Chapter 34 – open house

Part of our farm mission from the beginning was to connect people to their food, a major reason why the CSA model was so exciting and fulfilling for us and our customers. Every month from May through October, each CSA member would get a box of goodies from our farm delivered to their dropsite. We also wanted to have people come to our farm to see and experience the source of their food. Most everyone was hungry to connect to the natural world, the life of farming and growing and raising food. The  baby goats were extremely popular on our facebook page, and many requests for farm visits started coming in, and not just from CSA members. Instead of stopping everything for a day for each person who wanted to come out, we decided to schedule an Open House, so everyone could come on one day. All requests were directed to either consider signing up for one of our workshops, or RSVP for our Open House date, and this simplified our lives greatly. But soon we were finding ourselves a bit too exhausted and preoccupied with farm work to promote our Open House, and we were also feeling we weren’t even sure if we were up for hosting it at all.

Our gardens were coming along, with achey backs and sunburnt calves from leaning over all day seeding the warm weather summer veggies and installing transplants. We had to hedge our bets and get food growing in as many places as we could, including the rough areas the big pigs had tilled up for us earlier that spring. Andrew picked up a used two-bottom plow, and with his Grandpa’s old Case tractor, he experimented with making raised beds by plowing up one side, and then back on the other side, effectively flipping the soil strips upside down on top of each other. Our soil was clay heavy, so we were worried about drainage. These new towering raised beds seemed like a perfect solution. The freshly turned subsoil would be mineral rich and we thought just perfect for brassicas, and so soon the raised ridges were covered in baby cabbage, kale and broccoli plants.

500 asparagus crowns arrived and we had to figure out where to put them, as they were an investment and a perennial we hoped would be productive for many years to come. However, we did not agree on how to plant them, and I was too tired to debate it. I wanted to lay them down in tractor plowed trenches, making solid, long beds. Andrew thought we should dig a hole for each crown. 500 holes! We went his route, because I felt unsure of my gardening prowess. The plan was to fill each hole with compost once we had enough made on our farm. We selected two areas to make into asparagus patches and started to dig lots of holes. As we worked, startled male pheasants called from the birch grove at the top of the hill, sounding their bugle-tin horn as they flew off.

Shortly after plating all those asparagus crowns we realized we had put them in non-ideal locations, but once they were in, we were not going to dig them back out. Part of the problem with the holes was that they were in that previously mentioned heavy clay soil, so when it rained, the holes filled up with water, and the water sat there. Some of the crowns rotted, but many of them still came up. Sort of the opposite problem with the 2 bottom plow raised beds Andrew had created. They worked well until the rainy part of spring ended, and then they began to dry out and this led to parched brassica babies. We bought about 1,000 feet of hose to run water from one side of our farm, down a hill, and back up into a bathtub so we could water the gardens which were located a bit too far from the house to tend and monitor regularly.

The day before our Open House I had a yogurt-making class at one of the Co-ops. I made a huge mistake though, when we were planning it months previously, I’d changed the scheduled time, but then had not updated my calendar…. so I arrived late. What an embarrassment. The class went fine, but I felt just so frazzled the whole time. As I stirred the pot of goat milk until it was scalded in preparation for the yogurt making, the whole class sat quietly and listened to me ramble on about  the goats and our farm. I felt like the students were all staring at me with anger that I was such an unprofessional teacher. I tried to bolster myself a bit and cajole them by bringing out samples after we’d set the yogurt up for culturing. I’d made a batch of yogurt a few days previously and brought it along to demonstrate how it deliciously different homemade yogurt turned out. One quart of the yogurt I’d poured out into cotton cloth to strain overnight. This resulted in something like greek yogurt, tangy from the goat milk’s caprylic acid and resembling a rich and super thick sour cream. In the fancy class kitchen, I minced up garlic and herbs and mixed this in, and then offered samples of my herbed goat yogurt “cheese” spread with crackers. They all loved all of it, and by the end I was feeling better about myself, after a glimpse of how vulnerable I felt standing at the front of a class. As I cleaned up and packed away all my supplies, I had to get my head in the game for the Open House the next afternoon.

That night after milking, we spruced the farm up a bit, cleaned in the house, and tried to make everything look as cute and nice as possible. We made a big pot of goat chili to simmer overnight in the crockpot too. The next morning, rain was unexpectedly in the forecast, and right after my morning milking, it started pouring. We had people coming from up to 2 hours away, and we imagined some of them were on their way already. Not too many people ended up making it out, but more than we could fit in our tiny home- so we all hung out in the pavilion, trying to avoid the sheets of rain blowing in as the wild wind whipped around changing directions every 30 seconds. It was quite something. Three of our guests were neighbors who we were just getting to know, and a couple were co-op employees who wanted to see our farm. They were all incredibly lovely,  kind and understanding people. As we huddled with our hands wrapped around mugs of hot chili and tried to chat,  my mind was totally preoccupied with how absolutely ridiculous this scenario was! And just like that, the rain stopped and the sun came out! Luckily everyone was dressed for wet weather and we walked around the soggy farm out in the sudden sun. The ducks were elated at what the rain storm had given them, and they showed off their mud puddle skills. The goats hated the rain and were all were hiding in the shed, so I brought out some of the adorable kids for everyone to hold and cuddle. Our big pigs and the 8 piglets were delighted with the new mud making materials and we explained how we were rotating them all around to give them a good life rooting in the soil, as well as putting their “pig-erator” skills to good use for the creation of garden spaces. One of our new friends ended up buying half a hog from us after seeing how we cared for our pigs.

After such an intense weekend; the embarrassing class and then the crazy rain storm, by the official end of the open house at 4pm, I was pretty zonked out. We learned a lot about Open Houses though! We hadn’t made a plan for rain, so we learned that a method of communicating our contingency plan was important. Also we hadn’t had any products to sell during our Open House, and that may have made it more of a business savvy event, since we had spent a lot of time and energy getting ready for it and then hosting it. We also had two stragglers who didn’t really want to leave at the official end of the Open House because they loved the farm so much, so that was something else to figure out a plan for.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 33 – Choreographing

Moving onto a place without much building infrastructure was a blessing, but also a curse. We were able to keep our minds open because we didn’t have anything to get in our way, but that also meant we didn’t have much to work with. As we constructed the workshop pavilion, we could see how VERY expensive any sort of larger barn- type structure would be. Andrew did some estimates and it looked like a simple 20×48 pole shed would be at least $7,000, and that was cutting some corners and using cheaper surplus building materials. Yikes, where was that going to come from?

