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Harvest time. October 28, 2014

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Silnce Dogood here. It’s a mild October day, and normally I’d be sitting out on our back deck listening to the corn talk. (The farmers in front and in back of our little cottage here in the middle of nowhere, PA, grow corn, and once it gets tall and dries out, it “talks” with every slightest breeze.) Today, however, I’m hiding in the house.

That’s because the farmers are harvesting the corn behind the house. There’s a terrible noise, and every few minutes a rhino-like, John-Deere-green creature passes in front of our deck doors, bellowing and presumably cutting down corn. This of course isn’t corn on the cob, it’s dried corn and cornstalks to make silage and sustain their milk cows through the winter.

I wonder what our poor chickens make of all this. This will be their first winter, and they love the dried corn in their scratch grains, but I doubt that they’re loving the racket that machine is making. People always tell you that country living is quiet and peaceful, but apparently they forget about the machines.

It’s something to keep in mind if you’re thinking about a move. Not to mention all the toxic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and so on. There are plenty of upsides—we have lots of great deck-sitting days—but downsides too. Days we see toxic bubbles from farm chemicals in our stream and wonder if our well water is drinkable. Days we can’t breathe outside because of chemical application. How wonderful to live surrounded by organic farms!

‘Til next time,

Silence

Love your pets today. October 4, 2014

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Today, October 4, is the Feast Day of Saint Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals and the environment. On this day, many Catholics take their pets to church to be blessed. But you don’t have to be Catholic to share the spirit of the saint who called animals his brothers and sisters.

Instead, just give a few more minutes of your time to make your pets happy. Make sure your cats’ litterbox is clean and filled with fresh litter, your aquarium filter is replaced, your birdcage bottom is cleaned and lined with fresh paper. Make sure every pet has fresh food, treats, and water, and fill up the wild bird feeders. Finally, pet, brush, and play with your dogs and cats. Let them know you love them. If you have chickens, don’t forget to give them leftovers: fresh fruits and veggies, bread, rice, and so on. Everybody will be so happy!

If you think about how much your pets love you, if you think about why you have them, if you think about how much you love them, how much your children love them, maybe it will be a little easier to buy some nutritious treats for them today while you’re grocery shopping, or decide to spend an extra ten minutes a day playing with them, or not yelling at them if they’re making a racket.

Happy Saint Francis Day!

A three-part food disposal system. September 11, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, chickens, critters, gardening, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. There’s nothing as demoralizing as wasting food, but we all do it. It’s not just a shame, but a sin, when people all over the globe, people in our own cities, are going hungry. Yet we’ve all had the experience of opening our vegetable drawer and finding produce that’s past its prime, or discovering a container of leftovers that makes us go “Eeeeewww!!!,” or looking forward to our morning toast and finding a moldy loaf of bread (sob).

No worries, this food needn’t go to waste. Our friend Ben and I have a three-part food-disposal system that takes care of pretty much everything. Well, actually, I guess it’s four-part. The first line of defense is our black German shepherd, Shiloh, and our yellow-naped Amazon parrot Plutarch. They do a pretty decent job of eating scraps of cheese, veggies, chips, nuts, and the like.

The second line of defense is our flock of six heritage-breed chickens. They’ll eat that moldy bread, overripe tomato, leftover rice or pasta, wilted greens, or what-have-you with relish. The only thing I’ve ever seen chickens reject is zucchini. If that’s not a statement, I don’t know what is.

Then there’s our earthworm composter. Earthworms also love leftover fruits, salad greens, and veggies, but they’ll also eat things like coffee grounds and tea bags, turning them into rich fertilizer for greenhouse and garden plants.

Finally, there are our compost bins. We can put anything in them, with these exceptions: diseased plants, meat, dairy, grease. Diseased plants will contaminate the compost, infecting whatever you put it on, while the other contaminants will attract rats and other vermin to your compost bins. I’d also advise against putting weeds, especially weeds that can harm you like poison ivy or aggressive weeds like thistle that can spread throughout your garden, in your compost bins. Sometimes, the trash can is the only option.

