What am I doing?

Thoughts while moving hog fencing.

This week I began to rotate my two four-month-old piglets through the cow pasture. The cows had been moved out of this pasture the week before, so it is now available for the pigs.

In this rotation I am moving them daily. I use two hundred-foot hog nets to make a paddock. Moving these nets to make new paddocks each day takes about 15 minutes.

I walk the piglets out of their pen at the barn mid-morning, and bring them back at 4pm for dinner. For six hours each day they chew on the grass and root for worms, grubs, and who knows what else. They literally roll back the grass with their snouts looking for delicacies.

This process requires attention and effort on my part. It requires more than just dumping a bucket of food in their pen, checking their water and walking away.

I moved their nets this afternoon in the brisk winter air, observed the “damage” they had done to the pasture, and asked myself

What am I doing?

Most immediately I am pulling up short white polls attached to electric netting, gathering them in my arms, and resetting them on fresh grass. But why?

Providing the piglets with fresh pasture each day gives them a clean, healthy environment and supplemental nutrition. Moving them daily using small paddocks distributes their fertility (aka urine and manure) throughout the pasture and limits the destruction they do to each area.

I look at the pasture they are tearing up, walk around using my boots to replace the clumps of grass they have displaced and ask myself

What am I doing?

Well, I think I am improving the soil. The work the pigs do could be considered destructive, but what if we thought of it as disturbance. Sort of like aerating the soil. I am inputting my time and labor by rotating the piglets daily, but they are also working for me by just being pigs.

Will this intensive rotational grazing be destructive or beneficial to our pasture? I don’t know. I won’t really know until later this spring. I will observe what grows in the areas the pigs have worked. Has it improved or declined? Do the areas they disturbed look barren or healthy.

We will see.

I will trust. And wait. And try.

Opening a Farm Stand

On working to develop a hyper local economy.

One day last week my mind was occupied with the words hyper local. Those two words kept rolling around as I worked to sort out what that means to me. At dinner that night I shared with Mr. J that I think hyper local is the answer to my goals for community and economy.

When our cows escaped last year, it was neighbors that stumbled upon our troubles that helped us to get them back home.

When our pipes froze in the last storm it was neighbors across the way that drove over to help us out.

I source honey and milk from neighbors within a five-mile radius.

My eggs and pork and many of our vegetables come from our own farm. Soon our farm will supply us with lamb and beef.

That is hyper local.

Our aid did not come from friends out of state (though we did benefit from their prayers). Help came from people across the street or down the road.

It doesn’t get more local than that.

In this global world, hyper local is the solution. At least as much as possible.

So, I am starting a farm stand.

(Actually “farm stand” sounds a little too grand for what I have going on right now, but a girl can dream.)

I won’t advertise on social media. I don’t want people going out of their way to find me.

I want the neighbor who is driving past our farm regularly to be the customer. I want to be on their way, not out of their way.

It’s winter. I don’t have excess produce to share. I do have eggs. I will start with eggs.

A sign by the road letting neighbors know I have something to sell.

A cooler with my farm fresh eggs inside.

It’s a start.

Moving Towards a Goal

Butchering our first hog

I have a hog head, wrapped in a white kitchen trash bag, placed in a large black tub, sitting on my kitchen floor.

And I am pretty pleased about it.

That head represents a step towards achieving a goal. The goal of growing our own food. At least as much as possible.

More specifically it represents learning a completely new set of skills: raising and caring for a pig from one month old to butchering. Housing, feeding, training, rotational pasturing, learning what it means to be a pig. Keeping all our pigs healthy and happy. Happy until the very last moment.

On butcher day we walked our hog a short distance from his paddock in the woods to an enclosed pen where some beer and cracked corn waited. He snuffled through the fallen leaves along the way looking for a stray acorn or grub. I calmly called “pig, pig, here pig, pig,” as I shook a container of treats. I patted him on his back – “gooood pig.” No stress, no fear.

Enclosed in the pen, the hog tuckered into the beer and corn. Mr. J. dispatched the hog cleanly with a .22, and the hog dropped. A sharp knife along the carotid and it was finished. The hog had one bad moment. We will have pork for months.

Thankfully, we had friends help us in the process. Some extra hands, some welcome experience. We could not do this crazy thing we are doing without friends.