As we pondered the idea of getting into breeding pigs, starting with Rosie, we sketched out options for housing her and a boar year round, using the little old garage type thing that currently housed the goats. Then where would the goats go? I kept sketching out ideal scenarios for a rotation of gardens and animals, but it all kept coming down to a real barn, which we did not have. We also didn’t know for sure which animals we wanted to overwinter, and which would be added to the mix only during the growing season. The goats and ducks and possibly breeding pigs would be with us year round, but in the spring through fall we’d have young pigs, turkeys and chickens to manage on pasture. They couldn’t all be kept together, as we’d learned with the omnivorous pigs wreaking havoc on our too-inquisitive ducks. Turkeys and chickens were said to be a potentially bad roommate combination because chickens could transmit a parasite to the turkeys, leading to a fatal disease called “blackhead.” So to avoid this, we planned to combine the goat kids and the turkeys together in one pasture, separate from the goat mommas, then the chickens would be in a separate area enclosed in a spacious chicken tractor, while the pigs would continue on being rotated in their hog panel paddocks over the area where we’d be gardening the next year.

We took turns doing morning chores some days, just to let each other have a break and sleep in a bit. My chore mornings made me feel like sheerah, a superwoman. I’d rearrange the ducks’ paddock so they’d be going out to fresh pasture, milk the goats, feed the pigs, tend the baby turkeys who were now coming outside during the day, listening to the exuberant and joyful songs of the songbirds greeting the morning. In that lovely period after morning chores, before Andrew work up and the day began, I drank coffee and got caught up  on email, the farm’s facebook page, and our website. I also started working on some writing. I was working on an article to pitch to The Small Farmer’s Journal about raising turkeys.  I started email correspondence with a heritage pig breeder on the other side of the state who had a young Tamworth boar for sale, and when I inquired about his experience with eventually harvesting intact male pigs (there’s a boar “taint” possibility in uncastrated male pigs,) he offered to rent the young boar to us. The only problem was that his farm was over 6 hours away. We’d have to continue negotiations and see if this was a possibility. We had no way or time to drive that far for a boar pig.

My Grandma emailed to invite me to be her maid of honor for her wedding in August. The story of how she and her soon to be husband had reconnected after 40 years was absolutely precious, and I was SO happy for them….but they were getting married in British Colombia, a 1800 mile, three day away drive, if I really pushed it. This was the first time I really felt the farm’s “ball and chain.” I was her oldest grandaughter, and she was asking me to come in place of her oldest daughter, my late mother, but there was absolutely no way I could attend. The major downside of real farming had been discovered; I couldn’t be gone that long in the midst of our first real season farming together. We had customers who had prepaid us for products that I was a part of making happen. With a sad tone, I emailed her back to explain. She was so understanding and reminded m she had grown up on a farm so she knew how busy we were going to be in August. Plus, she reminded me, weren’t we also getting married around then. Oh my goodness, we had a wedding to plan for ourselves! My Grandma and new Grandpa would be driving back to his farm in Michigan after their wedding in BC, and so she hoped they would be able to come by to visit us briefly on their way back home in late August.

The first workshop held in our pavilion was organized by an herbalist group in the Twin Cities who wanted to incorporate a native herb-walk with a soap making class. It was a bit early in the season to see the full spread of native plants, but spring had sprung, so we went with it. We were pretty excited as we got 15 rsvps for the workshop, and at $15 each, this was promising for our workshopping future! Although only 10 showed up on workshop day, we had a wonderful time on our nature walk around the perimeter of the farm, searching for and identifying native wild herbal plants, and then incorporating lilac blossoms into the batch of cedar/lilac soap we made together. It was a wonderful feeling to have a group of people come out, see our farm, learn about our philosophies, and then get paid by them to do what we’d be doing anyways. Almost everyone bought extra farm goodies to take home too, so we were learned there was a potential for adding value to an added-value product, in an added-value situation; Workshop attendees bought farm products since they were already out, hile paying to learn to make soap, while I made it from my goats’ milk. A win-win for everybody. Pretty exciting.

Chapter 32 – Onward

I was 32 and had been a fultime farmer for 3 months. I was elated, exhausted, happy, worried, frustrated, jubilant and proud. The days were warm in that May way- sun strong and hot on your skin but with a gentle chill from the breeze. As we worked in the garden, all morning and afternoon, the redwing blackbirds would call out from the poplar and prickly ash with their signature conk-a-reeeee song. As we’d head in for lunch, the apricot tree and Nanking Cherry bushes in our front yard were blooming like a party was about to happen, and a herd of hummingbirds had arrived to celebrate and indulge. As we did early evening chores, the spring peepers started to go to town, filling the lovely period right before dusk with a million little froggy tunes.

The kidlettes were old enough now to start eating on their own and need less of their momma’s milk, so I started half-time milking. The mommas were milked in the evening, and then they rejoined their babies for the night, separated once again in the morning. I was making soap and feta and chevre and yogurt with my share of the milk. Metallika who had the triplets stayed with her kids full time as they seemed to need all the milk she had to give. I noticed that her three kids, as they fought to gain control of the two teats, would often end up raising their mom’s hind quarters up off the ground. As soon as I could wean those little buggers, she’d get some relief. Even though we’d bought expensive goat-specific fence and lined it with a hot electric fence wire, I saw the goats starting to climb on the fence, leaning over and then knocking down the electric wire. It was pretty easy to get aggravated with the goats-why was the grass always greener on the other side for them? I ended up selling Catalpa and her yearling daughter to try to simplify things a little.  We could see the goats’ pasture around their shed was not going to be enough space for proper grazing, so I started tethering the other 3 mommas during the day on long leashes, out in the various lush grassy areas near enough to keep an eye on them. I wished I could fence in a series of huge paddocks, but we just didn’t have the time or money, and the problem with goats seemed to be that they were nearly impossible to fence in. Tethering seemed a good alternative.

The gardens were getting installed mid-month as the soil warmed, and the direct seeded early spring crops were ready to start harvesting. In the now-uncovered hoophouse, the area we’d cordoned off from the ducks had beautiful greens and tomatoes growing in it. After the hoophouse disaster, we immediately ordered a new covering to arrive ASAP. Andrew installed a second set of baseboards on which to mount a second set of wiggle wire tracks. This new whole piece of plastic would have two points of attachment to the frame instead of just one. We wondered why the manufacturer hadn’t just told us to install two in the first place. Andrew also suspected the screws that cam with the hoophouse kit were rather flimsy and even not up to the challenge of holding down the parachute plastic. He re-attached the tracks that had been ripped off my the wind with longer screws as well, and then we recovered the hoophouse plastic. Now we had a new hoophouse that would be held down much more firmly and with twice the amount of wiggle wire in twice the number of tracks that were attached much more firmly. Our ducks lived in the hoophouse at night, and they weathered that period when we had no cover on their home just fine, even when we had torrential rains soak their bedding thoroughly. They were exceptionally vocal, and laying lots of eggs- so they were happy! When we let them out of the hoophouse in the morning, they’d race around the corner of the end wall in a stream, like a school of fish, straight out to their pasture.

