A picture of Farmer Matt and our oldest son on our first visit to the farm. We were imagining all the animals we would have roaming around grazing on grass or taking a rest under the shade of this tree. Since then we have seen a great horned owl several times in these back pastures and now with much help from friends we are only about a week away from having the sheep onto these pastures for the first time.
What once was a vintage hay trailer has been turned into a mobile chicken tractor for our 150 Golden Sex Link laying hens. We liked the simplicity of our old chicken tractors ( City Chicken, Country Chicken) but we quickly learned that they didn't move easily over our rolling and rocky pastures. We wanted more eggs to sell to our community, so we were going to need a larger chicken tractor. Why do we bother moving the chickens around so often? Access to fresh grass and bugs makes deliciously rich deep orange yolks, and a more nutrient dense food. I would also like to think it makes for happier chickens and ultimately a more sustainable farm not being as dependent on feed. So the better question is why don't all chickens have access to fresh grass and bugs?
The first day of work Farmer Matt had some help from a couple of our favorite farm boys, but he was quickly abandoned for a more interesting pasttime on the farm like making and jumping in mud puddles. Using the Hay Trailer as a foundation will really make a huge difference in where we can bring the tractor but also how much labor we will have to put into constantly moving them around to new pastures. The current chicken tractor has to be moved slowly and carefully in order to not crush any chickens and if you hit a patch of rocks everything has to stop in order to lift the tractor over the rocks or to physically remove the rocks in some cases.
Another thing we wanted to improve upon for ease of use were nesting boxes that you could access them from outside the chicken tractor. This will make collecting eggs that much easier, and when you are collecting over a 100 eggs a day every little bit counts.
One thing that Farmer Matt added (that I love) is folding roosting racks that hook onto the ceiling. This is especially handy when you are ready to clean the chicken tractor. One of the designs we looked at had an open floor so that the chicken manure would go directly onto the ground but it wouldn't work with the hay trailer we had found and we were worried about predators having easy access at night.
The last couple of details were two sets of doors, one for the chickens and one for humans. Of course we provided a nice little removable ramp for the chickens to have access to all the green grass and bugs. We close the chicken door at night in order to keep them in the tractor for moving the next morning. We're pretty happy with the results, so are these two little future farmers who did quality control inspections on every inch of the tractor. We are going to be moving the chicks into their new home very soon because they are quickly out growing their enclosure in the hoop house. We need to take advantage of the warm temps in the hoop house and get some vegetable starts going pronto!
Wednesday nights screening of American Meat at CWU’s S.U.R.C. Theater was well attended by students as well as local farmers and ranchers. The film covered issues that concern conventional farmers as well as organic farmers and the push/pull between the two worlds, but mostly the content focused on the instability of our current food system and what this means to our national security and economy. Interviews with conventional poultry and hog farmers reveal how agriculture has fallen to the hands of large corporations that act as the middlemen of the food system, leaving the farmer and the consumer to struggle with the economics and quality of the whole system. Much like our current health system, it is nearly an impossibility for the consumer or the producer to receive a fair deal while there is a line between the two parties whose goal and obligation it is to maximize profits for its shareholders. Under this model, the farmer doesn’t receive a fair price for his labor and the consumer doesn’t receive a quality product. Meanwhile, taxpayers are unknowingly picking up the bill for this system in the form of crop subsidies that benefit the corporate agriculture businesses more than the tax paying consumer/producer.
The film spent a good amount of time with Polyface Farm in Virginia, the home of Joel Salatin and his family. They have become an icon of local food and small farm movement with their back to basics approach to production and direct to consumer marketing. As a result, Polyface produces a superior product over the conventional system both in taste and nutrition without government subsidies or large fossil fuel inputs. The film also presents some statistics regarding what it would take to move all of agriculture back to a system such as Joel’s, a system that was essentially well established before World War II and points out that the average age of farmers today is 57 meaning that fewer and fewer young people are going into agriculture as a way of life or a means to support their family. To get away from what agriculture has become today it would be necessary for a portion of americans to move into agriculture but also for consumers to find it beneficial to pay more for quality food, a tough sell for many americans who struggle to make ends meet. The bottom line is that it will be a grassroots effort for americans to impose a new food system for their country by getting involved. More small farms need to be founded outside of all metropolitan areas rather than crops and livestock being produced on large farms, in concentrated areas and being trucked around the country every step of the way to the consumer. We currently spend 10% of our income on food as a nation while other developed countries spend 40% and until the economics between subsidies and land issue are resolved, it is unlikely that americans will be able to make the tough decisions to pay more for quality food produced by small local farms.
Finally, Tip Hudson offered an article written by Jerry L. Holechek titled “National Security and Rangelands” where he explores what it will mean to reach peak oil, a threat that is likely not far away. He considers this more threatening than global warming and terrorism in regards to our security as a nation and our way of life. The costs associated with globalization, transporting foods and goods around the globe on a constant basis, farming less at home and depending heavily on imported crops while we devote more and more range and farm land to sprawl and preserves will leave us kicking ourselves if not starving, leaving americans holding the bill for our current choices in agriculture.
