Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Thanksgiving at The White House Farm

We loved hosting Thanksgiving here.  Thanks to my ultra talented sister, we have beautiful pictures of the weekend.  You can check out the pictures of The White House Farm and of our Thanksgiving celebration.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Putting the Bees to Bed for the Winter

Boy did I tick my bees off today.   My goal today was to do a final inspection, feed the brood box if I needed to, apply Apiguard and install entrance reducers in both hives.  I opened the hives to make sure all was well and they really got angry. Both hives were buzzing.  They looked like they had plenty of honey.  The honey box on the first hive had two empty frames.  I switched the empty frames on the left side for two full frames toward the middle.  Upon a quick inspection of the brood box I didn't see any brood.  The honey there was much darker than the honey in the top box.  I treated the brood box with Apiguard and closed it up.

I knew that the second hive was busier than the first so I got Rob's help to lift the honey box out of the way.  It wasn't a good introduction to the bees.  With Rob's help, I slid the bottom board under the hive then went to open the hive.  The bees were not happy to see either of us.  By the time we got the honey box off the brood box, they were more than ticked.  Rob and I had both been stung several times and there was no way I could move the honey box by myself  so I just put the brood food in, treated with Apiguard and Rob helped me closed the hive again. 

Hopefully the bees will be in a better mood in the spring.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Preparing for Fall

Now that the chicken harvest is over chores at the farm seem to take almost no time at all.  The cow is out to pasture and only needs to have his water checked.  He often comes into the barn to have his nose and head scratched when I'm there.  The hens only take a few minutes twice a day. The cats are fed while I'm waiting for the cow's bucket to fill with water.  The dogs take much more time and energy than anything else. 

We took straightened up around the farm and got things ready for cooler weather.  We put the chicken tractors away in the barn.  We cleaned up the feeders and waterers and stored those.  The chicken processing equipment was all put away.  The hammock and lawn toys were stored. 

After straightening everything we took a walk down to the garden.  It's been several weeks since I'd checked on things there.  My attention for gardening waned as the summer turned into fall.  I let my broccoli flower and my lettuce bolt.  I didn't expect that I'd find anything but rotten tomatoes.  Instead, I was pleased to find five good sized bell peppers, several pounds of almost ripe tomatoes and a bunch of jalapenos.  The chickens were pleased to receive a dozen or so tomatoes that weren't fit for us to use in the house.  We even enjoyed several end of season raspberries as we stood at the garden and talked.

The corn behind the house is drying out.  Our rainy weather lately hasn't helped the process.  Right now the ground is much too soggy to bring the combines in to harvest.  I don't know that I ever paid attention to the different colors that corn can be.  Ours has gone from bright green to a light khaki.  At each stage of the growing process it also has a unique sound.  Now it's almost a percussion instrument like the brushes on a snare drum.

The bees were also getting ready for winter.  The last time I checked them the top box was about 70% full of honey.  I need to do the final winterizing for them this week.  That will require a trip to the bee supply store.

It was good to have this weekend to do some straightening.  The sun was beautiful, the temperature was mild, and the work was light.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Counting Them Down

Beginning April 1, 2011
0 chickens + 18 chickens (day old chicks) = 18 chickens + 6 chickens (day old chicks) = 24 chickens - 20 chickens (thanks to the neighbors dog) = 4 chickens + 100 chickens (day old chicks) = 104 chickens + 6 chickens (rooster and 5 hens) = 110 chickens - 1 chicken (cause of death unknown) = 109 chickens - 2 chickens (trial run) = 107 chickens - 17 chickens (harvest) =  90 chickens - 32 chickens (harvest) = 58 chickens - 4 chickens (sold live) = 54 chickens - 1 chicken (pecked to death) = 53 chickens - 22 chickens (harvest) = 31 chickens - 19 chickens (harvest) = 12 chickens (2 roosters, 10 hens)

Saturday, October 8, 2011

The Chicken Harvest Continues

We have now successfully harvested half of our chickens.  It's taken our trial run plus two harvesting sessions.  We are getting more efficient but we are liking it less each time.  Killing chickens is messy business.  I suppose the killing isn't really the messy part.  The feathers and the insides are the messy parts.  We find ourselves wishing for chickens with zippers.

We are extremely thankful for the chicken plucker.  I'm not sure how we'd manage without it.  It cuts the processing time and effort down considerably.  However, each time we use it I feel bad for the chicken, even though it's dead and doesn't feel a thing.  There's just something about the sound of the rubber "fingers" slapping against the chicken and seeing the feathers fly that seems disrespectful to the bird.

I even learned to process the chicken myself.  I never cut up a chicken before.  Until the farm, I only bought frozen boneless, skinless chicken breasts.  Yesterday, I divided three of the birds into their parts.  Breasts, thighs, legs and wings neatly placed in a pan.   For someone that hates touching raw meat, this is huge.  Bravery is something I can add as a useful tool for farming.

After this experience of harvesting chickens, I think it's safe to say that we will not be full-time chicken farmers.

Bee Keeping: Getting Ready for Winter

Today was one of those beautiful fall days that makes you forget the cold weather coming.  The sun was shining and the air was clear.  In celebration I put on my bee jacket and went out to take a look at the hives.   Rainy, overcast weather of the past few weeks prevented working with the bees.  To my delight, the bees were doing fine without my supervision. 

I pulled the outer cover off the first hive without difficulty.  The inner cover required prying on two corners before the layer of propylis broke free with a popping sound.  The bees knew what they were doing when they worked so diligently to fill all those nooks and crannies.  I was amazed at the changes in my hive.  What had been an almost vacant top box was now a bustling center of industry.

As I checked each frame I was thrilled to feel the weight and see the evidence of honey production.  Eight of the ten frames were being filled with honey.  Some of the honey was already capped for future use.  Both sides were filled equally.  The bees were working from left to right when facing the front of the hive.  The two last frames on the right were just beginning to see activity.

Rather than trying to pry the top box off the bottom box, I chose to check the top box of my second hive.  Prior to this visit my first hive had been smaller and less active than the second.  With the new burst of energy that the first hive was showing I wanted to see what was happening in hive #2.  Upon opening hive #2 I found a situation very similar to the first hive.  Much of the top box was full of honey.  In fact, some of the frames were overflowing and the bees had begun to add honey comb to the bottom of the frames.  These bees also worked from left to right , facing the hive.  The frames on the far right were somewhat built out but not nearly as full as the center frames.

After lifting out twenty frames and checking both sides my arms were too tired to attempt lifting the entire top box to check the box beneath.  Both top boxes were free of any brood and I'd like to make sure that the box beneath showed that the queen was working as hard as her bees.  I estimated that the box with the frames full of honey weighed about 80 lbs.   Lifting that would require a fresh start on a new day. 

If the weather holds checking the bottom boxes will be my first priority.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The Chicken Harvest: A Trial Run

This week we spent much of our time planning and gathering equipment for the chicken harvest.  Our local feed store had a chicken plucker that they loan to clients.  No one in our area had killing cones so we had to improvise concerning cutting and bleeding the chickens.  We bought a turkey fryer because it had a propane burner and a pot big enough for scalding the chicken.  We created a processing area in the barn, complete with utility sink, table, garbage cans and cooler.

After dinner this evening we went to the barn to get the harvest underway.  My job was to catch the chicken and hold it while Rob tied the feet and slit the throat.  We hung the chicken over a garbage can and waited while it bled out.  After the chicken stopped bleeding we dipped it in the water to loosen the feathers for plucking. 

Using the chicken plucker was a little different than expected.  Holding a dead chicken while it's pummeled by flexible plastic rods designed to remove the feathers was a little disturbing.  As with so many things around the farm, I'm sure it will get easier with practice.  The company website boasted that the plucker could clean a chicken in 30 seconds.  Obviously, the person operating the plucker had more experience than we did.  The website didn't mention how long it took an inexperienced operator to pluck a chicken using the chicken plucker.  I'm guessing it was still quicker than we could have done by hand.

