Oh, Winter... and Catching Up

Apologies for being AWOL for a bit - Grandma Norma (me) went to Moscow, Russia for two months (you can read about it on this other blog I created for the adventure HERE). While I was gone, winter apparently arrived, but not with its usual full force freezing and bluster. This year, winter has come with rain and mud.  Lots of mud. It's like we got a whole other mud season. And Maddrey's efforts to convince the Lovely Gravel Delivery Man to get here with truck loads of grit for a new road was met with delays. We did manage to get a large area somewhat leveled for a new indoor riding arena and horse barn. But it will be another season before we are able to really get moving on that project. Thank you, mud...

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Owning a Farm Lesson 87: Things take longer than you plan. Always. Much Longer.

Meanwhile, Frank is patiently waiting for the ground to freeze so he can stop cussing and get work done. But he is still happier than last winter, because we no longer have our pigs. He sent the last one to a Good Friend's freezer today. This particular pig had survived the initial clearing because he was a bit small - all of our other stock went to "freezer camp" a couple of months ago. We had hoped to chubby him up some more. Plus, he had cozied up with the cows and earned his new name "Cow Pig." Alas, Cow Pig kept escaping his fence and it's never a good thing to have a loose pig, I promise you. So Frank and Cow Pig had a little talk... only Frank survived the conversation.

Maddrey has officially caught the Christmas bug. She hand-dyed these gorgeous play silks. If you've never given these silks to your kids, it's time. They love them. Ask us about them, if you want some. They are 100% silk and make creative play wildly more fun.

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Maddrey is sewing her second quilt. I am an old quilter myself and once taught patchwork and hand-quilting to Little Old Ladies in Dallas, Texas. I am moderately helpful with Maddrey's visions - at least I can advise on construction a bit. But she has created her own techniques. I did some of the final machine sewing on her first quilt just to get 'er done (I'm a very fast sewer) so we could get to the birthday party where it was presented.

This new quilt has photos of family pets for her mom and ended up being quite a bit (QUITE a bit) larger than expected. So the rush to finish sewing begins today, I think.  Photos to come of the finished product, but clearly the colors and prints are fabulous.

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I am busying my hands with knitting more little washcloths. I became addicted to these things over summer - the cotton-linen blend yarn from KnitPicks is wonderful and soft. And the finished washcloths feel like such a luxury. I produced a dozen to give a few each to my mother, my daughter and a Dear Friend who has a "Women's Work" collection. She enjoys simply stacking and restacking the bright colors of her pile of washcloths (yes, she also uses the heck out of them).

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We did finally get a winter snow - a pretty, fluffy covering that came in the night. I do love waking up to a new snow more than just about anything. Of course, I don't have to go trudge around in it, like Frank and Maddrey do. Alas, I can't really take the Grandson out to run around so much - not without help (the gimpy hip slows me down). But the geese seem to be enjoying the weather.

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Our lovely little doggie, Molly is enjoying the snow as well.

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On the business front, we are settling on what we believe will be the focus on our farm going forward.

Owning a Farm Lesson 88: Figuring out what works takes time. Even when you have great plans. (remember that old expression, "God laughs when men make plans"?) Things change, you discover and learn constantly. Be ready to be quick on your feet (mentally and emotionally).

Our Romney sheep are proving to be delightful - Maddrey and Frank did a nice job shearing and got beautiful lamb fleeces which are being sent off to the mill for a test run. Finding the right mill for your wool is a challenge unto itself. But sheep and lamb and wool are definitely in our Revised Master Plan.

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We also have a large, somewhat clear area that is perfect for a Pick-Your-Own berry patch. If you can call four acres a patch... So highbush blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and a few apple trees are going in. These things take a couple of years to really get going (see Farm Lesson 87 above...), so we will be creating other Useful Products in the meantime.

Figuring out What You Want to Do is a big part of starting a farm - for those of you who read this blog because you would like to Follow Your Bliss, like we have, and get yourself a farm. We will try to keep sharing our story - our successes and our frustrations - so you have another little lead on the path. That's something I can say for sure about Farmers and Farming - they LIKE helping one another. I don't know of another business quite like it. Our Good Friend Lisa Reilich, who owns a lovely goat dairy, has given us an incredible amount of information and shared her experience creating her farm. Her help has been invaluable and she thanks the folks who helped her.

Regarding this Blog - We have a little redesign of the website in the works. If I can figure out how to move things over - give me time... But also - I've been following another guy's blog for years (Zen Habits).  He's inspiring and all about creating Good habits, like Posting to Your Blog on a Regular Basis. So that's my new mission for this next year. Expect me to be coming at you more often. Maybe with only little short bits, some photos or a quick project in the works. Ask me questions. Tell me what you'd like to know more about. And we will tell our story as we continue to create our own Happiest Place on Earth.

New Sheep!

It was a long drive to Pennsylvania and back through Connecticut and Massachusetts for Frank to pick up a pony we are boarding, do some horse dentistry and pick up FIVE new Romney sheep! The truck and trailer finally pulled in early this morning and look who is inside:  Ella, Etta, Billie, Regina and Aretha (yes, all named after great female singers, old and new). We chose the Romney breed because of its great wool - but these are a dual-purpose breed, meaning they are yummy to eat (I won't be slaughtering any lambs myself, but someone might). Maddrey can take a sheep, shear it, skirt it, clean it, card it, is-there-something-else-you-do-before-you-spin it and knit it up into anything she wants. So we will be using the heck out of their fleece. Plus, we will be developing a flock to sell to other folks who want to raise their own Romney sheep.