Or what keeps us moving might be the better question to ask. When starting a farm was just a small glimmer of an idea, we had a friend over for dinner that had just started working on a farm for the first time. She said her favorite thing about farm work was all the real problems that need to be solved throughout the day. There is no busy work on a farm, it all serves a purpose. We thought we understood at the time and it sounded appealing but we didn't really grasp how much of our days would be filled with problem solving. This has partly to do with us learning how to farm at a rapid pace while at the same time building infrastructure on the farm, but it also seems like it will soon feel like the normal state of our lives as farmers, whether it be five or fifteen years from now.
I'm not complaining because I love a challenge, especially one that involves research. Matthew (or Farmer Matt as I sometimes call him) is more motivated by learning through trial and error after some research. He has more practical knowledge than I do from years of teaching himself and learning on the job a huge array of skills. Useful skills like carpentry and mechanics all the way to the other end of the spectrum, things like how to procure taxidermy mountain goats on a deadline. So he can start a project with a basic idea of how he thinks he wants it to go and improvise. I on the other hand will want to research all problems or projects before we make a move, finding multiple resources and narrowing down which way is the best or at least what I think fits our farm the best. Having these two very different approaches makes for a ridiculous amount of talking and compromising but ultimately I think this dialog keeps us moving forward. I try to learn from his practical knowledge and admire his willingness to fail and try again until he gets something just right. While he is open to my research and opinion even if it's partly based on intuition.
I get the same questions all the time "Do you guys have any farming experience or did you go to school for farming?"- The answer is no, no we did not. We met in art school and we have spent the last 12 years remodeling two houses, starting a small business, and obsessed with cooking from scratch and growing our own food. We felt confident we could handle the challenges of starting a farm because this is not the first challenge we have faced together. Our first challenge many years ago was Matthew teaching me how to drive stick, and I admit I was surprised he still wanted to marry me after all the weeks we spent in empty parking lots . One challenge that we still haven't figured out is our need for more hands on the farm. With three small boys under five there is just not enough time in the day. We are lucky to have found an intern for our first season who is interested in starting his own farm, so the fact that most of this first season will be all about building and learning is something of a plus. We also will have to learn to just let go of some of the more house related chores and learn to live with a fine layer of dust and dirt on everything. Luckily the boys don't seem to mind.
It's amazing how many resources are out there for new farmers, from blogs and YouTube videos to more traditional forms like books, small publications, county conservation districts and state extension offices. One of our favorite publications right now is The Stockman Grass Farmer monthly newspaper. It has regular articles written by farming iconoclasts like Joel Salatin and Allan Nation, and they work hard to stay at the forefront of current farming issues and finding practical solutions for small farmers. They don't have an online subscription which is refreshing but we also find the many online resources a huge source of inspiration and amusement. So if on a whim you are contemplating growing your own grains and threshing them by hand like we were, there are hundreds of YouTube videos out there that show you the process in excessive detail. A couple years ago I would have told you YouTube was just a place for cat videos and performance artists who need an audience, but today I am in awe of what you can learn from it.
Then there is just the beauty of what surrounds us. The small bits of natural treasure that the boys collect and bring to us or being dumbstruck by the enormity of the night sky. It keeps us moving forward on those days the hoop house is being battered by the wind and Lulu has gotten into the hoop house and eaten all the eggs.
With the ground still partially covered in snow and ice and our brains a buzz with plans for spring we have turned our energy towards food and turned our kitchen into a science lab. Cultures are bubbling and ideas are percolating here on Green Bow Farm. We have tried our hand at many different types of fermenting in the past but this winter we have every extra inch of counter space devoted to our fermentations. We have a new batch of Kombucha going which we have made in the past but this time we are trying out a dehydrated scoby (kombucha culture) that we haven't tried before, and a continuous brew method we found on Nourished Kitchen. This is the same great blog we found our recipe for Cultured Veggies for Flu Prevention, which I would love even if it didn't make any health claims because it has a subtle sweet and sourness that works with so many different kinds of food. I might even like it more than sauerkraut. The recipe called for whey which I had never fermented with but we happened to have some from our first batch of yogurt. The whey is a byproduct from the yogurt making process which I've seen used in many recipes but its also used as a health food for people and animals. When we start to milk our sheep and have a large amount of whey leftover from making cheese and yogurt we will definitely be feeding the whey to the animals. It's another way to create a circle of sustainability on the farm and be less reliant on feed that has to be bought off the farm.
My favorite dinner right now is a big bowl of brown rice with some baked squash, a heaping spoonful of the cultured veggies on top, and then throwing a mixture of caramelized bacon, onion, and hazelnuts on for some extra goodness. The boys favorite from our fermentation experiments has got to be the sourdough pancakes that have just a tiny taste of sour in them and we can make them on days we aren't making bread, keeping the culture going and the house full of that great sourdough smell. We still haven't made cheese yet but I am sure there won't be any complaints when those experiments start to fill the fridge.
