What about bigger predators, say, bobcats and lions? “There has been a rumor of a cougar sighting, but I don’t believe it,” she says. “Last year, a couple of people reported seeing a ‘big cat.’ It doesn’t seem possible to me. I get that a big cat could have come from the east and walked the whole way down the Tijuana River. But there are too many people around here. The park nearby is used mostly by local horse people. So there’s a lot of space, but it’s well traveled. And I haven’t heard of any bobcats. In the evening, I do hear the coyotes singing, ‘Yip yip yip…’ One gentleman I’ve talked to used to walk his dog in this field before it was being farmed. He’d let him loose, and the dog would go off and join a pack of coyotes and they’d play together. It was unusual, and cool. He’d put a light on his dog’s collar, so he could see where it was playing.”
Ellie doesn’t panic about invasions of rabbits or foxes. “We do have the rabbits. We have little cottontails, and we have big jackrabbits. We have one jackrabbit who hangs out in that field. It’s a perennial herb bed, and he loves to munch away there. But Homer loves to chase him.”
She admits rabbits can do damage. “They come out of the woods and take a quick bite and run. Then they come back and eat more. Over a week, they get braver and braver, or more hungry. Sometimes they’ll eat 20 feet of a ten-row section. That’s why Andrea’s hawk is so useful. Keeps them on their toes. And we have a pair of barn owls in our barn. They hunt every night. Sometimes, if you come in the evening, you’ll see rabbits diving in all directions. Or the squirrels will come flying out of the fields. Homer’s number-one favorite thing is to chase squirrels.”
How bad are rabbits for the farm’s bottom line? “They’re a nuisance, but they’re not going to run us out of business.”
The same goes for birds, Ellie says. Even though they love the farm’s seeds, she wants to create a space for them to come in, provide forage for them, and even create habitat, in some circumstances. “That’s why we want to start planting hedgerows that will create permanent space and shelter. Not just a crop that we’re planting. But actual space where they can settle in, do their thing.”
Ellie says she uses birds to give her signals about the coming seasons. “Being from Pennsylvania, I’ve got to have season signals. The first birds that I’ve developed a deep relationship with are the red-winged blackbirds. I noticed that, at the end of the summer before last, they came for our sunflower seeds. I had never seen this bird before, and it just filled my heart with joy. They fly together in groups, and when they turn into the sun, you can see the glistening of all of their red wings. They love sunflowers.
“So, since the red-winged blackbirds were so great, this year we grew a sunflower maze for the fall. It was a whole field. Two acres of sunflowers. We grew them rather than corn, and then we mowed a maze into it for visitors to the farm. We set up some art installations inside. Then we hosted a big, really beautiful dinner inside the maze, for the solstice, the fall equinox.
“And then, just as I had been hoping for weeks, once the seeds started to dry, the sunflower maze became home to at least 50 red-winged blackbirds. It was incredible. They spent all their time hanging out here. They would descend on the maze. You couldn’t really see them or hear them, then you’d walk around the corner, and they’d get scared, fly off, and they’d land somewhere else. It was beautiful…beautiful. As I say, ‘Life begets life.’”
The red-winged blackbirds are only here for September. Then they hit the road again.
“What marks the beginning of winter is the turkey vulture,” Ellie says. “They come back every winter. You can recognize them because they’re flying in circles in groups — at least pairs, sometimes as many as five or six — and they’re just like you imagine vultures. Their wings are distinct, they have their two [wingtip] feathers bending up and down, fine-tuning. And they look as though they’re making fun of the helicopters doing training circles out of Ream Field at the end of the farm, the birds cruising in their own circles, but beyond where the Navy flies…Then the big hawks come back for winter, also.”
Ellie says that’s important, because they have 150 free-range chickens, which are allowed to roam free during the day.
“We weren’t worried about hawks when we first put our chickens in the field in the summertime. But then, by the fall, you start to see the big guys, and you hear their cry, and you know: now I need to keep an eye on our chickens.
“We put the chickens in the fields after the crops are done growing. We’ll section off an area that might be going crazy with weeds, surround it with electric fencing, and let them have at it. They poop, they fertilize the fields, and they eat bugs, and they eat weed seeds, so it’s good to have the chickens out here. We’ve only had one problem: a Great Dane who belongs to one of the local farmers. He was able to jump over the fence to get in, but he couldn’t get out. It was a mess.”
In an age of factory-farmed chickens, these are some lucky cluckers.
“We started with a flock of 50, then added another 100. They make the best eggs. The best eggs! Their yolks are so orange. They taste like…well, like eggs should taste.”
But surely the rats and squirrels and rabbits could devastate unprotected crops?
“We have squirrels and rabbits all year round, and, yes, they cause trouble all year round,” Ellie says. “Sometimes the rabbits can be devastating to crops. They’ll take out, say, half of your crop. But only in areas near the wild. Fields like this one are too close to human activity. There’s a secluded back area in a field we call Homer — after Homer here — where the fence came down. They feel comfortable running into the field and nibbling and running back, and running in again. Summertime is when we have trouble with them. That’s why we have Andrea and her hawk.”