Romney Sheep

Sheep are nice little lawn mowers, and good for milk and cheese. But really, what family farm doesn't need the cuteness factor of a flock of sweet, gorgeous little sheep. 

Romney Sheep in trailer

 

 

Spring Gone Wild

Apologies for the long time since our last post - things have been crazy here since the snow melted (finally), the last frost hit (like four days ago... seriously) and it's Spring! We have many new additions to the farm - both animal and mechanical and whatever you would call a couple of trailers.  Physical? Let's see if I can cover it all.

Cutest first.  Meet Annie.

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She is a LaMancha goat - the same breed as Moonshine and AppleJack (who you met in a previous post) and is about the same age as Apple. Annie is such a pretty apricot color, which I've never seen in a goat, and she is also a great playmate and friend to little Apple, inspiring her to use those front legs. (Apple came to us with contracted front legs and receives physical therapy in hopes of straightening her out).

We received 50 baby chicks (Label Rouge is the breed, from Freedom Ranger Hatchery) that we are raising for meat - so I can't get too attached... Oran and his kitty Maynard got to check them out before they went into their chicken trailer where they will be protected from the elements until they are feathered enough to stay outside.

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In the mechanical department, Frank has longed for a WoodMizer sawmill, which would mean he could easily create all the lumber needed for every project imaginable using our trees. Alas, WoodMizers don't come cheap.  He intended to make do with a Foley-Belsaw saw mill, but this meant setting up a building for it, and lugging the logs to the mill. With the WoodMizer, (which has a bandsaw type blade) the mill travels to the trees and you carry out boards! Well, thank the Lord for CraigsList! Lookie what Frank got for his birthday/Christmas/Father'sDay/Arbor Day/Halloween/Happy Anniversary!

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We are also extremely fortunate to have some generous friends - one of whom loaned us a fabulous spader, and the other the glorious International Harvester tractor to pull it.  Plus, a neat little Cub backhoe, which we will keep exercised regularly... oh, yes!

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I had also been searching CraigsList regularly, looking for a small travel trailer. I was thinking maybe I could create a little writers' office/guest room, if I found a nice one. Six months of looking netted me nothing. But I guess I'd put enough energy out into the Universe, because a neighbor walked up and said, "Hey, do you want to buy my trailer?" Why, yes. Yes, I do, thank you. It's a 1971 Trailblazer and needs a LOT of work - so for the moment, it's a storage trailer for my overload of possessions that I imagined would fit into my two tiny rooms. But as time and money allows, we will rip out the whole interior, seal up the exterior (got a couple of water leaks, nothing that can't be repaired), and make a little Vintage Glamper (Glamorous Camper) out of it for when friends visit - and a writing room for me.

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One of our longer term future projects involves tearing down the back end of the house - including the kitchen, a weird bit of rooms linking the house to the barn, and the attached barn - all of it is coming down on its own, so we thought it best to take it down on our terms. This means that we would be out of a kitchen for several months while we built a new one. I've had a "temporary" kitchen for six months before, and I know how delightful that little adventure can be... and for someone who cooks and bakes as much as Maddrey, for people who eat as much as Frank, I saw only rough seas ahead. We also wanted to get licensed as a Commercial Kitchen, which has many unattractive requirements that go against all of our design ideas (nothing can be wood, basically). Again, CraigsList shows me a Commercial Kitchen TRAILER! I didn't get money together quickly enough for the first one I found, and the second one I found was a scam, which I reported (be CAREFUL on CraigsList, there ARE scam sales - plenty of them), but the third time was the charm. The trailer came with the required triple sinks, a Viking oven and range, a griddle, small and very small refrigerators, enough counter space to manage and an incredible PIZZA OVEN. We have a lot of cleaning ahead of us, and need a building permit, septic hook-up, well water approval, and a conversation with the State Ag Dept. on any changes they would require for licensing. But we are hopeful that by mid-summer we will have a fully-licensed Commercial Kitchen, where we can produce fresh Chèvre, baked goods, Maddrey's fabulous pesto and maybe even pizzas once a week,  It looks like heck on the outside right now, but once we give it a Cute-Over, we'll post pictures.

And as if that wasn't enough, we are the proud new parents of a Post Pounder! What previously took a LOT of effort with Frank's "Sledge-O-Matic" can now be accomplished with the flip of a lever practically (okay, there's more to it than that, but BOY, it's easier!) So Frank and Brian have been pounding posts and stretching fence every chance they get. There have been quite a few rain and travel delays, but the goal is to perimeter-fence all 72 acres, and then break up various pastures inside after that. 

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Meanwhile, the goats and their guard dog, Yedi, have moved into the woods to start their brush-clearing responsibilities. The sheep have moved into their new summer pasture. The chickens will have new pastures next week - unless this rain keeps up. And Maddrey has the Greenhouse overflowing with salad greens and hundreds of seedlings to transplant, plus she's already doubled the garden space from last year. But that's going to have to be a separate post, because it's so fabulous.