One of the things that first got me interested in fermentation is the slowness of the process, the sometimes long term experiments that don't always work out because of the many variables but when they do they are incredibly satisfying, a lot like farming. My first real understanding of fermentation came when I got a copy of Sandor Ellix Katz's book Wild Fermentation and now 10 years later my head feels like its going to explode with ideas when I crack open his newest book The Art of Fermentation, an almost 500 page guide to fermentation possibilities from every corner of the world. There is a quote from The Art of Fermentation about culturing food that says a lot about the importance of fermentation but I think it also says something about the current rise in young people getting involved in farming, "the word culture comes from Latin cultura, a form of colere, 'to cultivate.' Our cultivation of the land and its creatures-plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria- is essential to culture. Reclaiming our food and our participation in cultivation is a means of cultural revival, taking action to break out of the confining and infantilizing dependency of the role of consumer (user), and taking back our dignity and power by becoming producers and creators."
When our to do lists started to need spread sheets because there are lists within lists, I could almost start to feel the ice melt and the grass begin to peak through the snow in anticipation of spring. It's a mix of excitement and worry. I know we can grow vegetables, but will we be able to grow on such a large scale and with such different growing conditions than what we are used to? I know we can produce large eggs with rich orange yolks, but will we find a market for them all and will our plans for a new chicken tractor work out? The possibility that we will get grants for irrigation and fencing are looking promising but will we be able to juggle all of the work that goes into those kind of projects on top of our daily farm chores? Will we get the rest of the fencing done before the lambs arrive? The question marks are endless. Luckily we have a couple of distractions in the form of puppies who are spending an increasing amount of time together now that the weather is slightly warmer than last week when it dipped down below 10 degrees several mornings in a row. I really can't get enough of watching Bella run at Lulu full steam, sometimes jumping on her head, and Lulu wrestling or batting at her with her giant paws with just the right amount of gentleness as to not hurt her.
A couple other distractions have been talking to a graphic designer about a logo for the farm and interviews for our farm internship. Both things have let us step back from our lists and all the small decisions that need to be made in the next couple of months and look at big picture ideas. Why are we doing this? It's definitely not to get rich or to fulfill some lifetime dream of living on a farm, although we are enjoying that part of it. It's really all about feeding people and feeding them the same kind of food we want for ourselves. The most nutrient rich food possible that enriches the earth and doesn't just deplete it's resources.
It's a pretty gutsy move to think we could do this without much experience but if not now, when? We could spend years working on other peoples farms to learn and make the mistakes that we will make on our own farm. It might be a less painful proposition but it would be less time that we would be getting to know our piece of land. Less time to watch our tiny orchard of apple, pear, and peach trees grow.
It has been almost six months since we brought Lulu home to begin training her as a guard dog for the Sheep. She is a couple months away from turning one year old so still a long ways off from being out of the puppy stage but her guarding instincts are strong.
Lulu has been rather lonely since the Sheep started breeding with the Ram and she started roaming off of the farm to play with the neighbors dog Dora. We have been thinking about getting a Border Collie for awhile to help with herding the Sheep and to have a companion for Lu, but the ones we found were either gone before we had a chance to see them, or just bad timing. When we put the word out that we were looking on our local farm exchange we almost instantly found some a couple miles down the road from us. We went to see them on New Years day and picked Bella out of the three puppies that were left from the litter. Bella is 1/8 bulldog which the breeders said would mellow out the Border Collie breed a bit. She was born just a couple weeks after Malcolm so still incredibly puppy like and too tiny to be outdoors by herself in this icy wonderland we have on the farm right now.
Luckily her and Lulu seem to becoming fast friends. We want her to be mostly an outdoor dog so we get her out as much as we can and we introduced her to all the other farm animals yesterday.
We will be moving the Sheep constantly come spring so we are hoping to start the almost two year training process soon which will make our intensive rotational grazing system that much more closer to a reality. We would also like to add on a couple of Cattle to make the most holistic grazing system we possibly can but for now we have two puppies to train, chicken tractors to build, and our first lambing season to look forward to while keeping our family and growing farm warm and fed.
We finally decided on a name and this one has been a long time in the making. Our oldest son called it Green Farm from the moment he first saw it because of the tall Green house that would eventually become our home. Maybe he also somehow knew that what we were really coming here for was the many pastures of green grass that would make a good home for our the animals. For awhile he called it the Green Windy Poopy Farm after a windy walk through the back pastures, but we decided it didn't really flow off the tongue very easily. We wanted our younger son included but he was so young that he had no opinion on the matter. His middle name is Archer so the name Green Bow was born. It seemed fitting because a bow made from green wood is strong but more importantly flexible. In the coming years we will be green and always trying to educate ourselves, but our ability to adapt to the needs of the land and the animals will be what really sustains us.
