high 90’s and the humidity approaching 80%, I battle the need to mop the sweat from my face, as I grab a leaf upon which a pair or a gang of them is having an orgy. With a quick flick of my wrist, at least 50% of the coppery interlopers find themselves doing the elementary backstroke in my red bowl of water.

My combing of the grapevines and fruit trees each evening this time of year, takes about 30-45 minutes. When my bowl is wall-to-wall copper and green, I make my way into the chicken yards. There, just before taking to their roosts for the night, the chickens enjoy a bed-time snack of Japanese Beetles.

Now, I won’t pretend I love the idea of picking bugs off the grapevines. I won’t pretend I am crazy about the one or two that fail to fall into my red bowl, but somehow happen to find their way into my shirt, where I feel their pinching little legs as they try to find another of their kind so they can continue their orgy. But I do like the idea that I can get free chicken treats, while allowing the grapevines to retain at least a few of their leaves until harvest.

Tonight, after feeding the older chicks their helping of these chicken delicacies, I took the red bowl into the coop of the brand new babies (born Wednesday and Thursday). I put the bowl on the ground to see if Mama wanted any. I was surprised to watch as she picked the bugs out of the bowl and tossed them to the chicks, who immediately fought for them. They worked the bugs into manageable pieces, and gobbled them up.

Farm chores come in all varieties. This one has definite rewards, and I find myself actually looking forward to “going japping,” as we refer to it.

Oh, and for the record, our upstairs AC unit is on the blink, and the AC guy who said he’d come by or call today did neither. So, we keep cool downstairs, when we aren’t sweating outside working or sweating upstairs working and sleeping.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

I'd Rather Be 59

The year I was turning ten I was determined to have a birthday party. Being number two in a family of six kids, I was not accustomed to having birthday parties. Mom was not particularly excited about spending a lot of money to entertain a lot of kids, only to then have problems getting them to go home (or so went the story...I think this happened ONCE when the girl next door outstayed her welcome, but I suppose, now, more than 40 years later, that point is moot.) Still, I wanted a birthday party and since Mom wasn't going to give me one, I opted to give one for myself.

Of course, Mom had to give permission for me to invite friends, make a cake, decorate the room, make party hats for everyone etc., etc. But she did NOT participate in the planning. That was all ME. I was detailed in my preparation and pleased as punch when my birthday guests started arriving. I remember proudly instructing everyone to don their homemade party hats. I suppose the party was a success, but I remember it more as a lot of work! Still, I got my birthday party and that cured me for ever wanting one again... thanks Mom.

Today, as I worked in my small, but perfectly comfortable home office, I smiled a lot to myself. I am no longer that 10 year old kid wanting a party. I am perfectly thrilled that my children and their families chose to celebrate my birthday two days early, joining me for church and then lunch afterward. No planning on my part, and I got the best gift any parent of grown children could ask for... the gift of their time and company.

And tonight, when Joe and I made our way in, after dark and after squeezing as much farm work as we possibly could into the day, I discovered I had missed a call from Jenn. I listened to the voicemail she, Ben and the lovely Miss Eloise and her insanely adorable brother Luca left for me. Eloise led the singing of the tradition Happy Birthday and the others sang along... and when they had finished, they each wished me as. "Happy Birthday Gakki." Well, Luca's was more like, "Hay Biday Gakki, Hay Buday Gakki."

A more perfect birthday, I cannot imagine. 59 beats 10 any day of the week... another year closer to retirement.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Being Gakki

Last month I had the delight of hosting my two grandchildren for the weekend. They arrived Friday at noon and I carried them back home Sunday afternoon.

I have "grown up" as a grandmother (Gakki) with the lovely Miss Eloise, who has always been an easy-to-bedder at night, providing her favorite routine of feed the animals, eat supper, take a bath, play some music and sing with Gakki and Joe, brush teeth, listen to Gakki read a story in bed, was followed. A kiss goodnight and she has always been off to dreamland.

Her brother, the amazing young Luca, at 2.5 years old, is a different story. He is literally full speed ahead until he crashes. He will fall asleep anywhere, but only when he is tired. This makes bedtime an interesting experience when hosting both of the dynamic duo.

