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Jessica Van Steensberg – Howdy Neighbor!


Jessica Van Steensberg

Last month when I went to visit Shelly Beck at the Greenfield Community Farm I learned that a new Heath neighbor of mine, Jessica Van Steensberg, is the Associate Director. I immediately had to meet her.

I found her at the house on a three acre plot she bought with her husband Jeff Aho and moved into two years ago. Behind the house I saw hens free ranging everywhere, a big hog in a pen and a whole flock of black turkeys that were clearly waiting for Thanksgiving. This is the We Can Farm and it is filled with activity.

Van Steensberg is not new to small scale farming. She grew up on a small farm in Londonderry, N.H. where Jessica grew up with her siblings. “I loved the farm. We raised our own food, veggies, chickens, pigs and sheep. We’d barter the meat.”

When the time came she attended Cazenovia College. “I have been a horse lover all my life so I chose to go to Cazenovia, a small school, because they had an Equine Business degree. I figured even if I never got to do the horses part, I’d still have a business degree.”

Her part-time college job, and then full time position with Blue Seal Feeds took her to farms, but not yet to her own.

“When I became a territory sales manager for Blue Seal I needed to move into my territory which included Connecticut as well as parts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Because my two sisters went to Smith I was familiar with Northampton so I moved there. Six months later I moved to Greenfield. where I later began working for the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association as their Director of Operations.

“I worked at NESEA for six years. That was my first non-profit job. I was so happy to be able to walk to work. It was the first town where I really felt at home, and got to know what it’s like to be part of a community.”

Her love of horses took her to volunteer work on the Board of Directors at Opening Gaits Therapeutic Riding Center in Gill. It was through Opening Gaits that she met her husband Jeff Aho in 2008. “Jeff has three children Kieran, now 13, Hjordis, now 11, and Tove, now 9. They spend half their time with us, and half with their mother in Greenfield.”

Jessica Van Steensberg and Jeff Aho

While working for NESEA Jessica met many people who said she should meet Jay Lord, who is well-known in the area as a founder of the Greenfield Center School, and the Northeast Foundation for Children, and more recently, as one of the founders of the Greenfield Community Garden, Just Roots. “I finally met Jay and began my transition from energy efficiency to farming. We thought we’d work well together because we have complimentary skill sets. He is visionary and I’m boots on the ground. Being Associate Director of Just Roots is a part-time job; I also work as office manager for the architect Margo Jones.”

The desire for their own farm was fulfilled when they moved to Heath. Before they even moved into their house they planted their first garden and joined the Heath Agricultural Society which organizes the Heath Fair every year. They have now met half the town and have established their own farm operation with particular focus on raising and selling heritage breeds of animals.

I got to meet the pigs including Rocky, the Hereford boar. “We like supporting heritage and endangered breeds. We are the only place selling purebred Hereford hogs on the Eastern seaboard.” Hereford hogs are ideal for small scale farming because they do not grow too large, are quiet and docile, and the sows are good mothers. The plan is to sell breeding stock, and feeder pigs in the spring.

They raise chickens and at this point they sell eggs ‘casually.” They are also raising 35 Black turkeys, a rare heritage breed. “They are also referred to as Spanish Blacks or Nordic Blacks but since the lines have been crossed, we just refer to them as Black,” Jessica said. “They are suspected to be one of the first breeds developed from wild turkeys and also suspected to be the first breed brought over to Europe.” In fact, these turkey were brought from Mexico in the 1500s, and later returned here with the early colonists.

Jessica holding Sally

All of them, except Sally, are sold and will make their way to Thanksgiving tables in the area. She expects they will raise a larger number next year.

While I have been very aware of the necessity to maintain seed collections to preserve a wide and varied gene pool, I hadn’t given much thought to the necessity for keeping a varied gene pool for farm animals. Through Van Steensberg I was introduced to the Livestock Conservancy ( Their mission is “Ensuring the future of agriculture through the genetic conservation and promotion of endangered breeds of livestock and poultry.” They find endangered livestock breeds and work with breeders to increase those populations. Breeding these animals can offer a financial opportunity while supporting valuable conservation work. None of us know what genes will be important in meeting the challenges of the future.

