Reading this blog, you’d barely realize we grew vegetables, much less that produce is the core of what we do. Certainly, recents events have drawn us away from the garden and field, but we’re getting back on track. Here’s an update on our status as we stand on the doorstep of summer.
The last two weeks have been a rather problematic and stressful time, with conditions and events doing their best to undermine my general philosophy of confident perseverance. I started to write up a thorough explanation of recent events, but stopped when I hit page 4, realizing that such a brain dump wouldn’t work for the blog. I’m going to give a very brief synopsis here, and those who want details can write us. Maybe I’ll email you a copy of the full Word document if you’re a glutton for punishment. At an individual level, these are the sorts of things you expect from running a small farm, but you certainly hope they don’t all come crashing down at the same time. For those who might worry about us after reading this, don’t. Yes, we’re pretty frazzled and a bit wild-eyed, but every job/career/life faces difficult times, and what matters is how you face those times and how you move beyond them. As horrible as the following events feel to us, they don’t begin to compare to what so many Americans (much less world citizens) face every day. Losing a cat is not the same as losing a soldier; dead chickens are not the same as having no food; poisoned goats are a far cry from war, famine, and poverty. So let this account be an accurate reflection of our recent troubles, but in the context that we’re still pretty damned well off compared to much of the world, and are likely to stay that way.
The loss of Loki has already been addressed, though it just set the stage for things to come. It was the beginning of a pretty rough 2 weeks.
We’ve lost 15 chickens to an unknown predator (probably raccoon), prompting us to spend over a day rebuilding the cedar goat shed as a secure chicken house and move the 12 survivors down to the goat paddock. Their old home was surrounded by an electric net fence running 7,000 volts, but that apparently wasn’t enough. When I contacted the net’s manufacturer (who were recommended to us by multiple people), they were flabbergasted at our report. The rep, who uses the netting herself on sweet corn and poultry with no problems, commented in disbelief, “You must have an armor-plated raccoon.”
About the same time, we discovered that a plant thriving in the goat’s home paddock and recently fenced new browse paddock is highly toxic to livestock, and is excreted & concentrated into milk, making our dairy products unusable. So far the goats (and us) are still alive, but white snakeroot was historically the cause for thousands of deaths among settlers and homesteaders across the Appalachians and Midwest. We’re working with Extension services to learn more about the toxicity and residence time we’re dealing with, as almost no one seems terribly familiar with this particular plant and toxin, despite it being common throughout Missouri. In the meantime, we’ve spent hours hand-pulling every snakeroot plant from the home paddock and have abandoned their new paddock for now. We identified the plant as soon as it got big enough to be noticeable, which was when the goats were already eating it. So we caught it very quickly, but there are no answers from the “experts” on how much constitutes a dangerous dose for them or for us.
We are still mired in a very wet spring, making all sorts of agricultural activities difficult (every size farm is suffering this year). This includes hay-making; a recent batch from a friend had to be baled during a very narrow dry window, did not dry enough in the field, and subsequently molded. This creates a fire hazard as the hay composts and heats up within each bale, so we spent an evening breaking open bales and spreading them outside the barn to avoid disaster. It’s 95% ruined and good only for mulch and ground cover. We have tentatively identified another source of hay, sharing an order with another goat farm in the area, so hopefully that gap will be addressed within a week or so.
The constant rain has kept setting us back on field/garden prep, planting, and many other necessary tasks, so we’ll see what our production is like this summer. In addition, dealing with the cascade of pressing animal issues has sucked many days of work time away from our core vegetable operation.
As a cap to all this, my neck muscles are spasming again, keeping me from doing any physical labor. It’s not as bad this time, and I’m aggressively countering it with stretches, heat, and rest, but this is really not the time for me to go out of commission. I went in to the doctor this morning, who asked if I’d been under stress lately. I laughed. He thinks there’s a connection there, and I believe it. Makes sense that the muscles would be tenser and more likely to knot up when I’m so tightly wound right now anyway.