Our routine properly followed, we all headed to the small room we call the kid's room to read their bedtime story, that Saturday night. They both loved the story. They both loved the pictures. They both gave me kisses goodnight, and we affirmed our love for each other. Eloise closed her eyes for sleep. Luca did not.

I watched those big blue eyes watching me as I headed for the door, and I had barely passed the threshold when the blue eyes, and the little cherub sporting them, were beside me, wanting me to lie down with him. Luca is not a huge fan of the stuffed, cuddly animals generally appointed the duty of soothing restless children to sleep. Luca prefers the rather large, warm blooded human, uncomfortably scrunched onto the tiny bed...he likes to touch the face and the neck and the hair of his human as he settles in for the night.

Because Eloise was already drifting off to sleep a couple of feet away in her own bed, I did not want to disturb her. I scrunched myself in beside Luca and started singing softly to him. He calmed right down. I sang the same song, over and over again... "sleep my child and peace attend thee, all through the night...". I sang until my eyes were tired and my back was screaming at my uncomfortable choice of positions. I closed my eyes and sang some more.... and then, as I began to fear I would never be able to rise from this ridiculous position, if the child ever did fall asleep, I heard the soft voice, singing my words, gently, a fraction of an instant in delay....

I ventured a quick peek from beneath my almost closed eyes, and the beautiful, intense concentration on my tiny grandson's face, as in the dim glow of the night light he concentrated to mimic my song, amazed and humbled me. My back would recover. My patience would hold. For this teaching moment came unexpectedly, and exactly when the child needed it.

I and my sweet mimic singer sang the song through twice more. Then, as a test, and still watching him through fake-closed eyes, I started to hum the song. And, sure enough, Luca switched to mimic my humming, all the while, his hand flitting across my face, neck and hair. Before we got through the second humming round, the flitting hand slowed and the soft voice wavered, as the boy drifted off to sleep. I managed to extricate myself from the floor level bed, and exit stage left, as my co-star finally succumbed to sleep.

Being a Gakki is truly a learning experience for me. Each child is so unique and has so much to teach me. I am looking forward with much excitement to the birth of my third grandchild, expected to arrive in December. I'm looking forward to learning new and wonderful things from the new grandchild, just as I have from his/her cousins.

Monday, July 3, 2017

And They're Off

So, yesterday, in a fit of compassion and idiocy, I took the perimeter collars off the dogs and encouraged them out of their more than ample yard to enjoy a romp in the back pond. They came, hesitantly, but were soon frolicking with the goats, chickens and ducks, while Joe and I sat in their midst, enjoying the bucolic scene from the vantage of our picnic table ...

The scene was lovely, but the temperature and humidity were high, so Joe went inside to get us some lemonade. In the 5 or so minutes he was gone, Ruby sidled off down the path, sniffing at squirrel trails, but mindful when called to return to the pond. Again she meandered off, and as if by some silent cue, Scotty took a notion to head in the other direction, following the drainage ditch that separates properties in the county, and which serves to maintain some water drainage control over what would otherwise be swampland.

With dogs heading in opposite directions, goats spying the willow trees as yummy snacks, and ducks wanting to follow me wherever I went, it comes as a surprise to nobody that the dogs were long gone before we could get either to respond to commands to return home.
For the next 10 hours, every horn that honked, and dog that barked, we imagined to be in direct response to our AWOL dogs. We walked all of the trails (there are many) on our property, but it was a fruitless effort.

Just before midnight I looked out the back door and spied a set of dog ears, presumably attached to a dog... upright and alert. I stepped outside and called both by name, and both came sheepishly up too me, whimpering at the horrors they surely encountered on their free-ranging escapade.
I scolded them, but mostly I recoiled at the unmistakable prefume of an unhappy skunk they were wearing. I replaced their perimeter collars, fed them minimal helpings of supper, without treats, and banished them to the time-out kennel for the night.

They are still sleeping off their adventure, and everyone is avoiding "skunk Corner" for the moment.