However, between pets, chickens, earthworms, and the compost bin, a lot of potentially wasted food gets returned to the earth and enjoyed. I love to cook and use fresh seasonal produce, but I never feel guilty about eating out. OFB and I make a point of bringing every single thing we don’t eat home. I’ll bring a meal home that’s big enough for the two of us for another supper. OFB will bring his leftover French fries and half a bun home for the always-thrilled chickens. With our pets, our chickens, our earthworms, our compost bins, and, well okay, ourselves, there’s never an excuse to waste food. As our beloved hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin, would say, “Waste not, want not.”

‘Til next time,

Silence

Emergency preparedness: Buy toilet paper. September 2, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in chickens, critters, homesteading, pets, wit and wisdom.
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There may have been something funny about the theme of this year’s Disaster Prevention Day in Japan, “Let’s stockpile toilet paper!” But there’s nothing funny about the disaster that prompted Disaster Prevention Day, held every September 1st. One Spetember 1, 1923, the Great Kanto Earthquake struck an area of Tokyo and killed more than 140,000 people. Most of the lives were lost due to fires sweeping through the area and burning down the closely packed buildings, which were made of wood, bamboo and paper and used flames for cooking, heat, and light. In a country prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, being prepared for a disaster makes a lot of sense.

Our friend Ben also approves of stockpiling toilet paper, tissues and the like for emergency purposes. The Japanese government suggested keeping a month’s supply for every household member in reserve; in Japan, they sell special emergency rolls that are something like 460 feet long and are rolled so tightly they look like those big rolls sold in the U.S. I wish we had those here!

I’d take this even further. Of course you could blow your nose with toilet paper if you ran out of tissue. But if you’re dependent on a well for all your water, as we are here at Hawk’s Haven, if the electricity goes out, your water stops running. Normally, we try to never use “picnic products” like paper plates and bowls, paper or plastic cups, and plastic knives, forks, and spoons. But we keep a supply on hand for emergencies, and actually used some of them when the power went off for almost a week last winter. When you have to drink bottled water, use it to brush your teeth, and use it to flush the toilet, you don’t want to waste it washing dishes! Paper towels and napkins are lifesavers here, too. Not to mention extra toothpaste, soap, and so on.

Even if you’re on a sewer and get city water, if something contaminated your city’s water supply so the water was basically unusable for drinking, bathing, etc., you’ll want a backup supply of bottled water. Those big gallon jugs are great for flushing the toilet, but we find that, over time, they deteriorate and spring leaks. We use them in our greenhouse and to water our raised beds and container plants, but always keep an eye on them and recycle any that spring leaks. We also keep some on hand for the toilet, but keep an eagle eye on them to make sure they’re not leaking on our mudroom and laundry room floors! For permanent, leak-proof water storage, our friend Ben recommends those perfectly clear plastic jugs that a lot of “spring water” is sold in. They’ll never leak unless you step on one. And for drinking water, we get cases of real spring water in glass jugs, which we’ll also use for tooth-brushing in an emergency.

Besides toilet paper, the Japanese government recommends stores of food and water, a portable toilet, and a first-aid kit. I don’t know what they mean by “portable toilet,” but our friend Ben doubts that it’s a Port-a-Potty. Instead, it’s probably one of those sturdy buckets with toilet seats that are sold at camping, hunting, and sporting-goods stores like Cabela’s. You put a plastic bag (like a plastic grocery bag) inside the bucket, anchoring it with the lid, then go when you need to go and toss the bag when it’s full.

If you have a lawn and garden, you might think about buying a chamber pot (a porcelain receptacle for urine) at a flea market and pouring the nitrogen-rich urine on your lawn and flowers (not your food garden!). Urine has been known for eons as an excellent natural fertilizer.

Here in scenic PA, we’re in the path of the aftereffects of major environmental disasters rather than on the front lines. We won’t have to face off against earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, or other terrible acts of nature. But we could certainly suffer their effects, as well as terrible droughts and winter ice and snowstorms. It’s always best to be prepared.

