Thursday January 16, 2014 | 07:45 PM

The past few days of mild weather have been a reprieve from the blast of frigid Arctic air that took hold of Maine earlier this month. They have me dog-earring pages in my pile of 2014 seed catalogs, observing my beehives for signs of life, opening up the doors of the barn on the sunniest days, and driving down back roads visiting farms. While I realize how important it is for the cold to return, I am deeply grateful for these warm stretches we seem to get in Maine in mid-January.

Frostbite in Backyard Chickens
Since I got chickens, I’ve been looking at weather in completely different way. This is especially true during the winter when I’ll admit to obsessing just a bit about how protected my girls are from the cold. After the chilliest night we had a week or so ago, one chicken developed a mild case of frostbite on her comb. This is not uncommon on chickens with large combs and in her case does not require treatment – in fact I’m pretty sure she doesn’t even know it’s there. For information on prevention and treatment of frostbite in your backyard chicken flock check out this insightful piece from the Chicken Chick here.  For information on proper shelter and tips on keeping water from freezing see this recent post I did with tips on keeping chickens thru the winter. 

Winter Beekeeping Tips
I am thrilled to share that all of my hives are alive! I observed bees flying from all three hives on two afternoons.

On warm sunny days (temps in the 40s) bees may break their cold-weather cluster (think football), and fly from their hives for cleansing flights. Healthy bees are very clean and do not defecate inside their hive (presumably to prevent disease from spreading through the colony). You will find proof of this in yellow spots outside the hive (easier done if there is snow on the ground). You may also see worker bees removing dead bees that died within the hive.

Generally, you want to leave a hive alone from December thru March, however my bee mentor - Master Beekeeper Jack Hildreth - advised me on a day when it is not windy (never go in a hive when it is windy) to check their food source by removing the inner and outer covers and looking down to see how high the bees are in the hive. I found bees were already at the top in one hive and close to the top in another, so I ordered two candy boards from The Honey Exchange in Portland. 

Note, if you open a hive to check the colony’s food source do it quickly! You can also heft up the hive slightly to see if it is much lighter than it was in late September or October when you last checked it.

If you need candy boards call ahead to your source to make sure they are in stock or consider making your own with instructions and recipes available on the Maine State Beekeepers Association site. 

For more information check out this piece I did last January on winter hive maintenance or this two-part article I did on beekeeping 101 (starts here). 

Return of Backyard Farms Tomatoes
This week, I paid a visit to Martha Putnam’s family farm stand at 19 Pleasant Hill Road in Freeport for eggs and some of Patti Qua’s heirloom beans.  Martha and her family own and operate Farm Fresh Connection, a wholesale marketing and distribution business for Maine Farms specializing in bringing Maine-grown fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and dry goods to restaurants, retail stores, processing facilities, institutions & farm operations. I was delighted to find boxes and boxes of Backyard Farms gorgeous tomatoes!! The commercial tomato producer had ceased growing operations in July because of a whitefly infestation. Back in October, writer Rachel Ohm reported on the company’s workers returning to work with a projected return of January - looks like they are right on the mark. Good thing too, the company produces more than 27 million pounds of tomatoes a year for sale around the country. Consumers in Maine can find their tomatoes at Hannaford Bros. and Whole Foods Market.

A Visit to David Buchanan’s Farm
David Buchanan is a plant collector, the author of Taste, Memory Forgotten Foods, Lost Flavors, and Why They Matter, a fruit tree seller, and a hard cider producer in the making. At the farm in Pownal he shares with his wife Karla, he has converted a small barn into a cider house with a commercial kitchen where he is experimenting with all sorts of cider blends to come up with something he will sell in 2015.

Out back, on approximately 2.5 acres, he is growing 175 varieties of apples, other kinds of fruit trees, berries, and all sorts of vegetables. Many of the apple trees were transplanted from land he leased in Cape Elizabeth, some of which he grafted himself. All are dwarf trees, and will take three years to mature.

Buchanan’s intention is to build up a particular type of collection of apples to create a certain market for his cider. He picked through resources to try and find old American apples that were known to produce good cider. Apples like the Harrison, which is supposed to be one of the best cider apples and was thought to be extinct until rediscovered in the late 1970s by Tom Burford. 

A number of apples he collected from the Maine countryside, and some friends have sent him. According to Buchanan, at least half the apples he was looking for were barely available commercially and he had to graft them himself. A few are likely no longer available from anyone else, because the source he got them from retired.

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About the Author

Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog,

When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.

In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.

Sharon can be contacted at or on Twitter @deliciousmusing.

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