All our errands were coordinated with the weekly delivery drive into town, which now also included CSA shares. Mornings on delivery days were rather stressful and hectic; we had to pick and pack our share boxes, get the egg orders together, organize the to-do list for errands, meanwhile doing all the regular morning chores. One of us would go and one of us would stay on the farm to keep an eye on things. We were too nervous to leave our farm unattended for too long, and the delivery trip could easily become an entire day with the hour and half each way. It was crazy how much time just the simple errand running could be. When it was my turn, I’d also try to coordinate socializing with friends, while avoiding getting stuck in rush hour on the way back- I always needed to get home for the evening milking.

The 3 big pigs grunted over their shared meals of soaked organic grains mixed with whey from my cheesemaking.  Their harvest date was nearing, meanwhile they kept getting moved onto fresh turf in paddocks to help us prep a wild bramble covered slope into something we could work with.They ate, rooted, wallowed and snoozed in the sun. We started getting a crazy idea of trying to breed pigs because we were having a really hard time finding the next round of young piglets, and because of Rosie. She was a magnificent specimen of a gilt, and a sweet natured girl, but she was going to be our pork. We decided to think about it seriously; Pork? Or possible piglets? We came up with some “pig math” that looked pretty promising, but it was definitely uncharted waters. There’d be a boyfriend boar to buy for Rosie and months of waiting if we decided to go for it.

We finally did locate and buy 8 piglets from a sort of shady operation run by a older man who was definitely a character. His sows looked plump and healthy, but all his pigs were kept inside all the time. He also callously pointed to a boar who was getting sent to slaughter that day, saying something about hot dogs or something. I felt irritated that he was so nonchalant about it, and glad we could get some of his piglets out of there and give them a proper pig life, rooting in the soil and soaking up the sun. The man would not stop talking. He claimed he saw a panther in the hills the night before, as he bagged up the piglets into woven plastic feed bags. They were stressed and immediately started pooping in the bags which we had set in the back seat of the car. We kept saying, ok, so…. we’re going to go and get these pigs home, and he just would not stop yammering, we finally drove off with a wave out the window, which had to be open to handle the smell. Even as we drove away he was still talking!

When we got them home, the dense and wiggly piglets were impossible to carry out to their new paddock, and we didn’t have a driveable path. We ended putting two at a time (in their woven feed bags still) into the wheelbarrow to get them across the mucky farmyard and over to the green expanses where their first paddock was set up. To see these poor piggies experience grass and dirt for the first time was absolutely heartwarming. As they dug in right away, they made little coo-like grunts, like “can you believe this? What IS this delicious stuff?” At first they began by just skimming the top, lifting the grass up with their pink snouts, scraping icing off the cake, but soon they were getting down deep into the soil. They were eating it! Piglets in barns have to be given iron shots because they can’t access the natural minerals in the soil. It was just so encouraging to see our piglets instantly engaging in natural behaviors while finally getting to feel the sun on their backs.They were very skittish, as the only experience they’d had with humans had been when they’d been hurt or stressed- getting castrated, tails cut off, and then being grabbed by the back leg to be put into a bag. Poor things. But soon they realized we were their friends who brought food. That first afternoon we noticed the 4 pink piglets looked like they had gotten sunburned. One of the biggest girls we had named Muscles had it pretty bad across her shoulders. The piglets had a shelter to hole up in, but the irresistable grass and dirt kept them out in the sun. We tried to make a sun shade over their 16 by 16 fot square paddock, but tarps are pretty much worthless, and way too fun for pigs to pull down and rip apart.

Chapter 31 – workshops

A huge part of our business plan in 2011 was teaching on-farm workshops, featuring a variety of homesteading and small farm topics. We filled our website’s calendar up with workshops on soap making, goat care, cheesemaking, permaculture, beer brewing, conscientious cooking with ethical meats, fermenting, making jams and jellies, making homemade bread and fresh butter, canning, pickling, wine-making, making pizza, butchering chickens, and raising turkeys. We had some of the classes themed for special events, like “Beer Brewing and Making Pizza” for Father’s Day, and our CSA members each received 4 passes for workshops as part of their membership, so we anticipated great turnouts. These workshops would be the ultimate value-added product, they would require very little as far as inputs, especially compared to raising animals or vegetables. They would be our serious cash cow! First though, we had to build a place to host these workshops.

Our workshop space had to be safe, strong, sheltered from the elements and close to our house. We had used our hoophouse for harvesting turkeys with our customers the previous fall, and it had worked great, so we thought about putting up a second, smaller one. It would be relatively inexpensive and easy to put up, but we realized it would not be ideal for summer workshops because it would get pretty hot in there during the day. We decided to make a small pole building instead, to the east of our house. It would be 12 feet by 16, and would have a steep shed roof, opening on the longer side to the shaded north. The majority of our beautiful land would be visible from this spot as well, a lovely space to host workshops and teach from. We had to hurry because we had our first classes scheduled for mid-May.

Andrew designed the building to err on the side of safety, using monstrous 6×6′s for the main support poles. Neither of us knew better, other than bigger poles seemed safer. In the end, after struggling with a high water table with mucky clay soil, dealing with an impossibly stupid hand auger, lugging and lifting the extremely heavy poles, hours and days of leveling and tamping and arranging them perfectly, we had a super strong mini-Doomsday-safe framework. Even in a hurricane, the giant poles set down in 4 feet of concrete were not going to go ANYWHERE. The framework of the walls and roof, with the rafters and giant beams, looked like a museum-worthy pergola that I took to calling the Pavilion. For the materials to side and roof it, we bartered with some of our new neighbors for pieces of their old, about to be torn down, barn. We salvaged a truck load of 2 by 8 foot pieces of their hole-ridden tin and sections of old barn doors to re-use as the exterior of our new “workshop pavilion.” It ended up having a rustic feel with the reused materials, the corrugated tin had a beautiful aged patina, despite the holes that let rain dribble down in places, and the heavy sections of the old barn doors that we used on the back of the pavilion were made of gorgeous weathered grey wood. We had a new “old” building!

It turns out we were smart in not building another hoophouse as a workshop space. After getting the Pavilion finished, one chilly May morning, my birthday in fact, I looked out the kitchen window as I drank my coffee and saw how crazily the wind was blowing. The plastic stretched across the hoophouse was making horrible flapping and whipping sounds; the spring winds had shifted and were blowing from the southeast right INTO the opening side of the hoophouse, really exerting their force on the plastic’s points of attachment. I called up the stairs to Andrew that something potentially bad was happening outside, and then I ran outside to inspect whether or not to panic. As he came out, another big gust came and I saw that the wiggle wire track that held the plastic cover in place was getting loosened with the force of the gusts pushing and pulling on the hoop’s plastic hood. Andrew grabbed the drill and we tried to screw in some more lag bolts into the wiggle wire track. We quickly tried to brainstorm- could we secure some sort of rope web over the plastic to hold it down tighter on the steel frame? And then it started to happen…the edge of the wiggle wire track snapped free from the baseboard and started flapping around in the wind, then more of it and more of it. I ran to the end of the 60 foot baseboard, trying to hold the plastic down, because if I let go, the whole plastic piece, over 70 feet by 60, would fly over and off the other side of the 30 foot wide hoophouse. And despite my holding on, my weight was NOTHING to the gusts hitting the plastic, which was more of a sail at this point, a giant plastic sail from which I was dangling at the bottom, trying to hold it down, screaming to Andrew to PLEASE …..HELP…….. MEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!! But even with our combined weight, the majority of the sail was exposed just perfectly to the gusts, and the plastic could not help itself but go with the momentum. As I was lifted in the air, Andrew hollered at me to just let go so I didn’t go over the hoophouse with the stupid plastic. I let go. We stood, dumbfounded at what had just happened. The massive expanse of very expensive UV stabilized greenhouse plastic had just blown up and over the frame and was now impaled on a 4 story tall poplar tree. Happy Birthday.

