In today's industrial food system, chicken is raised by farmers who don't own the birds, only the infrastructure used to raise them. Or at least they own the debt as the agro industrial poultry corporations require farmers to build facilities to their specifications on their own dime, carry the debt of hundred's of thousands of dollars while the corporation has the right to cancel their grower's contract with a thirty day written notice, leaving them with expensive empty buildings to pay for. The feed that is used is heavily made up of subsidized corn and soy grown in depleted soil propped up with synthetic petroleum nutrients and sprayed with herbicides all of which end up in the food chain. The subsidized grains mean that the taxpayer is footing the bill for these less than nutritionally valuable food products and the corporations are able to buy them for less than it costs to produce them. The finished birds are then rounded up and shipped to processing plants where underpaid workers are hired to process them. The parts are then shipped out to the domestic and global market. If all this wasn't enough, the chicken is then often plumped up with saline injections to repair moisture and flavor compromises during growing and increase market weight.
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The season is in full swing and we have more animals on the farm then we have ever had before. So many chicks, turkey poults, ducklings, and lambs its hard to keep count. We are also without help again and doing it all on our own for the most part. We tried interns for a third time and just didn't work out. Every time we start with high hopes that we are bringing people onto the farm and into our lives that really want to farm. We pick people specifically because they say they want to start a farm of their own but the one thing we have been successful at is showing people they don't want to have a full scale farm. Maybe they want a little homestead, or just a garden, but they sure don't want the kind of responsibilities that we have taken on. We are thinking about and working on the farm 24/7 at this point. There is still infrastructure to build, also a learning curve figuring out how to manage a much larger group of animals, and also experimenting with value added products to make the farm financially sustainable. Everyday is different and full of chances to learn, adapt, and adjust what we are doing. Lets be honest doing this kind of work with a busy family life is not for everyone. The ability to juggle lots of different hats and also do a job that isn't always going to be laid out for you and may require some critical thinking is a tall order but really a must if you want to start your own farm.
The most disappointing thing about not being able to successfully have interns isn't just the much larger work load and not being able to do all the projects we wanted to do this season but the fact that we wanted this farm be a place where people could learn about grass based farming and also give them a chance to see how a farm is built. We have been planning and building fencing, irrigation, ponds, and shelters for almost three years now and its the kind of thing that many young new farmers would also be faced with because your not going to necessarily get a farm that has all of those things and the amount of land you want handed over to you. So for now we will try to teach people through our blog when we have time or if people want to come visit the farm we will teach them as much as we can but we won't be taking on any interns anytime soon.
We have been getting by with the help of friends and neighbors lending a hand when they can. I also have a friend that is going to work in the garden once a week in exchange for some veggies so even though the season isn't working out they way we hoped we still feel good about the future. I have also enjoyed working more one on one with Farmer Matt. Our first summer on the farm I was pregnant and last season our son was just a newborn so as you can imagine I had a hard time taking care of three little boys and getting actual work done on the farm. Now I try to wake up before the older boys and Malcolm and I will start doing morning chores near the house, I even have a sitter coming a couple mornings a week so I can help Matt move larger projects forward. We also try to split up and get things done by one of us taking one or two of the boys and vice versa. Its not perfect, things take a little longer, the house is a little messier, and many nights we eat nachos for dinner but we are making it happen. We are also taking copious notes for how we want to do things differently next season. There is always room for improvement, especially in farming. You can't control the weather or the animals most of the time but you can create the best possible environment for them to thrive.
On a happier note we found out the breeder that we got Lulu, our Great Pyrenees, from just had another litter so we will be going to pick out another puppy in about a month. Lulu, Bella, and our soon to arrive puppy are and will be integral members of our farm team. Lulu spends time going between the sheep and the chickens day and night keeping prey both in the sky and on the ground away. Bella still officially a pup helps us heard the animals even the chickens, although that is something we have to work with her on on a daily basis so she just herds them when we ask and doesn't chase them for fun. Both of them alert us if something is amiss and I really appreciate Bella always wanting to be by your side especially those night time runs out into the pasture to check on animals or to lock the chicken tractors up. The second Great Pyrenees will help us cover more ground especially when we have groups of animals on separate sides of the culvert and also give Lulu another companion. She spends much more of her time out in the pastures and could use another dog to keep her from getting bored. Lulu was an amazing puppy and although she was and still is harder to train basic commands to, unlike Bella the border collie, her strong guarding instinct plus her incredible gentle way with the kids make her the perfect dog for our farm.
