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 naïve 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.”


Anonymous said...

Wow!! The honey Bee picture is fabulous!!

Save Our Natural Pollinators!

Kathleen Baumgardner said...

It is always a pleasure to read about the farm and see your beautiful pictures. Thank you for sharing!

Judy's Corner said...

Thank you Kat! I have neglected this blog for so long. I think it time I find my way back here and post more regularly.