 

Lettuce Help You with Dinner

It doesn't get any prettier than this, if you love Fresh Lettuce for Dinner! Add a little chevre' and what else? Blueberries or strawberries? Balsamic vinegar. Whatever you love to add. But the important part is starting with FRESH Lettuce - grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides or anything nasty like that. Stop by and pick your own from our little hoophouse! Greenhouse lettuce

 

 

Fresh lettuce

 

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The Grass is always Greener...In the Basement?

Growing grass in the basement seemed a logical progression into our lives as true Mainers. Everyone does it, winter is long. OK. So not everyone, in fact not anyone that we know grows our kind of grass. Fodder that is. But there is truth to the long winter statement. The first fall we were in Maine, I was listening to the audiobook Game of Thrones. Throughout the whole book, the mantra “but winter is coming” is repeated often by the Northerners. It spoke to me on many levels as we faced our first Maine winter. We survived, as did our animals, however, things were difficult. In Pennsylvania, we had an organic grain business and excellent local hay farmers, and if you ran out there was plenty of hay for sale at the auction every week, with alfalfa and second cuttings in huge bales, available year round. In Maine, no such luck in our area, alfalfa is non-existent, organic grain hours away and very pricey, local hay is grown in acidic soil and is great roughage, but lacking in nutrition. Our animals were all back on Nutrena (Cargill) gmo feeds, eating nearly twice what they had ever eaten before, pound for pound, and experiencing muscle loss, colic and nutritional imbalance that had caused us to leave the commercial grain hamster wheel long ago.

A welcome change came in the summer as a local farmer and retired railroad worker, Charlie, invited us to hay with him. He is a tinkerer of great knowledge and character who, coupled with his aged equipment, have schooled Frank in-depth on the workings of all things huge and tractor as well as cantankerous and baler. Frank can now change shear pins, fix knotting fingers, start giant “ether whore” tractors and toss and throw bales with the best of them. We were a step ahead of winter number one in which our hay supply was inconsistent and expensive. We had more than half a year’s hay, but the grain they needed was lacking in quality and basically horse twinkies processed pellets. An improvement in the house-heating situation, moving our woodstove to the basement, led to an golden, or rather, green opportunity:  a fodder system that would be large enough to provide fresh green oat or barley grass to every animal on the property, year-round. Quite a feat in the frozen North. Fodder is the result of growing seed grain for 5-9 days to create a living mat of sprouts, think wheat sprouts, on a 250 pound a day level. All that living matter and chlorophyll and live enzymes!

The research began. Ahh, if you can’t learn it on Youtube, you didn’t need that surgery anyway. We read extensively, there is an excellent and helpful group “Fodder” on Facebook, where you can talk with other enthusiastic growers and find nutritional information (for the scientifically minded). There are videos, many videos. There are also several commercial systems available (we're not going to link to those, because, really, you don't want to buy one - but okay, just for a laugh, here's one and another for only $36,000 These are widespread throughout Australia, where drought is common, and often followed by flood, making our hay situation seem simple. There are areas of Australia that are farmed currently with a recommended stocking rate of one sheep per 10 acres, and they have 10,000 sheep. Farmers and innovators came together to create fodder systems that are in trailers, roll off the truck, plug into water and power and in 6 days pump out over a thousand pounds of feed a day. Feed that is 89% utilizable, as opposed to the 18-30% percent of available nutrition in standard dry grain. Without these fodder systems many ranchers are out of business in the outback.

Fodder systems are gaining popularity in arid areas of the US and have just begun to break ground in the east, not so much as a water savings, but as a way to keep live food in front of grazing animals for more than 6 months of the year. With systems starting around $5,000 for a micro system to feed a couple of horses and some chickens, to $10,000 for the size of the system we needed, people are starting to apply some old time ingenuity. Online you will see fodder grown in greenhouses, gutters in basements, 1020 growing trays in kitchen windows, even in cupcake tins for guinea pig treats. For us, the bottom line was 250 pounds a day to feed our 12 horses, 3 cows, alpaca, 3 goats, 3 sheep, 4 adult pigs, 12 growing pigs, 5 rabbits and 30 chickens, 2 turkeys and 12 ducks. And do it with ⅓ of the total weight grain input. It sounded fantastic, and easy. Mother Earth News said so!

Reality bites.

We decided to start with a system that used 1020 trays. I ordered 200. No sooner did I do that, that we finally found the system of our dreams online in a video from Michigan. It used metal roofing to hold and grow the fodder. A large problem with the trays was breakage - I was not happy with the idea of trashing plastic trays all the time; that whole environmental aspect. So, we have a lot of trays now - no biggie, we have greenhouses, they will be used. I did some bad math to discover how many square feet of growing space we would need to meet 250 pounds a day, using averages posted online. Five pounds per square foot seemed like a middle of the road number.

Frank began designing the racks.

Fodder rack

The seeds need water, but drainage is just as important, so the racks have to be on a slight tilt. They also need to drain into something, in our case, 5 gallon buckets. He designed the racks to hold metal roofing, bent to contain seeds but with drilled holes to release water, on a slight tilt that drains them into a central gutter which runs into a bucket.

Gutter drains water into bucket

Each large rack has 5 levels of trays. Fluorescent lights were added to the basement, although the system does not require grow lighting; there is enough energy in the seed to produce the top growth we are feeding, but ambient light accelerates growth and gives a greener finished product with more chlorophyll.