Rob handled the evisceration of the birds while I waited to rinse and put them on ice.  I was so thankful that he was willing to do the gutting because I'm really pretty certain that the chicken harvest would have stopped never to be resumed if I had been given this responsibility.  I'm not sure what I would have done with ninety-three roosters but I wouldn't have been eating them.

We got two birds done before it got too dark to work effectively.  In the process we learned that we need a sharper knife.  We also learned that, despite the issues with the chicken plucker, we prefer plucked chicken to skinned chicken. 

Tomorrow we'll spend some more time harvesting our chickens.  It would be great to get half of them done.  We'll see how quickly we increase our skill.  Though the job was difficult and messy, we were able to do it.  There is a sense of accomplishment in that.  I think it's safe to say that we've done something that most our generation in this country has never done and will never do. 

Two chickens down, ninety-two to go.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Houdini Cow: Contained at Last

Last weekend we put up an electric fence in an effort to contain the cow.  We were both amazed at how easy it was to set up the electric fence.  Due to the ease of installation we really didn't expect the fence to work.  There was no way that something so simple could be effective.  As predicted, the cow blew right through the single strand without blinking an eye.  We weren't surprised and were glad that we had more wire.  We quickly added a second strand of wire to the electric fence.  The second strand caused him to slow down and protest the first time he came in contact with the new fence.  After an afternoon of fence training and two escapes, he seems resigned to life inside the fence.  This was a better result than we've had training any dog we've ever had.  

Throughout the week, T-Bone even seemed to be enjoying his new found, if limited, freedom.  He moved around the yard, into and out of the barn.  Every now and then, I've had to look for him only to find him laying under a tree or grazing in the back of his field.  What a relief it's been to have the cow where he belongs rather than standing on the front porch.  It's been almost a week with no wandering cow.

I wonder what will keep things exciting around here now.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Houdini Cow Strikes Again

Just in case you were wondering, yes, I did have to capture the cow again today.  He pushed out through the large sliding door in the back of his stall.  I've chained it shut.  Dare I hope that will keep him in?  Stay tuned for the next adventure of the escaping cow.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Houdini Cow: The Next Great Escape

The cow got out again. How an animal with no opposable thumbs manages to get free from so many different containments is beyond me.  This time he unfastened his halter clip from his lead.  Then he went strolling across the pasture, down the drive way, out the gate, across the street, and up the hill.  He looks like a normal cow but I'm beginning to think there's something extraordinary about him.  I'm wondering if a fence is just another attempt at the impossible.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Houdini Cow

This morning I spent several hours cleaning up after the cow.  When we talked about getting a cow to raise for beef I never really imagined all of challenges that a cow would bring.  I certainly never would have expected a cow that could escape from any type of confinement.  I never realized that having a cow was similar to having a really big dog.  I suppose I should be thankful that he can't dig.

Last night, the cow got tired of being in the pasture so he moved into the barn.  Unfortunately, he didn't go to his stall.  He wandered.  Our barn is part garage and part barn.  We park three cars there and use it to store camping, sports and farm gear.   The barn side of the building has a dirt floor.  The floor on the garage side is concrete.  The cow went straight for the garage side of the barn.  He knocked over trash cans, relocated bags of feed and helped himself to the chicken food.  He made a mess and then he made several more messes.

After discovering the cow loose in the barn, my husband shut the cow in his stall.  That strategy lasted most of the day.  At least the cow allowed us to believe that he was contained.  Late this afternoon we found the cow, once again, wandering in the barn.  The cow unlatched one side of the large sliding door in the back of his stall and squeezed through the gap the door made when he pushed against it.  The door is not an easy one for me to open.  As the cow will tell you, there are advantages to having a lot of extra wait to throw around.  Thankfully, we found the cow before he was able to make more messes in the barn.

The challenge now is to figure out how to keep the cow where we put him.  We've purchased a new cable and stake for the cow.  We have plans for a fence.  Hopefully, we'll find a way to keep the cow contained.  I sure won't mind if I never have to spend another morning cleaning up after a cow.  Cow messes are a lot bigger than dog messes.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Chief Chicken Catcher

I have a new skill to add to my resume.  Once again, my skills and abilities are being increased in ways I never imagined by the farm.  My most recent skill is chicken catching. 

Every so often one of our layers gets out of the hen house yard or one of the meat birds escapes from the chicken tractor.  That kind of escape has gotten to be a routine event.  The key to catching a runaway chicken is to surround and pin down.  If the bird has no escape route it will usually hunker down in confusion.  This momentary inactivity on the part of the bird makes grabbing it a fairly easy job.  Grabbing a chicken does require both hands.  The key when grabbing a chicken is to make sure the wings are folded next to the body and the feet and beak are facing away from the grabber.  If you have the wings down and the feet and beak away from bare skin there really isn't much the chicken can do to escape.  As long as you have a good grip, carrying the chicken and putting it where you want it to go is easy. 

A few weeks ago we transferred half of our meat birds from a single chicken tractor into a second chicken tractor.  Moving 50 birds from tractor one to tractor two helped me perfect my chicken grabbing technique.  Having the boundary of the tractor certainly made the grabbing easier.  Also having plenty of chicken targets increased the odds for success.  I was even able to share my chicken grabbing expertise with my brother in law.  While he doesn't have nearly as much chicken grabbing experience as I do, he learned quickly and, because of his help, the time and energy required for moving the chickens was much less.

I'm not really sure how I'll list my new chicken skills on my resume.  Chicken grabbing expert doesn't sound quite right.  In fact, it sounds a bit perverted.  Chicken catcher might work.  Chicken wrangler?  Chicken coordinator?  Chicken director?  Any other suggestions?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Escape Artist Cow

Over the last few months I've learned to expect the unexpected.  Farming has brought more of the unexpected than I ever thought possible.  I've gotten pretty good at rolling with the events of a day.  I've even begun to plan extra time for the crisis of the day.  Usually, I'm just waiting to see what the crisis will be.

This morning I thought I had things pretty well under control.  It was raining and I knew I'd need to give myself some extra time to check the food and safety of animals.  The cow was in the barn and I figured, with the rain coming down, he'd probably be happy to stay there.  I was wrong.

While I got dressed and gathered up the last supplies we needed for our first co-op meeting I sent the kids out to check food and water for all.  M7 came running back in almost immediately to let me know that the cow was in the garage.  If you've read other posts you know that the cow and I have a tentative relationship.  His enthusiasm for me is much greater than mine for him.  Also, when he gets out and wanders, he gets cocky.  He relishes the sense of freedom and isn't too eager to return to a stall or to be staked out in the pasture.  Chasing down the cow was not an event that I'd left enough time in my schedule manage and be on time to co-op.

Approaching the garage/barn, I could see the cow munching happily, his head buried in a bag of grower/finisher feed for the chickens.  He'd finished about 1/3 of the bag by the time I snapped the lead onto his harness and began to pull him out of the garage.  Though he was pleased to see me, he wasn't thrilled to give up his snack.  Thankfully, the promise of fresh grass appealed to him and he followed me out of the garage.  He jumped and frolicked his way across the front of the barn and into the pasture.  With not much more effort, he was staked down and ready for a day of munching.

We were a bit late for co-op.  My careful time management didn't include the capture of a cow.  Some things just can't be anticipated.  I'm still not sure how he got out of his stall.  That will be an investigation for a drier time.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Chicken Experiment: Calculating the Cost

The chicken experiment continues.  I've become a regular at the local feed store.  They know me  now.  I go in once a week and buy five bags of chicken grower/finisher.  $60.   A few days ago, my husband commented that he was sure we'd spent $600 just feeding these chickens.  It was a bad day for him.  He wasn't trying to be unsupportive, he was frustrated about other things.  He did vocalize a concern that is a universal plague for farmers.  How do you make more money than you spend?

