Category Archives: Fruits and Veggies

Early Winter

It’s been raining for 4 days straight, so I’ve finally found some time to blog.  I may have to cut this short if it keeps raining and try to teach the chickens how to swim.  Sorry for the long absence, but I’ve been teaching Spanish at the high school lately (yikes!) and with the daylight getting shorter each day I just haven’t found the time to put pencil to paper.  Er, fingers to keyboard.

Since the last blog, we’ve mostly put the gardens to bed.  There are still some greens and peas hanging on, but everything else has been chopped and mulched with leaves from the surrounding trees.  I’ve been working really hard on the gardens this summer and fall.  Next year should be our most ambitious gardens yet!  Lindsey’s dad Ronnie wants to help out with the gardens and essentially combine our labor on the gardens here to produce veggies for both of our families.  I’ve prepped the 2 raised bed gardens that we’ve used the whole time we’ve been here, the 3 Sisters garden that we made two years ago, and the new “straw garden” I made last fall and put to its first use this year.  I’ve also “broken ground” on two new gardens that we’ll use for the first time this coming spring.  One will be another standard garden and the other will be a trellis garden for growing vertically-oriented crops like cucumbers, Malabar spinach, peas and beans, and small squashes.  All of our gardens are created by first closely mowing all of the vegetation.  Then we lay down cardboard sheet mulch to block any regrowth (thanks to Jake and Ronnie’s move we’ve had access to a lot of cardboard).  After that I throw on layers of manure and old hay and straw and let that mix compost in place all winter.  Then in the spring, the garden is ready to go!  Plant, mulch, harvest!  All told, next year we should have almost 12,000 ft² of garden space in production next year!

The Food Forest in the backyard is moving along nicely as well.  This year we managed to get almost of the trees planted!  Our ultimate goal here is to teach people that a phenomenal amount of food can be produced in a regular suburban-sized back yard.  When we moved here there were a few raspberries planted in the backyard, but that was it.  Last year we planted grapevines and built an herb spiral with our interns Cameron and Alexa.  This year we got 5 apple trees in the ground (Gala, Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, MacIntosh, and Arkansas Black), 2 plums, 2 sweet cherries, several blueberry bushes, 3 pawpaws, a mulberry, 2 hardy almonds, 2 brown turkey figs, 2 mayhaws, and 2 golden chain trees.  Most of the trees look like sticks right now, although the ones we planted in the spring put on some good growth.  These will be the canopy layer of our Food Forest and we wanted to get them growing as soon as possible since it will take several years for us to begin to see the literal fruits of our labor.  Next year the goal for the Food Forest will be to begin the establishment of the understory plants to grow underneath the trees.  These shorter plants will provide some food, but will also accumulate nutrients, block the grass, and generate mulching material on site.  Right now all the mulch comes from old chicken and rabbit bedding.  These plants will include comfrey, horseradish, rhubarb, Jerusalem artichokes, sea buckthorns, nasturtiums, daffodils, and other shorter plants.  Once the trees get larger, we’ll add some more vining plants for another layer in the forest.

We also got a corral built around the winter quarters for the cattle and goats.  Now the animals should be secure behind a solid physical barrier.  We’ve been using just electric fencing and that isn’t a great winter solution because it doesn’t work very well in the winter.  We can’t keep the batteries charged well in the cold and snow shorts the fence out on occasion.  But now we shouldn’t have to worry about escapes due to faulty fencing.  We’ll be down to just human error now.  No place else for me to hide!

We are continuing to learn about pigs.  I really like them!  They eat a lot, but they are very useful and I can see them improving our woodlots paddock by paddock.  Now if their jaws could just get strong enough to actually crack all of the black walnuts they have access to we could cut the feed bill down significantly!

Finally, we’ve adopted a cow for the short term.  One of our Amish neighbors needed his cow bred, so we traded out our bull Russell’s stud services for some hay.  I didn’t ask Russell for his permission, but I can attest to the fact that he did not mind a bit.  I like this deal a lot.  Our bull knocks up someone else’s heifer and we get a half a winter’s worth of hay from it.  Only with cows…

 

Beginning our Forage Forest

So I don’t know how many readers have actually been able to visit GLR yet, but for those who haven’t gotten the chance…

… It’s a bit hilly, hillbilly.

We have 3 fields/pastures totaling around 40 acres that are relatively flat, but the aren’t all connected.  Plus, we’d like to be able to utilized more of the property for food production.  So here’s the plan, which is now underway.  Barely.

The green highlighted area above the pasture and below the old-growth forest is the area that will become the forage forest.