Our big move here was just a couple days after summer solstice and somehow we made it through two wildfires, many days over 100 degrees, countless missteps, taking on projects we weren't quite ready for, and bringing a new baby into the world, all unscathed. Winter Solstice feels like the perfect time to celebrate all that has happened and start looking forward to the longer days and of course our first full season as farmers. We will celebrate with a bonfire, a slow cooked meal, while we hold our little ones tight and welcome the sun back into our lives.
It has been almost a year and a half since we started hatching this crazy plan to start growing food for other people on a rocky, windy, little piece of land. It wasn't until this week that everything started to finally feel like it was coming together and our ability to make a living off the land became a little closer to a reality. Just days after we tried Icelandic Sheep meat for the first time(which was delicious!) our first farm raised Chickens laid their first eggs. Besides being excited about the idea of all the farm fresh eggs we will be eating in the weeks ahead it also felt like it marked the beginning for us. Even though its still months or even years before we are producing the quantity of food we would like and need to be sustainable, it felt like a small but significant moment to celebrate in what has been months of fencing, building, and acquiring equipment. We also found a vintage hay trailer on our local farm exchange that will be perfect for building out a much larger pasture raised Chicken tractor for our laying hens. After building our existing Chicken tractors we decided they would be difficult to move over the more rugged back pastures where the laying hens will be a part of our rotational grazing system. With our hatchery catalog in hand we eagerly put an order together so that come this spring we will have 150 laying hens in the trailer and we will turn our current Chicken tractors into homes for pasture raised broilers. Our first flock of 50 Red Ranger broiler chicks will arrive at the end of January and depending on how it goes we may have even larger flocks throughout the spring and summer. In addition to that we will be raising a small flock of Bourbon Red Turkeys that will be ready in November.
Almost as exciting are the pictures we received of beautiful baby booties made from our very own Sheep's fleece. It was the very first fleece we sold and of course the first thing we sold off the farm at all which was also thrilling. Since we did the transaction through Paypal we don't have a dollar bill to frame but maybe we could frame a picture of these sweet little booties instead. It got me thinking about setting up an Etsy page to sell other nonfood products that we could make on the farm. We have beehives that we will eventually get beeswax from and we would love to turn it into something unique and special to our farm, and Matt has also been making a huge array of household goods from reclaimed wood and clay over the last couple of years. My own contributions would probably be some photos of the farm and something felted since we have all of this beautiful fleece coming to us twice a year. It was fun to spend the last year or so dreaming and planning but it feels even better to see all those plans come to life.
The booties were made by Ashlyn Maronn who is also just starting up her business. The entire shoe was made out of our fleece except the laces. The body of the shoe was made from one Sheep's fleece and she used another for the tongue of the shoe. Ashlyn said the Icelandic Sheep fleece was incredibly easy to work with compared to other wool she has used. I am excited to work with Icelandic Sheep wool because there is such a huge variety of color even within one fleece.
I have to end the post with a picture of our puppy Lulu who is still missing her Sheep and spends a lot of time wandering around the farm looking for someone or something to play with. She is a working dog but its hard not to want to bring her inside and snuggle up with her on the cold snowy days.
When we went to pick up our Icelandic Ram from the breeders they offered us a second Ram that they couldn't use for breeding because his horn was growing right into his eye. He was a young Ram so we decided to use the opportunity to learn more about butchering and finally get to try the Icelandic Sheep meat we have been hearing so much about. There happened to be a Lamb butchering class at Farmstead Meatsmith so Matt headed over to Vashon Island to learn as much as he could. Farmstead Meatsmith is a small family run business that teaches small farms and homesteads how to harvest and butcher their own livestock. Last season Matt attended a Farmstead Meatsmith class on Pig butchering that was hosted at a small farm in our area and he was able to learn a lot about their Nose to Tail philosophy. The philosophy of Nose to Tail is a fairly new term but like most things its roots are much older and go back to how everyone used to farm and eat. The idea is that you use everything that you harvest from an animal and not let anything go to waste. It's partially about being sustainable but it also says a lot about the respect you have for the animal that will feed your family.
The Ram was not here long but he did spend time with our puppy Lulu who still doesn't like being in the paddock with the other Ram and Ewes while they are breeding. To be honest, when Lulu was in their paddock she spent a lot of time trying to play with the Ram and he let her know immediately how uninterested he was. The other Ram on the other hand tolerated Lulu and her puppy play.
Another project we added to our list was 70 free bales of old straw we found on the local farm exchange. Of course it was all loaded and unloaded by hand by Farmer Matt, so not entirely free but totally worth it because we now have plenty of straw for mulching our enormous garden, filling the hoop house while the chickens winter in there, and we are going to use some of it to make bays for piles of compost which will also double as a small windbreak for the garden this spring when it gets incredibly windy around here. We are anxious about our first full season of growing vegetables here because everyone we have talked to said it can be incredibly challenging. We have planted trees that in the future will help us with the wind but for now we are hoping the right placement of the more delicate vegetables in the hoop house and heartier vegetables and root vegetables outside of the hoop house will help.
