Tracking our resource consumption

As part of our commitment to sustainability, we track our resource consumption carefully. We heat with wood, using a gas furnace once or twice a year on extremely cold nights or when we have to be away. Thus, our main household resource consumption consists of electricity and water (ok, and a little diesel and gasl for the tractor and chainsaw). We’ve kept monthly records of these since moving on-farm in mid-2006, and want to share these graphs to make a few points about energy efficiency and the ability of individuals to affect consumption through conservation.

First up, our elecricity usage:

I know these are slightly hard to read, but it should be clear that our highest ever electric bill was in March of 2007 (around $80) while the lowest was in November of 2007 (around $30). Overall our monthly bill averages around $50. Obviously the relevance of this number will change based on the reader’s region, so I’ll note that this is the equivalent of a peak around 900 KwH and a base around 200 KwH.

In general our highest electricy use is in the spring, when we are running lots of growing lights for indoor plant starting. That’s the single largest variable in our consumption, and is directly related to our business and self-reliant lifestyle, so I don’t feel too bad about that. Note that the 2008 grow-light peak lasted a bit longer than 2007; that’s due to the extra cold, rainy, cloudy spring that delayed lots of transplanting.

Note the huge difference in consumption between winter ’07 (green) and winter ’08 (blue). I attribute this to the installation of our solar hot water system, which now provides most of our hot water year round with little electricity use. Also note that by summer ’08, the trend has reversed itself and we are generally running about $10 more per month than ’07, which I attribute to our increased use of electric fences, brooding lights for poultry, and coolers for storing produce pre-market.

For context, I attempted to find some statistics on Missouri household energy consumption but had difficulty finding useful numbers. The best I could do in a quick search was to locate stats from our local utility, Boone Electric, and do some quick calucations. According to BE, a total of 516,148,000 KwH were purchased in 2007 from a total of 28,777 meters. That averages out to about 18,000 KwH consumed per meter in 2007. By contrast, in 2007, we used a total of about 6,000 KwH. Obviously I can’t judge the effects of industrial meters on these numbers, but it gives a sense of context to our consumption.

Now to water use:
This is not as large an issue in central Missouri as it is farther west, as we have plenty of groundwater and are not really in danger of that changing any time soon. However, it’s still a good benchmark for overall resource efficiency.

Our baseline water bill runs between $20-$30/month. That has slowly increased in 2008 (light blue), I assume due to the increased water needs of our animals. The obvious difference between 2007 and 2008 is our irrigation; 2007 was incredibly dry with no meaningful rain from June through October, so it cost us an extra $20/month to irrigate our produce. The big spike in October is not irrigation, but the water use of our on-farm wedding and the effects of lots of people flushing toilets and so on. You can see that it plummets as soon as the guests leave and the irrigation is turned off.

I don’t have a good way to put these numbers in context; I have no idea what the average Missouri household’s water consumption or water bill is. Anyone out there want to chip in an anonymous comparison?

Anyway, there are the data. That’s our energy consumption, plus some gas and diesel. Throw in our low trash yield (about one medium bag a month or less) and I feel pretty good about the sustainability of our homestead farm and our ability to afford any rising electricity or water costs; if you don’t use much in the first place, it’s not going to hurt as bad when it costs more (just like gas).

Food preservation techniques

I recieved a good question from a reader about how we balance our stated traditionalist goals with modern conveniences such as chest freezers. The quick answer is that we use whatever method best fits the balance between convenience, quality, and energy efficiency, as long as it meets our other values (I’m not going to add chemical preservatives to my food, for example). Here’s a quick look at the methods we use:
Meats, fruits, veggies, and meals
Freezing: This is the most time-efficient way to preserve most foods, and generally the safest. Many items, such as green beans and corn, are actually of higher nutritional and culinary quality when frozen rather than canned. There is no concern over spoilage (unless you have a long power outage). For most produce, you simply chop it up, quickly blanch it in boiling water, then freeze it in an appropriate container or bag. Most fruits take very well to freezing as well, whether packed into containers or frozen separately on trays and then stored in bags. One growing concern here is the potential hazard from using plastics for food storage, especially when packed for hot items, but freezing things in glass is problematic and so far we’re just being careful. Meat is certainly freezer-friendly; I don’t want to mess around with canning meat, though in the future I’d like to try drying it. Frozen meat is of high quality and easy to use.