In the Google Earth snapshot above, the green area represents what will become the forage forest.  It’s an area that was once clear-cut and turned into pasture but over the last 15 years or so has grown up with all manner of brush – young cedars, oaks, poplars, hickories, and some brambles and berries.  When we first moved here I thought we would clear out all of that secondary growth and turn that portion of the hillside below the old-growth forest at the top of the ridge back into pasture for our ruminants.

The problem with that idea is the slope of the land:

Here’s a view of the typical slope we are talking about. It seems much steeper when you’re on site.

I understand that the previous farmers on this property had turned this portion of the farm into pasture, but I also have eyes and can see that all of the topsoil on this slope is not there anymore.  It’s probably been washed down into the creek and off to the Green River.  That slope is just not conducive to short grass.  It needs things with deep roots to hold the topsoil in place.

Those of you who know me know that I like to think about things for long periods of time before taking action.  I’ve been pondering that steep hillside for 3 years now.  I’ve thought… pasture, orchard, grapes(!), water slide into the creek, leave it alone, etc.  Then I came across a book that I think all landowners should read – J Russell Smith’s Tree Crops.  It was written in 1929 and it’s still revolutionary and ahead of its time today.  It has inspired what our hillside will become – a forage forest using native trees to hold the topsoil, provide forage and shelter for our livestock, and provide a microclimate under the canopy into which we can sow annual and perennial ground-level crops.

Here’s the idea:

  1. We utilize the pigs and goats this fall to eat down some of the brush (especially the briars and brambles) and root up the thin soil a bit to help loosen the grip the bunchgrass has on the hillside.  This part is starting to happen as we speak.
  2. This winter, when there’s more room to move around after the leaves are off and the goats and pigs have thinned things out a bit, I will go in there and selectively remove trees.  Most of the cedars will go away to be used as fence posts or be turned into other useful things.  Lindsey likes them to keep moths out of her sweaters.  The best oaks, hickories, and berry patches will stay and the rest of them thinned to give the best trees room and light to grow even better.
  3. After the thinning, we will plant some native forage-producing trees in the gaps created by the thinning process and (for the shade-loving trees) under the canopies of the existing nut trees.  These forage trees will include things like honey locusts, mayhaws, pawpaws, persimmons, crabapples, and mulberries to complement the oaks and hickories.
  4. Underneath the canopy (after the pigs have tilled the soil a little for us) we’ll plant a mix of perennials and annuals that we hope will become a permanent feature of the forest.  We’ll have to manage it carefully for the first five years, but we hope to establish clovers, orchardgrass, alfalfa, Jerusalem artichokes, squashes, berry bushes, turnips, rape, peas, sunflowers, and other little treats in the understory of the forest.
  5. Over time, these planted trees and the existing trees will begin to produce forage that the goats and pigs can self-harvest.  Our plan is to combine the understory plants and the fruit- and nut-fall from the trees and actually not have to feed anything other than what the livestock can gather in the forage forest.

The hard work will come in when we plant the trees.  Kentucky’s Dept of Forestry at least makes it easy to acquire them.  You can order bundles of 100 bare root trees for around $40 from them.  Anybody wanna come help dig this winter?  The hardest part (for me anyway) will be the patience needed to wait for the trees to grow.

So when this forage forest kicks into full production (in like 10 years, *sigh*) our pigs’ year will look like this:

January-February: piglets born, everybody’s in the warm barn, adult pigs eating walnuts saved from October harvest and our extra corn
March:  pigs go into the cattle/goat hayfeeding area to churn compost for us, pigs feeding on the compost and our extra corn
April-May: pigs go onto pasture and start heading towards the forage forest, feeding on grasses & clovers on spring pasture
May-June: pigs go into the forage forest where mayhaws and mulberries are ripe and falling to the ground for them
July-August: mulberries continue to fall, blackberries ripen, ground cover crops plentiful
September: ground cover crops are still going, nut fall is starting, crabapples and pawpaws are dropping off the trees
October: nut fall is in full swing, pigs feast and fatten on hickories, acorns, and hazelnuts
November-December: persimmons and honey locusts drop their bounties, pigs are finished.  Pork is harvested, breeders return to barn.

So that’s the plan – to create a forage forest that produces our pork without any off-farm feed inputs.  With good management, I believe we can also harvest extra fruits and nuts from the forest and run our goats and poultry through the forage forest occasionally as well.  The best part of all of this is that, in addition to producing all of those wonderful products, this plan will actually stabilize that hillside, prevent erosion, shelter our animals, create a corridor to move the cattle through to the back pasture, and provide valuable timber towards retirement time for Lindsey and I.

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Drought

Dry Creek living up to its name.