We always have a cord of wood curing for our woodstove, since if the power fails it could mean the difference between frozen pipes (and frozen us) and reasonable warmth. Our gas stove can be lit by matches if the electricity goes off, so we can have warm food, even in winter (you can also use your outdoor grill if you have one). But we also have canned food that we can eat cold if we must, along with food that’s durable and fine at room temperature like crackers, nuts, dried fruit and cheese.

Since we’re not in the eye of a storm or other catastrophe that would force us to abandon our home, we’ve basically tried to disaster-proof our home so we could continue to live in it in the face of a power disruption, ice storm, or whatever. But we have stocked our cars with durable emergency items (including first-aid kits and space blankets, toilet paper, bottled water, tissues, sani-wipes, condiments, utensils, etc.) just in case.

Last but by no means least are your pets and critters, who’ll find themselves cut off just like you. Making sure you have extra food (and litter, in the case of cats) for your pets on hand at all times just makes sense. We keep our cat, dog and wild bird seed in big pest-proof tins and our parrot and parakeet food in pest-proof glass jars. The chickens’ scratch grains and egg-layer pellets are stored in metal garbage cans in the chicken yard, safe from invasion.

“Be prepared” is more than a Boy Scout motto. It could be a lifesaver!

Why buy pullets? August 4, 2014

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Most people who want to raise chickens buy chicks, either directly from a mail-order hatchery or from a local ag store like Tractor Supply or Agway. Hatcheries offer the greatest variety of breeds, but they also usually stipulate a minimum order of 25 chicks. That’s way too many for a backyard chicken yard such as our friend Ben and Silence Dogood have here at Hawk’s Haven, our cottage home in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. There are only two of us, anyway: How many eggs can we possibly eat?! Six chickens is our max.

In the past, we’d go to our local Agway and sign up for six of their heritage-breed chicks. Then we’d go to an appliance store like Sears and pick up an empty refrigerator box. When April rolled around and the chicks arrived at the Agway, we’d set the huge box up in our mudroom, add a layer of wood shavings, put a chick feeder and water dish on top of them, top the box with window screens, and place a heat lamp on top of the screens. Then we’d pick up the chicks, put them in the box, turn on the light, and spend the next two months waiting (and waiting) until they were big enough, and it was warm enough, to transfer them to the chicken yard, where they’d have plenty of safe, enclosed room to roam and perch and a secure coop to stay in at night. Needless to say, this made the mudroom inaccessible for other purposes, and cleaning up and removing that box once the chickens had been transferred was something else. Phew!

The upside was that we only had to do this once every eight to ten years, since we let our hens live out their lives (which can extend to 12 years, though we’ve never been fortunate enough to have a hen get that old) with us once they were with us. But after two rounds with the refrigerator box, Silence had had enough. “Ben, we need to get young hens that we can put outside right away without worrying about them getting cold or squeezing through the kenneling fence. We need pullets!”

Pullets are first-year hens that have not yet begun to lay. We began our pullet experiment when we needed to replace two elderly hens who had gone to their reward. Someone suggested a farm that might sell us a couple of young hens, and they did. There was some squawking in the chicken yard as the hens settled on their new pecking order, but everything went smoothly after that. No fuss, no muss, no mess in the mudroom! Silence was ecstatic.

But eventually, our last flock dwindled and died out. I was desperate for more chickens, for their bright colors, cheerful personalities, and super-fresh, organic eggs. Silence agreed, but only if we were able to get pullets. We like heritage breeds, the big-bodied, healthy, multipurpose layers of brown eggs (or, in the case of Ameraucanas, olive green, blue, or even pink eggs), and we like a mix, so we have lots of colors in our chicken yard. We asked around, but this time, didn’t find any pullets for sale at local farms. What were we going to do?