I was too late this year, but next year I plan to put a turkey on the table just like the ones early settlers would have put on their tables at this season of the year.

In the meantime, I wish you all a happy Thanksgiving with wishes that you enjoy a delicious meal of your family favorites.

Chicken Encyclopedia Finale on National Poultry Day

Chicken Encyclopedia by Gail Damerow

Chickens have been much on my mind over the past two weeks as I participated in The Chicken Encyclopedia virtual book tour with the participation of 15 of us chicken loving bloggers. I am one of the bloggers who gave away a copy of the book and passed on some information. However, I also passed on some misinformation. Happily I have been corrected by Gail Damerow and the editors at Storey Publishing and I want to make the correction.

I said that when a chicken egg is fertilized the chick develops from the white, and the yolk supplies nourishment. I got that half right. Gail correctly explains, “The germinal spot on the surface of the yolk is what becomes the chick”.
So a more accurate description of what happens is that  a pale, irregularly shaped spot of cells on the surface of an egg yolk is fertilized and then becomes the embryo. So technically the chick develops within the white, but not from the white.  My apologies.

Now, to celebrate National Poultry Day Storey is giving Storey blog readers a chance to win: a signed copy of The Chicken Encyclopedia,  a signed copy of Chick Days by Jenna Woginrich and The Fresh Egg Cookbook by Jennifer Trainer Thompson, as well as an “I’m a Chick Magnet” refrigerator magnet and a chicken-breed poster. Kathy Mormino, from ADozenGirlz, The Chicken Chick™, has donated a gift certificate for custom egg carton labels and a super-cute “Got Eggs?” T-shirt. Fellow blogger Lisa fromFresh Eggs Daily has donated a rustic handpainted mailbox sign (with hanging chalkboard) and a chicken window decal. And we top it all off with For the Love of Poultry, a special anthology of the entire first year of Backyard Poultry magazine! This basket of chicken goodies could be yours if you leave a comment here or on the appropriate post of the Storey Facebook page. There are two baskets so you have a double chance to win.

You even have a another second chance  to win all those goodies by going to the Mother Earth News blog or their Facebook page. Leave your entry comments by March 25.

To end the tour I want to remind you of all the chicken lovers and experts who you might want to visit again when you are in need of more information or  inspiration.

3/2 For the Love of Chickens

3/3 Vintage Garden Gal

3/4 The Garden Roof Coop

3/5 Common Weeder

3/6 Chickens in the Road

3/7 Garden Rant

3/8 Fresh Eggs Daily

3/9 My Pet Chicken Blog

3/10 Coop Thoughts

3/11 BoHo Farm and Home

3/12 Happy Chickens Lay Healthy Eggs

3/13 A Charlotte Garden

3/14 Farm Fresh Fun

/14 Farm Fresh Fun

3/15 The HenCam

3/16 Life on a Southern Farm

3/17 ADozenGirlz, the Chicken Chick™

3/18 North Coast Gardening


We Have a Winner! And It’s Bloom Day

I am happy to announce that Gracia is the winner of Storey Publications book The Chicken Encyclopedia.  Send me your mailing address and I will have Storey mail the book directly to you.

Congratulations! Have fun with your chickens.


While Gracia is celebrating  with her chickens I am celebrating my snowdrops on this Bloom Day. To see what else is blooming across the  country visit May Dreams Gardens. Carol, thank you for hosting this beautiful and useful meme.

More snowdrops


Chicken Encyclopedia – Storey Blog Tour & Giveaway

The Chicken Encyclopedia by Gail Damerow

The chicken is a familiar farm animal, but even those who are setting up backyard flocks may not be aware of the more arcane facts of their life. Some may not be aware of the most basic facts of their biology. I cannot count the number of times people have told me they would love to have chickens producing eggs in the backyard, but they just cannot stand the thought of having a rooster. BASIC FACT: Hens, like women everywhere, do not need a male to produce eggs. Hens, like women everywhere, do need a male to produce a baby.

Chicks in mailing box - keeping each other warm

Related Basic Facts: A rooster fertilizes an egg before it has a shell and before it is laid in the nest. The white of the fertilized egg is what becomes the chick, while the yolk is there to nourish the chick as it develops. That is why day old chicks can be sent to a new chicken farmer in  the mail. The newly hatched chick needs no food or water for three days. Of course, those of us who have picked up a cheerily cheeping box of chicks from the post office are happy to get them into their brooding area as quickly as possible, to give them the warmth that is essential, as well as food and water.