We started our trials, and errors in the darkest, coldest of January. Lots of trials. Lots of errors... Nighttime lows were in the single digits, but the basement hovered at 55-60 degrees and according to our reading that was just fine. We started with the locally available feed barley. I soaked some for 8 hours, some for 12, some for 24, rinsed, did not rinse, washed before soaking, soaked in bleach, soaked in food grade peroxide. I watered once a day, flooded, misted, watered or misted 3-5 times a day. We ended up with fermented barley and very happy pigs, moldy barley, soaked non-sprouting barley, a few measly grass stems here and there, but not much feedable to speak of. Just tray after tray to throw to pigs or chickens, nothing of quality.

I started to focus, take notes, label, and try other grain. We tried oats of different varieties and finally started to see very good germination rates with Nutrena Oats, with a 2-hour soak, and a small amount of food grade hydrogen peroxide. But growth was still spotty and poor and we had considerable starchy slime on the mats; no amount of water or lack of water seemed to solve the issue. After about 3 weeks of this, I was starting to dream of nothing but sprouting and the cost of the system (a little over a thousand dollars) was seeming a fool’s expense mid-winter with more hay to buy.

Frank and I had a pow-wow and decided the only variable we had not manipulated was temperature. Frank and our wonderful new assistant Brian set up a plastic sheeting curtain to wall off the racks, and we added a small oil radiator space heater. We were now able to keep the temperature above 60 and the oats took off immediately.

 

sprouting grain

 

Rack of fodder growing in many trays

 Within a week we had beautiful fodder mats and are now coming into full production, having taken 10 days to transition the animals from commercial grain to green, live food. We only use the space heater when we are 15 degrees or cooler out, or need to let the fire go low at night. If the outside temp is above 20 degrees, the stove keeps the basement an even 63 or above. In addition to the occasional heater use, we do keep a box fan running on low for air circulation. I do believe that the small amount of extra electrical input with not have a significant effect on the overall ongoing cost of the fodder production. We are using well water to give the fodder a thorough rinse twice a day. Most of the rinse water is given to the pigs as a sugary oat tea.

Fodder looking like sod

 We have given up the notion of growing barley fodder, by far the most popular grain in this type of system, until we can source some seed quality that is locally grown. I have contacted a Maine Seed Company and they have assured us we will have our first ton soon. We very much look forward to that, but for the time being the oats are performing phenomenally and we and the animals are thrilled. With the exception of the ducks, all of the animals are very happy to see the fodder in their feed dish with the sheep and alpaca topping the enthusiasm chart. The ducks need to deal and eat their salad, end of story.

Fodder close up

 

Bright green fodder

 

fodder growing in trays

We will be sprouting extra grain - more than will fit on the racks daily - as three- to four-day-old sprouts are supposed to be excellent for pigs and chickens. They will receive those as well as green fodder. We are experimenting right now with adding a probiotic to the fodder: Jackpot, by Bio SI. We have seen great success with this probiotic in our water troughs. With our water quite cold most of the year, we are hoping to be able to deliver it more consistently as a topical application to the fodder. We have noticed the fodder when sprayed with Bio SI Jackpot at day 2 has far better germination and growth. We will be trying another formula from the same company over the next 2 weeks and will update with progress. I am also trying to put together a regional topdressing that will allow me to spray nutritive balancer on the fodder right before feeding, making sure that it is a complete meal.

Fodder at different stages

In the meantime, it's fun to see the green, green grass of home... in the basement.

Winter, Yes, But Still Busy on the Farm

We've all been busy, even though it's very much still winter on the farm. Snow, rain, ice and cloudy days don't stop the progress, and animals still need to be fed. snowy pastures

  Which is why Frank and Maddrey have been busy refining a new fodder system, where we are sprouting barley and oats.  We will write in great detail soon if you'd like to create one of your own, and we'll share all of our experiments and discoveries. We expect to reduce our feed costs by 60%, I hear. But for me, it's just fun to see racks of green grass in the basement while there's snow in the pasture. We have three of the racks in the second photo, and once we're at full capacity, we should be able to feed all the horses, pigs, sheep and goats a nice "biscuit" or two every day.

green fodder

rack of fodder

Meanwhile, our chickens (and turkeys) are happy and toasty warm in their "chicken solarium." They have plenty of room to play during the day and a cozy trailer to roost in safely at night. We're finally starting to get the occasional egg as the days grow slightly longer and we get a bit of sun.

Chickens, turkeys, guinea hen

Frank was busy in the woods today - since we finally had a sunny day for him to work a bit. He's beginning to clear a path for fencing, plus harvesting a little timber for firewood and other projects. We plan to fence the entire property, with a second fence inside the first to create a lane. Once that's done, we will temporary fence various parts for horses, cows, pigs, sheep and goats to do their various duties clearing scrub, brush, uprooting small (and large) trees and tree trunks, and healing the soil. But it all starts with getting the perimeter fence up.  And that process started today.  Yay.

snowy woods

Farming and Weather

So if you're thinking about or dreaming about having your own farm, let me recommend that you LOVE weather - any kind of weather and every kind of weather.  Particularly if you're going to farm in a place like Maine, which has itself some WEA-THUH! Having lived in Southern California for over 30 years, where the biggest weather-related decision I made was if I should bring an umbrella and leave early because the freeways would be a mess, Maine is certainly a change.  Also, I was working a 'regular' job - not 9-to-5 because it was in television production, but I had to drive to an office every day and work in a climate-controlled building.  Farming means that the weather becomes your everything.  Weather determines your calendar, your daily schedule, your profit, your dreams, your success or your failure.  She is a tough mistress, but honestly, I'd rather deal with Mother Nature as my boss than the whimsical Corporate World of a 'regular job.' Z-Summer

