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:
Orioles are beautiful birds with an amazing song and bright, sunny plumage. These stunning birds LOVE sweet blossoms and fruit, particularly oranges.
To attract these beauties to your yard you could simply stick orange slices out on posts in the yard, or you can make a decorative treat with sliced oranges with these simple steps.
What you will need:
2-3 inch twigs
string or twine, cut in 12-15 inch lengths
a skewer or knitting needle (I used a knitting needle)
1. Slice oranges in half
2. Cut a few 2-3 inch twig bits
I used willow twigs because they are plentiful in our yard and are flexible
3. Use a sharp knife to cut a small nick in the center of each twig, as shown below
4. Wrap string or twine around nick in center of each twig and tie securely
5. Use skewer or knitting needle to poke a hole through the center of each orange slice
6. Push twine or string through hole in orange from bottom to top, so that twig sits and base of orange
This step is very juicy and sticky, don’t be afraid to get good and messy for the sake of the birds!
7. Hang your finished bird treats in a tree where you can watch the orioles enjoy them!
Orioles love the sweet blossoms of apple trees so I decided to hang some orange slices here for an added attraction.
Orioles build incredible hanging basket-like nests. You can cut some lengths of string or twine and lay them on garden fences or branches for these amazing builders to collect for their nests. Enjoy your bird watching!
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!
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:
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
Ticks are a serious problem in Berkshire County. Not a day goes by when we don’t find them on ourselves and our pets and we are always searching for ways to manage these horrible pests without the use of toxic chemicals. Our chickens and guinea fowl offer great tick control but can always use some help in their daunting task- we discovered these little helpers in praying mantids, a beneficial insect and natural predator to ticks and other small insects.
Mantids are native to our area so there is not risk of introducing one invasive species to manage another. Be sure to check your area before purchasing and releasing beneficial insects to be sure there is not risk of introducing invasive species.
Two years ago we bought a few egg sacks and hatched them in a clear cup. There are about 300 tiny mantids in each egg sack- we bought the egg sacks in late April and they hatched in early June. Hatching times may differ for different geographic areas. These tiny critters sounded like popcorn popping when they hatched and bounced off their container!
Be sure to release the tiny mantids soon after hatching to avoid cannibalism. Praying mantids are carnivorous and do not discriminate from their own species. When releasing mantids you can sprinkle them in the garden, on plants and trees and off ground level. Ants are predators to tiny mantid hatchlings and will take advantage of any babies they find on the ground.
Mantis babies are itty bitty and a light brown color. They turn the bright green as they mature in order to blend in with the vegetation they hide in.
You can keep a mantis or two as pets but they must be separated or they will eat one another. It can be a challenge to catch insects small enough for them to eat, ants will eat baby mantids and should not be offered as a food source. Fruit flies and gnats make a great mantis meal!
A few weeks ago while walking the orchards we found this mantid egg sack wrapped up in some dried tall grass. It was an exciting discovery and proud mantis-parent moment to see that our beneficials were breeding on the property.
You can order praying mantid egg sacks from Arbico Organics, they are a wonderful resource for organic and natural pest control options. Egg sacks can be place directly in the yard to hatch or hatched inside for your viewing pleasure. Make sure your insect nursery container has only tiny air holes- baby mantids are tiny and will escape all over your house if they can!
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
needle and thread or sewing machine
saddle pattern (can be printed from Mother Earth article)
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
Print out your saddle pattern from the Mother Earth article
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 in
4. Cut two strips of 1/2 inch elastic at 7 inches
5. Pin elastic strips to neckline, so that long end of elastic is hidden between pinned layers of the saddle, as shown in photos below
6. Stitch 1/4 inch seam around the edge of your saddle, leaving a hole (seen on right hand side) unstitched on one side
7. Using hole left unstitched, turn saddle right side out, like a pillow
8. Sew 1/4 inch seam around outer edge, closing up hole used to turn right side out
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 elastic
10. Stitch elastic in place, fasten velcro and be proud of your beautiful and functional new chicken saddle!
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:
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.