The final benefit to a chest freezer is the ability to easily preserve meals. Extra soups and other leftovers can easily be frozen in containers or bags, then thawed out over the winter. I tend to put up a fair amount of prepared meals, including pasta sauce, during the summer and fall, making life that much easier over the winter and spring. It’s a good way to keep flavors that you’ll otherwise lose because the ingredients don’t store well.

With regards to energy use, we have a modern Energy-Star rated freezer that, when well-packed with ice blocks filling any empty spaces, uses negligible amounts of power. We track our energy use very carefully, and haven’t noticed any meaningful impact from having the freezer. Our highest electric bill ever was $80, back in March ’07 when we were running lots of grow lights for seedlings. We average around $50, slowly rising as we add more electric fence. Energy use and efficiency is another topic for another time, but the point here is that the chest freezer is a negligible energy drain for the benefit provided.

Canned tomatoes, pickles, and applesauce
Canning: The primary benefit to canning, in my opinion, is the subsequent unreliance on other energy. Once the food is sealed in the jar, it’s on the shelf and no power outage or other event short of earthquake can take your food away (ok, spoilage. We’ll get to that). Canning is also the primary way to handle things like pickles or sauerkraut, which need time to develop their quality and flavor. There are safety issues associated with canning, as bacteria can be introduced into the process, not only spoiling the food but presenting a health hazard when consumed (their presence cannot always be detected). For this reason, canning is a labor-intensive and delicate process. Also for this reason, high-acidity items are the best for canning, such as tomatoes or pickles. Fruit products, like applesauce and jam, are also good. You put more work in up-front, but the ease of simply cracking a jar of applesauce or tomatoes later on is worth it. If you can, make sure to use a modern, updated guide to canning. Earlier publications like the original Joy of Cooking do not reflect more current research on the safest and most effective canning methods.

Dried tomatoes, mustard greens, and apples

Drying: This is something we’re just starting to do this year, having invested in an electric food dryer. I think it’s paid itself off already considering the market value of the dried tomatoes, apples, and herbs we’ve run through it. Food dryers are our new best friend. They use electricity, though I haven’t noticed an impact on the bill, and once the food is dry it keeps forever. And there’s no safety or spoilage issues as for canning. Drying seems to concentrate the flavors in many items; even half-ripe, over-rained tomatoes that taste like crap raw end up with a sharp, strong tomato flavor when dried. Perfect for pizzas, soups, and more. Apples, too, taste darn good this way. Our favorite surprise so far is mustard greens, which when dried become a flaky, spicy, flavorful item that will be a really nice addition to soups and stews all winter. The dryer has also been key to saving our not-fully-dried corn and beans, which were threatening to mold in the overly wet summer.

Last but not least is an old European method called lacto-fermentation. Most familiar to Americans as sauerkraut, the method can be used on all sorts of vegetables. It’s easier than canning, less energy-reliant than freezing, and just plain interesting. We learned of it from a fascinating book titled Keeping Food Fresh, which collects ideas, recipes, and experiences from rural Europeans about their traditional family methods for preserving food that worked long before electricity, modern canning jars, and other conveniences. The book is an interesting read, and we’ve had pretty good success with the recipes we’ve tried. One warning: it’s more a collection of folklore and transcribed recipes than a real, tested cookbook. Beware misleading information, forgotten ingredients and steps, and other quirks related to the method of compilation. That said, we quite enjoy it as a complement to our other methods. Look for a blog post soon on making and storing sauerkraut this way.

Wall Street & Fencerows

Journalists, commentators, and everyone else are scrambling to investigate and weigh in on the effects of our unfolding economic situation. My two-line response, which is hardly unique, goes something like: This country dug its own hole by throwing long-term values/priorities of thrift, moderation, community, and self-reliance out the window in favor of short-term values of profit, excess, and me-first instant gratification. As so often happens, the failures of the foolish undercut the stability of the wise.

