Breathing Room

One nice thing about autumn is the waning daylight hours. While I may very well regret the lack of sunlight in the coming months, at present I am relishing it. The darkness of night forces us to quit working outdoors and settle in for the evening, allowing us to eat dinner at a reasonable time and get some much needed paperwork (and blogging!) done before bed.

Fortunately along with the reduction in daylight hours comes a reduction in duties, or at least that’s the idea. With as many animals as we have our work is never done, but the weeds have slowed down and we’re no longer planting new crops so we have a little more space to breathe. The farmer’s market season has ended and we’re in the home stretch of our CSA, with only three weeks left. At the end of October Sam will be leaving the farm, and Andrew and I will be back to the drawing board, coming up with new ideas for next year while we keep our little wood burning stove alight.

This season was quite a whirlwind. Some random highlights include:

* The switch in seasons as marked by the transition from horrible buzzing mosquitoes to horrible buzzing cluster flies (it turns out our home built house is NOT air tight. Surprise surprise.) I (along with the many spiders in the house) have become an insect serial killer
* Making homemade kombucha, water kefir, sauerkraut, mead, tomato sauce, jam, pickles, dilly beans, picked beets, chicken stock, salsa, preserved lemons, applesauce, apple cider vinegar, noccino, and shrub (to name a few!)
* An (unsuccessful but fun!) overnight trip into the mountains to try and see the Aurora Borealis
* Farm yoga sessions with our friends at a neighboring farm
* Three hours spent chasing our brand new ewe who escaped into the “wilds” of 100 or so farm acres
* One edible trout we finally caught in our “backyard” river
* ~600 broiler chickens successfully slaughtered at the farm by us and an army of volunteers
* Zero major injuries, despite Andrew’s repeated attempts to ride “piggy back”

With the craziness of another farm season under our belts comes some powerful lessons. We have learned that there is way too much going on for just the two of us, and even with Sam’s help we were often overwhelmed. We’re going to have to figure out how to make our vision sustainable for the long haul, especially if we plan on raising a family some day. Additionally, owning our own business has been a lesson in fiscal responsibility and management. Next year I will need to invest in some software to help me better track our accounts. Stashing crumpled receipts in our Carhartt pockets or the truck dashboard to be added to Excel spreadsheets later is probably typical behavior for farmers, but not so great for business owners!

Unfortunately this season I have been struggling with a general lack of energy, likely caused by a combination of stress, irregular eating habits, and an underlying blood sugar issue. It’s a difficult dilemma, because work on a farm is truly never done. When the sun sets I spend much of my evening writing emails and catching up on paperwork, when mostly I just want to crawl into bed and sleep for twelve hours. This is part of why I have been so bad about updating this blog! We knew going into this that this farm gig wasn’t just a job, but a lifestyle. We are so lucky to have found something we’re passionate about, and I would never complain about our (chosen!) circumstances. It is important to be honest though, and admit that there are times I feel a real apprehension about this life. I have met many farmers who feel chained to their land/animals/crops, and never seem to find time to take a break. This is not how we feel yet, although with our growing animal herds it may prove harder and harder to find a good “farm sitter.”

My solution to that problem is to take a vacation this month while Andrew and Sam hold down the fort! Next week I’ll be visiting my sister in Maine, and get to meet my baby niece Juniper for the first time! My dad, uncle, and spouses will also be there so it will be a wonderful mini reunion. I’m looking forward to some time away, where I can rejuvenate my body and soul (and take hot showers on the daily!).

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Remember Me?

A few weeks ago the first of the Canada Geese returned to our valley, heralding summer’s end. If that wasn’t enough to convince me of how short our seasons are here, a lone (and possibly lost) trumpeter swan flew overhead yesterday, and the reality of the approaching winter began to sink in.

This summer has been an absolute whirlwind, which I am sure comes as no surprise to my readers since I have been radio silent for quite a while. I’m sorry! At the end of the day I can barely keep my eyelids open long enough to shovel forkfuls of dinner into my mouth before collapsing into bed, and I haven’t had the time or energy to spend on my writing. I will do my best to catch you all up to speed!

