Small greenhouse plans

For the first five years of this farm, we’ve started all our transplants indoors, using a small office with grow lights. This has worked very well for us, but as we continue to expand, we’re planning to build a small passive-solar greenhouse this spring to give ourselves more space. Here’s a quick look at our plans; comments and feedback welcome.
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Dairy goat barn

One of the larger projects this fall has involved building a permanent barn to house our goats in the winter and our dairying operations & hay year-round. We used portable and/or temporary shelters for the first few years we kept goats, partly for budgetary reasons, and partly to gain experience that would allow us to decide (a) whether we wanted to do this in the long run and (b) what management methods and setups worked best for us. Three years later, we’re pretty comfortable sticking with the home dairying and are ready to establish a better setting. Enter the nearly finished dairy barn:

Sited just north of our main vegetable field, at a central location to most of our pastures, this will make life far more efficient. Goat living space is in the eastern half (this view looks roughly east), with the western half devoted to milking space and hay storage. More hay storage is in the loft (I haven’t yet added doors to the open gaps you see). The south extension (closer to the camera) houses a frost-proof hydrant and tool storage, along with a covered sunning area for the goats. The north extension will be fenced away from goats, allowing for general tool/supply storage there. Below, you see two residents enjoying their hay rack:

And here is a view of the not-quite-finished milking area, with hay temporarily on the milking stand. I still need to install a basic sink in the corner under the windows, build some shelving, and so on. But it’s usable:
As may be clear from the photos, the entire structure is built from our own cedar lumber cut and milled on-farm. All we purchased was the concrete mix to pour our own footings, some hardware like bolts and brackets and hinges, and the roof. The windows are reused plexiglass panels from a set of old storm windows a neighbor gave us years ago. The metal roofing was purchased from Martin Metals in Versailles, MO, a local company which custom-manufactures its own metal roofing and siding to order. I called in my order at 10:30 in the morning and had the panels delivered, custom-cut to the inch, by 3pm that afternoon. And the price was effectively equivalent to standard, non-cut panels from a big-box store that I would have spent a lot more time cutting to size (and potentially wasting the leftovers).

This barn won’t house goats year-round, as we keep them rotating onto new pastures from May through October to avoid a buildup of parasites which are the main health concern with goats. Taking them to the same home site all the time would destroy that; we use portable shelters during the grazing season. But it will house them during the winter when the need for comfort outweighs the parasite risk, and will allow for clean, convenient, and weather-proof milking year-round.

We’re looking into other ways to make the most use of this building, including housing young pigs in the spring once the goats are turned out to pasture. Based on our experience this year, very young pigs are really nervous and jumpy and need time to become tamer; they also fit through most fencing. Housing them in this barn post-goats would allow them to settle down in a secure, easy-to-manage setting while contributing extra manure to the winter’s pile for later composting. Once they grow large enough for other fencing, and are more manageable (about a month) we can turn them out onto pasture as well. Poultry are another long-term possibility.

All this may seem a large project just to avoid the convenience of buying milk, cheese, and yogurt from a store or farmers market. But beyond the highest-level food quality we get from this, there are two more benefits. One, everything we do for ourselves is a form of farm insurance against product loss or other disaster. If we have to buy all our food, then we have to earn enough to do that, which puts more pressure on us to grow more and earn more to make that happen, exposing us to higher risks. We can exist with a much lower gross income than a farm buying all its food (and building supplies) from the outside world. Two, as we’ve tested this year, these products can be used to pay employees and possibly even to complement a future CSA (vegetable CSA with optional hog share, anyone?), thus also generating value for the farm that does not involve money we have to earn with all the benefits listed above. And this structure is designed to allow for herd expansion, whether dairy or meat, if we ever decide to.

We’re going to have to work long hours on a farm no matter what; we’d rather that a larger percentage of the work directly benefit us with no middleman than work just as hard to sell twice as much to go back and buy all this stuff with the narrow profit remaining. It simply makes more sense to us, though I think we’re pretty rare in that respect. Just too bad that most of this won’t let us earn anything directly, as it doesn’t get us any closer to legal cheese-making or on-farm meat sales. Oh well.

The joys of a prep shed

We’ve been able to use our new prep shed for the past few weeks, and boy is it an improvement. Though I only have half the roof on, and haven’t started the walls, we’ve got the first sink, counter, and table set up allowing us to wash and pack produce in a proper setting. It’s made a huge difference to our efficiency to not have to haul all the produce up to the house.