In any case, what does all this mean for small farms and local food supplies? On one hand, I think the rise of local foods has been driven in part by a change in our culture that assesses economic choices through factors beyond sheer cost. Concepts like Fair Trade have helped establish the idea that our economic choices have larger ramifications than the immediate pocketbook effects, and as people look for more sustainable, ethical, community-based purchases, local foods and independent small farmers are naturally going to be a part of that shift. Also, in the current climate where people are very angry with large corporations and the failures of the impersonal corporate economy, some are going to turn back to smaller businesses that are more trustworthy and stable, whether small banks or small farms. You can see this in the reaction to every new big food scare, when a few more people declare “enough” and start going to farmers markets or CSAs rather than grocery stores.

In addition, we’ve already seen that many factors are leading to overall rising food prices in grocery stores, but those effects are not as strong for independent direct-market farmers. I’ve heard so many people comment this year that the prices at the farmers market are now equivalent or better to those in a grocery store. We haven’t lowered our prices, but the unsustainable model of the corporate food system is catching up to it. Competitive prices help keep small farms a realistic alternative for customers with eroding budgets. Overall higher food prices are more difficult for people to manage in poor economic times, but I hope that some customers will consider purchases of local foods a long-term investment in supporting their local economy through hard times, and resist the urge to find personal bargains that undercut the larger picture.

On the other hand, few people are truly immune from a falling economy. Senator Kit Bond, speaking on NPR yesterday, pointed out that commodity farmers face an uncertain future if the credit markets stay frozen through spring, when they need loans to purchase seed and equipment for the coming year. I’m sure a certain percentage of direct-market farmers would have considered a loan for infrastructure growth (greenhouses, equipment, irrigation, etc) that may not happen now, limiting their ability to grow their business. I don’t think very many direct-market farms are quite as dependant on credit as their commodity siblings, however, as demonstrated in the Columbia Tribune’s nice profile of CFM vendor The Veggie Patch. Among other things, the piece noted that “Jim taught his daughters to always pay cash up front…It helped that he and Paula also kept their full-time jobs all these years. They never borrowed money to buy picking equipment or greenhouses”. Those are the values that keep our economy stable and out of trouble. Maybe their farm didn’t grow as fast as it could have with lots of borrowing, but neither was it likely to crash.

Another aspect of the economic ramifications for small farms comes in this month’s Growing For Market (an excellent market farming journal), which notes that prices for seed and supplies are “skyrocketing” and gives an advance warning to all of us just starting to plan for next year. One economic truth that fits most farmers is the unbalanced cash flow; most expenses are incurred in winter and spring, while most profit comes late in the year. Hence the need for credit in commodity farming, and the booming popularity of CSAs in direct market farming. Especially for those whose methods are based around mulch, plastic, fuel, and other off-farm needs (which is most folks), those rising costs are going to matter deeply.

Narrowing the focus, what are these conditions going to mean for our future? The answer to that lies partly in the path we took to get here. Years ago, we had already decided that our lifestyle needed to be as independent, sustainable, and self-sufficient as possible. We planned on being a low-expenses, one-income household that freed the second person to raise our own food and do as much for ourselves as possible. We saw the country’s path as inherently unstable, and did not want to be overly dependent on factors we could not control. Our experience working at Waterpenny Farm in Virgina helped broaden our perspective from self-contained homestead to active business; we saw that self-sufficiency and food production could be a profitable business and not just a self-indulgence. That realization launched us on our current path.

The answer also lies in the farming methods we’ve chosen to attempt. By working to establish a diverse, integrated farm with produce, fruits, meat, eggs, dairy, and more, we are hedging our bets and diversifying our options for income production. By focusing our philosophy on organic no-till methods, centered on permanent raised beds, we are attempting to cut out most of the expensive inputs that will be causing farms budget issues in coming years (fertilizer, plastic mulch, equipment maintenance, etc.). We don’t know if it will work, though we are basing this approach on the successful model put forward by Foundation Farm in Joanna’s home ground of northern Arkansas. Our approach takes a lot of time and effort up-front; establishing a whole field of permanent raised beds is far more time-consuming than simply tilling the whole thing in every year. But we’re thinking long-term, investing our time and effort in establishing a permanent infrastructure that can sustain us and our business at a much lower cost in time and money over the long run.