Last week was our third chicken harvest of the season. While the work is hard and time-consuming, we have dialed in our procedures and have plenty of interested volunteers who help make things go smoothly. Selling birds has never been a problem, and we are always so encouraged by our amazing customers who are committed to supporting us and the way we raise our meat. Where we live there aren’t very many options for pastured, ethically raised meat, and so we have really tapped into a niche. We consider ourselves very fortunate that this is a niche we are extremely passionate about!

In that regard we have started to expand our menagerie, and have added a couple of sheep to our farm. They are Katahdin hair sheep, which means we don’t have to worry about shearing them because they shed their hair like dogs. We have two ewes (Rosemary and Blossom), and a ram (Rambo, aka Beau, aka Cephus…we’re still working on that one!). We hope to buy a few more before the season is over so we can have lambs in time for Easter. The goats continue to alternately entertain and frustrate us with their hilarious antics. The hilarity rapidly turns to irritation when they escape and won’t go back in their pen, or when they completely destroy the nice tarp they had for a roof on their house. With the amount of time Andrew spends wrangling goats, they have yet to be proven as an economically sound investment. They definitely keep us on our toes, and that’s got to be worth something!

The pigs have grown immense in a short amount a time, a function of having free access to high-quality feed. They are such wonderful creatures, and delight in the small pleasures: a fresh bucket of bendy cucumbers, a wheelbarrow of ginormous zucchinis. They come running when I call them while snorting in excitement, much to the delight of visiting customers and friends. Our turkeys are also growing quickly, and while rearing them to this stage has been a difficult and often painful process, I am so incredibly enamored with them. We had many losses when they were just little babies, since they have a habit of smothering each other at night. Now they are out in pens on sawdust, and are eager to get onto pasture where they can eat their fill of greens and grubs. This week we plan on building them a safe brooding house for nighttime, and will set up a netted fence for them to roam within during the day. In the meantime I can often be found clipping clover and dandelion greens for my chirpy little “goobers.”

This season we have added a farmer’s market to the mix, and it’s definitely a unique experience. I had prior “booth” type experience at my last job, but it’s a very different thing to sell produce I grew with my own two hands. Farmer’s markets also attract a wide array of people, and I find myself having really interesting conversations. One thing I’ve noticed is that some people really just love to unload, vent, or otherwise air their dirty laundry onto poor unsuspecting farmers, and I’m starting to feel like a bartender! I know all about certain people’s ailments, car accidents, divorce battles, and the like…it makes me feel grateful for my own joyful life and good health. The best part of the market is getting to know my “regulars,” including a sweet gentleman who calls himself “Orca Man,” pushes his mother’s wheelchair everywhere, and always pays in $100 bills. There’s a guy who always wears a kilt, countless old ladies in elaborate hats and scarves, curious children, and health-conscious gym rats. There’s bicyclists, motorcyclists, home-gardeners, and housewives. In other words, the market is full of diversity and I always come home richer for the experience, even if the cash box doesn’t feel much heavier!

As the season marches on, Andrew and I continue to plot our next move. It’s hard to make plans when so much of what we are doing is tenuous. We’d like to expand our meat operation, but without reliable running water or electricity we are in a tough place. (Side note: Our shallow well ran dry this summer…again! Eric, the landowner, recently had a real well put in, but the water coming out of it is pretty unpleasant). Also since we’re in a flood plain, having breeding stock of certain animals (like pigs) becomes a big challenge. We can’t imagine ever having the funds to buy our own place with adequate acreage, and we have fallen in love with the valley we now call home. Fortunately for us we are adaptable and creative, so I’m confident things will fall into place.

Change is definitely afoot down here at the farm, and you may have noticed some blog changes too. In addition to some layout updates, at the bottom of the page (keep scrolling!) you’ll find links to both our farm website and Agrilicious!, a free service that connects you with local farmers. I anticipate some small financial benefit to adding this link (perhaps an upgraded membership on their website), but I am truly passionate about helping each and every one of you find amazing, local produce. If everyone endeavors to support local agriculture in some small way, we may be able to heal our broken food economy and nurture the land back to health while we’re at it.

Back on the farm the turning seasons are bringing afternoon winds that carry a weight larger than that of Old Man Winter. There’s a stirring in my bones, and a sense that big things are on the horizon for us. I am not sure what these big things are (no Mom, I’m NOT pregnant!!!), but I’ll be sure to keep you appraised as our story unfolds before us.

