Wednesday, February 22, 2017

School visit, balloon belly and free spirits

I realized I haven't updated our blog for more than a month.

This is inexcusable because I know that there are huge crowds of our fans out there in different countries, planets and galaxies, and they all anxiously wait for the latest news from the farm.
The universal law (the one that rules the universe) says that if you wait for something long enough, you deserve to get it. (※ The universal law doesn't guarantee you actually get anything. It just says you deserve it.)

So here are the news of the month for our deserving intergalactic fans.

1. Visitors

Third graders at the Tsukuba International School are learning about renewable energy, so they dropped by to see how it works on our farm. We talked about: how the solar panels work; how the electricity is made and where it goes; why solar sharing is such a smart design; why our chickens are so special; why there are chickens strolling outside of the farm; and other exciting topics.

Tsukuba International School visiting our solar sharing chicken farm
First we talked in the back of the farm (no solar panels in sight).
Then we moved to the chickens' area.

Chickens and goats did their best to entertain the guests :D

2. Natchan  has a balloon belly

Natchan has a belly of impressive proportions. The important question is: Will they be twins or triplets?

Very pregnant goat with a balloon belly
Please, be it just twins!

Very pregnant goat with a balloon belly.
Two is enough, please!

3. Number of free spirits on the farm is increasing

More and more chickens learn how to fly over the fence. My verbal warnings are useless.
Last Saturday I went to the farm in the morning to serve chickens their breakfast, and I was welcomed not by one, but by 3 (three) free-spirited border crossers. (One of them was goat.) (Kuri-chan.)

Solar sharing chicken farm, Tsukuba, Japan.

Escaped chickens and a goat. Circled red.

Basically there is a chicken or two strolling around near the road or in the rice field at any time of the day. I just really hope the passers-by don't hate us (I think that some do.)

That's was the news of the month.

I will conclude with a moving picture: chickens in the wind with unbuttoned coats.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Solar monitor

I'll start with the obvious: Our farm is a "solar sharing" farm, so it consists of two parts:
1. power generation (solar panels) and 2. food production (free range chickens).

Solar sharing definition: Ground floor - chickens; First floor: solar panels.

But for the past year, almost all posts on this blog were about chickens - the food production part. Apparently chickens are more interesting to write about because they move and fly and sing and do all the funny things that a bunch of cute mini-dinosaurs should do. The well of chicken topics will never be exhausted.

Fluffy chicken bottom
Birds survived dinosaur extinction because of their fluffy bottoms. 

Solar panels don't fly or sing so they easily get overlooked, but in economic terms they are essential because they financially support the whole farm. And (sadly) economic terms matter. Because revenue from electricity sales subsidizes our chicken business, it's safe to say that without panels, there would be no chickens at all.
(For the chicken business to be self-sustaining [= able to pay the labor costs], we would either have to increase the number of chickens fivefold, or increase the price of an egg five times. The first option would produce many unhappy overcrowded chickens. The second would produce outrageously expensive, unsellable eggs. If there is a third way other than subsidizing, we haven't discovered it yet.)

All this means that panels deserve some attention too! Especially as this blog has "solar sharing" in its title. So here's a yesterday screenshot of Solar monitor, the online monitoring service that we use to check our farm's power generation status.

Solar power generation, real time monitoring. Tsukuba, Japan.
 Power generation status on Jan. 15, 2017, 10:44 am.

For explanation of the categories, check this older screenshot with English notes.

Solar monitor with English description
Click to enlarge

Solar monitor is not cheap (3250 jpy monthy fee) but it is quite useful. Frequent checking of the generation status helped us notice suspiciously low performance more than a year ago which led to the "discovery" that 10% of panels were malfunctioning. (Now fixed.) 
Despite Solar monitor's importance I only mentioned it once on this blog, and that was already two years ago.

Yesterday was a perfect weather day for solar power  - sunny, cold and windy. Icy wind does not make the day too pleasant for humans, but solar panels are happy - the wind cools the panel surface and performance goes up. Thanks to these conditions we recorded the best daily performance in more than a year: 224.5 kWh of electricity/day.

Solar monitor, total daily performance. Solar sharing farm in Tsukuba, Japan.

What's funny is that Solar monitor also makes performance predictions for the next and the next-next day, based on the weather information, but yesterday, the prediction went amusingly wrong.
We were supposed to have clouds and even snow in the afternoon ...

Solar monitors are fallible.

... but a picture taken at the farm just at that supposedly cloudy-snowy time, was this:

Solar sharing with solar panels and a chicken and blue sky. Japan.
Jan. 15, 2017, cca 3:30 pm

Well, I was not disappointed. We'll  happily wait for the snow until next winter :D

Monday, January 9, 2017

Our farm on Texas Instruments' Instagram!