After considering all this, it might be fair to ask if we’ve taken on too much. It’s something we’ve discussed at length, and here’s my take. Yes, possibly, but I’m glad we have. So many of these issues are things that can really only be learned by experience, and that means putting in the time and work. We fully expect that it will take us years to learn to be truly effective and knowledgeable livestock and poultry raisers, and that we won’t be doing it commercially until we are confident in our knowledge and abilities. Right now, we still have off-farm income and the luxury of being able to experiment with these things without losses being a disaster. If we waited to start animals until we were full-time vegetable growers, these losses of time and sanity would hurt a lot more than they do now. So despite the insanity, I think it’s the right approach to learn as much as we can early on, so we can apply those lessons as soon as possible when we need them. These early, combined trials put us on the road to self-sufficiency far faster than the alternative, and so I’m grateful for the lessons even as they give me muscle spasms.
Finally, in a bit of good news, we heard our first rooster crowing this morning. It was a wonderful, amusing sound as he struggled to get it right, warbling like a teenage boy in choir. Just a sign that even as many things go wrong, we’re still progressing toward the goals that have driven us all along. One of the most valuable aspects of this life is that everything is a lesson, and everything is worth experiencing. We are tired, but never bored, and that’s a bargain I’ll make any day.
Many visitors here make comments along the lines of “You do so much work” or “You work too hard”, and I usually don’t have a good answer because we don’t really look at our lives in those terms. The closest I come to expressing our point of view is a favorite quote from Calvin & Hobbes: “It’s only work if someone makes you do it.” That’s not to say we don’t do a lot, and there are days when we can feel overwhelmed with the projects we’ve taken on. Keep in mind, though, that the value of the life we’ve chosen is that everything we do is integrated into a larger whole, and has a purpose that helps achieve our greater goals.
One friend came out to work for an afternoon in exchange for produce and dairy products, and commented something like “It’s so different from yard work”, even though our tasks in the field that day were about as repetitive and menial as it gets. I think she could sense that every task has a relevant purpose that feeds back into the goals of growing good food and supporting ourselves. For example, even something like clipping grass has a greater purpose, because those clippings can be fed to chickens to save on purchased feed and eventually become meat and eggs. We’re doing it for a deeper reason than to impress the neighbors.
“Doing so much” also depends on your life choices. A 2006 survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics offers some fascinating statistics on American life, and how we fit in (or not). The study breaks down the average time spent by people on various activities, compiling these numbers into hours per day for all population and those engaged in the activity. So, for example, the national average time spent per day watching television is 2.58 hours. 79.5% of people do so daily, and they average 3.24 hours. That’s over three hours right there that we choose to spend on cooking real food and managing our animals rather than slouching in front of a screen.
Anyway, here’s my estimate of an “average” day for me, keeping in mind that every day varies with weather and tasks. One day a week I’m probably spending indoors on yogurt and/or cheese making, house cleaning, records & computer work, and so on.
Wake up between 6:30 and 7:00. Making and eating breakfast takes about 1/2 hour, and dealing with the goats and chickens takes 30-45 minutes (milking, feeding, checking water, etc.) Usually Joanna is off to work around 8:00, and I’m starting in on whatever I need to do that day. I eat lunch around noon, usually at the computer so I can read news, check email, and keep up with demands from my various orginizations and projects. This may take anywhere from 1-2 hours depending on demands and how tired I am (I may take a nap during this period). Then back out to tasks until anywhere from 4:00-6:00, at which point I start dinner and clean up the kitchen. We make just about everything we eat from scratch; the “fastest” meal here involves pulling some leftovers from a previous meal out of the freezer on especially busy days. One of the advantages to our way of life is that we always have stocks of ingredients available to work with, whether fresh produce or canned/frozen items from past seasons, making cooking easy and flexible. Joanna gets home around 6:30, and we milk & manage the goats before eating dinner. By this point it’s usually around 8:00, and we may do some more chores until dark, or if we’re especially wiped out, crash on the couch for an hour and talk or watch online clips from The Daily Show before showering and attempting to fall asleep around 10:00.