Fundamentally, we’ve chosen to go into a business producing something that will never be fully outsourced, that will always be needed, and whose core value rises as times get worse. I feel a lot better about the viability of raising quality food to sell to my community than almost any other career I could have right now. At worst, we’re in a position to supply ourselves with the fundamentals (food, shelter, heat) through the worst of times. At best, we can help keep those fundamentals available to our neighbors and our region. The economics are still uncertain; we don’t yet know what it will take for this farm to truly support itself. But we’re going to do our damndest to find out, and there’s no other career I’d feel better about right now.

Homesteading vs. Farming

We consider ourselves a “homestead” farm, meaning that we live on our land and do our best to feed ourselves as well as sell to others. This a choice that has tradeoffs; the more time, effort, and resources we spend on home production and preservation, the less we are able to sell at market. We know excellent farmers who have made the choice to focus on their business, not putting up much food for winter, eating processed or premade food, happy to purchase most of their food from others so they can grow more for market or CSA. For various reasons, we’ve chosen a different path.

Part of the decision for us is the principle of self-sufficiency. I like to know that, if nothing else, I’ve provided for my household. Every bit of food I grow, produce, and preserve is something I don’t have to buy or search for at the whims of larger factors such as world markets, contamination scares, or weather. Part of the decision relates to being serious cooks and foodies. We’re very selective about our food and cooking, and like so many people, find that the very best ingredients are those you grow yourself and have absolute control over. While there are certainly products out there that other folks produce better (we can’t compete with the truly excellent cheese from nearby Goatsbeard Farm), there’s a real value to doing something yourself. It is an almost religious principle for us that we use little to no processed products; just about everything is made from scratch in our household, even mustard, and we’re working to cultivate more and more raw materials like dried beans, grains, dent corn, and spices. There’s also the practical benefit that grocery shopping becomes less urgent or necessary. We always have a wide variety of food available; at any given time, even in winter, we could be shut off from the world and be able to eat comfortably, diversely, and healthily for weeks if not months. Finally, I feel that being so intimately involved with our food makes us better farmers and salespeople.

The downside, of course, is that our strong focus on homesteading interferes with our business. For example, managing dairy goats and poultry for our own use takes a significant amount of time each day and week that could otherwise be spent growing more produce for market (and income). Even if those choices save us money over purchasing dairy, eggs, and meat, they do interfere with market production, and we do actually have to earn SOME profit down the road. I don’t expect the day to return when I can send in a basket of potatoes and a few chickens to the tax collector. Every time I can or freeze fruit, vegetables, broth, meat, and so on, that’s time I’m not earning money. As a specific example, starting the dairy goats this spring resulted in my not having the time to properly fence, prepare, and maintain our larger field, where we’d intended to grow a wide variety of drying beans. That crop failed, costing us money and time we’d prefer to have back. So learning to balance the demands of our do-it-ourselves principles and the realities of profitable market farming is an ongoing process for us.

So why am I writing about this now? I spent part of a rainy afternoon going through our chest freezer, emptying it out for a light defrosting, and cataloguing its contents. During the busy summer, we tend to just throw things in there without writing them down, so it was utterly chaotic and unrecorded. I wanted to know what we’d put up so far, so we’d know what we still needed. It’s a thrill to read through the long, diverse list of food available to us this winter, knowing its quality and source, and the income we won’t need to spend on it. Here’s the list (all amounts in quarts):

Peaches: 3
Strawberries: 14
Blueberries: 13
Strawberry ice: 3
Cherry pie filling: 3
Blackberries: 6
Blueberry sauce: 2

Winter squash: 4
Beet greens: 1
Peas: 2
Spinach: 2
Tat Soi: 3
Green beans: 7
Corn: 3
Okra: 1

Chicken broth: 6
Goat broth: 2
Veggie broth: 3
Zucchini soup: 2
Ricotta cheese: 2

This does not include the tomatoes, pickles, sauces, and more that we’ll be canning, the rounds of cheese aging in the basement, the jams and preserves already canned, the goats and chickens yet to be butchered for winter meat, and the fall vegetables just now starting to grow. It also doesn’t include the next month’s worth of additions to the list above, especially okra, corn, beans, and broth. But perhaps you get the idea. Being a homestead farm, for us, means respecting and living the self-sufficiency and independance that traditional American farms valued; my great-grandparents would recognize exactly what we’re doing here. And no matter what happens in the economy or the world, we have a stable base from which to support ourselves.