See that creek there?  It’s usually more like a small river.  Couple feet deep, 60 feet wide.  Flows and everything.  Now it’s reduced to unconnected pools of standing water.  Even those are evaporating fast.  We have 3 other creeks crisscrossing our property.  All of them are dry.  We have 2 wells.  Both of them are dry.  We have 2 ponds.  One is mud and the other has a few inches of muddy water left.  And we are lucky.  On the ridge above us they’ve been out of water for a lot longer.

I’m sure everyone has noticed, but it’s frickin’ hot.  It’s bone dry.  Basically, going outside is like stepping into an oven.  Man, I’m sure glad I have an office job where it’s air conditioned and I don’t have to go outside and haul hundreds of gallons of water everyday.  Oh, wait…

I don’t remember the last time it rained.  I know it hasn’t rained at all since we came back from San Antonio.  That was a month ago.  I’m not sure when the last rain before that was.  We’ve had dark clouds, thunder, lightning, and high winds, but no rain.  Mother Nature’s a tease.

We planted corn, squash, and beans a month ago.  About half up it courageously sprouted only to wither in the blast furnace we called June.  We probably won’t get any flour corn this year.  We’ll try planting some more squash if it ever rains again.

All our plants are struggling.  The corn that has sprouted (and every other farmer’s around here) looks like garlic – it’s short, pale green, and thin-leaved.  We lost the blueberry bushes we planted.  I’m lugging water to the apple trees every other day, but I think we’re going to lose at least one of them.  The hundreds of little pawpaws, redbuds, and Kentucky coffee trees that did so well in their first year are about to go belly up in year two.

The animals are pretty unhappy.  We’ve made more shade shelters for them and moved some into the barns. We’ve moved the cattle and goats underneath the trees.  We check water 3 or 4 times a day instead of twice.  But we can’t make the grass grow.  Check out our pastures:

The grass literally crunches when you walk on it.  If you kick the ground, the dust flies.  We’ve got about 10 days worth of grazing left, then we’ll have to resort to feeding hay in order to buy enough time for the rain to come and the grass to regrow.  In the meantime, we’ll have to keep using city water to bring to the animals.  That’s not a fun haul.  The creeks we usually get water from (knee-deep little tributaries of the large creek) are bone dry:

One of our “permanent” streams.

The weatherman has predicted a 40% chance of rain tomorrow and a 50% chance on Monday.  The weatherman has been wrong for weeks though.  We need a significant amount of rain so if you know any rain dances or chants, now’s the time.

What I want to be doing at this time tomorrow.

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How Does Your Garden Grow?

With the help of goats, cows, and pigs of course!

So here’s the grand plan.  We’ll see if it works…

Step 1 – Bring cattle and goats in to overwinter where we want a large garden next summer.  Done.
Step 2 – Let them eat hay in that area to keep them off fragile winter pasture.  Done.
Step 3 – When the cattle and goats poop, cover the manure with bedding.  Done.
Step 4 – Let them trample the oxygen out of the bedding/poop mixture to preserve it.  Done.
Step 5 – When the grass starts growing, move cattle and goats to pasture.  Done.
Step 6 – Bring in some young pigs.  Done.
Step 7 – Allow pigs to till up the manure/bedding mix and turn it to compost. In progress.
Step 8 – Once everything is composted, remove pigs, rake smooth, and plant.  In future.
Step 9 – Have a barbecue.  In future.

It may sound like a lot of work, but it keeps our pastures from getting pugged up and muddified in the soggy wintertime, lets us put all that manure and wasted hay to good use, lets the animals do all of the work to prep the garden rather than the farmer or the fossil fuel equipment, and keeps the animals going and growing while they work.

So without further ado, please allow me to introduce GLR’s newest residents – the pigs!

Pigs starting to explore their new environs.

These four strapping young fellows came with me from Bloomfield this morning from another farmer who thinks like we do – no antibiotics, hormones, steroids, nose-ringing, etc.  They are a cross between a Duroc sow and a Gloucester Old Spot boar.  Both varieties are known for having great meat quality.  3 of these boys are light red/orange with some black points and spots while the other looks like a straight-up dark red Duroc.  That last one is the smallest at about 45 pounds while the rest are over 55 pounds.  They are seven weeks old and have lots of growing to do while they prep our garden ground for us!  Nature’s plow at work.

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These little guys are solid muscle.  50 pounds packed into a real small space.

Scooter thought we brought him new friends.  He was quite intent on playing with the pigs, but we convinced him that wasn’t such a good idea.

And contrary to popular mythology, the little pigs did not go “wee wee wee” all the way home.