The most exciting new is that the hoop house is done and the Chickens are moved in after so many months of work. The doors were covered in plastic thanks in part to wiggle wire which made this diy hoop house possible and the finishing touch was Farmer Matt's mobile Chicken roost. He made one that could fold up and be stored easily up against the side of a building once spring comes around and the hoop house is used for gardening. Moving the Chickens into the hoop house was a two day and night process, which included Farmer Matt running around at night with a headlamp pulling Chickens out of trees and putting them in their new home. For some reason they have a hard time being moved. Even with their food, water, and nesting boxes all being in the hoop house they still didn't quite get that it was their new home and they would wander all around the yard looking for their chicken tractor. Things really are slowing down around here but we were finally able to find some local help so we are going to try to get another pasture fenced in before everything starts to freeze. This year the winter has been more about rain than snow which is unusual for this area. We really want more grass for all of our Ewes to graze on once spring comes around so the strange weather pattern is working out in our favor. For now its all about looking forward while at the same time trying to make the most of the resources we have available to us in the present.
To begin to list the things that we are thankful for this year feels like a daunting task. There is an equally long list of challenges we faced but we wouldn't be facing them if we weren't given this extraordinary opportunity to pursue the dream of starting a farm. Every moment on the farm is full: full of chores to do, food to cook and share, animals to feed and care for, conversations about growth and discovery, and last but not least full of three little boys and all the joy and challenges they bring to their family.
We are so thankful for the three healthy boys that fill our days with their creative energy, love for one another, humor, and for now seem to love the farm as much as we do. Well, the newest one hasn't had much of an opinion yet but he also doesn't seem to protest much either.
We are thankful for all the rain and snow we are now experiencing after one of the driest summers on record. Thankful that we can look up at Table Mountain and see it covered in snow instead of smoke and fire. Thankful that the surrounding hills that were turned completely black after the Taylor Bridge fire are now mostly covered with lush green grass. Thankful for all the lessons learned even the ones that were gut wrenching. I'm personally thankful for a quiet day to cook with my favorite farmer and sit down and share all of our favorite dishes with the wee ones and their grandmother. I am also thankful to be able to share our experiences with all of you and hope you and your family are enjoying the holiday.
I had this absurd notion that once the baby arrived everything would calm down and we would have many days of quiet and rest. There is no such thing on a farm, especially one with so many animals depending on you every day. Our family of 4 has now become 5 and we're all in love. It's as if the new little guy can sense how busy we are and has decided to be the most easy going baby he possibly can be. He spends most of his days eating and sleeping while we juggle how to get everything done both inside and outside of the house. We have been fortunate to have Matt's mom here for the last several weeks so now that I am all healed up and she is headed home the real test begins.
We have been playing around with the sheeps feed and mineral supplement, because of where the Icelandic sheep originate they do better with a much higher amount of minerals than most sheep. The more we learn about natural care of the sheep it seems as if you can keep their reproductive health at its optimum, prevent illnesses and parasites all through the right balance of minerals. Our fingers are crossed that they're all healthy enough to breed and that we'll have many lambs running around the pastures come spring. All due to the second new arrival on the farm.
The Ram made its arrival at the farm about a week after we came home from the hospital. He is at least twice the ewes size and with his huge coat of black wool a formidable presence on the landscape. Their first moments of being introduced were like a small dance, the flock fled his approach and then slowly approached him as a group and fled again. This little sequence was played over and over again. They eventually got used to each other but Lulu, our pyrenees puppy, is still skeptical and doesn't want to be in the temporary paddock we set up for the Ram's time on the farm. Luckily there is still a large part of the paddock that Lulu can have to herself and one of the shelters for her to sleep in at night.
The farm was covered in four inches of snow yesterday and we started to worry because the hoop house where the chickens will winter is still not done. The side vents are finished and the wiggle wire we used to frame the plastic arrived and was installed around the door frames but we are still without doors. The chickens didn't seem to mind the snow and it mostly melted away by the afternoon so hopefully we can get them into their new shelter before the real deep freeze sets in.
From a very young age I have memories of being on a picket line in downtown Minneapolis when my mom and her fellow union coworkers were striking against the phone company that they worked for. Many years later I chose to work for a cooperative natural food store that was unionized and eventually took part in negotiating a union contract with a small group of people all trying to collectively be a voice for a much larger group of people. When my son was born it seemed like a natural fit to be apart of a cooperative preschool even though it wasn't always the most convenient fit for my work schedule. I won't tell you that any of these experiences were easy or perfect but each time I walked away with a wealth of knowledge, enriching new relationships, a feeling that my voice had been heard, and an overwhelming conviction that people have power in numbers.