To our surprise, we discovered that our favorite hatchery, Murray McMurray (www.mcmurrayhatchery.com), now sells pullets as well as chicks. And it has a nice selection of heritage breeds. Best of all, there’s no minimum order, so you can get as many or as few as you like, and mix and match, to boot! We chose six different heritage breeds, one of each of Barred Rock, Buff Orpington, Delaware, Ameraucana, Rhode Island Red, and Spangled Sussex. The chicks have been raised organic and free-range, eating bugs, grains, and other chicken goodies out in the field rather than confined to a cage. McMurray gave us our shipping date—not until (sob) July—so that they could ship the entire order to us at once. We resigned ourselves to waiting months and months.

And we worried about chickens being shipped to us from the Midwest via the US mail, not even overnighted through FedEx or UPS. Not even shipped to us, but to a “nearby” post office, which was supposed to notify us for pickup. We frantically rushed around to several post offices in the area and left our names and phone numbers, pointing out that live chickens might be showing up between July 8th and 11th. Yikes! We received an email from Murray McMurray that the pullets had been shipped at 3 pm. What, 3 pm?! They couldn’t possibly arrive here until the following day. How could they possibly survive?!!

Silence was frantic. She had me calling all the post offices in the area the next morning. No pullets. I tried to reassure her, but we both were envisioning boxes of dead chickens. By late afternoon, I finally got hold of the right post office, which had been trying to contact us by calling a wrong number since 6 am. I rushed over and retrieved what turned out to be six very healthy pullets.

They took to their new chicken yard and perches at once. There wasn’t even any fighting to establish the pecking order, as we had feared. They were (and are) considerably smaller than they’ll be at full size, so we probably won’t get any eggs ’til next year, but that’s fine with us. We’re happy to wait, and enjoy them just as they are, letting them grow on organic scratch grains and pellets and lots of our own leftovers, from produce and fruit to bread and pasta. (Watermelon is their favorite.)

Ordering pullets is way more expensive than buying chicks, but you can get exactly what you want. Mail-ordering them sounds scary, but they arrive, improbable as it may seem, safe, sound, and healthy. Buying pullets saves you the work and mess of raising chicks indoors for months. If, like us, you only need a few hens, and if, like us, you plan to let them live out their lives with you, then we think pullets are the way to go. They’ll earn their $20 price tag again and again each year with delicious eggs, wonderful colors and personalities, and genuine companionship.

Morning rituals. July 31, 2014

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Do you find yourself beginning every morning the same way, with some soothing activity that brings you a little calm, peace of mind, and feeling of security before you plunge into your day? Maybe it’s as simple as picking up a cup of your favorite coffee from Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts on the way in to work. Or maybe a walk or bike ride every morning sets you up for the day. Sometimes a hot shower or a soothing rub of body lotion is enough to make you feel pampered and centered.

We have a friend whose morning would be a disaster if he couldn’t pore over the baseball box scores, and another who begins every single day by reading the comics, convinced that a good laugh is the right start to a good day. Another rises early every day to meditate. For yet another, it’s worth getting up an hour early to go to the local diner and indulge in the “farmer’s breakfast”—pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, homefries, and toast, with plenty of coffee to wash it all down. (Gulp. But it’s heaven to him.) One relative couldn’t imagine a morning beginning without attending morning Mass.

Of course, we have our own morning rituals here at Hawk’s Haven, too. Silence Dogood is not what you’d call a morning person, yet she wakes with the light. In the interval between daylight and the return of consciousness, she likes to keep things calm and absolutely quiet. She sits at her computer and reads Yahoo news and her e-mail, then visits a few favorite sites, and then will write a blog post or two to kick the day off. Our friend Ben, meanwhile, will put on some coffee, take our beloved black German shepherd, Shiloh, out for her morning walk, feed the chickens, water the garden, and get the papers, which he (and, eventually, Silence) will read. OFB enjoys hot toast or croissants or English muffins and marmalade or hot pepper jelly and lots of butter along with that morning coffee and the papers. Silence can’t even look at food before 10 a.m., and then she’s more likely to opt for fruit and cottage cheese or a quinoa salad.

It doesn’t really matter what you do in the morning, as long as it makes you feel good and sets you up for the day. But we do think that morning rituals, whatever they are—doing the same things at the same time every morning—will get your day off to a healthier, more empowered start. We even think that applies to the eye-popping diner breakfast, morning walk, and meditation equally.