Do you think it’s crazy to want to raise and butcher your own meat? I would have thought so a few years ago. But here we are, doing this crazy thing and moving towards the goal of growing as much of our food as possible.

Yeah, it’s a little crazy to have a hog’s head sitting in my kitchen, but I’m o.k. with that.

It’s Blackberry Season

Thorns, armor, abundance.

I have been keeping a close watch for blackberry patches on the property. Scanning the edges where the pasture meets the woods. It is on those edges that you find abundance. I have been keeping track of the berries as they ripen. Waiting. Eager.

Now.

It is officially blackberry season on Fiat Farm.

There is something peaceful and satisfying in a berry hunt. It is simple and basic. Both challenging and rewarding. We have a small window each year to partake of this bounty. Now is the time to dive in.

Actually, there is no diving. Any blackberry picker knows that caution is required. Those bushes have thorns. The fruits are not easily won.

Caution is necessary. Once the fruit is spied you plan the best angle of attack. The arm reaches carefully, but still you know that it is likely blood will be shed. The prick of the thorn. A sharp piercing. A drop of blood. Sacrifice.

But the reward is sweet. The fruits are abundant. The pain is short-lived.

One can better face this thorny challenge by wearing long sleeves and pants. An armor of sorts against the thorns. This armor does not eliminate the thorns but makes them bearable as we reach for the fruit.

With work and sacrifice a reward is achieved. Abundance is harvested.

And we can begin to create blackberry cobbler and jam and syrup. Yum.

Weeds – an Eternal Battle

I am at war. My opponent is legion. I may conquer my foe in one corner only to turn and find countless others amassing behind me. The battle is endless and requires constant attendance and meticulous attention.

If my enemy is beaten back, my labor will bear fruit. If allowed to flourish my seeds will be stifled.

I am at war with weeds.

The struggle is real.

But I am determined.

I face my garden each day. Hope. Satisfaction. Despair. Loss.

I look closely. Observe. Distinguish between fruitful plant and destructive weed. I dig out the weed while protecting my plants. I strive to create an environment where my plants will thrive, while suppressing the weeds and stifling their progress.

When the weeds are clear, the plants have access to the sun. The sun providing the energy on which we all depend.

Work each day to clear those weeds. Nourish the soil. Advantage that which bears fruit.

I need to remind myself of this.

These thoughts float through my mind as I tackle the weeds and tend my garden.

I pray that it is enough.

You Say To-may-to, I Say To-mah-to

My three approaches to growing tomatoes this year.

In my eagerness, I started my tomatoes entirely too early. I sacrificed a dozen or so to below freezing temperatures in the hoop house, but still had over fifty plants (of several varieties) to plant in the garden.

I started these plants months ago. I watered them, nurtured them, and set them outside on sunny days.

I weeded their soil, enriched it with amendments, and made trellises to support them in the future.

When the weather was just right, I planted them in the ground with companion plants to attract pollinators and deter pest.

After planting over 50 plants this way, I still had six leggy, but healthy starts to deal with. Hmmm.

I decided to experiment and see what happens when I don’t pay any attention to them. I dug a trench for each tomato in an overgrown space behind the hoop house that I will leave wild this year. It is filled with weeds but gets plenty of sun. I just stuck them in the ground, and I will see how they do. If they thrive, I will have an abundance of tomatoes. If they don’t, it will be no loss.

Ironically, after all this work and planning, I walk back to the house and find several volunteer tomatoes in a bed outside my back door. These guys are thriving on their own. The seeds stayed dormant until the time was right and germinated without any help from me. I believe this variety is called Tommy Toes – a hearty, productive heirloom cherry tomato that lasts all summer. We snacked on them when we moved to Fiat Farm last November. When I cleaned out this bed last fall, I intentionally left some tomatoes to see if they would come up on their own. They did.

I look forward to seeing the results of these different strategies. Will the pruning and attention I give the trellised tomatoes produce more than the ones I ignore and let grow wild? Will the tomatoes outside my door thrive without any help from me?

We will find out as the summer progresses.

If You Give a Friend a Rhubarb Plant…

or, why I suddenly had to have a raised bed for asparagus and strawberries.