Farming has not changed this conviction, if anything it has shown me how even more reliant we are on friends, neighbors, and complete strangers the more we strive to learn skills that will make us a sustainable farm. These skills are seen by some as means to be completely self-reliant but I think the idea that any one person or family can be completely self-reliant is a myth. It's partly the upcoming election, and partly from reading one too many farming blogs that focus more on how to keep the neighbors from learning that they are stock piling food instead of growing food for their community that made me feel like this was an important thing to be said. It also comes from a great appreciation we as a family have of the three different weekends having groups of people come out to the farm and help us accomplish building two shelters and one hoop house. Not to mention our immediate neighbors, and community loaning us tools, giving us advice, offering help, and a warm welcome to our new town. We did not move to a rural area to get away from people and become autonomous but instead to broaden our community.
Really the hoop house is only 90% done but the hard part is behind us and the rest is about tweaking how the sides of the house will come up and installing the doors on both ends. Here are some pictures of our progress.
We hope that we will soon be able to give back to our friends and community by producing the most delicious and nutrient rich food we possibly can. I hope there are other ways that we will be able to give back that we can't even conceive of yet. No matter how self-reliant we become this will always be a part of our bigger picture.
Yesterday was shearing day on the farm. It may seem unusual to be shearing so late in the year but Icelandic sheep have an inner and outer layer of wool and are traditionally sheared twice a year, once in the spring and then again in the fall. In addition to the unusual type of wool they have there is also a huge variety in its color. We want to try shearing ourselves someday but thought it would be better to see some professionals do it first. The Nettleton Shearers were great, full of tips and they told us about shearing classes we can take in the spring. Here are some Before and After shots of our lovely ladies.
We kept them in their shelter in the morning instead of letting them out like we normally do and waited for the shearers to arrive. We took them out one by one and brought them into one of the new shelters we just built and put some cattle panel around it just in case they tried to get away while getting shorn. After each one was done they were treated with some hay that they have been trying to sneak from the hay shelter for the last month and greeted by Lulu who was quietly waiting for their arrival.
They didn't seemed to be bothered by their new found nakedness and the breeders we got them from said they will quickly grow back a nice thick layer before winter comes. So we now have 13 bags of wool and only one knitter in the family. Matt took up knitting last winter and hopes to do some more this winter but he has never spun wool before. He contacted some people at the Kittitas Valley Knitting Guild and found someone to trade wool to for some lessons in spinning. As luck would have it the Guild is also having a Spin In this weekend and they kindly offered to take a couple bags of our wool and try to sell it at the event. The colors are really amazing so I hope we find some good homes for it all.
This weekend was not the first and definitely not the last of what will be many work parties on the farm. The weather was perfect and we had two extra sets of hands to help us finish a half way started project and get a new one going. This piece of land has only had horses on it for the last several decades and the only buildings are a couple of old horse shelters. They were spaced out perfectly to frame out a third shelter in between them and we also added a fourth shelter on the end. After all the hard work this weekend we have one shelter for the sheep, one for hay, one for straw, and one for farm equipment. Having so many helping hands when it comes to roofing and framing are a necessity and we can't thank our friends Diana and Kieth enough.
Our new project is a DIY hoop house kit that utilized a bending mechanism to make your own hoops instead of buying the hoops and everything already assembled. The difference in price was huge and with a little makeshift work table made for the bending mechanism on the bed of the truck all of the hoops were made and the foundation finished. The only thing left is to frame out the ends of the hoop house and put the plastic on it. We have a couple more sets of hands coming out over the next several weeks so hopefully it will be finished in time to shelter the chickens in over the winter and by next summer the hoop house will be bursting at the seams with tomatoes, peppers, and anything else that could use some extra heat. We were planning on another shelter built closer to house for the many farming tools and equipment that we seem to be accumulating but it might have to wait until spring. Its hard decision to put money and time into so many small temporary shelters when what we would really like to do is build a barn.
Besides being a productive weekend it was really one of the most beautiful ones we have had since the Table Fire Mountains started. The mornings started out around 26 degrees with a smokey haze still in the air and by afternoon it would be up to 86 degrees outside and clear enough to see all of the mountains and low lying hills surrounding us. I also got a chance to meet some very nice farmers at our local farmers market this weekend and found out about a monthly meeting they have during the winter. They are planning a farm tour of the Kittitas Valley in May and said we were welcome to join. Everything always seems a little more doable when you've got a community of people to reach out to for help or just to bounce ideas off of and we had that in abundance this weekend.