It has been a very productive winter for us. We finished our website www.greenbowfarm.com, worked on some grant proposals, but the majority of it was spent planning our next year, talking about what worked and what didn't, and the new things we want to try out and grow into over the next couple of seasons. Last year we were building up our breeding flock of sheep and figuring out if there was a market for our eggs and poultry so we haven't had much to sell this year, but we will have more than double the amount eggs and meat to sell next year at our farmers markets. Last year we tried a little bit of everything and quickly learned what we wanted to put our time and energy into the most but also keeping the key elements that create biodiversity on the farm. In addition, we spent the winter selling at the West Seattle Farmers Market where we sold our late season pasture raised broiler chickens, all our fall lamb, and of course our pastured eggs. One place where we took a risk was investing a large amount of money to send our lamb pelts off to be tanned and turned into lambskins not really knowing if people would want to buy them. Luckily we were overwhelmed by peoples interest in them so much so that we will probably be selling the one that we were going to keep for ourselves. Believe me it's a good problem to have. We are enormously grateful to all our wonderful customers and all the feedback they've provided us. It's really hard to imagine farming without the community we have found at farmers markets. This spring, we are getting busy on fencing with help from the NRCS and improving our pastures by finalizing our rotational grazing system. It amounts to dividing our large pasture with two permanent fence lines. From there we will be able to section off smaller pastures using temporary fencing. This style of rotational concentrated grazing improves soil health and there by grass production. It also greatly benefits the animals by moving them to fresh ground regularly and allowing the chickens to follow cleaning up and sanitizing after the ruminants so that when the cattle and sheep return all the manure they left when they were there before has been scratched out by the poultry and returned to the soil, greatly reducing the risk of parasite infection. It is a symbiotic relationship that regularly occurs in nature and with a little help from temporary electric fencing we are able to mimic it. All of these activities builds soil, builds forage production and protects the health of the soil. In effect, we are grass farmers first and the wonderful beef, lamb, chicken and eggs are simply a byproduct.
Weather wise, winter didn't seem to show up until February. We had some cold spells, but mountain precipitation was absent and the threat of drought was worrying everyone in the northwest. But at the beginning of February, the high pressure ridge off the coast broke up and brought us winter. The mountains began receiving heavy snow fall. Getting over the pass every Sunday morning for market became challenging as it seemed to snow every Saturday night and into Sunday. Once, I even drove from door to door on snow, getting to the market 100 miles away and shoveling our booth spot free of snow.
This week our new apprentices arrive on the farm. Ryan and Crystal found us through a social media site and sent us their letter of interest. After a brief discussion, we invited them to come and stay with us for a few days as a get-to-know-you session. We hit it off famously and invited them to be here for the 2014 season. They are very serious about starting a farm of their own and its that desire to learn by doing that feels like it will be a good fit for our farm. We are very excited to have them here and their presence, I suspect will greatly improve our farm. You'll see them at the markets, so please give them a big "Hello".
Our chicks begin arriving soon and with the break in winter weather the workload will begin to increase rapidly. With a couple of nice days in March I already feel behind on all the repairs and building work that needs to be done. With a growing family and growing farm there really isn't a day that goes by that I don't feel behind on projects but we are hoping to get the boys out with us more often and have more projects be a family affair now that they are getting older. With a toddler though, that won't always be possible so we'll also try to get some family days squeezed in hiking and camping or just exploring our valley. We have been so busy starting our farm there are still many parts of our valley and surrounding mountains we have yet to explore.
All has been quiet on the blog front but on the farm things keep buzzing along. It's winter so the grass isn't growing, the hoop house is full of chickens so there are no veggies in sight but the laying hens are still giving us eggs and we have a freezer full of grass-fed lamb so we head over every week to the West Seattle Farmers Market. We are so happy to be apart of a very vibrant community of farmers, food producers, and dedicated market shoppers. It's been nice to make connections with people as passionate about healthy food as we are, and it has motivated us to do even more in the coming year. We have also had fun recipe testing and writing so we have recipes to share with market shoppers that work well with our grass-fed lamb. We've tried to find or create recipes promoting the nose to tail eating that we appreciate and also work with cuts that people are unfamiliar with or tend to shy away from.