If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, by Laura Numeroff, was a common bedtime story in our home when my boys were toddlers. It tells of a mouse who, when given a cookie, then asks for milk, a straw, and a series of other actions by his boy. In a similar way, a gifted rhubarb plant set off a chain of events on Fiat Farm.

If you give a friend a rhubarb plant, she will want a permanent garden bed to grow it in.

When she decides to build a garden bed, she just has to grow asparagus in it.

Then she goes to buy asparagus online and sees that bare-root strawberries are on sale and needs to buy some of those as well.

Waiting for the plants to arrive, she puts her husband and son to work building the raised bed and filling it with compost.

Seeing how easy that was, she decides to add more raised beds to her garden.

And isn’t that exactly how so many projects start.

I am grateful for the rhubarb and also the prompting to add asparagus. Both are perennial vegetables that are ready to harvest in early spring. As a perennial plant they will produce year after year with a little love and attention on my part.

Like most perennials they will take a few years to establish. I look forward to this reward.

Strawberries are good companion plants for asparagus and are also one of the first plants to bear fruit in the spring.

I placed my raised bed close to the house at the top of a slope, because our winter rains showed me that my summer garden space gets flooded and muddy in the winter.

Plan for the future. Observe your space. Keep busy.

To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.

Audrey Hepburn

Chicken Tractor on Steroids

It works!

Chicken tractor on what? Steroids. Yep. That’s right.

Steroids.

This system takes all the composting power of chickens and multiplies it.

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Let’s back up a bit.

A chicken tractor is basically a mobile chicken coop that can be moved around your yard keeping the chickens safe and contained while giving them fresh grass and fertilizing the soil.

Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost Company developed a system to feed over 600 chickens with food waste collected from local businesses. The chickens live off this waste, fertilize it, and break it down into a rich compost that gets sold to local gardeners. (This video shows how he does it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWChH9MHkHg)

Permaculture expert Geoff Lawton combined these two concepts to create the chicken tractor on steroids. For us it is a system that supplements our chicken’s food while providing us with compost.

Let’s take a look:

THE TRACTOR

This mobile coop can hold up to 35 chickens. It provides a safe spot to sleep at night, shade and protection underneath during the day, and has 4 nesting boxes for laying hens. The large wheels and handlebar make it movable over uneven terrain. We got plans for this tractor (aka Chickshaw) from Justin Rhodes at Abundant Permaculture.

THE COMPOST

Like any compost pile you need to add carbon and nitrogen. We used chicken bedding, straw from the pig pen, leaves, cow manure, and grass clippings. These elements are contained in a ring made of hardware cloth. We put the chicken’s food on top of the compost pile. The chickens eat their food, scratch at the compost and add their own manure.

THE MAGIC

When the ring of compost is full you start a new ring and turn the original compost. The original compost has begun to break down and is filled with microbial life that supplements the feed we give the chickens. The piles are turned weekly (or bi-weekly like we did) and in about a month become compost that can be added to the garden.

THE RESULTS

My original pile has given me four wheelbarrows of compost with several more to rake up. Working with the chickens this way will give us a continuous supply of compost from the waste generated on our property. This system really works!

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Please note this is a basic overview and there are many more details involved in the process. If you would like to learn more Billy Bond at Perma Pastures has a series of videos. He was our inspiration. You can find his playlist here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJjhO3CmjLk&list=PLaAkONMPbRRdpu49GNp-vHfOP7qb2DNDa

Confession Time

I tilled my soil.

Well, actually, Mr. J tilled my soil; but the deed was still done.

I know. I know. I said I wouldn’t.

I have pontificated time and again on how no-till is the method to use. How tilling kills all the beneficial life in the soil. I have said that I would use a no-dig approach to my garden.

Then I ran out of time.

I spent the past two weeks weeding, spading, and raking by hand. I have planted my seedlings along the way. But this made a very small dent in the seedlings that needed planting and the soil that needed preparing. I looked at the amount of over-grown garden remaining, mentally listed all the plants and seeds left to be planted and concluded there was no way I could get it all done in time.

NOW is the time to plant all the things. The only way to get it all done is to till. And so, I tilled.

There. I said it. Now you know.

I am quickly learning that I can have all these grand ideas and ideals, but I am often short on the time and resources necessary to make them happen. I must adapt. Roll with the punches and move on.