 

 

Chapter 30 – moving pigs

The weather warmed in late March, and despite the snow that still remained on the ground, we suddenly had t-shirt weather! As soon as the soil began to release the suspended moisture it had held over the winter and wrung it out like sponge, we prepared to move the 3 pigs out of the hoophouse. They had grown into immense beasts over the winter, and while they weren’t bigger than me, they were pure muscle; dense little hulks around 200 pounds each. The three girls’ snouts were as strong as bulldozers and they had had begun digging a deep crater in the newly soft clay surface inside their pen. All we’d see when we entered the hoophouse was their butts sticking up out of the hole as they worked on it. We’d planned to set up a spacious paddock for them outdoors with extra hog panels, but couldn’t remember if we should pound in 2 posts per panel, as well as at the corners, or just one. To be on the safe side, we went for the extra posts, and even though it was harder work, we felt it was better to be safe than sorry and avoid having pigs on the loose.

After their new paddock was set up, we nervously realized we had no clue how to move such monstrous animals. We had about 500 feet or so between where they were and where their new paddock was. Pigs are not that easy to herd or move, and you can’t just put a leash on them since they don’t really have necks. We deliberated over how to do the move, and came up with using 3 panels, wired together into a sort of triangle, and to use that as a “pig shuttle.’ It would have to be quick, and we’d have to convince them to move rapidly, while also dragging the heavy triangle pen as we did this, but it seemed our only option. We still had the snow to help glide the panels, and so we went for it, before we had a mud fest to deal with.

The move went surprisingly well, although it was stressful for the nervous pig movers, our piggies were up for an adventure. They trusted us and were very curious as to what the heck was going on. We set up the triangle pen next to their existing pen in the hoophouse, and opened one side of it. They immediately went in to check it out, because they smelled new opportunities. Trudging backwards through the snow, we dragged the pen with the 3 pigs in it over towards the new paddock. When they hesitated, the back of the triangle pen pushed on their bums and they “giddyupped” forward. When we arrived at their new location and let them out, they were ecstatic and leaped and bounded through the snow, digging immediately into the soggy soil beneath. Seeing such happy pigs felt like the ultimate reward after all our stress and worry.

Back in the hoophouse, we now had more space for the ducks, but we had to rearrange things in there so that we could also start using the hoophouse to start our plants. Andrew made planting tables out of plywood and 2×4′s, which were high enough to prevent the ducks from leaping up and attacking our baby plants. We had many flats of seeded veggies sprouting in the “grow-room” in our house, some of which were cold hardy and ready to move outside. On Andrew’s planting tables, we seeded more flats of lettuce, kale, broccoli, chard, scallions, parsley, onions, and bok choi, getting them started as our first outdoor transplants. Because the nights were still frosty, we covered the flats with sheets of plastic at night to help insulate them.

We also separated abut 1/3rd of the space in the hoophouse from the ducks to prepare for planting our tomatoes and peppers. The dirt surface of the hoophouse was mostly subsoil clay, after all the leveling it had taken to set up the structure on the level, so we didn’t have the ideal planting surface or medium. As the snow outside dissipated, we saw mounds of dirt nearby that had been previously part of a hippy-like pond setup. One load at a time, we shoveled that dirt into wheelbarrows and moved it into the newly defined tomato and pepper planting area in the hoophouse. The dirt was more clayey than we’d have preferred, but we were quickly learning we had to use what was available. We then  discovered the previous owners’ compost pile, and started digging into that, trying to mix it up with the excavated clay soil before forming the new hoophouse garden beds. It was funny all the relics of the past that showed up in that compost pile- 100′s of avocado pits, plastic fragments of children’s toys, polyester pants and even a semi-decomposed purple painted rabbit hutch.

Chapter 29 – balance

I had a tendency towards being very sociable. I loved my friends, and they’d been so supportive as I began my journey. At my old place, when I’d just been starting to farm, but not relying on it as my sole occupation, I would have people over all the time. I loved sharing the homesteading life, but the farm wasn’t running my life at that point. I was “farming,” but it all happened before and after my day job- in the mornings, nights and weekends.

This whole new venture between Andrew, I and our farm was unknown, new and sacred. Pretty much right away, we could tell that balancing doing our jobs as farmers, while being social with friends and visitors, was going to be a challenge. It was a difficult transition for me – in order to succeed, we’d have to really hunker down and get serious. This wasn’t just fun and games, it was now our livelihood.

Balancing our days was also an overwhelming and unexpected change. Without the pressure to do all the farm things and then head off to work, we were soon learning we had to give ourselves some structure and work on planning out our days and our projects together. Farm Meetings began. As we prepared breakfast and chugged coffee, we took notes of all that was on the agenda for the day, and all the things to that were upcoming to talk through and plan for and there were the daily chores. Water to haul, feed to carry here and there, turkey babies to tend to in the bathroom, eggs to gather and clean, hay to pull off the big round bales, seedlings to start and coddle in the grow room and hoophouse, baby goats to play with, cheesemaking workshops through Community Ed to prepare for, goats to milk, food to cook, pigs to feed, and several days worth of grains to soak for their feed.

As soon as spring arrived, we’d be preparing the garden, setting up raised beds for seeding and transplanting our little planties, mulching, weeding, then our second batch of turkey babies would arrive, as well as the 70 broiler chicks, and the first group of turkey babies would be ready to move outside.

 

Update March 2014
“the small scale myth”

This has been a rough winter, and the winter blues have been finally hitting us in the past week. Something about 3 feet of snow, plumbing in the house freezing, and subzero temperatures that just won’t quit is bringing out the hopeless feelings. Besides all the bad stuff that comes with cabin fever and our animals’ comfort and productivity, honestly, we’ve been struggling over how to make this farm bring in income.