As far as I can tell, the only way to make money by raising meat is to grown your own feed.  This is something we are looking into, but we aren't there yet.  We don't have the equipment or the knowledge.  It's possible that we might be ready to get this started next spring.  Right now, feed comes from the feed store.  The costs add up quickly.  When the chickens were several weeks old 250 lbs. of feed lasted a long time.  Now it lasts just a little longer than a week. 

Our chickens aren't the fast maturing type.  They will look like healthy, happy chickens until they are ready to harvest.  They won't have jumbo breasts.   They won't weigh eight or ten pounds at twelve weeks. This is important to me.  I know there are breeds of chicken that will grow faster and mature sooner than our chickens.  Those chickens concern me just like the use of antibiotics concern me.  I'm not against chickens for meat.  I'm growing 100 chickens for meat.  I have serious concerns about chickens developed for meat without consideration of the well being of the chicken.  A chicken that can't move isn't a healthy bird. 

The catch is that the sooner a chicken matures the less you have to feed the chicken.  The less you feed the chicken the less it costs to produce chicken meat.  Four weeks, at the rate my chickens are eating can mean $2.40 per chicken.  That's the difference between profit and no profit. It's huge. We've tried to cut our production costs by employing the chicken tractors.  I'm sure we'd be spending more by this time if we didn't have some "free ranging" going on but we are still spending a lot of money on feed.  Granted, at our production rate it doesn't make much difference.  We are really only hoping to cover our costs.  Given the costs of the chicken tractors we've produced, we have quite a bit of costs to cover.  It will take several chicken crops before we break even.  But if we plan to make this farm into a viable business we have to figure out how to make money.  Are we willing to produce factor chickens in a non-factory setting in order to turn a profit or do we maintain our principles and produce real chicken for real people?

As a consumer, it never really occurred to me to wonder what breed of chicken I was purchasing.  Today, as I picked up my last, I hope, bag of frozen chicken breasts I wondered what breed of chicken I was getting ready to eat.  Where did my chicken come from?  What kind of chicken was it?  Not just breast or wing but what color were the feathers?  What did it look like?  How did it behave?  A year ago it wouldn't have even occurred to me that my bag of frozen chicken breasts had feathers at one point.

It's said that when we know better we do better.  I'm not sure that I know better or that I am doing better but my perspective has shifted.  With that shift comes a sense of responsibility for my chickens and for my family.  If we lived in a city, I could charge upward of $3 a pound for my antibiotic, free-range, happy chickens.  Here in the country, I hope for $1.50 to $2 per pound.  We'll probably sell our chickens for $6 or $7 each.  Most will be in the four to five pound range.  My ethics say that raising the kind of chickens I raise the way that I raise them is the right thing to do.  My profitability says something must change.  We'll be tweaking and trying chicken production again in the spring.  Maybe with experience, we'll see an improvement in profitability.  Maybe with experience, we'll find a market to get top dollar for our birds.  Maybe with time, we'll find consumers that value what we are trying to provide enough to pay for our birds.  At the very least, I know my family will be eating happy, healthy chickens and I will be able to tell you about the color of their feathers and the breed of the bird.  I will be the most informed of consumers.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Life Lesson from the Cow

This morning, the chickens were fine but the cow was causing a ruckus.  Our cow is a five month old steer.  He probably weighs about 600lbs and continues to grow daily.  That's a good thing.  It's what we want for this cow but it also means that he's got more weight to throw around. 

I try my very best not to come in direct conflict with the cow.  I prefer to feed and water him after he's been set out to pasture.  On the rare occasion that I do have to handle him directly, I enlist help.  When I feed and water him, I work hard at establishing rapport.  I scratch his head, neck and ears.  I talk to him.  I make sure he has what he needs.  Our relationship is one of cooperative coworkers.  The effort has paid off and the cow loves me.  Sometimes a little too much.

My husband takes a different tactic with the cow.  He uses muscle to bend the cow to his wishes.  On occasion he uses a hammer.  His relationship with the cow is more of a master/servant situation.  I believe the cow knows this.  My husband thinks I'm crazy.

When I went out to the barn this morning my husband was cursing the cow. The cow had bolted and wouldn't allow my husband anywhere near him.  My husband blamed the cursed cow.  I blamed the hammer and the fact that no one appreciates being approached by an angry, cursing man.  Especially not prior to 6:00a.m.

I arrived on the scene after my husband had spent much effort and about twenty minutes trying to catch and contain the cow.  The cow was munching serenely in an upper part of the field.  My husband was trying in vain to grab the cow's halter.  As my husband would draw close the cow would trot out of reach and begin eating again.  My husband had tried talking to the cow, admittedly the conversation wasn't particularly pleasant.  He'd also tried sneaking up on the cow with no better results. 

In my prior dealings with the cow, I learned that I am not comfortable just grabbing the cows halter nor do I have the weight or strength necessary to manage the cow up that close.  I need a longer handle.  A dog leash works well in a pinch. 

I went to the barn, collected the leash and walked up into the field.  As I approached the cow, I talked to him as I always do.  I belief in rapport served me well in this situation.  The cow let me walk up to him, he offered his head to be scratched and I was able to attach the leash to his halter.  My husband took the lead with some choice words for the cow and led him to his pasture for the day.

Now, it may have been just coincidence but I think this is another example of catching more flies with sugar than with vinegar.  I wonder if the originator of that phrase had a cow.

A Life Lesson from the Chickens

Life on a farm is never dull.  It has a routine and rhythm.  There are certain things that must be done in a certain way at a certain time.  Then there are those things that could never be anticipated.

Yesterday, we had flash flooding in our area.  After dropping my oldest daughter off at school in the midst of a torrential downpour, I made the perilous journey home.  What had been heavy rain quickly turned farm land and drainage ditches into lakes and raging streams.  Much of the road had water flowing quickly over or down it.  Thankfully, our house was out of the flooding area.  I thought the weather was a minor inconvenience until I went to check the chickens.

We currently have 100 cockerels in a chicken tractor.  We are experimenting to see if we can cover our livestock costs by selling chicken.  We have the chickens in a pen that is moved daily to allow them time on pasture while, hopefully, cutting our feed costs.  The system seems to be working.

Upon arriving home yesterday morning, I planned to do a quick survey of the property just to make sure all was well.  The cow was in the barn because it didn't seem like a good idea to turn him out in the midst of a thunderstorm.  The hen house chickens were fine.  The chicken tractor chickens were sitting in three inches of water.  Not good.

Chickens, while not particularly attractive, do have a kind of dignity.  This dignity was wholly absent from my soaked and forlorn chickens.  They were wet and very, very unhappy.  Normally, it takes my husband and myself or my three oldest children and myself to move the tractor.  During the flooding, the three youngest and myself  were left to save the chickens. 

The rain was still coming down when I rousted the children from their dry beds and ordered them out into the field.  None of them are too fond of weather, nor are they overly attached to the chickens.  Yet, all three came without complaining.  It may be that they really weren't awake yet or it may be that after seven months they were coming to understand that some jobs have to be done whether we like it or not.  After several pep talks and lots of heaving and adjusting, we managed to move the chickens to drier ground.  It was hard but we did it.  My older daughter commented that the skills necessary for chicken rescue were something she never would have learned in public school.  I'm fairly certain that, standing there in the rain, my son and youngest daughter would have gladly traded the lesson for a warm, dry classroom.  The sense of accomplishment followed them into their day anyway.  It was something they were able to brag about and recount at dinner time.  Hopefully, knowing that they have the skill and strength to save chickens will stick with them for a life time.  The lesson that just hard things are possible is a good one to learn.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Our First Shindig

This past weekend we hosted a cookout on the farm.  The guests were friends, neighbors and many co-workers.  There were probably around 100 people in all.  I was amazed and pleased to see so many were willing to drive out to our place.  The shindig gave me a clearer vision for my dream of entertaining on the farm.