** Click the link below for a random video of Andrew being interviewed for the news!**

No cock-a-doodle-doo here? County weighs expanding animal nuisance zone

 

The Golden Hour

There is a time of day I like to call the “Golden Hour.” I started noticing it a month or so ago, when the weather shifted towards winter and the trumpeter swans began flying low overhead.  Just before sunset, (at 4:15!), on days when the sun is shining and the frost lingers in the shadowy areas, the light hits the trees across the river and a brilliant golden glow radiates. Golden Hour is actually a misnomer, because the moment is brief; maybe five minutes lapse before the sun’s rays weaken and twilight sets in, turning everything to muted shades of grey. But in that short time I look around, take a deep breath, and absorb the last gasp of energy from the sun while I can. This is a moment that I believe only happens in climates where the seasons are distinct and change rapidly. I have seen it before, while going to school in Ohio or when I lived in the Eastern Sierras of California, but here on the farm it is different. Maybe it’s because I’m outside most of the time it occurs, but I think it is because I am in tune with my environment like never before. I can feel the seasons switching over, and the Golden Hour is like a beautiful warning. Take heed: winter is coming.

I suppose, (since everyone keeps telling me), that we have been lucky with weather this year. Having never lived in the Pacific Northwest I have to take their word for it. Though the mercury has dropped dramatically, with night temperatures in the twenties this week, the sun has made frequent appearances. Don’t get me wrong; there have been some blustery, grey, misty, and torrential days. But they are mixed in with marvelously clear, cold, brilliant days where the snow-capped peaks in the distance pull my gaze, reminding me of their quiet splendor.

Tuesday was one of those days, and it also happened to be the day we slaughtered our five pigs. I was worried most about this day, despite having witnessed the slaughter of cows, and having taken part in the slaughter of chickens and turkeys. We raised the pigs from little weaners, and they were an integral part of our life on the farm. Daily they frolicked, squealed, played, ate, scratched, escaped, ate, grew, nuzzled, snorted, ate, ate, and ate some more. I was worried that I had become too emotionally invested in the pigs, (I did name them after all), but throughout the process I understood that the pigs had gone from friend to food in the most humane way, and I now feel a sense of peace about the totality of the process. It doesn’t hurt that as pigs get older and bigger they get a lot less cute and cuddly! It also doesn’t hurt that I watched the birthing of a calf after all the pigs were slaughtered. In death there is life and in life there is death, and to me this is the essence of farming.

Last week we spent Thanksgiving with my father and stepmother in Sacramento. We took a road trip down there, and brought with us the dog, fresh eggs, a sack full of potatoes, and one half of a 30lb turkey. We have been eating our own chickens and beef since the spring and so I am used to the tangible difference between fresh, naturally raised meat and the kind you buy shrink-wrapped at Safeway.  Even with elevated expectations, this turkey blew my mind. The juice, flavor, texture…it was absurdly divine. If you have access to a nearby farm that produces Thanksgiving turkeys, I urge you to take advantage. Sure, you pay a lot more than you would for a Butterball, but you really are buying a different product. That’s true for all sustainably-raised meat, but if you consider it a splurge, do yourself a favor and splurge on the turkey!

In addition to our Thanksgiving getaway, I have recently traveled away from the farm quite a bit. My mom came in from Australia and I spent time with her and my brother and sister-in-law in Seattle. Then I flew to Portland, Maine with my mom and spent time with my sister, her husband and some more of my extended family. I had a great time visiting with everyone, and relished the easy access to a hot shower. I found myself getting “comfortable” living the city life to which I was formerly accustomed. I worried that it would be a hard transition back to farm living, that the cold would get to me and I would regret our lack of running water and dependable electricity. Fortunately coming back to Andrew’s warm arms made all of my doubts fall away, and I am happy to be back in my little house, sitting in the glow of the lantern as the fire rumbles nearby. As long as the Golden Hour keeps the “Big Wet” at bay, you won’t find me complaining!