Lucky for me, I LOVE weather.  I love the drama of wind, I love the wild energy of a storm, I love (briefly) the energy-sucking humidity of a sweltering day in summer.  I love the drifts of snow and winding up face first in it - which I did when I fell taking my dogs outside last week.  I love the constant change, the unexpected storm that blows up and I get to pretend I'm Dorothy frantically searching for Aunt Em as I bring the laundry in from the line.   Z-StormCloudsI love bundling up in four layers of clothes and hats and gloves and balaclava just to go out and feed the turkeys and rabbits - but mostly to stop and stare at the stars that are so overwhelmingly beautiful - stars I've missed seeing for 30 years because of the light pollution of Los Angeles.  I love the crunchy sound of walking in snow.  I love the gear - the right boots, the right gloves, the right coat.   Z-winter I love that this winter will pass in a few months and become Spring - probably just about the time I've actually had enough of it.  We don't really have seasons in Southern California.  There's Summer. And then there's "it's a little cool today, isn't it?" and "boy, it's raining a lot."  And then Summer again.  But in Maine we have SEASONS!  In giant neon letters with sparklers.  Winter is WINTER.   Z-winter-oxen

Autumn is Awesome!

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And there's a build-up to each season. A warning, of sorts.

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But mostly, weather is the constantly changing, unexpected variable that makes farming and LIFE interesting.  It is Mother Nature's call to us to remember her, even if we are only bothered enough to think, "Ugh, I'll have to find my umbrella."   

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Update on our To Do List

Some things have moved from our To Do List to our To Done List. And just in time because we had our first big snowfall (about 14"). Although we still have time and energy to dig around the snow and get more of the outside things accomplished.IMG_3889 With the wonderful help of a hired backhoe, we were able to trench 400' and install four frost-free hydrants.  It rained too soon after and we had a bit of a mud mess, unfortunately.  But I LOVE these hydrants.  I mistakenly left a hose attached to one and froze the line - bad, bad, bad - something this California/Texan didn't understand.  I was lucky and it thawed out without bursting or damaging anything. Otherwise, I'd be digging it up myself with a pick and shovel... Not good.

 

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Frank installed new "pig proof" fencing (wire mesh plus two electric wires at top at bottom) enclosing about 6 1/2 acres. Our boar, Tim,  the three sows and remaining piglets are having a fabulous time running the fenceline and exploring their new range.

The wood cook stove is installed in the kitchen, with a new stove pipe and chimney liner. Maddrey tested it out by cooking our entire Thanksgiving meal in it, which included roast chicken, stuffing, several pies and much more. See our post (coming soon) about Adventures in Wood Stove Cooking.

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The rabbits are generously sharing their hoop house with goats, sheep and our Great Pyranees Yeti. Frank added a large fenced paddock in the garden, so the goats and sheep are doing some garden clean up for us.

Great Pyranees dog with sheep and goats

My "outlaw" dogs have been moved from the bottom of the pasture to their fancy winter trailer and temporary yard. A friend nicknamed them "outlaws" because they will both happily kill chickens (and anything else their size) with no compunction. They are herding/terrier mixed-breed mutts who have never lived on a farm - so I have training to do as time allows (please let it be possible to train them off killing chickens!)  Meanwhile,  Frank will expand the yard by quite a bit in spring.  For the winter, the trailer was bedded with wood shavings and I built a little "bedroom" out of straw bales that the two dogs share.  They are toasty and happy and I appreciate that they're closer to the house.  

small travel trailer housing for dogs

Maddrey has cleaned, repaired and painted the wood stove for the basement.  But Frank had to remove the existing chimney lining, replace it with a longer, better lining, then decommission the living room stove before he could hook up the basement stove.  Which would mean a very cold house for several hours.  So we could either leave for the day OR he could stay up all night, while we were cozy in bed.  He chose to work all night.  ALL night.  But after much clanging and banging and footsteps up and down stairs and on the roof - it was a very noisy night - we awoke to a warmer house!  The basement stove is working great.  Hooray.

Frank has also installed more insulation in the unfinished rooms of the attic, so we'll be losing a lot less heat as well.

Maddrey ended up using rocks more than earth bags to secure the hoop house plastic for the Chicken Solarium.  She lined the interior with net to keep the birds from ruining the plastic and Frank backed up their summer trailer house to the front door.  So the chickens have a bright, cozy hoop house for the day and a cozy trailer to roost in safe and sound at night.

The wall tent was pulled down, the half-wall in the basement is built and Frank has all the necessary parts for a hoop house for the tractor storage - he just needs the time and daylight to get 'er done.  We had a distracting winter ice storm that left us without power for a couple of days, which meant no water - especially no hot water.  Fortunately, we have an old hand-dug well with visible water about eight feet down.  Frank shocked the water with bleach and we will have it tested for future emergencies - but it was good enough to keep the animals watered until we got power back.  

What did John Denver say?  Life on a farm is kinda laid back...  What WAS he talking about?

More updates to come!