Our farm had another little moment of fame: Our solar sharing farm was introduced on Nobuo's company's Instagram account.

Texas Instruments' Instagram

Below is the text next to the photo - our explanation of the farm and why we started it.

“The Fukushima nuclear meltdowns occurred in March 2011 – an involuntary turning point for Japan. Suddenly everyone got interested in renewables. Japan's energy policy changed, making it mandatory for electric power companies to buy electricity from renewable sources for fixed (and quite high) prices. My wife and I thought this was a good opportunity to start our own chicken farm and ‘solar sharing system’ – utilizing land for solar power generation and farming. We had no experience. We make a little extra money selling eggs from our chickens. The goats are for fun. Now there are hundreds of solar sharing farms around Japan. We believe solar sharing could be applied in other regions as well.”
---End of quote---

Texas Instruments is a U.S. based company but our farm is in Japan, which means we got attention from as far as another continent. (Last year, we had visitors from Thailand and other countries.) The more people know about solar sharing, the higher the chance that the right person will see it - the right person would be someone with a pioneering spirit, keen on starting a solar sharing project of their own, in their own country.  In any country other than Japan, this would still be something new and groundbreaking - as it was in Japan 5 years ago.

I hope someone will notice the opportunity soon!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

What is a "food story."

Happy New Year!

2017 is Year of the Rooster, so here's our Justin, completely oblivious to his newfound fame.

free range chickens under solar panels, Tsukuba, Japan
Justin the Rooster (the white one) today morning, watching his girlfriends
play the ice game and probably wishing he was a girl too.

Now to the topic.
A few days ago I read the New York Times article "The Most-Read Food Stories of 2016."  

It's a summary of twelve N.Y. Times articles "that Food section readers found most compelling in 2016."

Like most people who prefer to eat every day, I'm inherently interested in food. I was genuinely curious what the most popular "food stories" of 2016 were.

I clicked on the article, read it, and ended up a little disappointed. So I'm going to write about my disappointment here.

To be clear, I often read the N. Y. Times and I usually find it both informative and enjoyable (like this piece about the chemistry behind champagne bubbles), definitely worth the subscription.  But the Food Stories summary was disappointing. The reason was that its definition of a "food story" was so much different from what I expected.

NYT: This is a food story.  Me: Are you sure?

The article started promisingly: "In a year dominated by the presidential election, the readers of the Food section flocked to articles about the basics."

That's exactly what I expected! Article about the basics.
Except that it turned out to be something else: mostly a collection of recipes and celebrity chefs' career updates, with titles like "How to Roast Cauliflower (the Whole Thing)"  and "Three Steps to Brewing a Better Cup of Coffee," or "Alton Brown, Showman of Food TV, Pulls Back the Curtain."

I naively expected that at least some of the twelve stories would be about where the food we eat comes from - which is what I understand as the basics. There could be perhaps an article about a farm where that roasted cauliflower was grown, or what kind of place those coffee beans brewed in three steps were produced. Introducing the producer (a farmer, a rancher, a fisherman) - without whom there would be no food on the table in the first place - sounds to me like a nice start when talking about the basics.

From farm to warehouse to processing and packaging to supermarket or restaurant to final consumer
Just in case the pictures are too incomprehensible:
Farm → Warehouse → Processing/Packaging → Supermarket or Restaurant → Final Consumer
(What's missing are trucks/ships/trains that transport the stuff around. )

Of course, all twelve stories had something to do with food, and some dealt with objectively important issues, often connecting food (or drinks) with culture ("The American Thanksgiving") or history ("Jack Daniel’s Embraces a Hidden Ingredient: Help From a Slave"). And really, any talk about recipes and home-cooking is a good thing. (I admit that and I don't even like cooking.)

So I don't deny the importance and the fun of reading the stories.  Even the one restaurant review that made it to the top of the list was a delightful reading (thanks to the author Pete Wells' writing skills, rather than my interest in the overpriced restaurant).

But if a newspaper's Food section is so concerned about where, by whom and how the food was cooked, doesn't it sound reasonable to be also concerned about where, by whom and how the food was produced in the first place? Having one - just one - story tracing the featured food back to the source would give the selection a bit more balance (if we want to insist that we're talking about the basics.)

(There occasionally are articles in the N.Y.T. Food section about farms or other issues at the start of the food supply chain, normally invisible to the us the food-eaters, such as this story about sheep farms making prize-winning cheeses but not making enough profit to make ends meet, or this story about an animal research center in Nebraska mistreating animals. But these are very, very few.)