We rented tables and chairs from the local rental center, porta-potties and a bouncy for the kids.  We bought soda, water, juice pouches and beer.  We grilled hot dogs and hamburgers.  We poured out bags and bags of chips and carrots.  We sliced watermelon, tomatoes and onions.  We ate all of it and more than 12 dozen cookies.  We played horse shoes, boche, corn hole and hill billy golf.  We talked and laughed and relaxed under the big shade tree. 

In my dreams we do this every week.  We serve great food that is grown on our land to people that want to visit the country and spend time relaxing under the shade tree.  Each project we undertake and each thing we learn leads us closer to this dream.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Things the Farm Has Brought

Of course, moving to the farm has brought the obvious.  More outdoor space.  Thirty-seven acres.  A different house.  Longer driving distances.  New stores, streets, church, neighbors, life. 

The farm has also brought new opportunities.  Over the last six months there have been abundant opportunities to learn and opportunities to try new things.  Beside all those things there are small changes that the farm has brought.

I'm stronger.  A few months ago lifting five gallons of water and carrying it across the yard wouldn't have been possible.  Now, I do it daily.  I can also lift 50 lb bags of feed by myself.  I can't do much with them but I can lift them and move them.

I'm more determined.  I follow through on things in a way that just a few short months ago would have seemed demented.  Now it's just part of the daily routine.  If the cow gets out, it must be caught and put away.  There's no other option and the level of determination that it requires is something I never knew I had.  Just because something is hard doesn't mean I don't do it. It just means that it takes more time and effort. 

I have longer vision.  As a business owner, I know about setting goals and planning.  Up to this time my goals have been more immediate and achieving them required skills I already possess.  Now my goals are long term, years and years long.  We are planning for a future on this ground.  The skills that I will need to achieve these goals are skills that I don't have yet.  The learning curve is steep.  It's a good thing I have lots and lots of time. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Digging in the Hives

I went to a bee club meeting last night and talked with Randy, the man from whom I purchased my hives.  After my hive inspection a few weeks ago, I felt uncertain about disturbing my hives.  The inspector told me things were great and I should just leave them alone.  The less I messed with things, the better.

Randy disagreed.  He told me that in order to learn about bees I need to get into my hives.  How would I know when something was wrong if I didn't know what right looks like?  Randy had a good point. 

Today was sunny and hot with a light breeze.  Not enough to keep me cool in my suit but enough to give me a cooling breath every now and again.  The hive closest to the barn was busy as usual, not as busy as the one on the right but definitely active.  Bees were flying steadily on the flight path and several bees were visible at the hive opening.  I smoked the front of the hive and took off the outer cover.  There were about a dozen bees on the inner lid.  The spider that I'd seen inside the outer cover and killed during my two previous inspections were gone. 

Upon opening the inner cover I could see a build up of propolis on all parts of the hive frame.  The bees were active but not too disturbed by my presence.  I began by separating and pulling frames from the left side of the box as I stood behind the beehive.  Each of the frames showed some wax being drawn out.  Toward the middle of the hive there was a majority of capped honey cells.  After inspecting each frame in the top box I separated the top box from the bottom and placed the top box to the side. 

The bottom box was much busier than the top.  I began again by separating and pulling frames from the left side of the box standing behind the box.  Again inspected both sides of each frame and then returned them carefully to the box.  On several of the frames the bees had eaten the wax.  There was a brood pattern visible on most of the frames, I saw the larvae cells on a few frames and saw a few hatching bees but I didn't see any egg cells.   I also didn't see any drones or drone cells.  I did see the queen.  I closed up the left hive and then moved to the right hive.

The right hive was much more active on the outside than the left hive had been.  There were several dozen bees clustered in the bottom right corner as well as a steady stream of bees moving in and out of the hive.  I opened the outer cover to find a busier hive from the top as well.  No sign of the spider was found.  The wax in the top brood box was drawn out.  There didn't seem to be as much honey stored in this hive.  I did spot several drones in the top box.  In the bottom brood box there was a heavy brood pattern with a number of drone cells and more drones.  One cell looked especially large but since it was in the center of the frame and round not oblong or dangling, I decided it must be a larger drone cell. Again, I saw capped honey cells and capped brood cells.  I saw larvae but I didn't see eggs.  I did not see the queen in this box.  After pulling and inspecting each frame I replaced the box and lids. 

Next time I go to the hive I'll be taking paper and pen to record what I see on each frame.  I'll also be looking even more carefully for eggs.  Despite the heat, I enjoyed my time in the hives.  I enjoy the bees and find them absolutely fascinating.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Thankful Heart

I found myself telling Rob this week that while I wouldn't have made this choice, a farm, a rural life, I am thankful for where we are and what we are doing.  This time last year, our life now would not even have crossed my imagination.  If I'd gone to a carnival fortune teller and she'd told me that she saw one hundred chickens in my future I would have laughed at her craziness and called myself a sucker for wasting my money.  Yet, here I am with one hundred ten chickens and a cow.  Don't forget the cow.

While we live near a city that we lived in five years ago, because of our new location, many of our old activities are out of easy driving distance.  For me, forty five minutes is too far to drive for daily activities.  Especially when you multiply the activities times four.  We've are part of two 4H groups and we have orthodontist, sports and church within twenty minutes.  Of all the transitions, church has been the most challenging.

Our old church is a forty five minute drive.  We debated about returning there as members but the drive and the desire to become part of this community led us to try some congregations closer to home.  We've always been Presbyterian so we started there.  Several of the towns near us have small Presbyterian churches.  The one closest to us has services that begin at 8:45 on Sunday morning.  We put that church at the bottom of our list for potential churches.

I don't know about  your house but at my house spiritual warfare is at it's strongest on Sunday morning.  Tempers run short, outfits don't feel right, one shoe is always missing and no matter how early we get up we always seem to be running late.  If you've experienced a Sunday morning like ours you can understand why 8:45 is not appealing.

We visited two other churches near our home.  The congregations were warm and welcoming but our children more than doubled the youth of the church.  Not really what we wanted.  Definitely not what our children were desiring.  After skipping many Sundays and returning to our old church several times despite the drive, we decided that getting up early one Sunday was a sacrifice we needed to make.

Incredibly, we arrived at church early.  The congregation was small and welcoming but the best thing was the number of children.  A congregation of twenty adults had ten children, not including ours.  The kids loved the children's church time.  When they were served donuts all of them were hooked.  The four mile drive  was a bonus.  There has been a congregation in Watertown since the early 1800s. We've been attending the Watertown Presbyterian Church regularly now.  It feels good to join that community of believers.  It feels like a part of this life and this place.  It's certainly not what we would ever have expected or chosen before but now it fits.

So much of our new life is unexpected and delightful.  And for all the unexpected blessings my heart is truly thankful.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Possibilities: Vineyard and Winery

Our intention yesterday was to scope out a nearby farmers market and visit a local winery.  We made it to the sight of the market but no one was there.  I'm not sure when it's opened and we couldn't find hours posted so I'll have to do research on that.  It's not very encouraging to live in farm country and not have a certain, central location to buy all the produce that we can see growing as we drive around the area. 

We had better luck at the winery.  Wine Tree Vineyards in Vienna, WV provided us some delicious wine to bring home and new information to consider.  The tasting room at the winery is housed in the front of a restored farm house.  Upon pulling up to Wine Tree only the signs let you know you aren't in someone's fron yard.  Thankfully, the signs are clear and welcoming.  We had no trouble making our way to the front porch and into the tasting room. 

The vineyard at Wine Tree produces quite a few varieties of grapes on seven acres of mountain top land.  In West Virginia, law requires that the vineyard products 25% of it's own grapes.  The other grapes can be purchased off site with a preference given to West Virginia grapes.  In this area, there are no other vineyards so Wine Tree Vineyards purchase their grapes from Pennsylvania.  While we hadn't worn the right shoes to hike up the the vineyards we do plan to make another trip to see those. 