That’s because so much of the modern workday is about powerlessness—you do this for this many hours in this exact place and you’d better do it just the way we say and produce these results, even if that’s impossible, or else. Your time, your life, your mind are not your own, your talents are unappreciated, you’re just another faceless cog on the wheel, a “worker bee,” as a heartless boss at one old company described his employees.

But before work, you’re in charge. You have the power. No one can tell you what to do, can make you keep up with 50 social media sites while also doing your job for the same pay but ever-increasing hours, can put you on call after you’ve already put in a full day’s work. The difference between morning ritual and the lack of it can be the difference between feeling in control and out of control. So don’t feel ashamed of that Mickey D’s Egg McMuffin you pick up every single morning. Think of it as an empowering ritual.

There’s a dog in my soup. June 28, 2014

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“Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup!”

Thus begins the hoary old joke we’ve all heard so many times. But it’s not so funny when it comes to some real-life object in our food that shouldn’t be there. Just today, two news items on Yahoo news featured unintended items that ended up in people’s food.

Over in England, a 7-year-old boy bit into what he thought was a fried piece of boneless chicken breast from KFC, only to discover that the crispy fried coating concealed not chicken but a blue kitchen towel (the kind made of paper, not cloth). Our friend Ben figured that KFC would quickly offer his family free chicken for the rest of their lives to avoid a suit, but no: The franchise offered the boy and his mother one free meal, and that only after the distraught mother had returned to the restaurant to complain and been told to call customer service instead, and the story had gone viral. Oliver, the little boy involved, declined this generous offer.

Meanwhile, back in the States, a family ordering fries from a Sonic drive-in discovered an unexpected item in their take-out container: a bag of marijuana. “Free pot with every purchase!” or “Get high on our fries!” would probably do wonders for the franchise’s bottom line, but our friend Ben suspects that the fries just went to the wrong customer. There probably will still be an uptick in patronage as customers hope to get lucky.

Given how many meals fast-food restaurants serve, and the emphasis being on speedy service, it’s amazing that stories like this don’t hit the news every day. (Well, maybe not the pot story.) Which means that most fast-food franchises must be doing a darned good job of monitoring their kitchens.

Not that there aren’t the occasional scandals caused by other actions, like substituting, say, cat for chicken a few years ago at KFC franchises in China. (Though cat might be a perfectly acceptable meat source in China, just as the very popular dog stew is in Korea.)

Nor are the alien objects limited to fast-food restaurants. Years ago, our friend Ben accompanied Silence Dogood to one of the few vegetarian restaurants then extant in the South. We had barely raised our forks when a little boy at a nearby table announced that there was a cockroach in his food. Far from expressing outrage, his parents suggested that he simply stop complaining and order another dish from the menu. But for some reason, like little Oliver in the UK, the child had lost his appetite. And so had we.

Being an omnivore, after all, shouldn’t involve eating dish towels. And being a vegetarian, by definition, means not eating insects. Or dogs.

The chickens of “Game of Thrones.” May 29, 2014

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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I are getting a small flock of new heritage chickens in early July. There will be six, and as always, each will be a different heritage breed: Rhode Island Red (red), Barred Rock (black and white), Buff Orpington (gold), Delaware (white), Ameraucauna (red and gold), and Silver Laced Wyandotte (black with white edgings). Quite the colorful group, and all are hefty birds that lay big, brown eggs, except for the Ameraucana, who will lay blue or green eggs.

We’ve never ordered pullets through mail-order before, but couldn’t find anyone locally who would sell us some. (Pullets are young hens who are about ready to lay, as opposed to the day-old chicks that are normally shipped and sold in April.) Luckily for us, Murray McMurray hatchery (http://www.mcmurrayhatchery.com) sells pullets individually, so you can buy one of each or any number that you want. They carry many heritage breeds, and they let them range on grass and eat grass and forage for bugs, seeds, and etc., as opposed to cutting their beaks as other hatcheries do, a horribly cruel practice akin to declawing cats. I suggest that, if you’re interested in chickens, you check out the Murray McMurray website; they’ll even ship you a free catalog.