Despite having a booth at farmers markets and loyal customers, I still can't quite believe that we made it through one full year of farming. Technically we moved in the year before but we were just fencing and learning how to take care of our sheep so we didn't really feel like full fledged farmers yet. It wasn't until we started having food to bring to markets that it really started to sink in that we did it. We went from city slickers who had a couple raised beds, bee hives, and a gaggle of laying hens to full time farmers with hundreds of chickens, almost 40 sheep, 12 head of cattle in our care, plus turkeys and pigs, and a not so small market garden where we grew an array of fruits and veggies in. It still blows my mind that we produced thousands of pounds of food for ourselves and hundreds of other families with a small amount of resources and only a couple months of interns on the farm. We also finished a quite massive irrigation project in the middle of our growing season and with three little boys under 6 years old it means that Farmer Matt was left with the majority of the work (farm related anyway). So how do we do more and keep a sane family life? The internship model didn't work out because we didn't have the proper amount of time to teach people that had no experience. So for the upcoming season we are hoping to find an apprentice that has at least a couple seasons worth of experience working on farms and is passionate about starting their own farm-- someone who really wants to see and take part in the nuts and bolts of what takes to start a farm from the ground up. Farmer Matt read Joel Salatins' book "Fields of Farmers" and it inspired him to rethink about how we teach on the farm and not give up entirely on helping inspire future farmers. (I am hoping he writes a review of the book for our blog because the model Polyface Farm has could really revolutionize sustainable farming.)
Our biggest hurdle besides the fact that we have a limited amount of land and hands on the farm is that we have no buildings. There were horse shelters here when we moved in and we modified them so we now store hay there. We built a small three sided shelter for the sheep during the winter and there is one shipping container where we keep tools, poultry feed, and fencing. Spring can have extremely harsh weather in the Kittitas Valley, so last winter and spring we raised our chicks and pullets in our hoop house. We had to move them out early so we could get vegetable starts going and even with many heat lamps set up in the chicken tractor we lost dozens to cold weather. Luckily there is a National Conservation grant for sustainable farms to obtain large hoop houses so we started the process and hope that it might be the answer to our space issues and be a great place to grow even more heirloom tomatoes.
So what are the plans for next season? We are going to double the amount of laying hens we have. People love our eggs as much as we do so we want to try and keep up with demand. We will also raise more Red Rangers chickens and heritage turkeys, not a huge amount but the right amount for our rotational grazing farm model. This year we raised pigs on pasture just for ourselves and one other family but we might raise a couple more next year for sale. We are currently breeding our Scottish Highland Cattle and would love to increase our breeding stock but think we are at capacity to also have enough forage for them through the growing season. I am very excited that sometime in the Fall of 2014 we will have grass-fed beef for sale for the first time.
Our next big project is to come up with a value added product using the vegetables and herbs we grow that would complement our grass-fed meats and also make our farm more financially sustainable. Small farms like ours that don't have unlimited resources really count on things like jams, hot sauces, and spice rubs to bridge the gap and make farming viable.
I can't list everything we learned this last year but I can show you a little clip of highlights of our first year of farming.
Looking forward to starting our second year of farming and all the things I am sure we will learn, experience, and enjoy. Happy New Year to you and yours from everyone at Green Bow Farm!
It's Farmer Friday and Farmer Matt's Birthday. This is a picture of Matt with our three year old Boden in the middle of our gigantic irrigation project that I am happy to say is officially finished. Farmer Matt inspires us everyday working hard, problem solving, and taking breaks to be goofy and change a dirty diaper when needed. There are many inspiring farmers out there working from sun up to sun down to bring us clean food that is good for our families and the planet. Please give Farmer Matt a shout out and tell us the name of your favorite farmer and what they are doing to create a healthier world.
We just reached two milestones, the first is our one year anniversary of moving onto our farm full time, right around summer solstice. The second, which felt like it might never happen, was setting up our very first farmers market stand. This farming venture has been in the works for two years but before we moved here it was mostly reading, researching, planning, dreaming, and doing the most we could with our little backyard garden plot, sassy brood of chickens, and a couple of beehives. Even years before we dared to dream of this giant leap into farming and out of the city it feels like we were taking hundreds of small steps towards this way of life. No matter how much we planned I don't think we could have prepared ourselves for how hard this would be to pull off with three little boys under five. Sometimes it feels like we aren't accomplishing anything but keeping our heads above water and others days like when we actually had dozens of starts, veggies, eggs, and chickens to bring to market it feels like we could accomplish anything we set our minds to.