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Barn Raisin’

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We just finished a new barn on our property.  We needed a sheltered area for the goats and cattle for the winter as well as a predator-proof nighttime roost for our poultry to deter the extremely bold and clever minks.

We had one large barn from the 1940’s already but it leans pretty badly, is elevated off the ground (not predator proof), and doesn’t offer any sheltered areas for livestock that are secure.  We have 2 useful stalls that we use for quarantine purposes, but that old barn is really not useful for anything other than storage.

So with the help of Abe, one of our Amish neighbors, we designed a combination run-in shed and poultry roosting house to serve our purposes.  The completed structure is 20′ wide, 48′ long, and 8′ tall at the lowest point of the roof rising to 12′ tall at the apex.  The poultry roosting area is 16′ x 20′ (320 square feet) and the run-in shelter is 32′ by 20′ (640 square feet).

The poultry roosting section is completely enclosed with poplar boxing harvested from our woods at the top of the hill.  The boxing goes all the way up to the roof and spacers are attached to prevent any critter from climbing over the walls.  We also sunk hardwood boards a foot into the ground below the boxing to prevent digging critters.  As an extra measure of protection chicken wire will be stapled to the baseboards, buried beneath a thick layer of gravel planted with thorny cactus and multiflora rosebushes to form a (hopefully) impenetrable barrier to predators.  If any minks, raccoons, or stray cats can get through this, then we’ll just have to give up on raising chickens.  Inside the roosting house will be a bamboo roost, nesting boxes, and a feed bin with a rodent-deterring latching system all over an auto-composting deep bedding system.

The run-in shed serves as shade and shelter for the ruminants during stormy winter weather.  On the open front we will attach 2 16′ gates to span the open side.  One gate will open outwards and one gate will open into the shelter, allowing us to utilized the gate to help us corral goats for hoof trimmings.  We purposefully placed the shelter connected to the garden area to collect the fertility from the hay and manure for our crops.  Basically, the cows poop, we add some grain and cover it with straw or hay, the cows poop more, we add more grain and cover it with straw or hay, and the cows trample out all of the oxygen.  This binds all of the nutrients together and stores them until we’re ready.  No smell and no shoveling manure!

Once the cows and goats are back out on pasture in early April, we’ll buy a couple feeder pigs and turn them into the shelter and garden area.  The pigs will root through all that hay, straw, and manure in search of the grain we buried in there for them.  In the process, the pigs will inject oxygen into all that organic matter and the whole lot of it will begin to compost.  After a few weeks we will have a garden that has been fertilized and tilled as well as a couple of pigs to eat!

This shelter went up very quickly.  It took 3 men (2 Amish and 1 Geoff), 1 teenager, and 1 kid 5 days to complete it.  Very economical as well.  Abe gets good prices.  I priced out the materials at Lowe’s and the wood alone was only $700 less than we paid for the whole structure and the labor.  Plus, it’s built far more sturdily than I could have hope to build it alone.

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Dodging Raindrops

Lately it seems the skies always look like this.

Supposedly April showers bring May flowers.  They did.

What do May showers bring?

I need to know because it has been raining for what seems like weeks on end.  The county farm data bank says that in an “average year” (what’s that?) the county has gotten 22.76″ of rain by this date.  So far on our ranch we have gotten 35.48″, or over a foot more than average.  It rained another half-inch last night during our latest round of severe weather.  So in a word, our spring has been soggy.  As I’m writing this it just started raining again.  Really hard.  So by the time I’m done with this sentence those precipitation numbers will be outdated.

Most of the garden plants seem to enjoy it so far.  The lettuces and broccoli and onions are all growing well.  All the greens are going like gangbusters.  The spinach showed its strength.  The garlic seems less thrilled, though.  The tomato plants have been repeatedly snapped in high winds even in their cages (no, we don’t have free-range tomatoes).  The corn has yet to come up because it was so recently planted, but I’m hoping that it won’t rot in the sodden ground before it has a chance to sprout.

Our philosophy about heritage varieties of animals and plants also extends to corn.  Some people in the local and sustainable food movement have unfairly painted corn in pretty bad light.  After all, who’s making the decisions here – a plant or the humans who propagate it?  Corn is an amazing plant with a lot to like.  First, it’s native to the Americas.  It was bred and developed by the indigenous peoples here.  It is a tough plant that will grow almost anywhere there is a modicum of water and fertility.  It stores almost indefinitely.  And it has been grown and adapted to so many varied locales that there is an incredible variety from which to choose.  In other words, farmers don’t have to grow #2 field corn for the commodities market.  In fact, if you want to eat it you shouldn’t grow that type of corn at all.