Or look at it this way:
Sleep: 8 hours
Cooking & food prep: 2-3 hours
Eating meals: 1-2 hours
Managing animals: 1-2 hours
General farm work: 8-10 hours
Indoor/online work: 1-2 hours
Hobbies/unrelated recreation: little to none
It’s not for everyone, and I respect those who wouldn’t want to live this way. From one perspective, we have little to no downtime. From another perspective, everything we do is part of our lifestyle and furthers our values of good food and self-reliance. To me, spending 2-3 hours a day cooking or preparing food (including cheese-making) isn’t work or drudgery, it’s an integral part of our values the way that going to church might be to others. Also, even considering just a regular 8-hour work day for me at actual farm tasks, given that I don’t spend an hour commuting, 3 hours watching TV, or 1 hour excersizing (in the gym sense), that’s almost 5 hours a day I can devote to cooking, animals, and other lifestyle-related things that close the circle of being an integrated small farm. It’s what works for us, and what allows us to live and eat in ways that respect our values.
It’s only work if someone makes you do it, and just about everything I do here is by our own choice. It’s a tradeoff I’m quite satisfied with. Even on the most exhausting, stressful days, the alternative (working for someone else so I can pay someone else to do all these things for me) has little appeal.
We lost Loki Tuesday night to Cytauxzoonosis, a nasty tick-borne disease hosted primarily by bobcats. He started looking ill on Thursday, but spent the weekend at home on medications after a vet visit on Friday. By Monday he was clearly still declining, so we returned to the vet where blood tests confirmed the diagnosis. The disease is almost always fatal, killing within 5-6 days of symptoms appearing, and Loki succumbed Tuesday evening. There is currently no known treatment or antidote, and it is very difficult to prevent. Anti-tick products are only so effective, because they take time to kill or dissuade a tick, and Cytauxzoonosis is conveyed very quickly from a single bite. Even suburban indoor cats get it, as a single tick carried into the house on a pant leg can be enough. It’s simply not possible to prevent every tick bite on a farm-based animal, pet or no.
Loki was a cherished member of our household. He joined us at a young age less than two years ago, when Joanna brought him home from the Humane Society to help with mouse control and to keep her company while I was away working in Virginia. We’re both deeply cat people, and Loki was the best cat either of us have ever known. He led a cat’s dream life, with a wide array of forests and fields to explore and hunt in and a warm, comforting home to return to. He was friendly and loyal, following us on long walks through woods and fields no matter the weather, happy to curl up on a soft, warm lap, and quick to purr. He was independent and curious, ever ready to climb a new tree and investigate a new sound or smell, and often staying out all night exploring and hunting. He was mischievous, loving to pounce on unsuspecting feet, hide under beds, and get into the kind of trouble all real cats do. He was an integral part of our daily lives, and losing him has crushed us.
Death comes with all life, but it is fair to ask ourselves why the death of a cat is agony when the death of a deer or meat goat is acceptable. I believe that the value of life is integrated with its purpose and nature, and the end of life must be judged against those concepts. If the form of death complements and respects the purpose and nature of the animal’s life, I see that differently than a death that contradicts them. A meat goat whose life is spent happy and healthy is fulfilling a natural end as food; it was bred and raised for that purpose and a humane slaughter respectfully fulfills that. This is part of the reason we eat primarily meat that we produce; we respect the value of life more deeply when we are involved in all aspects of it. However, a pet that was bred and raised for companionship is intended to achieve that for as long as possible, and an early and unintended death subverts that purpose. Loki was less than two years old; were he fifteen we would feel somewhat differently. As it is, something deeply meaningful to us has been taken away, and we have lost a beloved friend far too soon.
We brought him home Wednesday morning. I built a small box from scraps of cedar milled from the farm, and we laid him there on his long-used fireplace blanket with one of the fur mice he loved to play with on wintry days. He is buried along the cedar path leading between the house and market garden, where he accompanied us for so many days as we went about our lives together. We plan to build this spot up with stream-rock walls, to become a perpetual raised garden at the heart of our farm and lives.
We have a large collection of photos and memories from Loki’s time with us, and I plan to compile a page of these, though I do not have it in me right now. We’re grateful to have known Loki, to have given him a happy and fulfilling life, and to have received the unwavering loyalty, friendship, and joy he provided. We miss him deeply.