We have had our Icelandic sheep for almost three months now and where they once would run away from us as soon as we let them out of their shelter in the morning they now calmly hover around waiting for food. This is our breeding flock so their natural forage has been supplemented with a little bit of grain to get them up to weight for pregnancy and birthing. That and we are still working on fencing and growing enough quality forage to keep them in green pastures year round. Some of them were incredibly small since there were at least two sets of twins but now most of them have more than doubled in size and we feel comfortable bringing a ram to the farm in the next month to start breeding. The main challenge with them has been to keep them in fresh green grass. The pastures closest to their shelter were soon not enough so we fenced in our front yard and with the use of a temporary fence rotated them around our almost two acre yard while trying to keep them out of our garden and about a hundred trees we have planted since we bought the property. The temporary fence did not keep a couple of the more daring sheep in so we were constantly chasing them out of the garden and back into their fenced area. We were finally able to make the fence a little hotter which for the most part has kept them in. Two of the smaller sheep were injured after a 55 mile an hour windstorm blew fencing material into their pasture and they got tangled up in it and wounded their legs. Matt spent weeks bandaging them up and giving them medicine. They were spending so little time foraging that we were worried they weren't going to make it but they are now completely healed up and enjoying their second rotation around the green grass in our yard.
Lulu, our six month old Pyrenees puppy really has two families, the one that feeds her and plays with her but the one she spends the most time with is her sheep who she also spends her nights with. She is still figuring out that the sheep are not puppies and have no desire to play with her but when it comes to guarding them she is all business. It's hard to believe that she won't be a fully mature guard dog until she is two because her instincts and willingness to stand her ground are already so strong. We are also hoping to bring a sheep herding dog to the farm but we will wait until next year to start that project.
Lulu's instinct with the chickens isn't as helpful as it is with the sheep. She hasn't injured any yet but she loves to chase them around and we have seen her mouth around a couple of the older hens. The 37 Bard Rock chicks we got in the mail are now almost fully grown and should be laying eggs within the month. We think there at least 10 roosters in the bunch and have heard the beginnings of crowing early in the morning. We have only had one rooster up until now and the prospect of 11 cock-a-doodle-doos at 6 am is not very exciting so there might be some Coq-au-vin in our future.
We lost one chick on it's trip from the hatchery to the farm but none since we brought them home, we have not had as much luck with the turkey pullets we brought home at the same time. Three died during the over 100 degree weather we had this summer and 4 were very lethargic with foot deformities so we decided to cull them, which left us with one. It was a hard decision but we didn't want to see them in pain anymore. Lulu's vet said it was pretty common in turkeys that are non-heritage breeds but we also did some research and found the foot deformities are related to a magnesium deficiency. We really want to have turkeys for our family and friends next year so we found a hatchery that specializes in heritage breeds and we will look into putting together our own feed recipe that will focus on any deficiencies our soil might have. It was a huge disappointment to lose so many but one of what I am sure will be many hard learned lessons we will experience over the next several years of starting a farm.
The last two weeks have given us only one day of clear skies and many days where the air was considered too hazardous to breath for any extended period of time. Our self imposed deadline of the baby arriving and the one created by nature are still looming with several projects left so smoke or no smoke things must still move forward. That means some days getting work done with a mask and most of the time doing work in fits and starts. It also means constantly revising our to do list to prioritize what can't wait and what can be put off till spring. The first thing to get taken off the list was a wood burning stove. We live in a large barn that was converted into a house and it doesn't have the most efficient heating system so we wanted to add a wood burning stove to keep our energy bills a little lower for the winter. Luckily we weren't counting on it for heat this winter so we will still have a nice cozy house to spend time cooking, reading, researching, and planning for our first full year of farming in.
One project we did accomplish was getting water and electricity to the pastures closest to the house. This involved hiring an excavator to dig a long ditch three feet deep (keeping below the frost line) from the yard near our house all the way out to the sheep shelters, running pipe for the water and electrical conduit inside the ditch, installing a frost proof hydrant, and an electrical outlet. What we thought would be a two day project turned into more than a week long project. There was one day a pipe burst because of a bad part we were sold, then there was a lot more time spent putting the fill dirt back into the ditch since we were using our tractor and not an excavator to get the job done. It was at the top of our list of things to get done because it means we will no longer have to haul 5 gallon buckets of water out to the pastures everyday and there will be an outlet to hook up a stock tank heater to keep the animal's water from freezing this winter.
My favorite part of getting ready for winter is putting up food. It's exhausting when your 8 months pregnant but when I look at all of our jars of tomato sauce, applesauce, apple butter, sauerkraut, frozen blueberries and pitted cherries and think of all the great meals we will make during the winter months it makes all the late nights worth it. We are still hoping and planning for some more cabbage and beets from our CSA so we can make some fermented kraut-chi (from Sandor Katz's "The Art of Fermentation"), there is also quite a few apples left in the fridge from an apple truck that turned over down the road from us so more applesauce and apple butter, and if we are lucky enough to get any pumpkins from our very late planting, some pumpkin butter and pumpkin pie. We aren't putting up enough food to get us through the winter but its a small step to becoming a more sustainable farm. We are putting up enough hay to get the sheep through the winter because we don't want to be paying an exorbitant price per bale come January. Matt has loaded into his truck and then unloaded into the shelters three tons of hay and one ton of straw. We are thinking about getting a fourth ton of hay just to be on the safe side and looking into large quantities of grain to make feed for the chickens this winter. Every time we take something off the list we seem to come up with a new sometimes smaller project to add on.