Chicks in brooder box - warm, fed and watered

Gail Damerow’s Chicken Encyclopedia published by Storey will answer hundreds of other questions about chickens. Some of the answers will help you decide what kind of flock you want to have. There are always aesthetics. So many breeds from big handsomely feathered birds like the Faverolle to the Silkie to a nearly featherless hybrid.

Chicken Encyclopedia - Comb Styles

Even the shape of their combs might influence your choice. There is the familiar single comb, but also rose combs, pea combs, strawberry and pea combs.

When I first had chickens the winters were colder than they are now. Some of the birds with their tall single combs would get frostbitten which was alarming to see in January, but they always recovered by June. Chickens with smaller combs like the rose comb did not suffer as much from the cold. Nowadays it doesn’t seem to be an issue at all.


I have chosen different breeds over the years, fat golden Buff Orpingtons, cheerful Barred Rocks, elegant Silver Laced Wyandottes and others. It is nice to have a pretty mixed flock clucking around but the last few years I have only ordered Araucanas/Americanas, which is the way Murray McMurray hatchery labels and sells them. These are the chickens that lay those pretty blue eggs. I haven’t chosen them because of the prettiness of the eggs, but because they are such good layers, easily laying reliably into their third year. What I give up is a mixed flock of beautifully feathered birds. I don’t think Araucans are the most attractive birds you can get, but I decided I need to be practical in getting more eggs for my buck.

This post is part of Storey’s virtual blog tour. Be sure to visit the other bloggers who are giving more information and responses to the Chicken Encyclopedia.  Also, you can win a copy of this fascinating book by leaving a comment below by midnight March 14. Be sure I have your email address, and I’ll announce the winner, chosen randomly, on March 15.  Storey will send your copy of the Chicken Encyclopedia once I have your mailing address.  The other blogs are also having Giveaways so you have many chances to win this great book. Thank you Storey!

2-Mar     For the Love of Chickens
3-Mar    Vintage Garden Gal
4-Mar    The Garden Roof Coop
5-Mar    Common Weeder
6-Mar    Chickens in the Road
7-Mar    Garden Rant
8-Mar    Fresh Eggs Daily
9-Mar    My Pet Chicken Blog
10-Mar    Coop Thoughts
11-Mar    BoHo Farm and Home
12-Mar    Happy Chickens Lay Healthy Eggs
13-Mar    A Charlotte Garden
14-Mar    Farm Fresh Fun
15-Mar    The HenCam
16-Mar    Life on a Southern Farm
17-Mar    ADozenGirlz, the Chicken Chick
18-Mar    North Coast Gardening

Storey Publishing has its own blog which is full of information and fun. I know because I once contributed some chicken lore. I guess I just did a little crowing there.

Fox went out on a chilly afternoon

I was about to start cooking yesterday when I looked out the kitchen window and saw my chickens all a-flutter and one in the mouth of a fox. A healthy and beautiful red fox. I opened the window and started yelling and banging my frying pan and lid. Everyone really got excited.

The fox dropped the chicken and had trouble finding the hole in the chicken fence, but finally pushed his way through. The chickens went flying in every direction.

The fox fled up the snowy lane – then stopped, looking back at the hen house. I started banging even harder and after a long hesitation the fox loped off.

Three chickens

Three of the chickens ran back in the hen house, along with the rooster who lurked in the far corner. The other chickens flew off and hid under the tractor shed. I tried to herd them in, but to no avail. When the sun set I went out to the henhouse and found all ten chickens, and one very quiet rooster in place.

I took the photo of the chickens but Gary Lehman took the picture of the fox for the New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife. I think the photo is of ‘my’ fox’s brother. A close resemblance.

Start a Free Range Chicken Flock – Contest

Dreaming of free range chickens? Dreaming of sun yellow egg yolks? Dreaming of buk-buk-buk songs in the back yard? Dreaming of cheerful, domestic and productive chickens working for you and keeping you cheerful and domestic?  This is your chance to win Free Range Chicken Gardens book by Jessi Bloom and published by Timber Press – as well as a

All you have to do is go to Timber Press and enter their contest by February 17. You have seven days left to enter.