So! Here's my suggestion.
The N. Y. T. has a nice 4-star system used for reviewing restaurants. It works like this: "Ratings range from zero to four stars. Zero is poor, fair or satisfactory. One star, good. Two stars, very good. Three stars, excellent. Four stars, extraordinary."

What if the N.Y.T.  had a similar system for reviewing farms?

Proposal: applying NYT restaurant review system (four stars) to farms
The red things are stars.

The rating would, of course, include quality of the product (fruit, vegetables, eggs, milk, cheese, meat) relative to its price, but also the quality and integrity of the production process - producer's philosophy, environmental sustainability (e.g. pesticide use), workers' treatment, animal treatment.
Inevitably, such a review would not be as rigorous and objective as various official certificates aspire to be, and also, like with the restaurant reviews, the reviewer would probably focus on farms producing high-end products, but that's fine. Any informed glimpse into a farm would be revealing, especially for the many city dwellers who often treat food like air - it's always there in sufficient quantity and quality, so we don't have to give it a f**k.

Thank you for reading this rant until the end. Chickens would give you a friendly poke if they knew you care. Here are at least some recent pictures.

Chickens at work. Eggs on their way.
Office occupancy 90%. (2016/12/30)

Chickens inside the coop, checking new carpet for hidden treasures.
New carpet in the house! (腐葉土) (2016/12/30)
Chickens under solar panels on our solar sharing farm, Tsukuba, Japan
Happy Rooster Year! (2017/1/1)

Monday, December 5, 2016

How feathers grow (beautiful)

This is how a molting chicken regrew her feathers. It's amazing transformation.
(I recommend to click on the photos and watch them as a full screen slide show.)

Day 1

Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
November 13, 2016
Day 3
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 15
 Day 5
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 17
 Day 8
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 20
 Day 9
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 21
Day 10
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 22
Day 11
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 23
Day 12
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 24
 Day 13
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 25
Day 14
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 26
 Day 15
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 27
Day 16
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 28
Day 17
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 29

Day 18

Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Nov. 30
Day 19
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec 1. 
Day 20
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 2
Day 21
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 3
Day 22
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 4
Day 23
Molting chicken grows new feathers. Growing process in pictures.
Dec. 5

Just a little more to go and a new coat is complete :D

Monday, November 14, 2016

Chickens are molting (and it's not pretty)

If you have been to our farm recently, you might have noticed that some chickens look a bit ...bad: They have unsightly bald patches of skin that one would not expect in a healthy, happy chicken.

A molting chicken with bald back.
Everyone doesn't have to look like a model, right?!
Now I know that it's because the chickens are molting, but when I first observed the bald spots some weeks ago, I was at loss what the cause of such massive feather loss might be.
The assorted possible reasons included stress (I tried hard but couldn't think of any source of stress of our chickens), disease (other than bald backs, chickens appeared healthy), bad nutrition (for a while I actually increased the proportion of ready-made feed to make sure I wasn't screwing up nutritional balance with too much of local sources, but nothing changed.), skin parasites (I checked bad-looking chickens for mite and the like, and found nothing), pecking (there is clear hierarchy in the flock and small fights do occur, but I never witnessed the kind of aggressive pecking that would lead to such feather loss.), and roosters (repeated jumping on the hen's back can damage her feathers - this still seems to be the case for popular hens, even though we now have only one rooster.) None of these options looked plausible, and no wonder, the answer was much simple: our chickens entered the molting period.

Molting is a natural process usually occuring in late summer or in fall, when days get shorter and chickens finish their egg laying cycle (about 10-month long). Not all chickens follow the textbook description and some start molting earlier, some later, and even their molting patterns are individual. It can take two to four months to replace the old feathers with new ones, so we can expect chickens' shabby look to continue for a while.

A molting chicken, losing and regrowing all feathers at once
This is the worst-looking chicken in our flock. This girl is losing all
feathers at once (unlike other chickens who mostly have just bald backs)...

A chicken during molting. Lost feathers are replaced by new ones.
... but she's also regrowing them much faster than others
(the sharp 'needles' sticking out of the skin are new feathers.)

The aesthetic consequence of molting is temporary unsightliness, which is fine. The economic consequence is more serious - during molting, chickens lay fewer eggs, and of worse quality. Commercial egg farms deal with this "problem" in one of two ways: 1. they kill the chickens (and replace them with new ones); 2. they do forced molting - induce molt in the chickens by starving them for two weeks, during which they regrow their feathers quickly and start laying a lot of pretty eggs again for a few more months. This forced molting is considered animal abuse and banned in many countries, but not in Japan. I know of at least one small farmer raising hens in barns (平飼い)who does forced molting in his flock.