On the type of small, diversified operation we’re developing, a variety of small buildings and shelters are necessary. Greenhouses, storage, animal shelters, and so on are all needed, but I’m leery of building permanent structures. Real (wood or metal) structures cost time and money, and plans often change as new things are learned or decided. For example, I had designed a nice 10’x20′ permanent goat shed to be built out of our milled cedar, but decided that such a project was getting ahead of ourselves, as we were sure to learn more about our needs and those of the goats as time progressed, and why lock ourselves into something before we knew what we were doing?
Enter our favorite temporary building, the cattle-panel hoop structure. This is something we first saw demonstrated at the annual Small Farm Today trade show in Columbia, and we’ve adapted it for our own use. Basically, it consists of a series of 4’x16′ cattle panels (a strong yet flexible grid of metal rods), staked to the ground, and flexed into an arch. These provide a very strong, sturdy, yet flexible base for a greenhouse or structure for less cost and bother than building a solid wood or metal structure. Cattle panels sell new for around $20, but can often be found used.
One side of a panel is staked to the ground with 1/2″x3′ rebar, then flexed into an arch before the other side is staked in. A floor 8′ wide produces an arch just under 6′ high. The rebar is important because these panels, while flexible, take a lot of pressure to stay in place and 3′ rebar pounded deeply provides the necessary strength. Each panel is erected next to the others, and fastened to its neighbors with looped wire at many intervals along the hoop. Cover can be provided by plastic sheeting or tarps; the latter are stronger and easier to attach using office-supply binder clips and twine tied from the grommets to the base of the panel.
I find that an 8’x12′ structure using 3 panels takes me 1-2 hours to build from start to finish. We have three of these structures currently, serving as chicken house, milking shed, and hay storage, and more are in the works as greenhouses and other storage. They are easy to take down and move if plans change, and generate no waste as everything can be reassembled elsewhere as needed.
This sort of structure is easy, affordable, completely reuseable, and stands up to weather quite well, as it’s able to flex in high winds and won’t rot or decay. Thick tarps ought to provide reasonable hail protection, and are easier to replace than shingles. We love these structures, and it’s something many folks with small farms could consider using. For our chicken house, we simply lined the inside with straw bales for insulation and built plywood and screened walls for the ends. For our milking shed, we staked additional panels across the ends (one loose as a gate) to keep the goats out as needed. For hay storage, we just left the ends open and place the hay on a raised platform to keep it off the damp ground. For greenhouses, we cover the hoop in clear plastic and built ends with windows and doors as needed. Flooring can be gravel, wood chips, straw, or a combination depending on need.
Using these gives us quickly available structures, while letting us learn and experiment with interior floor layouts so that when we do get around to building a more permanent hen house or goat barn, we have a better sense of what we want to do. This is certainly not our idea, and a Google search turns up many versions, but this is how we do it and it works wonderfully for us.
It has been an incredibly wet, cold, cloudy spring so far in Missouri, and this is playing havoc with farmers large and small. Fields are too wet to easily plow, soils are waterlogged, crops don’t grow fast (if at all) with so little sun and so much moisture. Many farmers have almost nothing planted yet, because the ground is simply too wet to work and has remained so for months.
These conditions, which are the sort of problems agriculture must always surmount, offer support to the long-term model we’re taking to managing our vegetable production. We do not want to rely on equipment such as tractors and tillers to work our land, because they are expensive, unreliable, and contingent on proper conditions. In our market garden’s raised beds, we can work the soil, seed, and transplant far sooner than an open field, because the beds help moisture drain, and the permanent walkways are more easily navigable by foot. Also, having permanent beds improves the soil condition, because they are never driven on, tilled, compressed, or otherwise negatively impacted.
This is all well and good for a small garden, but how does that translate into larger-scale production in our field? We are following the lead of Patrice Gros, an organic vegetable farmer in northern Arkansas who grows multiple acres of produce in a completely no-till permanent bed system. In our adaptation, we are developing permament 4’x40′ beds throughout our field, which will always remain in place. The advantage to this approach is that our reliance on equipment and weather conditions lessens; we don’t have to drive tractors through mudholes to prepare our ground. It’s more manual work and more time, but the tradeoff is reliability and better soil quality. The biggest challenge to no-till methods is weed control, which Patrice accomplishes through heavy, constant mulching with straw whenever there are no active crops growing. It is an interesting balance to learn, and we will be doing more tedious hand-weeding that someone with a mechanical cultivator would, but our goal is to be free(er) of the trap of relying on tractors, tillers, and capricious weather conditions. The other benefit to this method is that we can adapt intensive gardening techniques to a larger area, thus boosting our yield compared to tractor row production.