But can I tell you how nice it is to till? The soil preparation that would have taken several days took just a few hours. I was able to get over 20 tomatoes and 16 tomatillos in the ground in no time. I am amending with kelp, rock phosphate, and pelleted chicken manure. I will add compost as I am able. I will build the soil with organic matter so that next year I won’t have to till.

Unless I do. And then I will.

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There are blessing in all things.

I borrowed the tiller from a church friend. When I picked it up, she asked if I needed garlic.

“Yes, I would love some garlic!”

How about mint, do you like this Amish mint?

“Yes, I would love some mint!”

Do you like rhubarb?

“I don’t know, but I can learn to cook with rhubarb.”

All the while she was breaking off fresh asparagus for me to munch on. This is what I want to be when I grow up. Homestead goals.

Do you have enough eggs?

Yes, we have enough eggs.”

Here, take two dozen home with you.

I dream of have such established abundance that I can share with a new farmer to her get started.

Until then, I am off to plant seeds in my freshly tilled soil.

Pigs and Potatoes

Or things that make me ridiculously happy.

It was time to move the pigs. There was much planning. Discussions of how, when, and where. Sketches on a notepad. And waiting for some reinforcements. It felt a bit like a military operation. Moving the pigs is a process.

We forage our pigs and during the winter we would bring them back to the stall at night, making it easy to move the electric fencing to new areas. But the stall needed to be cleaned out, the weather was warming up, and it was time to begin keeping our Large Blacks out in the woods.

Keeping them in the woods makes our day a little easier but makes moving their fence a challenge. How do we keep them contained and occupied while we shift the fence to a new area? We had been working on this for the past week. Firstly, food is involved. The plan was to keep them occupied with breakfast in one spot while we moved the fence around them. A good plan until one of the big girls snuck outside the fencing and went back to their stall. Not ideal, but it could be worse. We locked her in the stall and brought back extra food to keep the remaining three occupied. When the fence was set up, we brought our escapee back and gave still more food to everyone.

After three days of pig camping, it was time to move them again. We decided to bring them back to the stall, feed them there, move the fence while they were secure, and then bring them back to their campsite. This worked perfectly but was not ideal because we wanted to use the stall for other animals and keep the pigs in the field full-time. Additionally, we were relocating them half-way across the property to an area we need cleared for a new fence line. This would involve a pig procession.

We needed a plan.

After some complex communication, Mr. J and I had a clear-cut plan. We set up an extra length of fence in the new area, making an enclosed paddock. The pigs would be moved and kept there (with food, naturally) while the rest of the fencing was shifted from the old location to the new one. We waited for our oldest son and daughter-in-law to return from a visit with grandpa. This was all-hands on deck. The “kids” arrived, we laid out the plan, and got to work. The girls walk the pigs across the pasture while the guys move the fencing and water.

Ready, set, go.

It was quite the parade. Two girls shaking containers of cracked corn calling “pig, pig” followed by four pigs wondering when they would get their treat. At times, the pigs are like cats crisscrossing in front of you and you have to keep a close eye on everyone all at once. But we plodded along and made it successfully to their new paddock. Meanwhile, the guys worked quickly to move the remaining fence and set up their portable shelter.

Walking those pigs across that field makes me ridiculously happy. I have them trained; I know that we are giving them the best life. And it worked without a hitch! I love it when a plan comes together. Especially, when we often find ourselves saying, “well, that wasn’t the plan.”

If you would like to learn more about pasturing pigs, we have gotten some great information and inspiration from Billy Bond at Perma Pastures Farm. This video gives you a look at how he pastures pigs https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u69BLyOD_Wc

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My potatoes are going gangbusters. And this makes me ridiculously happy.

I wrote earlier about my foray into potato growing. (You can read about it here) I had no idea if my little experiment would work. In my enthusiasm I planted them entirely too early. With the snow and freezes that followed my initial planting I feared that they would just rot in place, and I would have a potato farming failure.

Then I saw them popping through their mulch of aged horse manure and straw. I covered them with more manure and straw. It rained. They popped through again. Now every time I am in the garden, I look at the potato patch and am amazed by its growth. All I am doing is covering with aged compost and they continue to thrive. I LOVE this. I am a simple woman, and stuff like this makes me ridiculously happy.