The wine at Wine Tree was as pleasant at the hosts.  We split the tasting duties.  Rob sampled the reds while I tried the whites.  We were both pleasantly surprised to find the winery had a number of drier wines.  Our experience with local wineries was that they lean toward the sweet or fruity which neither of us care for.  Wine Tree has two wines that are award winning on a national level.  Both were excellent.  We left the winery with a couple bottles of each plus a few to drink now. 

Our vineyard dream is still under construction.  This fall and winter will provide us time to learn more.  In the spring we'll plant our first vines.  After that, maybe Wine Tree will be buying their grapes from us.  We also realized that turning our front two rooms into a farm store or destination is a definite possibility.  It gives us lots to mull over as we enjoy a glass of Wine Tree wine on our farm.

Chickens: Phase 2

Our group of 100 cockrels is now four weeks old.  Yesterday, we spent several hours fashioning a chicken tractor for them.  The tractor is designed to house the chickens safely while giving them the opportunity to range on grass.  The idea is to create safe, affordable housing and cut the cost of chicken feed.  We are all for this because last week the boys ate almost 100 lbs of feed.  If they continue at that rate for the next eight weeks, I doubt we would break even on the chicken project.

Building the chicken tractor proved managable.  In less than three hours we had a completed pen.  Rob looked at several examples in books and online and we discussed how it would be used and the plans for moving it.  He hasn't done the research that I have and it helped me to explain it so we could both clarify what we were trying to accomplish.  We fashioned the tractor out of 12' x 2" boards.  The measurements of the entire pen is 12'x10'x2'.   It took eleven boards to create the entire tractor.  We used 48" chicken wire to cover the top and a portion of the sides and 24" chicken wire to complete the job.  Three panels of fiberglass roof cover the remainder of the top.  Other materials used were wood screws and endless staples.

Moving the boys was a little more challenging.  We tried to box them but they wouldn't stay put so we ended up carrying them out two at a time.  Thankfully there were four of us for the job.  We were all pleasantly surprised to discover we still have all 100 chicks.  It's hard to count them when they are in the the brooder.

We plan to keep the chickens in the tractor, moving it daily, until they are ready to harvest.  We hope that will be in about ten weeks.  The boys are all Rhode Island Reds so their finished weight should be between six and eight pounds.  

This batch is really just an experiment to see if we can do this.  We'll know better after harvest when we can figure our total cost including time involved for harvest.  If this is profitable and not totally repuslive to us, we'll make plans to  increase our operation for next spring.  As a small farm, we can process up to 1000 chickens without needing to deal with inspections.  I figure in a summer we can probably raise and harvest between 600 and 800 birds.  We'd need at least three more chicken tractors but it could be done.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Cool Clear Water

Living in the modern world I really don't understand what it's like to do without water.  I always enjoy the luxury of turning a handle and receiving safe water whenever I like.  Water is something I never give undue consideration because it is always readily available.

When we purchased the farm one of the concerns we faced was the lack of city water or well.  All the water on our farm is supplied by a spring.  Our cistern stores 2200 gallons of water but a family of six plus animals makes quick work of that water supply.  We were told when we purchased the home that the spring water was brought to the house through plastic pipe that had been laid within the last ten years.  Evidently, this was less than accurate.

Last week we ran out of water.  The spring was running fully but the cistern was empty.  Being new to the world of cisterns we'd failed to check it and were unaware that there was a problem until the problem became a crisis.  There's never a convenient time to run out of water but Thursday night seemed to be especially inconvenient.  Thankfully, neighbors came to the rescue and supplied us with the water we needed while we took measures to find and solve the problem.

Within a week Rob located and solved the problem and the water is flowing again.  We have plans to store more water for our animals in a location separate from the house cistern.  While we don't anticipate losing water again, we want to be sure we are managing our water properly for ourselves and our livestock.

I found myself wondering several times this week what it would be like if I couldn't get water with a phone call.  How did/do people without the resources manage when water is short? I find myself saying prayers of thanksgiving for every drop that comes through the pipes to help our entire farm flourish.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Farm Sounds

We woke this morning to the sounds of a cow mooing and a rooster crowing.  For the first time, our farm sounded like a farm.   Rob and I laughed several times this morning about how far we'd come in just six months, in so many ways.  Everyone in the family would say that the move has been a good choice.  We are happy with the property, house and people.  The scarcity of friends for the children and me is something we are all positive we will overcome.  We believe that the difficulties of keeping animals alive was our preparation for harvesting animals later.  All of us have learned that becoming attached is not a great idea.  We are ready for the next challenge.

And as so often happens, when you're ready the challenge comes.  For us it came in the form of five chickens, a rooster and a steer.  If you've been following our plan you know that we decided to shoot for self-sufficiency first.  For us that means making as much of our own food and food for our animals as possible.  The garden is producing, the bees are buzzing, the chickens are growing.  Our four remaining layers are about 13 weeks old.  The 100 chicks are a week old.  I wrote a few days ago that our plan was to prepare for two horses and a cow/calf pair. 

After further discussion and the purchase of a 1964 GTO, clearly not a farm vehicle, we thought it best to put all further animals and fencing on temporary hold.  Horses would not have brought us closer to being self-sufficient.  Their dietary needs would take us in the opposite direction from self-sufficiency.  The cow/calf idea, while I am sure it's in our future, is a commitment that I'm not ready to make.  Twice a day milking seems daunting, especially when I've never really milked a cow.  As we were making these decisions, another opportunity fell in our lap. 

A friend of a neighbor lost his job and must move.  He was looking to sell two dog runs, five chickens, a rooster and a 8 month old steer.  If we were interested in taking them all, he'd be happy to cut us a deal.  We purchased the lot for considerably less than we'd have spent on the dog runs if we'd bought them new.  We were trying to decided how to provide fencing for our puppies as they grow older.  The dog runs can be assembled as one large pen so that problem is solved.  Since the chicken massacre, we've been talking about increasing our laying flock and how to best go about it.  We now have a flock of 9 chickens, five that are already laying, and one rooster.  The cow solution was so elegant that I never would have thought of it.  One steer to raise for six more months or so and then meat in the freezer.  We are moving closer to self-sufficiency every day.

And so, with our new additions, the sounds on the farm were different this morning.  The birds are still singing, the bees are still buzzing but the sound track is definitely more farmish.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bees at Home

Yesterday, I painted the two brood boxes that I bought from Randy and Teresa.  They recommended that I have two brood boxes per hive in preparation for winter.  I'd prepared one brood box and one super so it was necessary to paint the new brood boxes and get them in place as soon as possible.

Today I visited my hives for the first time since unloading them on Friday night.  My task was to put the new brood boxes in place and put the inner covers in place.  Unfortunately, the weather barely cooperated.  It poured rain most of the day, clearing at about 3pm.  At 4:30, after the sun had been out for a bit to dry things up, I lit my smoker and went to the hives to take care of business.

The trip was a success.  I didn't linger or remove any frames.  I just put the boxes on the top, slid the inner covers into place, replaced the outer covers and moved out of range.  While the bees weren't as upset as they had been on Friday night when we'd placed the box, they were not the relaxed bees that I'd seen at Randy and Teresa's.  I also was upset to crush more of them than I had thought necessary.  My use of the smoker was not nearly skilled enough to make the bees do anything and brushing them aside just brought more out in the same place I'd cleared.  I'll be doing more reading about how to handle and manage my bees as I preform necessary tasks.  The next time I open the hive I'll try to do it on a sunny, sunny day at 2pm.  Maybe that will allow me to deal with fewer, more relaxed bees.

I did learn a lot from today's bee time.  I learned that my jacket leaves a lot to be desired as far as function.  The pockets aren't deep enough to hold my gloves, hive tool or long lighter securely.  One deep pocket on each side would be a much better arrangement.  Another feature I'd like on my jacket is a two way zipper that could be unzipped from the bottom and from the top.  It would have been nice to have my jacket opened while I was preparing the smoker and getting ready to approach the hives but because the zipper closes at the top and is covered with a Velcro patch it's tough to zip and unzip once the gloves are on.  I also learned that bringing the lighter and extra fuel for the smoker to the hives is a good idea.  I've got so much to learn about bees and the best way to keep them but I've made a start.

