Friday, March 21, 2014

Preparing for Spring

After my wife and I made our seed lists we started searching for heirloom seeds.  This is more difficult than it probably should have been.  I had no idea!  We ended up getting heirloom of several varieties and chose open pollinated and organic where we could not find heirloom.  The last seeds we need to buy are for corn, peas, and lima beans.  Those I need in large quantity which I can't seem to find in organic venues.

We are about 4-6 weeks from planting right now.  That's the perfect time to start sprouting tomatoes and peppers.  We try this every year, and something different happens every year that forces us to purchase most plants at a nursery.  Usually life gets in the way - whether it be forgetting to bring the plants inside during a frost, or not giving them enough water when the kids get tired of helping.

We planted three varieties of tomatoes - Amish Paste, Cherry and Rutgers.  We chose these varieties based on how we use them.  We make lots of sauces, salsas, sandwiches and salads, and these three covered our needs.

We also added new animals to the farm this week.  We have had chickens for years and use them for both meat and eggs.  Lately we have only been getting 3 eggs a day since most of flock was decimated by raccoons before our move.  While at Tractor Supply my son asked to get a duck and while I had never considered them before, some research showed that the Campbell ducks lay between 250-300 eggs per year.  Our favorite producers have always been Ameraucana hens.  We usually have about 20 of them.  They only lay 250 eggs per year on average, so as long as we like the taste of duck eggs these seem to be a good idea.  We ended up getting 6 of them and can hatch out more in a few months if this experiment goes well.

Khaki Campbell Ducklings
Tasks are starting to pile up outside now that everything is starting to thaw.  Even with one more snow possible it's really time to start cutting wood that is lying everywhere from our ice storms, build a run for the new ducks, and start figuring out where the gardens need to go.  We also need to determine the type of gardens we will be creating, but that's a post for another time.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Some Auction Finds

I've been going to auctions for a few months now getting butcher supplies for our hog processing we do every winter.  The town we moved to has an annual 4-H auction which we were lucky enough to attend this past weekend.

There were a number of things I would have loved to have purchased, but we aren't wanting for much right now so we only came home with a few things.

Apple Peeler
Small Cast Pot

2 10-Hole Nest Boxes
The plan is to sell the other nest box on Craigslist.  Each one can handle about 50 birds, and I don't plan on having more than 50.

Large Butcher Kettle
I already have 2 nice kettles, and I really wanted a small one this time.  There is surface rust and only a small amount of pitting.  This will clean up nicely and the price was perfect.  I'll try to post pictures from the cleaning process in a few weeks.  Once restored I might sell this one to get a smaller kettle.

Lard Can
I can never find a lard can when I need it.  Now I'll have an extra.

Hand Slicer
We have a huge Hobart slicer that weighs about 80 pounds.  It stinks to get it out from the shop every time we want to slice cheese or lunch meat.  I figured this might be easier, but we shall see once we put it to use.  If it doesn't work - off to Craigslist.

Bantam Olde English - 1 Cock, 1 Hens
The kids thought they were cute.  We used to have some but they got picked off by hawks.  Hopefully these can stick around for a bit.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Getting Ready for Livestock

On our list of goals for this year we have small livestock.  Our goal is to replace our milk supply with dairy goats, and perhaps sell some goat milk products at a farmers market.  We also would like a few meat goats to breed for meat in the fall, as well as the possibility to trade or barter the offspring.

Milking goats has been a hot-button issue for us though.  We stay at home most days, but with three kids, one of them being 4 months old, getting up in time every day to milk a goat might be out of our grasp right now.  We decided to work on getting the pasture ready for them, and then committing to the purpose our goats will serve.  At the very least we will have some weed control in the pasture and can also use the goats elsewhere on the property to clear brush.

We have been eyeing up the land right now to figure out where to put the pasture.  There is a section at the bottom of the property that gets pretty mucky when it rains.  We want to see what we can do to fix the issue, but the probability of that being usable land is low in my mind.  The thought right now is to leave that area to grow up as cover for the deer to permit them to come into the property from the neighboring cornfield.

Our county has a great GIS tool that we used before purchasing the property and it has come in handy again for planning the pasture.  The area in red is the area we would like to fence as it has been unused.  A farmer used to mow down the area 2x a year for his cattle, but we have not yet renewed the agreement.

This two acres will allow us to have roughly 20 goats, although I don't think we want to have quite so many.  We can also eventually split the pasture into two sections to either rotate grazing or section off sick goats or bucks.  It would also be useful during weaning.

Aside from measuring area, the GIS tool also allowed us to measure distance.  This is helpful for budgeting what a fence would cost us.

The fence is roughly 1200 feet in length (not including a fence to split the pasture into two).  A quick division by 16 gives us the number of posts we need - 75.  We originally looked at t-posts to help with cost, but 3.5 inch wood posts cost only $1 more per post.

The next thing we need to decide is what type of fencing to use.  I'd personally like to use high-tensile electric fencing with a solar charger.  Reading online I see both ends of the spectrum as to its usefulness with goats.  Some people say their goats won't go within 10 feet of it, while others say their goats walk right through it if they see better grazing elsewhere.  I'd prefer not to aggravate my neighbors, so we are considering putting in 48" goat fence instead with an electric runner at the top.  This increases the cost drastically as it is about $350 per 330' of goat fence.