 

The Cold Weather Wardrobe Debate

Now that average days are in the 40s, nights dipping below 30 occasionally into the teens, even a few minutes of snow, the morning conversation becomes about Appropriate Cold Weather Wardrobe. "I'm going with long underwear, jeans, turtleneck, wool sweater, gloves and my Carhartt hat." "I'm going with jeans, t-shirt, sweatshirt and my ball cap." I'm waiting until it warms up... Which I get to do because I'm taking care of my grandson.

Frank's philosophy is to dress so that you're somewhat cold when you first go outside, then as you work, you warm up and all is fine. Maddrey's philosophy is to dress so that you do not notice a change in temperature from indoors to outdoors. Now, you folks who have lived in cold weather may think it's obvious, but I've spent the last 30 years in California, so all I know is to have a light sweater in case it cools off in the evening or you end up at the beach somehow. So much to learn...

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    I'm testing both theories and have to say that Maddrey's is more pleasant in the beginning and Frank's is more pleasant after you get moving quite a bit. So I end up shedding a layer or two as I go and then gather the jettisoned clothes after my chores are done. This will become a less great idea once the snows come and an extra trip around gathering clothes while wearing snowshoes will not be fun. I mostly worry about my fingers and toes, which are already getting cold. Maddrey says that if your extremities are cold, it's because your core isn't warm enough. Keep your torso really, really warm and the rest will take care of itself better. I'm testing that, too, but haven't yet found the appropriate core temperature to keep my toesies warm. I did shell out some cash at the nearby TJMax for some serious cold weather gloves. Best money ever spent. Also the wonderful local discount store, Marden's (buy it when you see it, because it won't be there next time), had some wool gloves lined with fleece and fleece-lined leggings - less than $5 each. Again, super good purchase.

I've become a huge fan of thrift store shopping as well. Noting that I have 14 sweaters - some cashmere, some 100% wool, 100% cotton turtlenecks - all purchased for less than the price of one good wool sweater. There's something wonderful about feeding chickens in cashmere or Merino wool.

Since the time I started making notes for this post and today, my experiments with the two philosophies has left me with this: I like Frank's start-out-cold for the morning chores and Maddrey's start-out-warm for evening chores. I did the opposite today and it wasn't as cozy. Also, one wool sweater is not as good as two wool sweaters.

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My Chihuahua is also adjusting to the cold with his fancy DIY sweater. We found the idea online and Maddrey already had a sweater she had felted for repurposing. She cut off a sleeve and voila! Dog sweater. He thinks he looks terrific (the collar rolls back into a turtleneck).

What is YOUR Cold Weather Dress philosophy?

Autumn in New England

 I drove into town yesterday and was completely distracted by the realization that I was suddenly caught inside a coffee table book on "Autumn in New England." After having lived 30 years in a state that has one season... I am absolutely loving the Four Seasons of Maine. The trees were blazing with every color from green to pale yellow, golden yellow, peachy yellow, orange, and deep red. The tiny houses from the 1800s suddenly popped out more noticeably from their colorful background. The two-lane road was beyond picturesque.  Of course, I was driving, so I couldn't really get a decent shot..

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But back at the farm, I was able to capture my New England Autumn Dream.

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Make Hay While the Sun Shines

Yes, they say, "Make hay while the sun shines" for a reason. You need a sunny, dry day to cut the grasses. Then you need a sunny, dry day for the cut grasses to dry. Then you need a sunny, dry day to bale everything, load up the bales and get them home to the dry barn. So that's three to four sunny, dry days in a row. And that's what we haven't gotten in nearly a month. It was two sunny days, then rain. Two and a half sunny days even, then more rain. Rain is great, don't get me wrong, but if we could've had clear, dry weather just for three days in a row somewhere?... We were getting worried because Frank had a gentleman's agreement with a local guy to fill his barn and storage trailer by working together, then they would fill our barn and hoop house. And up until last night, our barn was empty... (although, he did give us one days' worth of hay early on as "a taste". He's a good, honest guy).

Maddrey checked the weather reports daily and sometimes twice a day, because the weather in Maine can change quickly. Several days of clear weather would be predicted one day, then later that day the weather service would predict rain. And rain is what we got.

But finally, thank you, we got good, solid, sunny and dry days. Which means Frank has been up early to get farm chores done and Josie milked, then out in the field till well past dark.

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Two trucks with full beds pulling trailers piled high with bales came home late night and we unloaded one truck until close to midnight. Then back up early this morning to unload truck and trailer #2. Then it was back to the field for Frank.

Hay Wagon stacked with hay bales

 Of course, this is also the weekend of the Common Ground Fair, which we look forward to. All year... But haying comes first because it means we can feed our horses through the winter. 

And yes, this old girl was toting bales of hay from truck to barn. I can manage one bale at a time, while Maddrey and Frank easily tote two bales. And Frank can toss them way up for stacking.

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But thank you to the heavens for bringing us this perfect weather, and for Charlie, who is the other half of the operation. And thank you to our friend Skybo, who happened to hear we were unloading and came over to help.  THAT is a friend!

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Looking at a barn full of hay is a great comfort. And that's life on the farm today.

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Just When You Think You're Out of the Pig Business...