Bringing the Hives Home

Friday night, I became a beekeeper.  Beekeeping has been an aspiration of mine for several years.  I read books about bees and dreamed of the day that I'd have the freedom and time to try my hand at bees.  I spent several days over the last month studying even more, preparing my hives, selecting my bee sights and gathering my supplies.  I had everything but the bees.

Teresa and Randy Wagoner supplied me with the bees.  Their house was situated on a residential street with average size lots, the tenth house on the right.  From the front, other than the bee wrap on the mailbox, it could have been any house.  Entering the back yard you immediately realized that this was not an ordinary house.  This was obviously a bee house.  Seventeen or more hives were scattered at various places and levels around the lot.  Hives were stacked on benches, the barbecue pit, the bed of a pickup truck.  Bees flew with purpose in and out of the yard landing on the hives and disappearing.  The bees weren't interested in us.  They had jobs to do and they were too busy to pay attention to anyone or anything but the task at hand. 

Upon my arrival, Randy and Teresa gave me a crash course in bees and the art of caring for them even before we suited up.  I learned about the equipment they choose to use and why they like it.  I learned how they care for their equipment and harvest their honey.  I learned about the work and process of keeping bees.  I learned how to light a smoker.  I learned that Teresa was a lot more particular about the way the hives looked than I thought I would ever be.  Randy seemed particularly concerned that I'd never been around bees, known anyone that kept bees or seen a real bee keeper in action.  His last question to me before we suited up was, "How do you feel about stings?"

After we suited up, we went right to the first hive.  Randy and Teresa prepared two ten frame brood boxes for me earlier in the day.  The comb had been trimmed back evenly, the propolis had been scraped off the frames and brooder box.  They'd inspected the hives and were certain that the bees I was taking home were going to give me a good start, even though I'd begun so late in the season. 

The hives were overflowing with bees.  I was pleased to discover that the bees didn't freak me out.  I hadn't expected to freak out but then I'd never been in the midst of more than 10,000 bees.  The activity inside the box was so fascinating that I hardly noticed the bees that flew around my head.  Plus, Randy was talking as he worked through the hive showing me the differences between brood cells and honey cells, pointing out eggs and larvae, helping me see the difference between workers and drones, searching for the queen.  There was so much to see and learn. We moved ten frames from the Wagoner's box to mine then strapped the first hive closed and began working on the second.

The second hive was busier as the sun began to set.  Bees don't fly at night so as dusk moved into night, every bee was finding their way home.  We worked more quickly through this hive.  Randy was concentrating  on moving frames and locating the queen.  Since we'd been through the first hive, he didn't linger over identifying brood and honey, he did show me some drone cells that we hadn't seen in the first hive. 

We finished the second hive with just enough light to check out a hive that was building queen cells.  The hive wasn't a healthy one and the Wagoners were hoping to be able to save it.  They were expecting to have to combine it with another hive before fall in order to give the bees enough food and brood to last the winter.

As I drove home with two full bee hives in the back of my truck, I marveled at all that I'd seen and learned in those two hours.  Bees were undoubtedly the coolest animals ever. 

With a Peep Peep Here and a Peep Peep There

Our four survivors

Our farm is now home to 104 chickens.  We had our four survivors.  You can read more about our first chicken experience here.  On Thurday morning, we received the much anticipated call from the post office.  Our day old chicks had arrived and were making quite a racket.  Could we pick them up, please?

Boxes o'chicks
We arrived before the post office opened and waited patiently to be the first customers of the day.  The man at the post office commented that he'd never had any box o'chicks that were as noisy as ours.  We hoped that meant that they were healthy and eager to enjoy their new lives on our farm.

Our brooder seems to be working perfectly for the new tennants.  Six weeks in it before we move them to chicken tractors and then six to eight weeks before we harvest them.  It seems hard to believe that we'll be eating these cute little guys in the winter.  I suppose it will be easier as they lose the cute factor and move into chickenhood.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Chicken Plunge

When we began planning the farm chickens were the first animal on our list.  We intended to start with two dozen dual purpose birds, harvest some and leave the others for layers.  We began our project successfully in April.  At first I'd intended to mail order our birds but after asking questions at the local feed store I discovered that they ordered their birds from the same hatchery.  Instead of having our birds shipped, we decided we'd get them from the feed store so that we could have the fun of picking the chicks we wanted.

Bright and early on chick day we got to the feed store and picked out 18 chicks. My nine year-old son had been disappointed to discover that the feed store only had pullets.  He wanted roosters and so he was willing to wait until the next day when we could drive to Tractor Supply and hopefully find some cockerels or at least a mixed run and take our chances.  We were in luck.  Plymouth Barred Rocks were the bird of the week.  My son was thrilled! Not only was there the possibility of a rooster but the birds were black and white. 

We started our chicks in a make shift brooding area in the chicken coop.  I used some boards to box in an area under the heat lamp.  That worked fine for the first day and night but then the temperature dropped.  The second night they were moved into our sun porch in a plastic storage box that had been previously used for Christmas decorations.  The chicks stayed happily on the sun porch until they were two weeks old and the temperatures rose a bit so we moved them to the brooder in the chicken coop. 

The brooder area, a coat closet size space with a door, worked perfectly and the chicks lived there happily until they were eight weeks old.  At eight weeks the chicks were transferred to the coop and seemed to glory in their new expansive digs.  We'd succeeded in raising 24 healthy chicks to the stage where they were feathering out and turning into teenage chickens.

For a few weeks we enjoyed watching the mature feathers come in and took pride in the colorful flock that we'd raised.  Then disaster struck.  A neighbor's dog, that had always been penned, got loose and used her shot at freedom to devastate our flock.  Four chickens survived the massacre.

After cleaning up the carnage, we took stock of our chicken situation.  Free range chickens were not going to be possible on the farm.  We couldn't put our chickens in danger like that nor could we put ourselves or the children through the unexpected loss of so many animals again.  We understood that we'd intended to kill about half those birds but with a plan and for a purpose.  The dog's killing of the chickens had been unplanned and pointless.

As we researched and talked about possibilities we liked the idea of the chicken tractor, a movable home for chickens so they can be grass fed without the danger of predators.  After checking the hatchery website we discovered that we could order 100 meat birds for $35 and that those day old chicks could be delivered shortly after we returned from our scheduled vacation.   We were more confident of our ability to raise chicks, had a better understanding of how to use our facilities and felt that the increased temperature would make it possible to start the chicks in the larger room off the main coop.  We put in our order for the chicks and began to prepare for their arrival.

In a few weeks, the chicks will arrive and we'll continue the saga of the chickens but for now we've definitely taken the chicken plunge.  By purchasing that many meat birds, though admittedly we are hoping for a few dual purpose pullets that we could add to our remaining four layers, we've committed to harvesting them.  We are figuring in October we'll be developing a whole new set of chicken skills.

Priorities and a Plan

One of the things I've learned about the farm in the last few months is that it's easy to lose sight of the plan.  At small farm college, we were encouraged to come up with a mission statement.  That mission statement would help us determine what things we should and shouldn't do with the farm.  If it doesn't fit the mission statement, we don't do it.  Unfortunately, we haven't gotten a mission statement with enough focus to aid in decision making.  There are too many choices and acres in front of us and not enough education or experience.

Rob has been working at brush hogging the pasture in preparation to build fences.  The kind of fence we build will need to depend in part on the animals that we intend to keep in or out.  We are clear about what we want to keep out but not so clear on what will be kept in.  Yesterday, as we walked the pasture and talked about fencing options and locations, we realized a couple things.