We got some old-school varieties of corn from neighbors and seed cooperatives to plant on about 1/4 acre.  I baled hay for our neighbor Joshua a while back in exchange for him tilling up the area where we had the goats deposit all their winter manure for us to plant.  He did a great job with the tilling and then Lindsey and I leveled it with shovels and rakes.  Finally, the weather cleared for 2 consecutive days and it dried out enough for me to plant it yesterday.  Texas Honey June, Blue Jade, Golden Bantam, Floriani Red Flint, Bloody Butcher, Reid’s Yellow Dent, and Daymon Morgan’s Kentucky Butcher corn all went into the ground.  Those links are not necessarily the sources for our seed, but they were the best pictures I could find of the varieties we planted.  The Texas Honey June, Blue Jade, and Golden Bantam are all sweet corns that we can eat or freeze.  We’ll plant more of those varieties every two weeks or so to make sure we’ve got fresh sweet corn all summer long.  The other corns are for drying.  The Floriani Red Flint supposedly makes the world’s best polenta.  Since polenta is basically fancy grits, I can get on board with that.  The butcher corns are for flour and decoration, and the Reid’s Yellow Dent will provide some winter food for our poultry.

I know 1/4 acre doesn’t sound like much, but that’s about the limit of what I think we can care for doing everything by hand.

In other news, the rabbits, turkeys, and chickens are growing quickly.  We’ve sold quite a few of the Black Australorps and Kentucky Redneck chickens to people who wanted to start their own flocks.  The rest we’ll grow out as meat birds or add to our layer flock in the Yolkswagen.  The rabbit does we have are really bad mothers, but hopefully in a few generations we can breed for good mothering instincts.  So far out of 4 litters we have only 10 bunnies to show for it.  The rest have been rejected or killed by their own mothers.

Guinea keets are hatching in the incubator as we speak.  This is especially good news because another rogue cat has been systematically eliminating the guineas one by one.  We’re down to 4 adult birds and 1 juvenile from the 18 we had 2 weeks ago.  Those last ones are cooped up at the moment to eliminate the food source and encourage the cat to move on.  This is a sneaky cat.  Usually I see them hanging around, but this one is either very wary or has some sort of cloaking capability.

Our Black Spanish hens have not returned yet.  If they were nesting, their poults should have hatched out last weekend.  Then I imagine they keep them in the nest until the poults are capable of following the hen around.  Every day I look forward to seeing them, and every day my heart sinks just a little bit when they don’t return.  Yesterday one of the chocolate hens that has been going off by herself a lot during the day didn’t come back to the turkey roost at dusk, so now we might have another month-plus wait while she sits on her nest.  Natural farming is stressful!  I want to let the animals nest on their own and raise their own young, but it’s so hard to sit and wait and hope that they are able to hatch out their eggs and brood their poults before a predator finds them.  We have so much financially and emotionally invested in them at this point that it would be heartbreaking to have them not return.

The last bit of news is in the Lifestyles Lane department.  We should get a good start this summer with all the helpers coming out to the ranch and we plan on completely 2 of the more intricate structures this summer.  Hopefully more, but 2 is the definite attainable goal.  Our friends Adele and Bonnie are visiting, my brother and his friends are coming out, and we have 9 interns coming to the farm in June, July, and August to help build the structures and learn about sustainable farming.  We will begin introducing them to you as they arrive on the ranch in mid-June, but we are getting excited for their arrival.

Ensuring and Preserving the Harvest

Strawberry plants loaded with ripening berries.

Strawberry season is officially upon us here in central Kentucky!  Our 150-square foot patch is full of plants that are just loaded with berries.  The patch was pretty neglected when we moved here early last summer and we have been diligently weeding it, mulching it, fertilizing it with rabbit manure, and culling weak plants since then.  Our diligence has paid off with enormous amounts of berries.  We’ve been getting a basket full every day and eating them fresh, but today there were just way too many to eat all at once so we preserved today’s haul.

Last year, unfortunately, we didn’t get any berries from the strawberry patch.  When we arrived at our new home in mid-June, the patch was completely overtaken by grass and other weeds.  Absolutely no berries were left for us as the birds had evidently feasted on them all.  June is typically prime strawberry season, so we were disappointed to not get a single berry last year and we took steps to ensure a good harvest this year.

The first thing we did was clean out the patch really well.  We eliminating all the grass by hand.  We culled older and weaker strawberry plants to give the younger and healthier ones more room to grow.  We simultaneously mulched and fertilized the strawberry patch with old bedding from our rabbit hutches.  The straw helps keep the weeds at bay and the manure adds the necessary fertilizer as the old bedding breaks down and composts in place.  We kept up these tactics throughout last summer, fall, and early this spring.  We hoped the payoff would be lots of big juicy strawberries.