I now fully understand why most farms have several generations living together to make it all work. It takes a village to raise a child but it takes even more than that to not only get a farm off the ground, but keep it running from day to day. It's just us and the boys living here but we have been fortunate to have many friends, neighbors, and strangers lend a helping over the last year. Right now we have a regular volunteer who has been helping with animal care, gardening, and with bottle feeding the calves.
There has been a couple days off here and there to go visit other farms and run farm errands. We are going to celebrate Independence day with a trip to the Gingko Petrified Forest, which we have been meaning to get around to for two years. So we are squeezing in some family time where we can. Our visit to Jubilee Farm in Carnation, Washington was a chance to take part in their discussion on Holistic Cattle Management but it was also nice to go back to one of the farms that inspired us on this path. It was really seeing a farm do it all, both animal husbandry and growing vegetables, on a large scale and how rich that relationship can be that made everything click for us. When you see the animals give back to the farm creating healthy soil and the soil giving back to the animals growing grass and veggies for them to eat it, you start to feel as if there really is no other way to farm.
That being said we need to slow down, take a beat this winter and really go over everything we learned and figure out what we are good at, what we can let go of, and what we want to try to push even further for the next season. We may never be as big as Jubilee Farm or some of the other farms we love so we need to figure out how best to use our time to be sustainable long term. Who knows, we might spend the winter remodeling what was once a hair salon on the farm into a commercial kitchen and come up with yet another farm/food dream that we just can't not try and take on.
We brought a heifer calf home that we got from one of our favorite local farms and our son has decided to name her Love. It will be two years in the making before we see any gorgeous grass fed raw milk from her so Love seems just about right. This is a labor of love, not wealth or status, or even success in the short term. If half of what we do this year is successful and we can learn even a little bit from the other half we can finally breath a sigh of relief, sit back and enjoy the short days of winter.
We have been working on putting field fencing up around the perimeter of the farm for over 9 months and we finally finished this week. I would say it's time to celebrate but there are too many things to accomplish to get the farm fully functioning before we can crack open the bubbly. The fencing will help us utilize all of our pastures and we will be a little closer to fully realizing our rotational grazing farm model. One other step in this process is getting a more efficient irrigation system installed. The farm has received two grants for the project but because of the sequester everything has slowed down dramatically. I am not complaining because I feel incredibly grateful to even have the grants and there are so many other things that have lost their funding that are much more essential. We had been planning on breaking ground this month but we are still in the review part of the process. The grants will allow a small farm like ours to use all of our pastures and to grow good quality grass during the months of the year we don't have any precipitation. Right now when we use our irrigation water it runs through a series of ditches and most of the water gets wasted and over waters creating bad quality grass that is not good for foraging. Most of our precipitation comes during the winter months so being able to use a small amount of water during the dry months in an efficient way will make it possible for us to practice our grass based farming in a way that needs fewer inputs (feed for chickens and hay for sheep) from off of the farm.
Another way to practice rotational grazing that creates healthy soil and healthy food is to have the right amount of animals grazing for the size of the farm. Right now we don't have quite enough animals to keep up with all the grass we are growing. We are adding on one more flock of laying hens, expanding the number of breeding sheep we will have year round, and looking for a couple bull calves to raise. So what else makes us different from conventional farms besides the fact that our animals are not caged and we don't spray pesticides on our pastures? We keep the number of animals we raise low to create healthier soil by not over grazing and in turn the soil gives us healthier eggs, meat, and someday milk. We produce less food than a conventional farm and we will do it by using fewer inputs (subsidized soy and corn feed) and instead use our own labor moving animals around on pasture. So we produce less food and we need more man/woman hours to do it. What does this mean? It means in no way can we compete with the prices that conventional farmers sell their food for. They are basing their farm models on an economy that relies on cheap subsidized feed and that doesn't give them much room to care about the health of animals and people. In every aspect of our farming decisions we take into consideration the health of the animals, the farm as a whole, the people who eat our food, and the long term health of the environment. So how do we accomplish all of this, farm the way we want and make it economically sustainable? We will have to spend time educating people, taking the time to talk to them about the way we choose to farm and why it is worth their hard earned money to pay more for food. We will also have to make sure we are paying close attention to economic forces and utilizing all the resources we have at hand. It is also why we pay close attention to the breeds we choose. The Icelandic sheep are tri-purpose which means you can get Fiber, Milk, and Meat from them and it will make our farm that much more economically diverse. When we pick a breed of Cattle we will make sure we have one that grazes in a way that will work best with our farm model. We will also be growing the vast majority of our own fruits and veggies (utilizing all the great compost we were able to make with a winters worth of sheep manure) this year and selling what we have in abundance at the farmers market along with our eggs and meat.