Another challenge is water.  There is a creek at the bottom and side of the property, but to get the goats there would be intrusive to the neighbors.  Some options are hauling water daily, getting a solar pump, or burying pipes from the house.

Lastly, and something we need to figure out quickly, is a natural gas pipeline somewhere under the property.  It is empty and has been since the 1960's.  I have no idea the depth, but I'd find out quickly when an auger find it for us.

Friday, February 28, 2014

The Long Winter

I positioned my desk so that it sits in front of a window so that I could peer outside and enjoy nature as I work.  I find myself having to close the blind on a regular basis as I only see projects that need to be planned and completed.

As far as recent winters go, this one has been particularly brutal.  I can't remember a winter where we had so many consecutive days of negative temperatures.  Snow has been on the ground for weeks, and looking out at the farm has been more depressing than exciting.  On the upside, butchering this year was much easier than last year when the temperatures were hovering above 40 degrees.  Smoking took longer during the freeze as it was hard to keep the pork thawed so that it took the cool smoke, but I'd rather deal with that than warm temperatures any day.

During this slow period we can take stock in what we have, and begin to plan for the busy season coming up in a few weeks.  When we moved last summer we downsized quite a bit, and thanks to a family of racoons what we didn't eat, they did - with a vengeance.  We lost 20 chickens and about 30 quail.  This means we have no breeding stock to ramp back up.  We didn't grow anything last year since we would have missed the harvest so we have no seeds stockpiled.  Looks like we are about at square one, which I think is a good thing.

The Survivors
On the flip side we do have quite a bit of equipment to get started.  We have everything a person could want to hatch chicken and quail eggs.  I have the makings of a great butcher shop for poultry, swine, goats, lamb and deer.  We have many garden tools, and a 29hp tractor.  There is an electric fencer, fence tools and some wire buried in the shop somewhere.

Lori and I decided we wanted to invest in as many heirloom crops and heritage livestock as possible.  These great strains have survived in some cases for centuries, and for good reason.  Heirloom plants are important for many reasons, but for us it comes down to taste, nutrition, and ability to save seeds for the following year.  I've been looking around for a good supplier of heirloom seeds, so if you know of any please comment!  It's important that we find heirloom seeds that are specific to our region here as it is believed they are more resistant to issues that hybrids might face including diseases and pests.

Our blue-sky wishlist for this year:
  • Plant a large garden for day-to-day use and for canning or other winter storage.
  • Plant several smaller "landscape" gardens or raised beds to extend growth.
  • Raise heritage meat birds in two groups for early summer and fall butchering.  Birds will include chicken, quail, and turkey.
  • Plant a food plot for deer and turkey.  The deer use our property to bed down only.  This makes it very difficult to hunt as they return after dark and leave before first light.  A food plot should help this.
  • Figure out how to get the grape arbor to produce enough grapes for wine and jelly, if not this year, then the next.  Grapes are a new experience for us so we'll need to read up on this.
  • Plant a small orchard for peaches, pears, plums and apples.  Again, we have no experience with fruit trees, diseases, pruning and care.
  • Fence in a pasture for small animals such as goats and sheep.  We would like to use goats for milk, meat and reclaiming overgrown areas.
  • Figure out drainage issues on lower property.  This includes clearing out the creek for better flow, creating a rain garden or pond, and maybe even getting a civil engineer involved.
  • Honey bees!
While I sit and stare out the window over a muddy, snow covered field, it's nice to know that in just a few weeks we can begin our dream.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

And so it begins... Again!

Becoming more sustainable has been a goal of my wife and I since about 2007. I was working 80 hour weeks at a government tech job and never seeing my kids. What little time I didn't spend working, I was spending traveling to or from work. Something was missing for our family, and it was me. Providing a bit of food via hobby farming was a way for us to reconnect with each other and do something that made a difference for us in the long run.

Our only attempts at self-sufficiency before this point was a small garden and our once a year hog purchase and butchering. Surprisingly, I enjoyed butchering. Seeing how an animal goes from a living being into prime cuts of meat really struck a chord with me, and the health and cost benefits were a huge plus for my wife. Our small garden provided enough tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers to last a few months, and we really enjoyed canning and cooking with fresh veggies that we had grown on our own land. At the time we were living on 2/3 of an acre across the road from a 5000 home subdivision. Starting to become self-sufficient was definitely a goal, bit what could we do where we were?

First Chicken in 2009
Well, we decided that instead of asking permission, we would instead beg for forgiveness from the neighbors - who turned out to be surprisingly supportive.  In 2009 we purchased a few eggs and hatched them and our adventure began. Those first 3 chickens were a turning point in our lives. Since then we have grown chickens for eggs and meat (up to 100 at a time). We raised turkeys, quails, and guineas all on our land. We raised hogs on an adjacent property our neighbor was nice enough to let us use - in exchange for providing fencing and taking care of a few horses. I sold my Lincoln and bought an old pickup. I quit my job and started working from home. We read lots of material on hobby farming and gardening, and decided we needed to be able to do more. A simple idea we had together had blossomed into a lifestyle we wanted to pursue.  Best of all, we wanted to pursue this together.

Hot Pickles
Recently, we purchased 18 acres of land and uprooted our family to move back closer to our extended family and start providing whatever food and goods we could on our own. It isn't going to be easy, but I can guarantee it will be fun. This is our first winter on the new farm and spring is right around the corner. This blog will allow you to follow along in our learning experiences as we turn this raw land into our dream!