As soon as the berries began to turn pink, the birds began circling.  Lindsey and I were determined to not lose our harvest to the birds again this year.  We don’t mind sharing a few berries with the wild critters, but we want some too!

So we took an hour or so and put up a rather rudimentary scarecrow using an old bucket for a head, a couple dabs of paint for eyes and a mouth, Geoff’s ripped old clothing, and plastic grocery store bags for stuffing.  It’s built on a rebar frame so we can just pull the whole thing up and move it to a new spot every couple days to keep the birds guessing.  We also added some strips of aluminum foil from the scarecrow and the fence to add some movement, flash, and noise to the area.  So far it seems to be working well.  We’ve been getting loads of berries and seen very few of them that have been “taste tested.”

The scarecrow discourages avian marauders.

Today we were overloaded with far too many berries to eat fresh, so it was jammin’ and freezin’ time!  We had enough berries from today’s picking alone to freeze 9 bags full and create 21 jars of strawberry jam!  Here’s how we did it:

To freeze strawberries:
1.  Wash and hull the berries.
2.  Place the berries on cookie sheets so they’re not touching each other.
3.  Put the cookie sheets with the berries in the freezer.
4.  Once the berries have frozen, take them off the cookie sheets and put them into freezer bags.  This keeps the berries from sticking together in the freezer bags.

To make strawberry jam 2 lbs at a time:
1.  Wash and hull the strawberries.
2.  Put the berries into a large heavy pot over low heat.
3.  Mash the berries with a potato masher (or similar).
4.  Add 4 cups of sugar and 1/4 cup of lemon juice and stir to dissolve the sugar.
5.  Once the sugar is dissolved, turn the heat up and stir continuously until the mixture reaches 220° F.
6.  Ladle the mixture into sterile jars.
7.  Put the lids on the jars and process for 10 minutes in a hot water bath.
8.  Let the jars cool and check that they are sealed.

One day's strawberry harvest: 9 bags of frozen berries and 21 jars of jam.

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Early Spring Update

The year's first asparagus. 200 feet from plot to pot.

Ahh, early spring on the farm!  The cherry trees are full of blossoms, the grass is bright green and growing quickly, the garden is planted, and the chickens are brooding eggs for us.  It’s a great time to be working outside.

The rabbits have been breeding for a while.  Unfortunately, our rabbits are not very good mothers.  Two of them abandoned their litters right after birth and would not take care of them.  The other two rabbits that had litters were good mothers.  One had a small litter of 3 bunnies that have done well.  They are 3 weeks old now and busily hopping around their pen exploring.  The second mother was doing fantastic.  She had a litter of 8 bunnies and they all survived and were growing rapidly throughout the first week of their lives.  Then we had a big storm.  We got a couple inches of rain the night before last and all through yesterday.  We did not know that the roof of that rabbit’s cage would not hold up against the storm.  It started dripping water right through the back half of the roof where the rabbit had made her nest.  All the poor bunnies got soaked and too cold.  None of them made it.  Those discoveries are always hard, and the blow is especially severe when the bunnies came from our two best rabbits and were doing so well.  We even had them sold!  Setbacks, setbacks…

Thomas and Not Thomas enjoying their first romp on the new spring grass.

On a brighter note, all the Black Australorp chicks we hatched out are doing great!  The first two (the only two that hatched successfully from our frozen January egg clutch) got to go out onto pasture today in their very own chicken tractor.  They are enjoying exploring the outside world, catching their first bugs, and tasting their first grass.  They’ve got all their feathers now, so they should be fine unless we get a really cold snap come in.  If that happens they can go back into the brooder for the night.  The second clutch is so vibrant!  We had 30 successfully hatch, and all 30 of them are doing wonderfully!  The chicks we got from the hatchery last year had a few problems with weak chicks and chicks who developed pasty deposits around their anuses.  These home-hatched chicks have had NONE of those problems whatsoever.  It’s really remarkable.  Hopefully the last batch of chicks we just got in will be the last chickens we have to order and we’ll be able to hatch them all out on-farm from now on.

Speaking of which, we just picked up our (hopefully) last ever chicken and turkey order from the post office this morning.  52 Naked Neck chickens (we’re calling them Kentucky Redneck Chickens) and 48 Narragansett and Bourbon Red turkey poults have joined the Black Australorp chicks and Magpie ducklings in the broodhouse.  We had 2 of the turkey poults DOA, but so far everyone else seems healthy so hopefully they’ll prosper in their new locale.  The video below shows the new chicks, the old chicks, and some footage of the greenhouse and garden.