So what does this have to do with “Game of Thrones”? Well, we’ve always named our chickens, since once we get them, we keep them (well-fed on organic pellets and grains, along with fruits, veggies, bread, and scraps from meal prep and leftovers) until they eventually die of old age. They also have their own enclosed yard, safe from predators, including hawks and owls, with a grapevine growing over it for shade and a chicken coop with a window and a transparent roof to let in light. We know from experience that every chicken knows its own name and will respond to it.

In the past, I’ve named chickens for Regency heroines (Venetia, Sophia, Lucretia, Charis, etc.), Tolkien characters, and the like. But at the moment, OFB and I are on a “Game of Thrones” kick. (And, alert viewers, chickens have appeared in a number of episodes.) So we’ve named our soon-to-arrive flock accordingly: The Delaware, white-feathered, for the white-haired Danaerys of House Targaryen. The Buff Orpington, gold-feathered, for the golden-haired Cersei of House Lannister. The Rhode Island Red, red-feathered, for the red-haired Catelyn of House Stark. The Ameraucana, red-gold, and less domesticated than the other heritage breeds, for the Wildling Ygritte. The Barred Rock, black-and-white, a fearless breed, for Arya of House Stark. And the Silver-Laced Wyandotte, a fancy, glamorous girl, for Margaery of House Tyrell.

Have fun with your own flock and their names. T.S. Eliot once noted that “The naming of cats is a difficult matter.” We beg to differ, both with cats and with chickens. But it’s especially fun to choose a theme for your flock and name them accordingly.

‘Til next time,

Silence

Thinking outside the (greenhouse) box. October 30, 2013

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood love the greenhouse our genius woodworking friend, Ken Burton, custom-designed and built for us when we bought our cottage home, Hawk’s Haven, in the precise middle of nowhere, PA. It’s big and bright, with a long in-ground raised bed on the low side and a long greenhouse bench on the high wall.

Ken’s goal was to make the greenhouse as solar-friendly as possible in our cold-winter climate. Glass covers the south-facing sloping wall, along with a glass window and glass door on the east and west sides. The north wall is white-painted wood to reflect the light pouring in from the south and to highlight the plants.

Under the bench, black-painted barrels hold water and act as solar collectors. And behind the north wall, a hayloft adds extra insulation in the form of straw bales for our chickenyard, while we stack wood for our woodstove beneath the loft, which also serves as added insulation..

But we think Ken’s most brilliant innovation was to use the sliding glass doors normally used for deck or patio doors as the long windows on the south-facing, sloping side. They’re double-paned for insulation and let in a ton of light. Over and below them, Ken added rows of screened pull-down windows so we could open them for fresh air and circulation (we also open the screened end-wall window and glass door).

The other day, as Silence and I were furiously hauling our bazillion plants back from the deck to the greenhouse for the winter (it’s already been in the 20s here at night, a real aberration, as we can usually leave the plants out well into November), our friend Ben was struck by an idea. Not a MacArthur “genius award”-worthy idea, no doubt, but still.

Our sliding glass doors that lead to our deck are designed so that one slides over the other, and if you wish, you can pull a full-length screen over the open door to let in fresh air. So why couldn’t you design a greenhouse wall of sliding glass doors that do that, too? One door would be fixed in place, and the other would move over it, and you could pull the screens to let in tons of fresh air to circulate, make sure the greenhouse didn’t overheat in summer, and combat fungal diseases and the like, without letting in bugs.

Three sets of doors would be plenty for most home gardeners, and what a gain in greenhouse circulation! Our greenhouse is still going strong, but if we ever need an update, we’ll see what Ken thinks about this idea. Meanwhile, what do you think about it?

What’s in a name? December 28, 2012

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A picture may be worth a thousand words (here at Poor Richard’s Almanac, we wouldn’t know), but the right name can be worth millions of dollars. Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were on the road yesterday. A truck passed us that was carrying free-range, hormone-free chicken. The name of the enterprise? Free Bird. Priceless!

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