I wonder if the henhouse plan will look anything like the Taj Mahal of henhouses I wrote about here.


Sweet Winter Fare Meal and Event

Honeybees photo courtesy of

What sweeter way to begin the Winter Fare activities that with a honey brunch at Green Fields Market.

Sweet Honey and the Brunch!
Sunday, February 5 between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., Green Fields Market, Main St., Greenfield

Green Fields Market will feature local honey in a variety of dishes for this special brunch.   While you enjoy brunch, Shelburne’s Piti Theatre Company will be buzzing with information about their new production about bees (and the challenges they’re facing) To Bee or Not to Bee. Piti is launching a “10% For the Bees” Campaign in collaboration with Greening Greenfield and High Mowing Seeds, encouraging the replanting of 10% of business and home-owner lawns with bee- friendly habitat. The co-op will donate a percentage of brunch sales to the production which will premiere at the company’s SYRUP: One Sweet Performing Arts Festival, March 17th in Memorial Hall, Shelburne Falls. Support the production at or learn more at

Then put this interesting movie on your Winter Fare calendar.

Film Showing: “King Corn”

Wednesday, February 8, 7 p.m., Sunderland Public Library, School St., Sunderland

King Corn is a documentary about two friends and the subsidized crop that drives our fast-food nation: corn. With the help of friendly neighbors, genetically modified seeds, and powerful herbicides, Ian and Curt plant and grow a bumper crop of America’s most productive, most subsidized grain on one acre of Iowa soil. But when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system, what they find raises troubling questions about how we eat — and how we farm. (Duration: 90 minutes). Free. For information, contact Aaron Falbel at (413) 665-2642 or visit

Dan Conlon who I wrote about here told me that corn syrup is just as bad for bees as it is for humans. Beekeepers routinely feed sugar syrup to bees during the winter and very early spring if they see that honey supplies in the hive are low.  Cane sugar is pure sucrose, and the nectar that honeybees gather is principally sucrose so bees process it just as they do nectar.

Corn syrup, as we all know, is cheaper than sugar which is why it is used in so many of our processed foods and soft drinks. High fructose corn syrup is also cheap for those large bee companies to use, but the bees do not find it as delicious as sucrose. Aside from their taste preferences, corn syrup is a problem for bees because it crystallizes in the hive and becomes so hard that the bees cannot eat it.

Fortunately we have beekeepers in our area who give us great honey like Warm Colors Apiary,  and the Shelburne Honey Company located at Apex Orchards. Pretty sweet.

Cow in the Co-Op

Forget bulls in a china shop. This friendly cow lives in my Green Fields Market Co-Op.

For more (almost) Wordlessness this Wednesday click here.

Free Range Chicken Gardens – Timber Press Giveaway

Free Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful Chicken-Friendly Yard

Yesterday I heard a discussion about the environmental and economic situation on the radio. One speaker laughed and said we’ll all be stocking up on gold and backyard chickens. I don’t have any gold, but I do have backyard chickens. As do many of my rural neighbors. However, I know that gardeners who live in town on small lots are also setting up backyard flocks. The town ordinances allow up to ten chickens. No roosters!

If you don’t already lust after your own flock of pretty egg layers, a browse through the beautiful pages of Free Range Chicken Gardens by Jessi Bloom with seductive photos by Kate Baldwin and published by Timber Press will send you off to find the Murray McMurray Hatchery catalog.

To further seduce potential chicken farmers, Timber Press will giveaway the Free Range Chicken Gardens to one lucky person who will also win a complete chicken garden start-up kit, including:

All you have to do is go to the Timber Press website and sign up for this great prize.

I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book, which is dense with information about chicken house design, predators, keeping your garden safe from the chickens and beautiful photographs of charming gardens and all kinds of elegant chickens, but I wanted to give you plenty of time to enter your name before the February 17.

Just think what it means to have your own small chicken flock. Delicious eggs with marigold yellow yolks. And wonderful manure for the garden. Feed yourself and feed your soil.

Proof That Heath Loves Farms

Heath - A Right to Farm Community Roadside Sign

For more Wordlessness click here.