Lindsey’s family came in last week and they helped us transplant the seedlings we started in the greenhouse to the garden so now our garden is full of our cool-weather crops: broccoli, sweet peas, Amish snap peas, radishes, 3 kinds of carrots, turnips, 5 kinds of lettuce, spinach, chard, onions, mustard greens, and kale.  The little seedlings have adjusted well to the outdoors with a minimum of hardening off.  We’ve been picking salad greens for a while and are now waiting on our first peas and radishes to be ready.  Yesterday we got to eat the season’s first asparagus.  So good!  I don’t really like asparagus from the grocery store too much, but the fresh stuff is to die for!  The strawberry patch that we’ve worked so hard to revamp by removing the weeds and old plants, mulching, and fertilizing with rabbit manure has really taken off.  Lots of new leaves and plants loaded with blooms.  We are looking forward to a good crop of strawberries in another few weeks if we can fight off the birds and pick our fair share of them.

In other news, the Eggmobile we’ve been building for the chickens should be finished this weekend so check for a how-to post on that in the near future.

We also revamped the Good Life Ranch website to make it more informative and easier to navigate.  Check it out and let us know what you think!

Enjoy the update!  I’ve got to get back to work outside!

Do Onions Make You Cry?

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We’ve put a couple of crops in the ground (or in a potting flat) so far this spring.  The first lettuce, spinach, cabbage, bok choi, broccoli, kale, chard, and mustard greens are sprouting in the cold frame and in the greenhouse.  The first planting of peas is in the garden, but no sprouts yet.  We also planted some grape vines under the trellis we built last fall.  The grapes are Catawbas (a nice red grape) and Niagaras (a tangy white grape).  We’ll be on the lookout for those grapes in 2-3 years.

Today didn’t go as planned.  The plan was for Lindsey to help me put together the rest of the portable hen house that I’ve been working on for a while.  Unfortunately, the drill bits did not feel like cooperating today.  I had 3 bits of the correct size.  Two of them broke on the same hole and the third was not sharp enough to work correctly.  So rather than going back into town and getting more drill bits, we decided that we should do something else.  More drill bits will be procured later, and the portable hen house will debut on the blog soon.  Hopefully.

The second plan was to finish putting in fence posts in the first section of fence in the front field.  But the recent rains filled the post holes we dug with water and they aren’t done draining yet, so setting posts would have to be delayed too.  Posts tend to wobble when you set them in mud.

So then we went to Plan C.  Plan C was planting onions.  We had gotten red, white, and yellow onion sets from the Amish general store close by.  Onion sets are basically little baby onions.  Onions are biennial.  The sets have been grown from seed in one year, pulled from the ground as tiny little bulbs, and then these tiny bulbs are planted the following spring so they can complete their development into large onions.

To plant the sets, put the little onions root side down with the top of the set even with or just below the soil surface.  We staggered the sets in 2 lines so that all the onions end up about 4 inches apart.  Then we covered them slightly and watered them in.

We planted 3 rows of the sweet yellow onions, 2 rows of the sweet/peppery white onions, and 2 rows of the spicy red onions on the sides of the raised beds in the new garden.  We also put 2 mini-rows of the white onions in the old garden.  Finally, we planted a short mixed row of white and yellow onions really close together (only about an inch apart) to grow for green onions.  For green onions you plant them really close together like that, then harvest the green tops before the bulbs get large enough to crowd each other.

That’s a lot of potential onions for $6.

Happy Saturday!

The Farm in Winter

Roughhousing.

Welcome to 2011!  Just don’t call it “two thousand eleven” in front of my dad.  You’ll get an argument…

With the new year comes a new layout for the blog.  Thanks to my brother Will/Billy for the photo and our friends Cassie, Adele, Kathy, and Angela for the depicted rooster.  Hopefully this theme is a little more personal and a little less garish.  Faithful friends who began reading this blog in Year One can always brag that they were there for the overpoweringly green theme that was 2010.

We haven’t seen much green around the farm lately.  Lots of snow has fallen and stayed on the ground.  Dry Creek, the waterway that forms the northwestern boundary of Good Life Ranch, is frozen over.  This morning I saw a mink happily walking along in the middle of the frozen creek.  You see a lot more wildlife when Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum (Scooter and Bailey, our house dogs) are inside.  Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum don’t like to do morning chores when it’s cold and snowy, so they sit on the front porch and whine until Mama Lindsey lets them back inside.