Above is a basic view through the shed back into the market garden. Produce comes in from the east, often harvested directly into tubs of cold water (in the case of lettuce, greens, radishes, and so on). We can then wash and sort items on the steel table in foreground (purchased for a song at a restaurant auction) before packing into lidded containers that are stored at proper temperature in old refrigerators until market.

Above is part of last week’s radish harvest in progress. I’ve washed and sorted all six varieties, and am about to start building the diverse bundles that customers have found very attractive and interesting. Doing this kind of work outdoors yet under shade and protection is just fantastic. When the shed is truly finished, we’ll have a series of stations like this, along with a great deal of shelving and storage space for produce, tools, and more. Having this close workspace also improves the quality of the produce, as we can get it chilled, washed, and packed that much faster, thus ensuring the long shelf life that folks have repeatedly told us our produce provides. Good stuff all around. Plus, made from all on-farm cedar lumber, it just looks danged pretty.

New prep shed – construction

Starting construction of our new prep shed began with finalizing the design and milling the lumber. I intended to build this solely from on-farm lumber, purchasing only hardware and roofing panels. We have so many good, solid cedars available for use, and it would be so much cheaper and easier to use our own lumber. Plus, this way I can get just the dimensions and lengths I want (I have lots of nice, long 18′ beams to support the rafters, for example). Below you see the freshly milled lumber pile awaiting use near the final site:

First, however, I had to pour the foundation footings, which took quite a while to complete due to weather and other work requirements. We laid out the site and drilled the nine foundation holes with our auger, then poured concrete footings with rebar in place. We then filled the holes to ground level and inserted anchor bolts, to which posts could be nailed using appropriate hardware. It kept raining or freezing as I was trying to get this done, which delayed the project many weeks. Finally the foundations were ready.

Next, we raised the nine posts and braced them in place before beginning to install the framing and rafters for the second floor. As of the first weekend in May, this is where the structure stands:

It’s ready for upper rafters and then the roofing panels. Once the roof is on, we can begin to use it for storage and packing even before I get the walls on. We just can’t wait to get this done; our production this year is already overwhelming the kitchen and this shed will be far cleaner, more efficient, and just all-around better. My original goal for completion was end of April, and I now expect to have it done by mid-May. Not too far off, and not a minute too soon.

It’s already a really neat-looking building, with the all-cedar framing. It ought to be incredibly solid, as we milled all the lumber to true dimension (actual 2x4s instead of store-bought 1.5×3.5s, for example) and are using many full-length beams for greater strength. Already, the view from the second floor is a great platform for panoramic photos of the market garden (look for those soon).
I’ll post again on this when it’s completed.

New prep shed – design

For our first two years of small-scale market sales, we could get away with washing and packing produce in the kitchen. We’d clean it well, clear the counters, and bring everything in. This was not ideal at all, but we had little choice. Our long-term plan was to clean out our larger barn, pour a concrete slab, run water and power, and convert that to a large packing facility with walk-in coolers. That’s still the long-term plan, but this winter we decided we needed a usable washing & packing facility in the meantime. Enter our latest construction project, the prep shed:

We needed something near the market garden and the field road, through which all produce could pass to be washed, sorted, prepared, and packed, with enough space for temporary storage. When all harvesting was done (or as needed) we could then transport items to our coolers in the house. The other main purpose of this structure was storage; right now most of our tools, supplies, hoses, and so on have to live in the house, which is a pain and means we’re constantly running up and down the hill when we need something. So we needed a structure that had useful all-weather storage as well.

Above you see the rough floor plan for the shed. The southern (bottom) half is used for washing, sorting, and packing produce. Items come in either from the market garden (to right) or via vehicle from the field (to left). They are handled along the 16′ counters along the south/bottom wall, which include multiple sinks. Once produce is clean and sorted, it is packed into appropriate containers and stored on the shelving in the NW (upper left) quadrant of the shed until it can be transported en masse to coolers in the house or stored in the truck for market delivery. The NE quadrant is reserved for tool/wheelbarrow/equipment storage, and also opens into the market garden for easy access. The partial second floor of the shed can be used for storing bulky items like irrigation hose.

The design incorporates as much natural light as possible, using clear roofing panels integrated into an otherwise metal roof to shed light on the washing space, and a set of windows along the ridgeline to allow light into the back of the shed. Several large doors also allow light in. This is important as I don’t intend to run power to this. Water will come from our nearby hydrant. The shed will tie into our garden fence so that we can move within the shed and garden without opening gates; loading/unloading from vehicles happens at the western door to the washing area.