Raised garden beds, with deep drainage aisles between them, really help with the soil condition and growing possibilities in our market garden. They’re a lot of work up front, but should last for decades, and once they’re in we have far less maintenance and waterlogging issues. Applying a similar approach to our larger field (bottom photo) is intended to lessen our reliance on equipment and weather conditions. The extra weeding and planting work ought to be offset by the improved soil quality and greater flexibility in planting and maintenance.
Of course, our problem this year is that the beds aren’t DONE yet. A year like this is exactly why we’re doing this work, but when you still have to dig, move, and spread soil to build the bed in the first place, months of waterlogging rain really don’t help. Two years from now the work will pay off, but for now I’m even farther behind because trying to work this clay muck is just impossible. This is why farming is a long-term career; it works best if you’re planning for years if not decades ahead.
It’s been incredibly busy here the last few weeks, so I have let this blog slide. Here’s a quick summary of all that’s been happening. We have stormy weather coming in later this week, so I will try to get more details, photos, and more written then.
First and foremost, the goats have been a success to this point and are a very valuable addition. We are averaging 2 quarts a day of excellent fresh milk, and are making yogurt and cheese with what we’re not drinking. We already have a distribution network set up with friends and neighbors who enjoy the truly fresh milk and yogurt, though it is all free as we are not legally allowed to sell any of this under current conditions. I need to do some more research on what it would take to make and sell yogurt legally, as everyone who tries the yogurt loves it (it’s far fresher, tastier, and healthier than commercial brands; even the organic ones are loaded with sugar). The goats are doing their larger job of helping us clear brush and improve our fields, and the milk is simply a bonus. Our fundamental goal on the farm is a high level of self-sufficiency combined with diverse income streams from multiple products, so building our experience with dairy/meat goats is a large step in that direction.
The chicks are growing fast, and are quite ready to move from the brooder to the outdoors. Yesterday we finished clearing and cleaning up the future chicken yard, and seeded it with early rye. Tomorrrow I hope to finish the chicken house and fencing so that we can move them outdoors for good (with a brooder lamp in the new house). Heritage breeds are proving their worth so far, as these birds are more interested in the natural foods we’ve been giving them (fruit flies, amaranth, cooked squash, whey from cheese-making) than the processed chicken feed you’re “supposed” to feed them. We supply that too, as we don’t know enough yet about chicken nutrition to be sure that they’re getting all they need from the natural food, but we are going to move very aggressively toward feeding them as naturally as possible from on-farm products and not Purina inventions.
Our lettuce and radishes are finally growing well with the onset of true warm weather, and I intend/hope to sell at market for the first time this coming weekend. We have peas in outdoors, many summer things seeded indoors, and will be starting many more in the next few weeks. The garlic is looking spectacular and I’m looking forward to marketing that in a few months. Out in our larger field, I have begun the process of converting the broad plowed area into permanent beds, which will be planted this year mostly in drying beans, corn, and various grains. We’re putting in roughly 30 4’x50′ beds this year, with more to come next year. I need most of these ready by end of May so they can be planted in time. There are also another 10-15 permanent raised beds to finish in the garden.
May is going to be an incredibly busy month, as it is probably the peak of our planting season, combined with a great deal of infrastructure work getting our beds built, irrigation laid out, fencing for the larger fields and more goat paddocks built, as well as market sales. Luckily the days are nice and long, though.
All of the topics above are roots for individual blog posts in the future; I’d like to write in more detail about managing each of the animals in natural ways, developing our large-scale no-till methods in the big field, building animal infrastructure, market sales, and more political news/issues. Look for me to start filling out those subjects in coming weeks, with more photos. One good stormy day should take care of some of this.
These animals certainly add to the workload around here, but they are part of our larger goals of sustainability, integrated farming, and self-sufficiency. They are a joy to have around, and represent another aspect of our future as a diversified small farm.