20130914-132109.jpg  So we were JUST having a conversation the other day about our pigs - specifically how our boar, Tim, had been declared "ineffective" during his visit to a neighbor's sow.  Still, we thought possibly one or maybe two of our girls was looking a little "baggy" but maybe we were just being hopeful.  Tim had spent a great deal more time with the neighbor's sow than with our girls and if he couldn't get it done there, what chance did our girls have really?  But, alas, it appeared that we simply weren't going to be in the pig business this year.  We briefly considered keeping one sow, because they are such a nice heritage breed (Duroc-Berkshire cross), but finally decided that Tim and the girls would go to the Great Beyond (the freezer), allowing Frank to hone his butchering skills. We'd start over next year and, hey, won't winter be a little easier for us without four pigs to feed and care for?  Great plan.

Then we met up with that same neighbor the next evening at a fabulous party celebrating a group of women who all turned 60 this year.  He said, "Hey, I meant to tell you, I was about to load our sow up onto the trailer to go to the butcher and I looked at her and thought, 'Wouldn't it be stupid if I put a pregnant sow on that trailer?' So I decided to wait a little longer.  She had eleven piglets the other day.  Turns out I wasn't giving Tim enough credit."  Well, I should say so! Of course, we had doubted him, too, and had to apologize...

Turns out we had three pregnant sows.  (Thank you, Tim. Job well done.) There was discussion about where the sows would farrow, and when, but other big chores took precedence over building another pig house right away. Of course, as soon as a huge storm was headed our way Cinnamon chose to farrow with a litter of seven perfect little piglets.  Those are her little red piglets above and the exciting story of dropping a house on her is here.

Two days later, Eunice began pacing and by the time Frank was doing his evening chores, she was delivering piglet number two.  Frank and Maddrey hurriedly prepared the existing pig house for her, and separated Tim and Lucy into another area.  By the time dinner was cooked, Eunice farrowed eight little piglets.  The hard lesson of farming was restated this morning, however, when I went to see the piglets myself for the first time.  Seven little piglets were happily climbing over one another while one little piglet lay lifeless in the straw near the entrance.  I picked her up quickly, hoping maybe she was still warm and Maddrey could work some miracle, but that would not happen.  She had clearly died shortly after being born; her tiny body unable to handle anything more than her delivery into this world.

So we're up fourteen piglets in four days and watching Lucy for signs of another litter.  Frank is tearing apart an old shed for spare parts to create another wonderful pig house, while Maddrey gives tours to friends and neighbors who want a little piglet cuddle time.  Fortunately, all of our pigs are friendly, affectionate and don't mind people one bit as long as somebody gives them a butt scratch or a bucket of goodies.

The lesson here, of course, is that with farming, the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.  And just when you think something isn't going to happen, it just might...

 Eunice's seven little piglets - they look just like her!

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 Aerial view of Cinnamon's piglets.

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Oran wanted to see the piglets as well, so he got a ride on Mama's back.

 

 

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 This is our little herd (also a group of pigs can be a drove or a sounder.  I rather like sounder, and Frank insists that's the only term that is correct)... Eunice, Tim, Cinnamon and Lucy.

Oh, and the reason they're in a muddy enclosure is that we're using them to tear up old roots and thatch in our pasture, and it's been raining a lot lately.  We move their electric fence every couple of days to a fresh spot, and they dig in - literally - using their snouts to shovel up the soil, tear up the thatch and clean up our pasture to allow the grasses to return in the spring.

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Someone Might Drop a House on You

Our wonderful boar, Tim (the good-looking fellow on the left), had gone to "do his duty" with a neighbor for a few months this last spring, and had been sent home with a gentle complaint that it was unlikely anything had "been accomplished" and no piglets were expected for their sow. Three heritage breed pigs

 We recently heard from that same neighbor that Tim was a daddy to ELEVEN piglets, all perfect. So we started looking harder at our own sows, which we had noticed were looking like they might have biscuits in the oven. Yep, we had two pregnant sows, possibly three, but we weren't sure when they were due exactly. Although swine gestation is typically 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days, we knew we were close.

Turns out, Cinnamon was the first to farrow yesterday morning, presenting us with seven beautiful little piglets. We had roughly planned to house the sows and piglets in one side of the first horse barn, but upon consideration, Frank and Maddrey decided that another pig house needed to be built. Now, that would take a day or so, but the weather forecast said serious thunderstorms and hard rain were headed our way in the early morning hours. So Maddrey and I ran into town to get parts and Frank got to work.

Many hours later, in the blackness of an overcast, seriously dark night, Frank and Maddrey dragged the new pig house down into the field - through the mud from previous rains, over the roots and rocks and ruts, and into the pig fence. While Frank kept Mama Cinnamon occupied, Maddrey quickly made a deep bed of straw, bringing the piglets up into it, so they didn't really move. Then Frank literally dropped the house on them - tipping it carefully over the hay bed and piglets. Mama Cinnamon hurried inside to check her babies just as the rain began to pour. And pour hard. But Mama and her new babies were safe and warm in their new house. A much better outcome than the Wicked Witch from the Wizard of Oz!

Frank temporarily roofed the pig house with a tarp, but will be adding tougher plastic and wiggle wire (which we love for building our hoop houses!) as time allows.

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By the way, in order to obtain these photos, I needed to climb across the electric pig fence.  I've been moving so much better since breaking my hip last year, I was confident I could get across.  And I did.  Except when my second foot landed, I slipped and fell face first into the pig pen and ONTO our giant boar Tim. Visions of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz flashed in my head. Fortunately, our boar is a lovely fellow and only snorted a little, then looked back at me to ask if I was okay.  And if I was, would I be willing to scratch his butt?