First, we live in an area where there are generation farmers.  The families have farmed for years with the current generation learning from and building on the efforts of the last.  They own the same land, use the same barn and tractors, raise the same livestock and live in the same houses.  As newcomers it's not fair to us or them to expect that we will catch up in a year or two or ten.  We are homesteaders, starting from scratch with about as much experience as the first settlers had when Ohio was just a territory.  We start out with the advantage of a comfortable home and the ability to build a farm for pleasure not out of the necessity of survival.  As new farmers, we can't expect to have or do what our neighbors can.  Who would have thought that "keeping up with the Joneses" would extend to cows and tractors?!

Second, despite the myriad of options, we need to stick to our plan. Impulsively changing our plan will not help us feel more competent or joyful about our farm.  When we bought the property we were interested in owning some horses, building a vineyard, having bees, chickens and a dairy cow or goat.  Even though we have experienced cattle and meat goat farmers around us who have offered to help us, we aren't really excited about beef or meat goats.  The losses we've experienced with animals have let us see that raising meat animals probably isn't for us except on a small scale.

Third, there's no need to rush.  The farm isn't going anywhere.  The work isn't going anywhere.  We can research, learn, ask questions, plan, implement and move forward slowly.  A few months ago we decided that this first year was our learning year.  Reminding ourselves that learning takes time isn't always easy.  We both have a vision of this farm complete.  The truth is that we may never get there.  The bigger truth is that it will take years and years to get close.  For the farm, patience doesn't mean waiting.  Patience means moving forward, deliberately and with lots and lots of hard work.

After realizing these three big lessons, we have returned to our original plan.  We are preparing for two horses and a cow with her calf.  We'll be spending the next few months designing and fencing pastures with an eye on the future keeping in mind gates and expanding somewhere down the line.  We plan to use five or six acres for the pastures right now and keep our options as open as possible for the rest of the pasture land.  By September, we plan to have our horses and a cow for milking.

We are going to increase our chicken population and build two chicken tractors.  In October, we plan to harvest 80 of our chickens and keep the other two dozen for layers.  We are learning more about growing grapes and starting a vineyard.  We've picked out the area of the farm that we think is most likely for the purpose and will be working for the next nine months to get it ready for planting.  There's a huge learning curve for that project and we are slowly working our way up it.

It's good to have a plan and to keep it in focus.  We may not have a clearly defined mission but I'm sure that will come with time and hard work.  Everything here seems to depend on those two ingredients.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Farmers or Mowers

One thing we've learned about the farm this spring is that we are either waiting or scrambling.  Some things move at a set pace.  Feeding chickens is routine.  It happens several times a day and isn't determined by weather.  I suppose there are other jobs like that and we'll find them soon enough. 

So many of the spring time jobs are weather related.  The farmers in our area have been waiting for the rains to stop and every time the water lets up, even a little, they are scrambling to catch up.  We had a really wet spring and most fields didn't get planted until the third week of May. 

The weather didn't affect us quite as much as the farmers but it did keep us from getting started on the pasture as soon as we had expected.  Rob bought a brush hog for the tractor and has been spending most of his spare time mowing down the years of growth in the pasture behind the barn.

The yard is also extensive.  The previous owners must have mowed around seven acres.  A ridiculous amount of grass to manage if you have any intention of a life beyond mowing.  Several times I've asked Rob if our purpose here is to be farmers or to be mowers. Our intention is to be farmers but right now it seems like we spend a lot of time mowing.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Beginning Beekeeping

I spent several hours Saturday before last at the Happy Bee'Supplies, a local mom and pop shop that sells supplies for beekeepers.  The owners of the store have the shop set up in a building next to their home which is a challenge to reach.  You leave blacktop about four miles from the house.  Two miles out the road narrows to one lane and then the last challenge is the steep gravel drive.  I suppose if you aren't willing to face the challenges of the drive, you probably aren't cut out for bees.

Dave and his wife, Mary, gave me all the advice and guidance I was hoping for as I purchased the supplies for my first two hives.  I left the store with a box of hive parts, a new spotless white jacket with hood, gloves, a smoker and a hive tool.  I also left with the name and number of a couple, Teresa and Randy Wagoner, that agreed to supply me with two nucs upon my return from vacation.  The trip was an amazing success.

This past Sunday, I spent several hours assembling frames and hive boxes.  I have two supers but one of the brood boxes was missing a side so I was only able to assemble one of those.  I also assembled 40 frames.  Borrowing a friends air compressor and nail gun was such a blessing.  I think I'll be buying Rob both of those tools for Father's Day.  They made the job go much more quickly than pounding nails. 

Because of the mindless nature of the job, I was able to relax into the task.  There's something about repetitive work creating a pile of completed pieces that I find utterly satisfying.  In college, I did temp. work and often was assigned to do various factory assembly jobs.  The work wasn't challenging but there's something about doing the same thing over and over.  It allows you to strive for the perfect performance and see the outcome.  Assembling frames was like that.  I found peace and satisfaction in driving the nails straight, becoming faster in my assembly, working out the best system through repeated tries.  Forty frames flew by too quickly.  I look forward to needing more supers so I have the opportunity to build more frames. 

Several tips I have for assembling hive boxes and frames.  Get a nail gun.  Lay out all your pieces within easy reach.  Be sure your wood glue is made for exterior use.  When you begin to assemble the frames start with the super frames.  They are easier to manage because they aren't as deep.  It's good to have the practice before you try the brood frames. 

I'll be picking up the lids and the missing brood piece on Tuesday and asking the folks at the Happy Bee lots of questions.  Do I need a Varroa screen?  All the bee books say I do but it didn't come with the hive.  What about a queen excluder?  Again, the books say it's necessary but it wasn't included.  And do I need to have an extra super or two on hand, ready to go?  What if my bees are really busy?  I also don't have crown boards, that might not be important during the summer but I'm sure the bees will need it in October.  

I'm planning to paint all the boxes on Wednesday.  Two hives will be complete and ready to go before we leave for vacation. The bees are scheduled for pick up on Monday evening after we get home.  I've been dreaming of having bees for years and they are only a few weeks away. 

Small Surprises

This morning when we went out on the porch to feed the puppies we found an unexpected guest.  A barn owl had found it's way into the screened area and was seaching in vain for the door.  It would perch on the back of the porch rockers then launch itself into the screen. 
The owl was a tiny thing.  Not much bigger than the puppies.  Brown and gray with eyes as big as it's head.  I was surprised at how grown it looked for such a little package.  It had presence.  Perhaps that was because of the eyes.  They had focus. 

We opened the door and left it propped.  Before long, the owl found it's exit and flew away.

It's good to remember that there are nice surprises that happen everyday.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Loss of Farming

We've been struggling with change since we moved onto the farm.  And loss, lots of loss.

Any change brings with it a sense of loss, even a good change.  There are things we let go in order to move forward.  Those losses we expected.  What we didn't prepare ourselves for was the nature of nature.  We didn't prepare ourselves or our children for how things happen that are beyond our control and how you just have to roll with it.

Our dog ran away in our first month on the farm.  He was a suburb dog.  He'd gotten out before, roamed a bit and returned.  He got out here and just kept running.  I'm sure, to him, the fields looked like heaven and he was all for it.  We never expected that our change in location would bring that loss.

A friend donated a barn cat to us.  The cat disappeared only to be found dead in the yard a few days later.

We bought our daughter a potbelly pig for her 12th birthday.  The first time she took it on a walk, the pig like the dog smelled freedom, slipped his leash and headed for the dense undergrowth of the back pasture.  We haven't seen him since.

A neighbor brought us a goat that the mother was refusing to feed.  He said if we wanted to try and keep her alive we were welcome to her.  We bottle fed her for five weeks.  She seemed healthy and happy.  One morning my 14 year old daughter took the goat her breakfast and the goat was dead.

The neighbors dog got into our hen house and destroyed 20 of our 24 chickens.

We adopted two puppies from a neighbors litter.  One of the puppies was so worm infested that she had to be put down.