Now that all of our serious business is out of the way we can move onto all the great moments from our first lambing season. It's technically not over because we have one ewe still pregnant but I can't resist sharing this special time with you. In addition we have our bottle fed lambs back and a shelter set up for them near the house. We moved the other sheep into a small paddock nearby so Lulu could keep an eye on everyone and well the grass was starting to look like it needed some four legged mowing anyways.
I can't hear those two words without the song getting stuck in my head and now the part "it's like sunshine and rain" has a whole new meaning being a farmer. A good rain means growth and more forage for the animals. Pain is having below freezing temps mid April after you have dozens of seed trays started in the hoop house without a good way to keep them warm. Rain is no longer a pain.
I should really start with the joy of the last couple weeks. We had our first of many lambs born on the farm. It happened less than an hour before we were having a community potluck for the first time. So minutes after we welcomed her into the world we then shared a bountiful and tasty feast with some new friends and introduced her to all of them. There was no drama with the first birth only the beauty of seeing this ewe take on her new role as mom and the little lamb latching on right away like a champ. It was also a huge relief to see how easily it was for Lulu to transition into her new role as protector for the new lamb, never leaving the pairs side and even keeping Bella the border collie from playing too rough. The second birth was also uneventful but the lamb hurt one of his legs the second day and was abandoned by his mom in the pasture. Matt brought him back to his mom and kept an eye on him and slowly the lamb healed up and the ewe was no longer abandoning him.
Our third birth was one of the ewes who was huge and we suspected she was going to have twins, which is unusual for the first year of breeding. She did have twins but she quickly abandoned the second lamb born and head butted him away, not letting him latch on. It was heartbreaking to see not only his mom but all the ewes do this to him. Luckily we found a local farm that dairys and was already bottle feeding goats and sheep that was willing to take him on and bottle feed him until he is ready to come back to the pasture. We noticed the ewe that had given birth to the twins was showing signs of pneumonia so we gave her some medicine but by nightfall she had died. It was shocking how quickly it all happened and then we had another lamb on our hands with no mother. So now our new farm friends at Parke Creek are bottle feeding both of the twins for the next couple of months and in exchange we are going to raise some turkeys for them. We are still awaiting the arrival of at least 6 more lambs and hoping we have learned a thing or two from the first four births on the farm. This has gotten us interested in doing all of our own breeding so we think our next flock of laying hens will be homegrown.
While all these births were going on we celebrated two birthdays in the family and also had to put to sleep our long time companion and rescue dog, Cooper. I could think of no other title for this post because I have never had a time in my life that was filled with so much joy and celebration but also the pain of losing animals that we loved. We can look at the death of the ewe a little more pragmatically but the death of a incredibly loyal dog you have known for over a decade is a little harder to get over. We had hoped he would spend his last couple of years enjoying life on the farm but by the time we got here his health was declining and we just did all that we could to keep him comfortable.
We had yet another experience this week where we felt we took one step forward and two steps back. It was always a part of our farming model to have pastured poultry and we were excited when we got over the hurdle of finding a place that we could process them and also be able to sell them at farmers markets and restaurants. Then we started to look for business insurance and found that there was only a couple companies that would allow us to raise pastured poultry but they were going to charge us so much money that the only way it would be financially sustainable is if we were raising 500-1000 birds a year. We had been planning on just a couple hundred including turkeys. We don't have the right kind of land that it would take to raise that many and we honestly just don't want to raise that many. So we are back to square one, raising chickens and turkeys that will most likely be for ourselves and rethinking our farming model. We do have some exciting plans to bring pastured pigs and cows to the farm in the future but for now we are enjoying our first lambing season, busy moving chickens around the pasture, and looking forward to some planting in the next couple of weeks if it stops snowing.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 8 week countdown begins. 8 weeks until the baby arrives give or take a week or two and about the same for the first frost. The first time I was pregnant I had lists of all the things I wanted to do to get the house ready for the baby and lists of the many pieces of must have baby gear that all the books insisted we would need. This time around I am not sure if its because I'm more experienced at having babies or because I am so preoccupied with the farm but we have no lists. We do have about three lists of projects that need to be done on the farm. The possible future projects, the near future projects, and the must get done before it gets cold and the baby turns our world upside down list. We are making some incredible progress for only having been here a couple of months but with each passing week I get slower and need more rest which means the whole farm slows down. We have two different weekends of friends coming out to work on projects and an auger that the boys preschool teacher lent us so I have a good feeling we will get our list done before we bring home the baby and the ground begins to freeze.