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Our first year garden

A few shots of the progress of our garden. From little starting out plants to a bounty of veggies! We have one hoop house with tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. Plus, we've been harvesting kale for weeks now, along with broccoli, peas and lettuce. Corn is coming - we had an early taste for dinner a few nights ago. And potatoes need to be dug soon. Maddrey tries to get an hour or two a day in the garden but with a just-turned-four-months-old infant, she doesn't always get that much time. Yet, she has managed to make this garden produce a bounty. Frank is able to help between his other projects. And my job has mostly been to keep the potato beetles at bay. Mostly, there's simply nothing better than food you've grown yourself.

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Dairy Goat or Goat Dairy?

The question is whether you need a herd of goats for a dairy or simply one. Many beginning farmers mistakenly think they need a herd, and have visions of selling the dairy products to provide an income - but are often surprised by the time, effort and money required to accomplish it. Then they're stuck with too many goats, too much work and not enough market for the product. Our little Alpine/Oberhasli goat, Zelda can produce enough milk for all the goat cheese we can eat each week. She must be fed, watered and milked twice a day - I repeat, MUST be milked. She needs a shelter, of course, but also social interaction. Goats are very social animals. We have Zelda and a buck, Arturo - but since she can't be with Arturo all the time (for breeding management reasons), she has sheep to play with. We're also about to get a wethered goat (Cashmere for the fiber) and he will also be a nice buddy that she can get attached to. If you're going to keep a single dairy goat, it does need friends.

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Zelda is young and new to being milked, so it was a two-person operation at first - Maddrey at the "business end" while Frank kept Zelda's mind busy with a little treat bucket and lots of head scratches. But Frank built a little goat stand this week, and now Maddrey can milk by herself.

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Frank always likes to make things a little fancy and practice his hand-carving, too.

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The milk is then filtered (get high-quality stainless steel bucket and filter pan) and goes immediately into Ball jars and into the fridge until there's enough for cheese. We get about a quart of milk a day and a gallon is just enough for cheese.

So if your goal is a farm that is, first and foremost, self-sustaining, start small. You'll get the experience, understanding and knowledge you need to decide if you want to go bigger. But as Frank says, you don't own dairy animals they own you. We have discovered that small is plenty.

Shearing Day

The perfect combination of weather, time, and Grandmama to care for infant finally arrived and it was shearing day. We have six fiber animals - two Angora rabbits, an alpaca, a llama and two sheep. We're about to acquire a few more sheep, having gone through winter with these two and sharpened the learning curve regarding their needs.

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There is a decision-making triangle for farming - time, effort, money - pick two sides because you don't get all three. If it will save time or effort, if will cost you money; if it will save money, it will cost you in either time or effort and so on. In the case of shearing, we opted for the extra time and effort required to hand shear the animals. A $30 pair of hand shears beat the cost of buying electric clippers, plus the cost of having the blades professionally sharpened (Frank loves to sharpen things and assures me that clipper blades is NOT something you want to tackle).

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The additional benefits to hand shearing are 1) we love doing things the "old timey" way, and 2) it leaves about a two-week hair growth on the animals, reducing the shock of the clip, as well as the whole experience being less emotional/traumatizing.

Although, Maddrey was traumatized by concerns that she would either slice the sheep open with the hand shears (they're SHARP), or that the process would take forever (it didn't). She's got 10,000 hours experience with electric clippers from clipping horses, but hand shears and leaping, kicking alpaca and young sheep being sheared the first time is a horse of a different color.

The llama had been clipped earlier in the month, so Frank just had to run down and rope the alpaca. Quite a sight to watch my son lope across the pasture, swinging his cowboy rope, outrunning an alpaca. Apparently, it's his favorite part of the process. After watching him wrestle a few times, holding Sunny still, I could see why. You want a nice strong animal handler to get a nice clip. It's certainly possible to hand shear sheep with one person, but life is easier with two. And Frank was pretty busy managing Sunny, the alpaca, so I'm not sure one person could do that without getting kicked or stomped a bit. Although the sheep were so relaxed, they were lying in the yard, eating grass during the process.

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Putting in fence posts

What to do when the ground is wet and muddy still, but you really need to get the fence up? Enter the Sledge-O-Matic.

20130416-193333.jpg Sharpen the fence post with your chain saw...

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20130416-193537.jpg This method requires a big, strong guy, and sometimes you have to make one or two Sledge-O-Matics because they split, but these posts are sunk in good and tight, don't require digging and tamping, and you can get 'er done when everything is still a muddy mess. BEFORE

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Timber-frame Construction - Shed Number Two

One of the early major projects that had to be handled was the construction of two large sheds as cover for the horses, alpaca, llama and cows.  Frank has experience with timber-framing construction - yes, he cuts the joints with a chisel and ax, and makes the wooden pegs by hand! So into the woods he went, chainsaw in hand, and after several days of chopping, hacking and shaving, here's how it went.  He used the tractor to help hoist the framed pieces, but basically he got it all done completely by himself!  This is Shed Number Two -  I'll show you Shed Number One and how he hoisted those crazy-heavy beams in another post.

Timber framed shed under construction

timber-framed shed under construction

Horse shed under construction

Timber framed shed under construction

#2 Shed Construction