In January we lost our father unexpectedly after a short illness. He grew up helping his grand parents take care of the chickens, cows and pigs at Olsen Farm. Those were his fondest memories from childhood, and he always loved to reminisce about what an incredible experience it had been to grow up on this farm. He then built his own home on the family farm lands, where he raised his children with a love for the outdoors- creating his fondest memories from his adult life.
His recent passing is part of what inspired us to make Olsen Farm opened to the public as it once was when he was a child growing up here.
We now live in the house he built back in the 1980’s and recently received scary financial news. Because of debts and outstanding bills against the estate we are in jeopardy of losing our home and the farm. This news has come after the sudden tragedy of losing our dad, and has been an unfair piece that has interrupted our grieving.
One day we hope to raise our own children on this land, and continue the legacy of Olsen Farm. This farm is special. This land is meant to be planted, grazed and harvested. We need your help to ensure the future of Olsen Farm.
Below is the link to our GoFundMe campaign, please donate if you are able and share if you are comfortable. Every little bit is one step closer to saving a small, local farm. We truly appreciate your love and support.
Thank you all,
Chris and Kristen
We are always looking for ways to save money, and to live more sustainably. One small step we took this year is to start our seeds using homemade paper pots, rather than buying plastic or peat pots. We purchased a wooden PotMaker from Lehman’s- and used the tag paper our Lehman’s order was shipped in for our first pots! Take a look at our first DIY seed starting experiment:
The PotMaker is a clever two piece wooden mold that allows you to repurpose newspaper or newsprint and turn it into biodegradable starting pots that can be popped right in the ground.
Here is how it works:
1. Cut your paper into strips 3.5 inches wide by about 16 inches long. Line one edge of the long side your strip up with the lip of the cylindrical part of your PotMaker, as shown below.
2. Gently wrap your paper strip around the cylindrical part of the PotMaker until your strip is completely wrapped. Overlapping layers will make your paper pot stronger. At first I wrapped my paper too tightly and the finished pot would not slide off the PotMaker- luckily, you can learn from my mistake!
3. The bottom of your pot should have about an inch of paper overlapping- and should look like this:
4. Start folding in the bottom paper overlap. I found my pots stayed together best when I made the first fold-in to the left of the seam where the paper roll finishes wrapping around the cylinder, so that the second fold-in would hold in the seam itself.
5. Continue folding in the overlapping paper all the way around the base of your PotMaker.
6. Now comes the fun part! Take your paper wrapped and folded cylindrical handle and press, twist and turn it into the fitted wooden base. Use your muscles! I found pots hold a better and stronger shape when you place the base on a hard surface and press the paper-wrapped top down into it. Unlike what I have shown in the photos below…
7. Gently slide your newly formed paper pot off the cylinder and repeat as many times as pots you desire!
Congratulations! Your new, biodegradable, FREE paper pots are done- now it is time to plant!
1. Take your favorite potting soil and fill each paper pot. Gently press soil down to about 1/4 inch from the top of your pot. With the money we saved from not buying plastic or peat pots we were able to invest in better soil for our starters. Today we used 100% Organic VermiSoil and it smelled delightful!
2. Generously pop in you choice of seeds (I always plant 3-5 seeds per starting pot, it is easy to separate later on when they sprout)- today we started sweet and hot peppers, two types of onions and an array of herbs.
4. Cover seeds with 1/4 of soil and gently press down. Add some labels, so you can remember what you have planted!
Don’t forget to water in your freshly planted seeds and set them in a sunny spot to sprout.
The PotMaker has proven to be a great investment so far this year. They are available at Lehman’s if you are feeling inspired to try one out yourself. We will check back in with seed starting updates as our PotMaker paper pots start to sprout!
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.
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.
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!
Hello all, Chris and Kristen from Olsen Farm in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, here (along with some of our fine feathered friends).
At Olsen Farm we currently raise chickens and guinea fowl, as well as bees. We are working to reclaim old orchards and both graft and plant new apple, pear, peach and nut trees. We also grow fruits, herbs and veggies in our garden using sustainable and biodynamic gardening techniques and NO pesticides.
We are looking forward to sharing updates, farm tips and news from our farm with you in weeks and months to come!