Cheesemaking


Since this spring, when we acquired our first dairy goats, we’ve been making a variety of fresh cheeses. It’s an absolutely fascinating process, and yields a wide variety of useful products. Actually, we started making cheese ante-goat, using fresh cow milk from a small Missouri dairy, but the regular and “free” supply from the goats has boosted our production and capabilities to a new level. About once a week I devote a morning to making cheese (I’m writing this as several batches are in progress)

So far, we’ve been making mostly ricotta, mozzarella, feta, and cheddar. The first two are used fresh in pizzas, calzones, and baking, though we’re testing how well ritotta freezes. The feta is an all-around general use cheese, crumbled on salads or spread on bread. Cheddar is cheddar, my single favorite cheese, and needs no introduction.

Having the goats makes the learning process far better, as we’re more likely to experiment and less likely to worry about waste or mistakes. I tend to do feta in 1-gallon batches and cheddar in 2-gallon batches; if we were purchasing all that milk, it would be an expensive hobby. When we’re getting a gallon a day from the goats for “free”, it becomes a natural part of the process much like canning or freezing excess produce. Here’s a quick look at the process:

UPDATED PARAGRAPH: Ricotta is fairly straightforward; we can make a fresh batch and use it that day. It just involves heating milk, adding starter & rennet, letting curds form, and draining them. Mozzarella, Joanna informs me, is more difficult (I had initially claimed it was easy as well, but she makes these two, so I’m hardly qualified to judge).

Feta is a bit more complicated, involving holding the milk at specific temperatures, cutting & draining curd, and so on. It takes maybe 6-8 hours to do a batch, during which I can be doing other tasks. If I want a softer, spreadable feta, I drain the curds through cheesecloth. If I want a harder, crumbly feta, I drain them briefly before pressing them like a hard cheese.

Cheddar is pretty similar to feta, though it involves holding the milk at multiple temperatures for set periods of time, and thus takes more attention. Once the curds are cut, salted, and drained, they are pressed at various pressures (20, 30, and 50lb) for lengths of time up to 12 hours. Then, of course, it has to be aged. This alone makes cheddar far more challenging, as I don’t get feedback on my methods for at least a month. All the other cheeses, you’ll know that night if you screwed up. Cheddar is a long learning process.

So far we’ve opened up two 2lb rounds, one raw-milk cheddar and one pasteurized milk cheddar. Both have been rustic but good, with a nice sharp flavor. My goal is to put up a large set of rounds for the winter, when we can open them at our leisure and sample the results. Now that the first two have tasted good, I feel better about putting all this work in.

Many people who’ve tried our cheese have asked if we sell it. No. By law we’re forbidden to sell any dairy products, including milk, without a certified kitchen and commercially certified dairy barn. We don’t have the time, resources, or knowledge to attempt to meet the same standards as a large dairy, and so we have to stay at the hobby level. I have another long post in me somewhere about the absurdity of food & ag laws that make it almost impossible for small farms to produce and sell dairy products in local markets, but that’s another day. In the meantime we do it for ourselves, and give it away to friends and neighbors who enjoy the product and look forward to the day the government will let them pay for it.

When It Rains…

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.

Daily Life – Is It Work?

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.

Late April update

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.

Meet the Goats

Our population has risen once again, with the arrival of five goats. We have not kept goats before, but have a strong interest in doing so for a variety of reasons. We want to minimize our use of off-farm inputs, such as bringing in fertilizer from elsewhere, and keeping livestock and poultry helps achieve that. Second, we feel that sustainability means integrating many different types of farming; the land will be healthier overall if we manage it for multiple uses. Third, we have limited prime vegetable ground, and if we intend to make a living on this land, we need to diversify our income. Our goal is to build up a herd of goats that will make use of, and improve, our many acres of brushy pasture that are prime for goats but marginal for produce, while providing us with meat to sell and milk for our own use.