Which leads us to the question: What is the plan on our farm, which is, after all, a commercial operation. Needless to say, we won't do the forced molting. The plan has been to reduce the number of chickens by the end of this year. Of course reducing the number of chickens is euphemism for killing them, and that's where we bumped into a problem: we are not able to kill them. I tried and I couldn't do it. The line between a "pet" and an "economic animal" has always blurry on our farm. Just as most people would (and should) find it difficult to cut their cat's or hamster's throat and let it bleed out, so do we find it difficult to kill our chickens. We'll have to figure out what to do, and how to do it.

In the meantime, here are a few pics from yesterday. Title: Enjoying life, chicken version.
(Molting is only problem for humans.)

Free range chickens and goats. Solar sharing farm in Tsukuba, Japan.

Free range chickens on a solar sharing farm, Tsukuba, Japan

Free range chickens on a solar sharing farm, Tsukuba, Japan.

Free range chickens, solar sharing, Tsukuba, Japan.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Minto-kun died

Our goat Minto-kun died on Sunday.

We knew that Minto-kun wouldn't live long, but we didn't think he would die this soon. I don't know what to say. I will just explain what happened - it's explanation for our friends and customers who came to the farm and knew Minto-kun and liked him. Everyone who knew Minto-kun, liked him. He was such a charming character.

Minto-kun. Died on October 30, 2016.

Minto-kun and Akio-kun, always side by side.

A few days after Akio-kun died, Minto-kun suddenly fell ill too. One morning we found him lying on the ground, unable to stand up. It was a nightmarish dejavu just a few days after we found Akio-kun like that.
We took Minto-kun to the doctor where he received emergency treatment which saved his life that day. But after what seemed like a slight recovery, he got weak again. He was unable to stand but he still had appetite. We kept him warm and comfortable, with plenty of his favorite treats, but he was getting weaker. On Sunday afternoon he died. It was exactly one week after Akio-kun.

Minto-kun strolling around Akio-kun's grave. Still healthy.

Minto-kun a few hours after the emergency visit to the doctor,
eating his favorite persimmon :)

Minto-kun's last picture standing on his own (and in a very pretty garden.)

This will sound like a terrible cliche but it really seemed as if Minto-kun was so lonely after Akio-kun's death that he chose to join him rather than stay with us.
I know there must be a more scientific explanation, and I wish I had it. But we don't really know why Minto-kun suddenly got sick. For the three months that Minto-kun spent on our farm, he appeared to be healthy - steadily recovering from the malnutrition he suffered in his previous place. It's true that we never saw him running, but we thought that he was simply a goat that doesn't run. In fact it might have indicated irregular heart function. We also never saw him doing the 'second chewing' (chewing cud - ruminants put once eaten food from their stomach back to mouth where they chew it over, then finally digest), but we didn't pay much attention to it either. 'Maybe he's second chewing when we're not watching,' we thought naively. It was probably a sign of a serious digestive problem.

We didn't pay attention to these signs because overall Minto-kun seemed to be doing great - he was eating well, his eyes sparked when he saw his favorite treat, he would walk far away in pursuit of his favorite grass, he was lively and curious like a healthy goat should be.
In the hindsight I can see that Minto-kun's health was more fragile than we had realized. It was based on many improperly working internal systems that could fail at the slightest disturbance.

Our hypothesis - which cannot be confirmed - is that Minto-kun might have caught some minor virus or bacteria, probably from Akio-kun, that would have been harmless to a healthy goat (none of the other three goats on the farm fell ill), but it was fatal to Minto-kun, and Akio-kun.
※Addition: Akio-kun's and Minto-kun's illness could have been lumbar paralysis (also called cerebrospinal nematodiasis. In Japanese youmahi 腰麻痺). It's impossible to confirm, but the time of occurence (October) and clinical symptoms (physical weakness, motor dysfunction, inability to stand and eventual muscle paralysis) fit Minto-kun's and Akio-kun's case. It's a disease caused by parasitic roundworm Setaria digitata which is transmitted by mosquitoes. It doesn't cause problems in all goats that get it. The disease occurs only in the Far East countries (Japan, Korean Peninsula), so there is little information in English, but comparatively more in Japanese. The best description in Japanese is this (a bit old) article by Ayako Shiroto (National Livestock Breeding Center), published on the website of Japan Livestock Technology Association.

We couldn't find a veterinarian that would be expert on goats. So Minto-kun and Akio-kun were treated by a very good, animal-loving veterinarian who, however, doesn't know as much about goats as she knows about cats and dogs. We still appreciate what she did for the two.

Here's the last happy memory of Minto-kun and Akio-kun.

I hope they enjoyed the time with us as much as we enjoyed the time with them. I hope they knew how much we appreciated their unconditional trust, and that we took their trust seriously and did our best to protect them. We did our best, but it wasn't enough.