That’s the design; in the next few posts I’ll cover the construction, which is ongoing.

Preparing the field – fencing

Getting some real fencing around the vegetable field is a significant priority. We’ve grown corn, beans, squash, and more out here over the past few years, and deer are a significant problem (as are raccoons). Fencing is a must, so we’ve been working on that lately. The goal is a solid welded-wire fence that will stop all small critters, tall enough to stop most deer, with several electrified wires to stop raccoons and goats.

First, we surveyed the fence lines we wanted to establish, laying out straight lines that would require a minimum of bracing and angles. Gate locations were an important consideration for future workflow of vehicles and people. When this was set, we used our potato plow to trench the fencelines so we could bury the bottom to deter digging.

We’re using a combination of farm-cut cedar posts and metal T-posts to support the fence. The former are a natural byproduct of our orchard-clearing, while the latter we scrounge and source from auctions, Craigslist, and so on (the welded-wire fencing came used from Craigslist as well). To set the cedar posts, we drill holes with a tractor-mounted auger before setting the posts, and brace corners with our farm-milled cedar lumber. Below, you see a future gate entrance to the field.

When all posts are set, we unroll and start attaching the welded wire. The ground is uneven enough to keep the fencing a bit wavy, and I expect the fence posts to settle and tilt a bit, but they ought to stay up and do their job. A little bracing here and there on poor performers will do the trick. Below you see the southern fenceline, for which we had to clear a stand of trees that was encroaching on to our good farm land. When all the main fencing is in place, I’ll go back through and string hot (electrified) wire at several heights along offset insulators to discourage coons from climbing and deer/goats from rubbing. We’ll be building solid cedar-plank gates for the main entrances, which is a good rainy-day project.

Hopefully this system works reasonably well, and we can keep the critters to a manageable level. There will certainly be a lot of tasty stuff behind this fence, so we’ll see how it works. I don’t expect it to be as straight, pretty, or perfect as a professional job, but doing it ourselves saves so much investment that it’s worth it. We’d just rather do things ourselves whenever we can.

Chicken Tractor, Chert Hollow style

The concept of a “chicken tractor” is simple: it’s just a portable chicken pen (Google will teach you all you want to know). The idea is to combine the benefits of confinement raising (safety, shelter, heat, etc.) and pastured raising (natural food, exercise, cleanliness). During the summer, our chickens range freely throughout the goat paddock, but for this winter we wanted a warmer and more secure location for them. We also wanted them near the house, with access to power. These are laying hens, after all, and they lay better with more light than winter gives naturally, and in extra cold nights some heat is a good thing.

So here’s our take on the concept. It houses four hens and two roosters, with roughly equal indoor and outdoor spaces. Inside are a laying box, roosts, food, and water. Outside is enough room to exercise, peck, and fulfill other chickenly needs. It’s close to the house, and power is run to a heat lamp through a heavy-duty extension cord run through a simple household security timer to turn the lights on and off as needed to extend their apparent daylight (their laying went up significantly after they moved in here).

Fundamental to the concept is portability. This shelter is heavy enough to keep coons or dogs from tipping it over (we hope), but light enough to drag around with two people or a tractor. About once a week we move it to new ground. This keeps things cleaner, as the waste isn’t building up in one place all winter, and as a side effect ends up spreading excellent fertilizer all over the chosen area (in this case, future berry plantations). By the end of the winter we expect to have covered much of the available area, resulting in easy fertilization without lots of work. And the birds are far happier not living in their own waste all winter. It’s easier to move this once a week than shovel lots of chicken crap.

During the day, if I’m around, I’ll often open the outside door and let them range in a larger area, defined by an electric net fence that can be dimly seen in the photograph. This really gives them a healthy life, and they know where home is (food, water, and heat) and don’t get too far away.

It’s a very basic and effective concept; a nice blend of modern innovation with traditional methods. This type of thing has been used at many scales; once you’re moving a portable coop regularly anyway, why not make it large enough for lots of birds? The effect is the same. Many folks use large (90-100 bird) sheds to improve their pastures, moving the shed every few days and effectively spreading excellent manure with none of the waste or pollution of doing it artifically. And the birds are happier too.

Someday down the road we’ll likely expand our poultry operation to larger numbers and tractors; geese and ducks are possibilities too. In the meantime, this little homestead-sized weekend project gives us fresh eggs, healthy chickens, and better growing areas with very little downside.

Simple buildings

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.