Almost two weeks ago we experienced the most spectacular lightning storm we have ever seen and the result was over 100 wildfires started in Yakima, Wenatchee, and closest to us at Table Mountain. The first week we mostly experienced smokey air not quite as bad as what we had during the Taylor Bridge fires but enough to keep the boys and I inside when the air was stagnant. We saw hundreds of firefighters camping out in our favorite local park but we didn't see any actual fires. Last night that changed when just as we were commenting how clear and breathable the air was what had been a hazy layer of smoke covering the top of the mountain turned into a large cloud of smoke with flames rising up from behind the Mountain. As the cool night winds started to gain speed we saw almost all of Table Mountain framed by fire. As of this morning we can no longer see any flames on the mountain but the smoke is thick enough to obscure the skyline. We are in no imminent danger but we are praying to the rain gods for some much needed precipitation.
Last Sunday we took a break from farming projects and went to the Kittitas Valley Threshing Bee at the Olmstead State Park. The highlights was definitely the antique tractor parade but we also got a chance to see wheat being threshed the old school way, wandered around looking at all kinds of 19th and 20th century technology that people have meticulously kept in working condition, and experienced the Olmstead Homestead which is on permanent display at the park with the families original cabin built in 1875, their farmhouse, and farm equipment some of which is in working condition and some of it looking as if it is slowly melting into the ground.
As a family we came to appreciate the health benefits (and taste) of eating grass-fed or pasture raised meat, eggs, and dairy products but now that we are trying to produce these foods ourselves we are learning and seeing even more reasons of why animals foraging for their food on grass makes more sense than grain-fed animals. If you are unfamiliar with the health benefits of eating pasture raised eggs, meat, and dairy there is a lot of great information out there but the most concise piece I found is from Eat Wild. There are many compelling health benefits like the meat having lower and healthier fat content and there being no need for antibiotics because the animals are not crammed into feed-lots but the most significant one to me is the higher levels of Omega-3s. Having worked in a natural food store for years I saw a dramatic increase in people being told by their doctors to take a fish oil supplements to make up for a poor diet lacking in essential fatty acids or therapeutic doses for people suffering from things like cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure. With the population growing so quickly its hard to imagine that everyone taking fish oil supplements to make up for this deficiency will be sustainable long term. Not to mention all the processing they have to do to the fish oil to take the heavy metals out. Eating grass-fed food would probably not be considered a therapeutic dose of essential fatty acids for people suffering from chronic diseases but if everyone was eating more grass-fed foods to begin with maybe we would see fewer of these diseases in the future? This is just speculation, I have no credentials to back this up but after years of reading about nutrition, talking to nutritionists, and people seeking a healthier lifestyle it all seems to lead to people going back to more traditional ways of growing and preserving foods. More grass-fed, less processed, more fermented, and less pasteurized foods leading the way to better health.
I have used the term "intensive rotational grazing" several times on the blog and realized I never really explained what it is or why it's important. Being grass-fed is important for us but the way we do it through land management is as important for the health of the animals and the health of the soil. With a "intensive rotational grazing" system your are moving you're animals to new grass more often, rotating what types of animals you have on that grass, and putting a limit to how many animals you have on any given piece of land. It's more labor intensive than traditional farming practices but you see the benefits in the health of the animals and the soil. The healthier the soil, the healthier the grass will be, the healthier the animals are, the healthier your food will be. Eggs are a perfect example. When we moved our city chickens to the country we started rotating them to new grass every week and we saw a huge improvement in the color, taste, and quality of their eggs. Even some local pasture raised eggs we bought didn't come close to the deep color and quality we started getting in our eggs after starting our rotational system. Here is a photo of two store bought egg's, the first one on the top left is a conventional egg, the one on the top right is a cage-free grain-fed with omega-3 supplementation egg, and then there is our grass-fed rotational grazing egg on the bottom.
So we have seen first hand the difference grass-fed rotational farming has on our eggs and all the lush green grass that grows once we rotate animals onto it but we keep learning even more. One of the best benefits of what some call "holistic grazing" is that it puts carbon back into the soil increasing the soils health and building topsoil. The argument that grass-fed farming could save the planet is made more persuasively at Small Footprint Family but I will leave you with one quote from the article because the claim is so amazing its hard to believe- "Converting just half the U.S. corn and soy acreage back to pasture(for holistic grazing) might cut carbon emissions by as much as 144 trillion pounds—and that’s not even counting the reduced use of fossil fuels for vehicles, machinery, fertilizers and pesticides that would also result." It's astonishing that such a simple idea like letting animals forage on the foods that they were meant to eat and live a more humane lifestyle could result in reversing the damage we have done to the planet. The more we read and learn through experience we are convinced that the path we are on is best for the health of our family, our farm, and the environment.