These five goats represent our beginning, a way to learn the handling of goats at a manageable level, from which we can expand if we desire. In the meantime, they will provide us with milk and help clear and improve our acreage for future uses. These animals all came from a local goat dairy with whom we’re familiar, and who have been very gracious and helpful in getting us started. Perry (second from top) is an older milker whose commercial value is dropping off, and is ready for a good semi-retirement home. She’s a bit ornery and calculating, our current escape artist. Garlic and Gloria (bottom) are 2-year old does who simply represent an over-stock of does at their parent farm, and needed a good home. Garlic is an easy, productive milker and a joy to have around, while Gloria is currently dry but a good companion for the others. The two kids (third from top) are being raised for meat, to be butchered sometime in the fall, and we will hold the three does over the winter.

Their current home is a shed and hoophouse in a smaller paddock on our bottomland (top). The shed is sided with our own milled cedar , while the hoophouse is built from old cattle panels and plastic sheeting. The shed provides a solid, warm, dry structure for inclement weather, while the hoophouse holds their hay, mineral, water, and milking stand. They will be spending many of their days out on pasture around the farm, eating brush and clearing land for further use. We use a system of portable electric netting to confine them to a specific area, moving it regularly to balance their foraging with the health of the pasture.

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.

A real pain in the neck

Not long ago, I apparently re-aggravated an old neck injury from several years ago. I’m still not quite sure what happened this time, but coming home from the MOSES conference, my neck and upper back started to get stiff and painful, and it slowly grew through the week. I rested a lot and cut back on my normal work to try and let it heal, but it kept getting worse until I woke up one night in excruciating pain, so stiff that Joanna had to help me roll over in bed.

I went to the doctor the next morning and was given some muscle relaxants and therapeutic exercises. These worked very well, such that within a few days I was back to just a dull roar of stiffness and soreness. In another week I should be able to ease back into my normal routine, though I’m under strict orders not to even look at a chainsaw or shovel for a while. I wasn’t able to help at all with the lumber operations last weekend; we’re grateful for a neighbor who spent the day helping Joanna haul logs and lumber around.

Meanwhile, I’m spending a lot of time resting and going stir-crazy, watching days go by in which I could be making progress on the myriad tasks, chores, and projects that are looming with spring almost here. At this point, I’m at least allowed/able to cook, clean, and walk around again.

There are some things you just don’t think about much until they happen, especially when you’re young. Health and injuries are one of them; there are almost 14 million young adults in the US who don’t have health insurance. I’ve never been one of them, having paid for my own coverage since college. I was very grateful for this when my initial injury happened in Virgnia, which cost thousands of dollars in medical bills and left me bedridden for three months. We’re now on Joanna’s insurance through work, which makes a big difference in cost and quality compared to covering yourself while self-employed.

Experiences like this really help crystallize what’s wrong with health care in the US. I’m sympathetic to concerns that universal health care would be an expensive bureacratic nightmare, and my experiences with large government agencies don’t give me much hope that such a system would work very well. But right now, with insurance tied so strongly to employment, our system effectively punishes independance and entrepreneurship, particularly in the agricultural world where injuries and health risks are very real. How are young people supposed to start or join farms when doing so means that they’ll either have to go without insurance they can’t afford, or have a partner with an off-farm job?

Someday, we’d like this farm to be a full-time job for both of us, but the single biggest barrier we see is health care/insurance. Farming is strenuous enough that not having insurance is not an option for us; something like this latest “injury” could wipe us out with the double whammy of cost and lost labor. And I haven’t even brought up the issue of hiring employees and providing benefits to them, which is completely unrealistic for most small farms right now. So we, and many like us, are stuck under a hard glass ceiling of outside jobs and no employees, keeping our businesses forever small and limited. If we want a stronger economy, society, and food supply, we have GOT to find a way to spread the costs and availability of insurance/health care over a wider area, to support the small businesses and entrepreneurs (farm or otherwise) who are the backbone of our economy.

I’m fortunate to be in very good health; both the last time and this time, doctors were impressed with how fast I healed, likely due to the fact that I take very good care of myself. But precautions only go so far, and we badly need a system that gives us a fighting chance to live our lives free from fear that a freak incident could put us out of business. Let’s hope that 2009 is the year in which that starts to happen.