Matt has made some progress on fencing, finishing off a second paddock in the pasture closest to the house and also finishing fencing and a gate in the front yard so we can move the sheep to the many acres of green grass near the house, provided we also use a portable electric fence to keep the sheep out of trouble (ie: eating what little we have growing in the garden). We finished a grant proposal for installing a more modern irrigaition system for the whole farm. Right now we have flood irrigation which was a good system when our smaller piece of land was apart of a larger farm and it really did flood the ground with all the water that was needed. Now with all the acreage split up into smaller parcels there doesn't seem to be enough water volume to irrigate the land the way it once did. This funding from two different sources would cover a significant amount of the materials needed and a small part of the labor costs but we would still be putting a large portion of our own money and labor towards the project. The best part of this project is it would allow us to use land that is now sitting empty, expand the variety and number of animals we have on the farm, and we could begin to truly practice the intensive rotational grazing that we are interested in. It might even allow us to grow our own hay someday on one of the small pieces of flat land we have in the back pastures.
We also put together a design and order for a hoop house that is on our must be done before the ground freezes list. This will allow us to have a good space to winter the chickens in, it will provide some much needed fertilizer for our garden, and be a good place to begin vegetable starts in the spring. This is one of the more exciting projects on the list, most of the other projects are about building winter shelters for farm equipment and straw. That and bringing in and moving another ton of hay into the shelters to feed the sheep this winter.
It's a daunting list but one that will be well worth it once spring arrives and we'll be ready to really start farming full time. It feels crazy to be doing all of this when we are about to have a newborn but it also feels like it's just the way it was meant to be. I was born during a time that my mother moved back to her parents farm in Missouri and spent the first part of my life and then every summer after that at on their farm until they sold it almost a decade later. Spending so much time on my grandparents farm and having such beautiful memories of my childhood have really informed who I am today. A huge part of those memories are of my incredibly strong, fierce, loving, hardworking, and capable grandmother. She raised not only her own children on that farm but a had a huge part in raising several of her grandchildren on that farm. She is who I think about when I start freaking out wondering if I will be able to handle all of the responsibilities and challenges that we have taken on. She was an anchor for me growing up and continues to be to this day, many years after she passed away. Here she is on her farm and her beautiful smile.
There isn't any progress to report this week. The smoke was so thick we couldn't get much work done except daily chores. Then the weekend rolled around and the smoke became so thick at night that it became hard to sleep. The boys and I packed up the car and headed to cleaner air on the other side of the mountains. It was nice to visit friends, spend time on the beach and do some of our favorite city activities like train watching and eating Thai food.
Meanwhile back at the farm.......
Matt stayed behind and took care of the animals trying to get some work done outside but as you can see sometimes it was not that easy especially when it was also very hot outside. There were calm days where the smoke was almost undetectable and other days when the fire and smoke would start up again and it was almost as bad as the first days of the fires. The very last day we were gone there was a huge black cloud of smoke that hung in the valley and the wind picked up just enough the entire inside of the house was covered in a fine black soot. The boys and I are happy to be back at the farm helping with animal chores and breathing clean air again. We are almost back to normal but a couple of weeks behind on projects we wanted to accomplish before the first frost comes and the new baby arrives. The landscape however has been changed for what seems like will be a very long time. Here are a couple of Before and After pictures taken with Instagram.
This view is from the sheep shelters and the next set is from the farm house
I have been taking Polaroids for a couple of decades now but with the onset of Smart Phones and all the great apps like Shake it up, Hipstimatic, and Instagram I find myself using less and less film. Here is a great piece about Instagram from Mike Hipple's blog that you should read if you are a lover or hater of Instagram- Why I love Instagram.