As I’ve been writing this book here on my blog, detailing my farm dream beginnings, and our beginnings here on our farm, I recently hit a wall in recounting my story- because I am dreading reviewing all the failures and huge mistakes we made in 2011 through 2013. The biggest failure, and I can see it clearly now (and this is the stuff we’ve been talking about in our winter doldrums) is perpetuating the “small scale myth.” It was a HUGE mistake because we believed in it. We felt we could raise small amounts of good food for people and make a living. We did raise a lot of food, but we did not raise enough of it.

The trouble with choosing small scale farming as your dream occupation is that it is not a lucrative, or even a minimum wage, business plan. Food has a limit in how much people will pay, and the number of people who will pay a fair price for really good food is limited as well.This is where we’ve been stuck. WE HAVE TO GROW. Otherwise, we will not be able to afford to continue being farmers. We cannot stay “small scale” unless we want to get day jobs to pay for our farm expenses, and then, what is the point?

Scaling up is scary. Risk is scary. Spending every last penny you have on a hope is scary. But we HAVE to do it. There is no choice.

My husband and I watch this show on Hulu called Shark Tank, and it’s fueled the entrepreneur side of our farming dream. It’s taught us how to measure risk on good ideas. It’s taught us that food businesses have to be at a bigger level of production because food products are so much more expensive to produce than a cheap gadget made overseas.

So as we gear up and figure out how to maximize our farm in 2014, I want to assure you that the small scale ethics we have will not go away. I believe that we can have a small scale mentality even as we scale up. Raising lots of good food with integrity and the utmost care for the animals and land IS possible. We’re going for it.

Chapter 28 – babies begin

Our first real farming season together was about to begin. It was March 2011, and I was now full time on the farm! It felt surreal to not quickly breeze through the morning chores and head out the door to drive to a job. I was now working from home, at our farm, finally living my dream. It was overwhelming in some ways; all the things to do, all the time of the day and days of the week to do it in. There would be no more rush jobs, we could savor and soak it all up, and orchestrate our days to get so much more done than ever before.

Babies of both flora and fauna were essential to getting our plans in action. Thousands of seeds were started in our livingroom, and we ordered 20 day old turkey poults from a local hatchery who would deliver them directly to our feedstore. The poults arrived and we set them up in a brooder in our bathroom. The little fluffballs were adorable and they filled the house with their cheerful sing-song calls. We planned to keep them inside for about 4 weeks and then move them to a larger sheltered pen once the weather warmed up. They would be raised on organic grain and pasture through the spring and summer, and marketed as “Summer Turkeys.” We figured we loved eating Thanksgiving so much, why not raise turkeys for earlier harvesting and encourage customers to buy our delicious turkey in the summer, for grilling turkey kebabs, making turkey sausage, and roasted turkey sandwiches.

Before dawn the next morning, I got up to check on the new turkeys and found 3 had died. There is nothing like losing babies right away to start the old “worry wheel.” What were we doing, hoping to raise animals safely, how would we make it, we’re going to have to get jobs again. Saddened and disheartened, I tried to bolster myself with a cup of coffee on the porch as the sun came up, before going out to collect duck eggs. I listened to the sounds of spring beginning, the breeze blowing tree branches against the porch, the various migratory song birds singing as they stopped by on their routes, the blue jays and the crows calling back and forth, and then I heard a very distinctive sound that tugged at my heart strings- I heard the cry of a baby goat.

I leapt out of my rocker, collected the essentials -iodine, a shot glass and a towel, pulled on my muck boots and ran to the goat shed. As I opened the latch and heaved the gate over the snow that was in the way, I saw that the goats were all standing outside the shed, looking inward. As I entered to see what they were looking at, Metallika called to me with her special greeting, saying “Look what I did!” My LaMancha doe had 3 little wet baby goats at her feet! They were simply gorgeous, with their momma’s tiny ears, and colored in variations of their father’s distinctive Boer markings- reddish heads and white bodies. As I toweled them off and dunked their navels in the iodine, Momma watched patiently as I discovered she had kidded 2 girls and a boy. I could not believe she had three babies all at once, she had not looked that hugely pregnant! This was her 4th year having kids, and she’d always had twins until now.

The triplets were soon toddling around on their tiny hooves in the hay, and nuzzling momma’s udder for their first slurps of colostrum. Anytime one of the other goats approached, Metallika made a funny growl moan sound at them, warning them to back off and step away from her babies. She was protective and such a very good mother. I went into the house to get a bucket of hot molasses-laced water to fill her up with the heat that had left her body when her kids were born. She guzzled it down greedily, and now that she had space in her belly again, she began voraciously eating hay to get her rumen back to 100% function. She had a lot of milk to make, to feed her 3 vigorous kids.

The next goat I thought was due to have her kids was Desti, but she was hanging onto her babies for a while, fooling me along. Desti had been given to me by a woman who had been widowed with 4 children, and was losing her place in the country. When she approached me, how could I say no? Her goat named “Destiny” was scrawny, but very sweet, a lanky Nubian with horns and an odd shape. The following 2 years of kidding, Desti would look enormously pregnant for weeks, and I’d be on the edge of my seat, waiting, waiting for the babies to come. She was kind of like the boy who called wolf, and once I stopped paying attention, the next day Desti would have her kids.

Trixie, the very pretty and feisty 1 year old daughter of Metallika, was showing no definitive signs that she was pregnant. She had been the target of much aggression by Cedar over the winter, even bearing a scar above her udder from one of his horns. After Cedar was “dealt with,” MayMay took his place as the premier bully of the goat herd. She had big horns with which she could reign in terror over the more passive and junior goats. I knew this would happen, I just didn’t know to what extent it might affect things.

One beautiful afternoon, as I was going to check on the triplets and see if Desti was getting closer to kidding, I saw May take aim at Trixie, who’s head was deep in the hay manger. As I yelled NOOOOO, May nailed Trixie right in her side, right where her babies would be, if she was pregnant. Afterwards, Trixie seemed ok, just knocked down a rank on the goat ladder yet again. Later that day I came out to the goat shed and found her licking off tiny, tiny, way-too-tiny twins. I had never seen goats this small, they were like porcelain figurines, beautiful, perfectly formed and barely alive. I lifted them into my jacket and ran them into the house, cursing that I had witnessed who caused this premature labor- May, what a horrible, terrible goat!

Inside, the light tan colored doeling stopped breathing and I attempted to do CPR, hardly understanding how these tiny premies had even hung on to life at all, certainly their lungs couldn’t have been fully developed at their kitten-like size. Their eyes weren’t even open yet. The doeling did not revive after CPR, but the little boy tried to hang on. As Andrew held a blow dryer on the buckling to try to warm him up, I warmed some colostrum and used a tube feeding syringe to quickly get the warm nourishment to his belly. It seemed to help, but shortly thereafter, he died as well. What a horrible tragedy. Things were not going well in the goat department.