We are still wondering at the lessons we are supposed to be learning from loss.  My 9 year old son would tell you that he's learning that farming sucks.  My 12 year old daughter says the skin on her heart is becoming thicker.  My husband has chosen his lesson as one of immediate caring and thankfulness.  Be good to what you have and thankful for every moment because nothing is certain.  It's a good lesson. 

I'm torn in the lesson I choose.  It could be that we are to learn that animals and plants on a farm are just part of the cycle.  It's all here to be managed and cared for by us and we are to do our best.  But as with plants, animals have a season and are not permanent.  The other lesson could be that we should only invest what we can afford, be it love or time or money.  Investing more than you can afford into anything is not a wise choice. 

I'll continue to cope with the loss and look for the lesson.  I'll help my children look for their lessons in our daily life.  And hopefully, the puppies we have and the chickens we are expecting will bring joy and not loss.

Wordless Wednesday - Lilacs

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Self-Sufficiency vs. Inter-Reliability

Since finishing our farm class, we spent a lot of time talking about our goals and plans.  We added 24 chickens and a goat to the farm.  We bought a tractor.  We are moving forward and have clarified a general direction for that movement. 

We've settled on a 15 year plan for leaving corporate America.  In 15 years, theoretically, all of our children will be through college.  We are hoping that reducing our income at that point will be possible.  We are also hoping that our farm will have passed beyond the self-sufficient stage and be income producing.  It's hard to picture that right now, looking at so much empty space and wondering where we'll start in filling it.

As a result of the 15 year goal, we've decided to start with self-sufficiency.  This year, year 0, is devoted to education and small steps.  We are starting chickens, bees, gardening and now, a goat.  We are making our property ready for future endeavors.  We are trying to figure out what self-sufficiency means to us.  There are definitions and degrees of self-sufficiency.  As the Daycreek website states, in it's purest form, self-sufficiency is impossible.  Rather than shoot for the ideal, we are going to try to establish what we feel would make us self-sufficient.

Water we've got covered, sort of.  Our water is from a spring.  We don't make it but we don't have to pay for it either.  We do need to put in place a system for getting the water to the barn and storing it.  Right now all the water comes to the house.  That won't be adequate when we increase our livestock.

Our energy requirement is not something we are interested in addressing yet.  Electricity and propane are necessary evils at this point.   There has been talk about solar panels and a wind mill but that is just talk.  It's not in the top priorities.

Food is our primary focus.  We have chicks, 24 of them.  Some will be layers and some will be dinner.  We should be able to harvest the meat beginning in August and the eggs in October.  We also have a goat and while she could be dinner, she won't be.  We may use her to start a herd but none of us are certain that we could eat anything that cute.  My son is convinced that Dexter cows are our answer to the meat question.  My daughter thinks we need to become vegetarians.  It will be interesting to see where we fall out at the end of that debate.  The normal meat producing animals are all possibilities.  We have the required resources for growing just about anything.  Sometimes, too many choices are just as limiting as too few.

Our garden feels like a daunting task right now.  Last year I had a real garden for the first time.  It was a 3X4 square foot raised bed garden.  I enjoyed most of the experience but was thankful for the local farmers market and grocery store for food.  We had plenty of cucumbers, mint, basil, peppers and egg plants.  We also had plenty of green tomatoes that never turned red.  I learned afterward that putting the green tomatoes in a paper bag and letting them sit might have helped them turn.  I'll try that next time.

This year, I want to be more deliberate about the garden.  I want to actually grow most of what we eat.  That means I'd need to plant what we like and figure out how to  keep track of it all.  I know it's possible.  Other people do it and make it look easy.  I want to be one of those people and I don't want to have to work to figure it out.  One of the things I'm learning is that self-sufficiency requires lots of teachers.  Somehow, that interdependence seems like the opposite of self-sufficiency.  Maybe what we are really trying to achieve is reliance our ourselves and those we consider reliable.  So maybe, what we are after is inter-reliability.

As we move more deeply into the life on a farm, I want to enjoy the journey.  I don't want to loose my mind or become bitter and hard.  I want to great each day with a smile and a thankful heart for all the blessings God has given.  I want to know my neighbors and benefit from their knowledge and talents.  I want to share mine with them.  I want to be able to let a carrot grow to maturity without feeling the need to check on it's size. I want to grow what I can and use it to take care of my family.  I want to learn new skills.  I want to learn old skills.  I want to wake up each day with the man I love and be content with our place in this world.  I think that inter-reliability is definitely what I'm trying to develop.

Wordless Wednesday: The New Tractor

Monday, April 4, 2011

Chick Day at The White House Farm

We've been working the last few weeks to clean out our hen house and get it ready for our newest project on the farm.  After hours of shoveling, scrubbing and refurbishing, the hen house was ready for it's new tenants.

Today for school we calculated the cost, based on a local advertisement, for our chicks and our supplies.  We also figured out how much space we'd need for our chicks under the brood lamp.  After the math lesson, we took a field trip to the local feed store to pick up our chicks.  We'd planned to get a straight run of two dozen chicks.  I was hoping for Plymouth Barred Rocks.  When we arrived at the feed store we learned that they only had pullets.  That was  real disappointment for S9.  He had his heart set on a rooster and with a straight run there was a good chance we'd have gotten several. 

We also had to compromise on breed.  All the Barred Rocks were spoken for.  M6 fell in love with the little Rhode Island Reds and H12 selected two each of several other breeds.  We picked three extra Goldens and three extra Reds to round out our number to eighteen.  S9 is holding out for the roosters so we'll be traveling to two other feed stores tomorrow to search for a straight run or roosters.  I can already see that these chickens may not be the mixed group of roasting and laying chickens that I'd imagined.  We may have to wait for a later group in order to have any chickens to eat.  M6 has already announced that her red chicks will be great at laying eggs.  I have no doubt she's right.

After we brought the chicks back to the hen house, we spent several hours watching them closely.  The children were fascinated by chick behavior.  I think the biggest surprise was how active the tiny chicks were and how they bickered with each other.  They also liked the way their downy feathers felt.  I'm hoping the chicks survive the level of handling they'll be getting for the next few days.

I'm praying that everything works with the brooder and that the chicks stay warm through the night.  I'm also praying that we made the hen house as safe and secure as we think we did.  I never realized how much effort went into each and every animal on a farm.  Surely, sometime, something is going to be easy and take care of itself.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

An Unexpected Goat

Last Sunday, we had a surprise visit from the farmer down the road.  He has goats and horses on his farm.  One of the mother goats had given birth to twins and had abandoned one of the kids.  Normally, the farmer would have just let nature take its' course but this time he thought he'd offer the unwanted twin to us.  If we could keep it alive, we'd have our first farm animal for free.  I was out of town so my husband was responsible for this decision.  And upon my arrival home I got to meet the newest addition to our farm.

We are probably the most unusual farm in the state, home to a piranha, a potbelly pig and a baby goat.  I'm not sure that any of this fits in with our vision for the farm but how do you say no to children and orphans?

Truth be told, the goat is adorable.  A year ago I couldn't have imagined that I'd own a goat, much less a goat in the house.  I remember reading a blog a few months ago where someone was listing things they'd have done differently on their farm if they knew then what they know now.  One of the bloggers statements was something to the effect of, "I wouldn't allow animals in the house."  Having had a variety of house pets I thought that was kind of strange.  Now that I have a goat in my kitchen, I'm thinking that she might have been very, very wise.  Yet, how do you put a tiny baby goat out of the house knowing that the kid requires warmth and security for survival? 

Our hope is the goat will give us all a glimpse of the responsibility and energy required for real farming.  Our hope is also that this baby will survive.  We don't have a stellar track record with animals on the farm.  It would be good to have a positive example of our husbandry skills.  So far, so good.  We've made adjustments but she seems to be thriving.  Only time will tell if I'll have a goat in my kitchen this time next year but for now, it's working.  I'm not sure if that's good farming practice but it's what works right now.