The population of Chert Hollow Farm just went up by 28, as our first chicks arrived early this morning. We intend these to form the base of our egg flock, and they should start producing some time in late summer. These chicks are unsexed, so we will learn over time what ratio of roosters/hens we have. The former will be raised as meat birds, and the latter maintained as layers.
These chicks came from SandHill Preservation Center, a wonderful small farm in Iowa that specializes in maintaining rare heritage breeds of fowl. These birds may not gain weight quite as fast or lay quite as many eggs as a commercial hybrid, but they’re real chickens, the kind any real farmer around the world would recognize. They will be an integral part of our farm’s landscape, eating insects and excess produce while fertilizing the ground and supplying us with eggs and meat. Visit SandHill’s site to learn more about the value of heritage breeds.
Unfortunately, starting these chicks also exposes us to a danger facing many small farmers: the Federal Government. For years the USDA has been pushing for something called the National Animal Identification System, which is fine in concept and truly frightening in practice. In short, the government wants to require that every animal (livestock or fowl) in the country be fitted with a Radio Frequency ID tag, and that any change in that animal’s status be reported to the USDA within 24 hours (death, slaughter, movement to a different location, exposure to other animals, etc.). This is intended as a food safety measure to allow the USDA to track back disease outbreaks and contain them. That is a noble goal, but in practice it will be devastating for small farmers and independent animal owners, who have neither the time nor the money to put up with such an intrusive and bureaucratic system. It is a one-size-fits-all system, meaning a backyard flock is treated the same as a 10,000 bird Tyson feedlot, despite the fact that the latter can far more easily afford the time and expense of such tags and tracking requirements than a small independent farmer.
It’s an unfortunate situation. There are real food safety and disease concerns out there, such as bird flu, that require some form of attention. Also, small farmers and backyard raisers can certainly follow poor practices that might increase the chances of a disease outbreak or other problem in the food supply. But the reality of this approach to the problem is really dangerous; do we want to encourage a safer food supply by driving small farms out of business, and by making it prohibitive for individuals to keep their own animals? In my opinion, most of the dangers from disease and food safety come from the large industrial operations, and we should be focusing our regulatory efforts there rather than persecuting small farmers who sell their goods locally and are not part of the national/international industrial food system that makes disease outbreaks so frightening.
I strongly encourage you to read more about the NAIS; it may be the single largest threat to the small farm/slow food/local food movement yet. This really could drive many farms out of business, or prevent many more from attempting to raise animals. We’re taking our chances, hoping that sanity will prevail and enough farmers and consumers will revolt against this well-meaning but effectively horrible system.
Read more at:
or just use Google.
Since we settled here, we’ve been keeping records of natural events like bird migrations, flower bloomings, and so on, with the goal of documenting and better understanding the natural patterns here. Spring is one of the best times to appreciate these records, as so many new things are happening and arriving. So far, our general observations suggest that migratory birds are on about the same schedule as last year, but wildflowers and local animals are behind. This makes sense, as last spring the weather was abnormally warm here, so that local flowers bloomed early, but birds respond to large factors than local weather.
Anyway, here’s a few glimpses at the changes (or not) since last year:
Birds (first observation in 2007, 2008):
Woodcocks: 2/27, 3/6
Louisiana waterthrush: 3/26, 3/26
Phoebe: 3/11, 3/13
Towhee: 3/11, 3/19
Snow geese: 3/22, 3/23
Other animals (first observation in 2007, 2008):
Spring peepers: 3/8, 3/1
Young snake (prairie king snake?): 3/28, 3/26
Box turtles: 3/13, none
Bats: 3/13, none
Ticks: 3/28, none
Wildflowers (first observation in 2007, 2008):
Crocus: 3/4, 3/10
Harbinger of Spring: 3/13, 3/19
Redbuds: 3/27, none
Spring Beauty: 3/25, none
Bloodroot: 3/25, none
Soil temperature 6″ down (2007, 2008)
February 25 (32, 32)
March 10 (40, 36)
March 24 (none, 40)
These sorts of data will be even more valuable in years to come as we build a meaningful record of long-term patterns, but even now they’re fun to peruse. Keeping a simple notebook is relatively easy, and the rewards are quite meaningful.