That traumatic day, we lost more turkey babies too, a total of 8 out of the original 20. While baby turkeys are known to be extra fragile, this number of casualties was much higher than normal. We had a perfect brooder set up, and it wasn’t our first time raising turkeys, so we called the hatchery. It turned out they had sent the turkeys through the mail, and had not delivered them directly to the feedstore as they’d said they would. All baby birds are extremely sensitive to cold air, but since we’d been assured the turkeys would not go through the post office, we’d felt safe getting them that early in the cold spring. It was angering that the hatchery had put these little precious lives at such risk, and to be honest, at $5 a piece, losing 8 was a financially painful loss for our farm business, not only for their pricetag, but for the loss of potential sales. The hatchery said they’d replace the turkeys who had perished in a couple weeks, and that would set back our time schedule for harvesting our summer turkeys.

Catalpa, a mild mannered and beautiful Nubian, was one of the first goats to be born at my old place. She’d had a beautiful baby the spring previous, and now her udder was filling, so I was pretty sure she had kids growing inside. One morning I found her backside looking as though she may have given birth, but there were no new baby goats anywhere in the shed. I looked around in the paddock, in case she’d had them out there and become confused. No baby goats anywhere, but upon closer examination in the shed, I found something bloody in the hay. With the pitchfork, I lifted it up and saw what looked to be an embryonic baby goat. Looking more closely in the hay, I saw another one. So, it seemed that she had aborted her kids. I can only guess that May did the same thing to Catalpa that she had done with Trixie- just this time I hadn’t witnessed it. Trixie and Catalpa’s udders had filled after delivering, so I began milking them every 12 hours, feeling odd doing it, but not wanting to let their milk go to waste. This was why we had pregnant goats in the first place- to milk them. Catalpa was used to the routine of milking and recovered fully. Trixie was more traumatized, and we developed a strong bond as she adopted me as her “baby goat” while I milked her, since she didn’t know what it was like to nurse her own babies.

Desti started acting lethargic, which is never a good sign in late pregnancy. I moved her over to a separate side of the shed to keep her safe from May, the baby killer. I gave Desti extra kelp and grain, and hot molasses water everyday to help keep her nutrient levels up. Ketosis can occur when the calcium levels drop in the mother’s bloodstream, as the babies forming draw everything they need from their mother, and this can be deadly if the momma doesn’t have enough to keep herself going, first and foremost. The extra TLC worked, and she finally had her kids, a pair of gorgeous twins with patchwork colors.

May grew enormous and had twin girls a week later, but as cute and healthy as her 2 daughters were, I resented their mother for the cruelty she had shown Trixie and most likely Catalpa as well. In a battle of survival of the fittest, May had won. The natural world was showing itself to not be idyllic whatsoever.  Every day on the farm was proving to be full of trials, trouble, tribulations, as well as full of beauty and promise. We had to bury goat kids and baby turkeys, but we also had vivacious and strong survivors as well. Already we were learning that nothing on the farm would be happening as we’d planned on paper.

Chapter 27 – germany

January 2011, I was full of trepidation and exhilaration as I prepared to finally quit my day job. Would I be able to be a full time farmer, finally, for real? Andrew and I talked about backup plans and how to make it through if things didn’t go quite like we hoped. We could always get jobs off the farm again, but we both knew we only had this one life, and we had to go for it. Then, I did something really out of character, and sort of irresponsible. With my little bit of savings, I bought plane tickets to Germany.

When my Mom was in the middle of her dealings with breast cancer, around the year 2000, she had connected with a dear woman who was a second cousin once removed, living in and a native of Germany. Anette was around my Mom’s age, and they both had breast cancer in common. Over the years, they formed a strong bond and friendship through emails. Anette was a very special and supportive person in my mom’s life, and they really looked forward to meeting each other for the first time in person at my Aunt’s wedding on Vancouver Island in 2004. I didn’t anticipate that Anette and I would form a friendship as well, but she and I hit it off instantly, we were kindred spirits and we had an amazing time being joyful goofballs together, dancing like wild women at the wedding and staying up late around campfires on the beach, talking about everything, especially how precious life was. She had fought breast cancer and won. It was such a beam of hope and light for my Mom’s situation. She came to the US to visit my family in 2006, right as things were starting to look not so good for my Mom. Anette and I kept in touch, and she shared my grief after we lost my Mom in 2007.

In the spring of 2009, Anette came to visit me in Wisconsin and stayed at my little farm around my 30th birthday. This was during the year that everything was about to happen farm-wise for me, and also what turned into a tumultuous year in other regards, as well. We had a wonderful time and she dove into my little world wholeheartedly, she loved eating my bountiful breakfasts featuring my ducks’ eggs, listening to my crazy music and dancing in the kitchen, hanging out with my friends, we took nature walks and talked and talked and talked. I promised Anette I would come to visit her in Germany,  to see her world and visit the home of my ancestors. I knew there would be no way to make this type of journey once Andrew and I were focused on the farm, so the plan was my trip to Germany would happen after I quit my job and before Andrew and I farm season began. A true vacation and serious transition time between day-job and full-time farming. It felt necessary and good, but a bit crazy.

The day I quit my job, I was SO nervous. What was I doing? I was making a decent wage and had a regular paycheck from the co-op, but I had a calling to pursue, and it was finally time. I gave them a month’s notice and much thanks for supporting me as I made my transition from co-op employee, to official farmer. If it hadn’t been for my working in the co-ops, I may have never tapped into my desire to become a farmer. They knew it was coming, and so had I….and here it was. My last day didn’t feel real. I had hoped for it with all my heart for SO LONG. Finally, I was leaving and off fully on my journey.

First, though, I had a trip to take. I’d not had much experience with traveling out of the country, other than going to Canada where my Mom’s family resided and being an high school exchange student in Bolivia for 9 months. My trip to Germany was absolutely incredible. Anette’s generosity was astounding, she took me all over and showed me innumerable sights, historic German land marks and we even took a journey to the town where my great-great-great grandpa had been born, and we found what we were pretty sure was the family house. We stopped by the world headquarters of Jagermeister and drove on the “autobahn.” We visited her mother and took leisurely walks together around the ancient village. I noticed how the German village farms were laid out very differently than in the US, with their cobblestone courtyards, with the farm buildings all centered around that entryway and pastures extending out the back. We toured castles, ate in restaurants and saw shows. She took me on a trip to the Baltic Sea where we walked the cold beach and had “fisch-satt” dinner after she showed me the health care center she had stayed in as she had battled and beat her cancer. I had a once in a lifetime experience with Anette as my hostess and very personalized tour guide.

As we took walks in the park in the city of Berlin, visiting the infamous giant wild boars kept in a forest paddock for people to see in person, I was pining for our farm, thinking of our 3 pigs and how our season would be unfolding after I arrived back home. I took studious notes about the farming things I noticed, and all the things I was thinking about. I tried to just relax as well, it was a vacation after all. I was longing for home though, and so excited to begin our journey into real farming. When I returned to the US, spring had not yet sprung, in fact snow was everywhere. Andrew had taken really good care of all of our animals, the ducks were laying eggs and thankfully all the pregnant goats had waited to give birth. We started our seedlings and geared up to be as ready as possible the moment spring arrived.