On the plus side of snowy weather, we get to go sledding down the big hill in the pastures behind the house.  My parents gave Lindsey (well, both of us, but it’s been claimed) a sled for Christmas and it sure is fun to use.  It’s a really nice sled – fast, sturdy, easy to turn, big enough for two people – and we’ve given it a couple of uses so far.  In fact, after I write this I’m going to go sledding this afternoon.

Lindsey hoists her new sled.

The dogs like sledding, too.  They chase us down then hill and sometimes get in the way.  Then at the bottom of the hill they crowd around us like they are so glad that we emerged alive from the reckless activity we had just undertaken.  Then they pose for photographs.

Posing.

Bailey and her fellers.

So, besides sledding, what do farmers do in winter?

Well….

1.  We read and research.  In addition to a couple of books for fun reading, I’ve read The Contrary Farmer, It’s a Long Road to a Tomato, and One-Straw Revolution so far this winter.  I also read other farmer’s blogs and webpages looking for ideas and tips in order to work smarter around here.

2.  We plan.  I’ve laid out and measured fence lines for 3 of our pastures so far.  I’ve planned out 3 of the Lifestyles Lane structures that we’ll start building over Spring Break.  I’ve planned out the planting schedule for our greenhouse and gardens for the year.  I’ve tried to organize a Community-Supported Agriculture program for our area in 2011.  No takers so far.

3.  We order things.  Seeds mostly.  Last week I researched and ordered all the seeds we should need for the upcoming year.  We are planning on having (drum roll, please): 3 varieties of onions, 5 varieties of garlic, 6 varieties of corn, broccoli, leeks, cabbage, chard, spinach, 6 varieties of lettuce, arugula, mustard greens, collard greens, beets, 3 varieties of peas, 8 varieties of beans, 3 kinds of potatoes, 2 varieties of carrots, kale, radishes, sweet potatoes, 4 kinds of peppers, 5 kinds of tomatoes, eggplants, turnips, summer squash, winter squash, pumpkins, 3 kinds of melons, and parsnips.  We should also have our perennial crops of asparagus, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, walnuts, hazelnuts, plums, and pears.  Hopefully our peaches will do better this year too.

4.  We price things we’ll need.  This is a good time of year to scrounge the internet and the phone lines looking for the best prices on items we’ll need during the upcoming year: fence posts and wire, feed, and seeders, for example.

5.  We build up our infrastructure.  During some “nice weather” pockets that I hope will be coming in the next two months, there will be some fence posts going into the ground.  We have 5 pastures here on the ranch – the front field (13 acres), the side field (12 acres), the hillside field (20 acres), the creek field (15 acres), and the hilltop field (12 acres).  We can’t afford to fence them all in, so we are starting with the ones closest to the road and working our way back from there.  We want to get the front field fenced this winter and the side field done before the end of next winter.

6.  We rest.

We’ve also had fun lately with our new weather station.  Good Life Ranch does not have the same weather as the closest places for which the local stations report or the closest places that the iPhone apps will find.  Our temperatures seem to vary by as much as 15°F from these “local” reports.  We also wanted an accurate way to measure our precipitation, humidity, wind speed, etc.  So my parents got us a nice little wireless weather data station for the house.  I’ve had fun monitoring it and it has a nice feature of being able to download that data to a computer for storage.  So far our highest temp in January is 61°F and our lowest is -3°F.

 

Our new weather station.
The console for the new weather station.

In livestock news, the chickens are laying 4-6 eggs per day.  So now we’ve got enough to sell.  The eggs are really good even though the yolks have paled slightly from the first burnt-orange ones we got.  They are still much better than the grocery store eggs.  Today they went all out and gave us 9 eggs, which is fantastic!

 

9 eggs from our laying hens today. Really good production for cold, snowy January without supplemental light!

The goats are getting a little tamer lately.  They are starting to recognize that I bring their food now since they’ve been getting hay only for about a month.  Well, hay and a little bamboo that I chop out of our patch every few days.  Nadine and Ivory will even let me pet them now.  More correctly, I can brush the hay off of their backs while they’re eating until they notice that I’m doing it.

Sgt. Pepper is growing quickly and Maggie Mae is doing a good job teaching him the livestock guarding business.  Sgt. Pepper now makes a big show of barking at Scooter when the latter comes with me to feed the dogs and the goats in the corral.  He’s still about half of Scooter’s weight, but he’s just as tall.  The fluff makes him look bigger.  Maggie and Pepper play constantly.  I think she’s glad to have the canine company.

I asked the goats if they felt unsafe with their guardian dogs distracted by playing with each other.  To a doe, they all said “Naaa.”