Cedar was still being a bully and so we prepared to butcher him before the goat kids were born. I brought out my gun, and led him away from the paddock, over in the snow for his last treat of oats. Goats, especially mature males, have a very thick skull, and so the instruction I’d read was to make sure to aim from the back, between the horns, so the bullet would go straight into the brain. With thanks to him for his services over the previous 3 years, as he ate the oats, I pulled the trigger, and down he went, instantly dead. We thought we could lift his carcass up in a tree to make skinning and gutting easier, but after we situated the single-tree with it’s pulley system to handle the weight, and pulled up, his heavy weight pulled the whole contraption down out of the tree. Oh boy. We proceeded to be thankful for the clean snow to rest him on, as we went through the processing. I wasn’t sure how his meat would taste- there is plenty of caution online and in butchering books about older goats, especially intact bucks. As it was nearly spring, he was out of the rut season, so his muskiness had subsided. We fried up a piece of his meat and….it tasted like what I remembered steak tasting like. Delicious! We broke his carcass down into 3 easier to lift sections and put them in a couple coolers to rest over night. I tied his head up in a tree for the wild birds to clean off so I could save his beautiful horned skull. The dogs carried around his legs and gnawed them down to nothing. Life on the farm.

The following day I cut up chilled and rested meat into roasts and stew meat, keeping it simpler than all the complicated cuts we’d made with our half pig. 3 years previously, Cedar had been my most expensive goat purchase, a $200 purebred buckling. After 3 years, he’d sired many offspring, but as he had grown fully mature, he’d become a danger for the lady goats and had even made a few passes at me with his hefty horns. We didn’t have a separate pen to keep him nor did we want to deal with a tank of an assertive goat. Now the problem was responsibly and respectfully dealt with, and his meat would be put to good use in delicious curries, jerky and stews.

Chapter 26 – new year planning

We hunkered down in our little home for the winter, cozy with love and warmed by the woodstove. The plan was hatched to get married on the farm that summer, amidst all the craziness of our our first season really farming together.

Our seed orders were placed and perennial food crop rhizomes and rootstock ordered, and all of the gardening plans started to form. All that we had to base our planning on was what each of us had learned at our previous our very small scale gardens.  Andrew had gardened in a very rich and well prepared soil, and I had slowly built up soil tilth and fertility in my old garden with mulch and composted animal bedding. Neither of us had really serious vegetable production experience, and we knew there was going to be a sharp learning curve. To complicate things, we were going to be starting our gardens in freshly turned over sod, which is not ideal for first year veggie growth. One of our farming friends cautioned us against doing a CSA that upcoming first year on our land, he said the cutworms and roots would be a real hazard to productivity until the soil was worked up thoroughly. We didn’t have a choice though- we had to dive in hard and heavy and make some money. The fertility issue was a problem too- we wouldn’t have compost from our own animals and farm until the end of the first season. The alternative was to bring in compost from some other source, which almost always was came off of factory farms. We wanted nothing to do with that, and so we decided to wing it fertility-wise. It was a naive and idealistic thing to do, but we wanted to keep our moral and ethical standards high and consistent.

We estimated how many seeds were needed to plant according to our hopeful CSA signup numbers, and how much each square foot of planting would hypothetically yield. Suddenly we were overwhelmed at the complexity of needing to harvest certain quantities of many types of crops each and every week, and without knowing how many shares we’d have to provide for exactly, our brains felt like they would explode. The only way to approach this madness as greenhorns, was to plan to plant and seed above and beyond our highest numbers, and do whatever it took to have produce to harvest.

Over the winter we were going through quite a lot of hay. Having livestock meant we needed a good and consistent source of hay for feed and bedding material, all of which would eventually be part of of fertility cycle as it was turned into compost for our gardens. Buying hay off of other farms meant we couldn’t be sure they hadn’t sprayed it with chemicals or used artificial fertilizers, it was relatively expensive, and difficult to transport or arrange delivery. We had a big flat field up in the northeatern corner of our land that we thought might be suitable for haying, but we didn’t have any of the equipment or knowhow. A quick assesment of what it might take to invest in the equipment necessary looked to be around $10,000. We’d need a tractor and the attachments- a cutter, rake, tedder, baler and hay wagons. For the amount of hay we needed, and our dwindling bank accounts, this idea was not an option.

The previous fall when we’d moved in, I had ordered a load of round hay bales for the goats to eat over the winter. A few farmer friends happened to be over visiting when the young guy showed up in his monster truck pulling a hay trailer. The 1,000 lb bales were on the strangest type of hay trailer we’d ever seen, each bale was sort of sitting cupped in a cradle. They were impossible to move off with out a tractor, which we did not have. Our neighbor down the road, who’d bought the parcel of 40 acres across the street from us, was discing up that field, and one of our friends encouraged us to go ask him for help. We were shy, as we hadn’t met him and his wife yet, and how rude to ask for help on the spot. But we didn’t have a choice- we waved him down. He graciously helped push the 8 round bales off with the loader on his tractor, and then the 5 of us on the ground, using the bales’ momentum as they rolled off, pushed and rolled the monster bales over by the goats. We sent our neighbor home with a jug of homebrew and some goatmilk soaps as a thank you. We had dinner and some beers with our friends, all of us dusty and dirty after moving the big bales. Where would we be without all of this help? We were so blessed!

Our neighbors turned out to be the most awesome and friendly folks. They had a diversified homestead and were starting to raise alpacas and in the process of building a new barn. Their goal was to make a farm store where they’d sell their wool products. We found out they owned hay making equipment and so we asked if we could hire them to make hay for us on our land that summer. The husband trudged out in the snow with us to look at the potential hay field, which he estimated to be about 8 acres. He said it might yield 300-400 small square bales or so, but it would take time to get the field into good shape, as it had been left wild for so many years. He said if we could cut down all the weed tree saplings and level the ant hills, he’d make the hay and take half of the crop as payment instead of cash. That sounded great! He suggested applying some fertilizer in the spring to increase yields, but we didn’t want anything synthetic or chemical put on this beautiful and untainted land.

The herd of goats had been slimmed down for the winter, after harvesting the young male kids, and we were left with 6 does and 1 gigantic Boer buck. The goats tested out my new hay set up idea that winter, which was located right outside their deep run-in shed. We’d attached cattle panels along the front of the paddock, and the hay bales were right up against the panels. The idea was they’d eat off the bales through the cattle panels, and would not be able to trample and waste so much hay this way. It worked perfectly until the boss goats realized any goat eating was an easy target for bullying. In horror I found that my youngest does, who were now carrying their first babies, were getting pummeled when they stuck their heads into the cattle panels to eat. Goat bullying had always driven me crazy, and taking out the worst offenders only meant the next goat on the social hierarchy took it’s place. So we fashioned a second hay manger inside the shed to give everyone a place to eat in peace. The big Boer buck, a 3 year old named Cedar had really started to be a trouble maker, even with his lady goats who were carrying his kids. It made no evolutionary sense to me that he would bash his “baby mommas” out of the way so he could eat.

Cedar had come home with me 3 years back as an 8 week old kid, a gorgeous little satyr-looking chunk of a goat. He had a mahogany/ruby colored head and a thick white body, stocky legs and a low profile- he was a stunning specimen, but now he was approaching 250 lbs, and he had thick, spiraling ram-like horns. After the new manger was in place, he starting chasing all the does out of the shed, as well as away from the other hay manger area. Pregnant goats need their nutrition, especially and even more so when it is cold out. Cedar was starting to get on my nerves. I placed several ads to sell him and had a few people come to look, but no one wants to buy goat bucks in the winter- they want to buy them when they need their breeding services in the fall. Cedar was big, he was becoming a big bully, so I started doing some research on how to harvest a mature buck goat.

Chapter 25 – WHAT?!

Winter truly set in and snow covered all the random materials and projects around our new farmyard. The daily chores consisted of caring for our pigs, goats and ducks, as well as beginning to gather eggs again! The ducks began laying right before Christmas, after the stress of the move and adjusting to their new home. I quit milking once the weather was cold and let the goat mommas focus all  their energy on their growing babies. I continued on at my job, driving an hour in, and an hour back home. I was extremely jealous of Andrew not having to work a job- he’d done well with his stone work contracts and had money saved up to live on over the winter. But I was coming home each day to OUR FARM, and what a blessing. In the evenings we’d work through the numbers, figuring out when we could afford for me to go fulltime at the farm. It really depended on whether we had enough CSA signups, and how well our on-farm workshops were attended. But in order to make them successful, we needed to allot time for marketing them, a catch 22 of sorts. We had to take a leap of faith at some point, but it was looking like I’d have to wait until spring to quit my day job. Then we could place all of our irons in the fire and really go for it, with the whole season ahead of us. I’d waited this long, what was a bit more time?

One thing we hadn’t thought much about while setting up our farm, was the animal watering needs in winter. The spigot on the side of the house became useless after it froze solid once the outside temperatures stayed below freezing. So, twice a day, for the next several months, we filed countless buckets with warm water from the bathtub and lugged them out to the animals. The ducks needed at least six 5 gallon buckets a day, and the pigs used about 1, while the goats usually went through 3 or 4. All the animals loved the warm water, but we did not love the aches beginning in our backs and wrists. Each bucket weighed about 40 pounds, which was awkwardly carried by a handle, pulling down on the torso. We tried to carry 2 buckets at a time to balance the weight, but if we planned for our backs to be in good shape for the long haul, we had to think about how to work smarter in the future.

I had an outside cat who’d moved with us, and after disappearing for 2 months, she reappeared on the farm. She just loved the warmth of the sunny hoophouse, curling up in the hay stack. The ducks were fascinated with her, and would cautiously follow her around. The piglets also loved to watch the cat, it was the cutest thing to watch the piglets watching the cat who was being followed by the ducks. The peace did not last long though, as the ducks had an intense interest in the bedding in the pigs’ pen, and we found a duck in there with the pigs one morning. Thinking nothing of it, we picked up the duck and lifted her out of there. The next day we found feathers in the pig pen, and our red piglet Rosie came running out of the pig hut with a wing in her mouth. Oh NO! We wrapped the outside of the hog panel pen with chicken wire, but the ducks kept getting in there, which was so exasperating and devastating. Each duck was so important to the success of our farm! Once the pigs had a taste for duck, there was no intervention, and the chicken wire kept getting wrapped higher and higher up around the pig pen. We never saw it, but it seemed the ducks were flying in or something. Finally, several days later we made a very tall fence blockade to keep the ducks in the back half of the hoophouse, away from the pigs. We learned this co-housing scenario was not as optimal as we’d thought it would be, but we had no where else to put the pigs in the deep freeze, so this had to work for now.

We were heating our home almost entirely with a woodstove, and began using it’s surface to cook on as well. We were indulging in pork like fiends, and homemade brats fried in a cast iron skillet over the woodstove- just even more so absolutely delicious! All the bones from our meals were simmered into rich stock, the gentle and consistent heat radiating up from the stove’s top seemed to make the bone broths even more supreme in flavor and body. Thickly shredded hashbrowns were fried in a huge cast iron skillet greased with lard, grits were cooked and melded with my goatmilk feta, duck eggs were gently sauteed, pots of heirloom beans simmered and softened, we even deep fried homemade tibetan momos on top of the woodstove! We weren’t cooking ingredients all grown on our farm yet, but we were getting a taste of how gratifying it was to live a life so connected to everything.

Christmas time arrived, and we met up with my family on Christmas Eve. Before the church service, my Dad, 3 sisters, Andrew and I had dinner together at a restaurant. It was the first time I’d seen my sister and her baby daughter after getting into some serious conflicts about our ethical disagreements over animal rights. The course my life was taking as a farmer, and a carnivore, had infuriated her and violently pushed us apart. The mood was tense between us, but I tried to focus on the positives, such as her baby being beautiful, healthy and an absolute joy. It was one sided though, and I felt repressed- I couldn’t be proud of or talk about our “baby” with my sister. She wanted nothing to do with our farm baby. When it came to ordering our entrees, she made a snarky comment about how I probably wanted to order something with meat in it. I tried to patiently explain to her that I didn’t eat meat that I hadn’t raised, but this differentiation fell on deaf ears.

Afterward the awkward dinner, we thankfully all drove separately to church for the Christmas Eve service. This church was the same one my Mom had made her spiritual home and where my parents had made many friendships through fellowship. The last time I’d been inside it was for her funeral, and I’d stayed away ever since that day. That night, her dear friends came over to hug us and share memories. It was a sad night, to try to relive our Christmas tradition without her. As “Silent Night” started playing and the congregation began singing, with gorgeous trumpet accompaniment from the balcony, I remembered her singing this hymn and how she would always hold her breath at the high points of the song, and I just started bawling. It was too intense, and we’d just been through such a huge year of hard work, stress, changes and dreams coming true, and I so missed her.

Christmas Day we went up north to spend a few hours with Andrew’s family, and we all had a lovely time together. I felt embraced and accepted fully by them, and this normal, functional and happy family experience was so comforting for me after the sentimental night before. When we came back home before dark, we checked on all of the animals as we did our chores and then settled in for the night. As I turned around from filing up the woodstove, Andrew was standing there, right next to me. He asked me to sit down, and got down on one knee, OMG!!!!!!!!!! His legs were shaking…..he asked me to marry him, to be his wife. This man’s sweetness, thoughtfulness, patience, kindness, tenaciousness, intelligence, well, he had totally swept me off my feet. Of course I said yes!