The Busy Season

When we first started working on the farm we kept hearing about how the “busy season” was coming up. Having never worked on a farm before, we could only nod and imagine what that might mean. We both had done ample research on the type of farming we wanted to do, and of course the popular farmer image is that of a harried, sleepless, underpaid, overworked, beleaguered, and weathered soul, so we weren’t completely unprepared for the work ahead. But nothing can really prepare you for the types of days we’ve been having this week. They’re the type of days that involve us driving back up to our apartment at 8 PM, killing the engine, and just sitting in the truck too tired and numb to open our doors or unclick our seat belts. They’re the type of days that have us slaughtering chickens, harvesting vegetables, sanding and staining hardwood floors, and organizing volunteer days at the farm.  They’re the type of days that have us wrangling goats, collecting eggs, slopping out goat’s milk to the pigs, and then working on irrigation. This is indeed the busy season, and though we are surviving, it is exhausting work!

Thankfully these past few weeks we have had some help in the form of Kyle, a recent ag school graduate who is nomading across the country in search of practical hands-on farm experience. Kyle hails from Houston, Texas and is following the “good weather” while he can. He has oodles of book knowledge and lots of great ideas about what plants to use as cover crops, how to use mulch to prevent weeds, and has been a great asset to us on these busy busy days.

The weather has indeed been “good” up here. It’s been sunny, warm, and breezy: wonderful weather for going to the zoo, working in your hobby garden, or taking a nice bike ride. For us farmers who are outside every second of the waking day, the sun is getting to be a pain. I never thought I would say this, but I’m desperate for some rain, or at least some grey skies. The irrigation system at the farm is not up to snuff, and I am stressing about our plants not getting enough water to thrive. A little rain would go a long way! Our 300 gallon rain barrel is also nearing empty, and so finding water sources to replenish turkeys and even to wash our hands involves extra walking or turning on gas-powered pumps.

There is a constant anxiety involved in farming, or at least involved in Greenhorn farming. The biggest concern (other than water of course), is what the heck is going in our boxes this week? We’re still learning how to plant at the right times to ensure we have ample produce when we need it. Fortunately we’ve been lucky (or successful?) enough that we’ve had pretty good-sized yields. On our most recent pickup day someone did mention that our boxes looked a little “light” this time around, and I agree. We had such a wonderful spring that our earliest boxes were lush and overflowing with a huge variety. We still have quite the selection, but it doesn’t exactly match our previous hauls. This is all part of the CSA. Sometimes crops fail, or weather turns, or elk trample your seedlings. As members of the farm, our customers know that we are doing all we can, and sometimes there is less, while other times there is more! If everyone loved cucumbers we’d have nothing but smiles…that is one bumper crop we can’t seem to stay ahead of! I can’t complain though; nothing beats a cool cucumber with sea salt on a hot summer’s day!

In other news, my family had quite the shock a couple days ago when my father had a massive heart attack. I say “massive” because that’s what I’m told, although I spoke to him and he sounds pretty good, no, especially good for a guy who required CPR by heart surgeons the day before. My father is in general a healthy guy who walks around a lot for work, so this was not something any of us expected. My siblings and I are all headed to Sacramento to visit with him this weekend. I am not happy about the circumstances, but I am looking forward to some quality family time, and to be honest a little break from the farm is probably not a bad thing either. Poor Andrew will be on his own for a few days, but I think the time apart will also be good for our relationship. Working and living with your spouse requires a true partnership, and like any partnership sometimes a little distance here and there can make all the difference.

While I spend my time inside air-conditioned buildings avoiding the 100+ degree Sacramento heat, I’ll be doing a mental rain dance with visions of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Baker as my goalposts. I’m not confident the rain will come, but I do believe that we will endure this “busy season.” While it might not be the most graceful of farming ventures, it will be just enough to whet our appetites for the season ahead. There’s a common refrain among farmers that goes something like: “next year we’ll do it this way.” Andrew is full of these ideas, and while I often roll my eyes and snip at him to focus on the year at hand, I am excited for the growing possibilities that await.

Greenthumb Greenhorns

There is an inevitable moment that occurs when the people we are talking to figure out how inexperienced we are. For the first five minutes we are usually able to pass ourselves off as seasoned farmers; “Oh yes, we have lots of starts already in our green house, and the seedlings in the hoop houses are coming along nicely!” “We trimmed our goats’ hooves yesterday…it was a piece of cake!” And then, “We’re going to have a few pigs on the farm soon!” It was this piece of news that made our new acquaintance (a truck driver for the mill who seems to have ample agriculture experience) stop short.

“Oh, so you’re hog people?!”

“Well, we will be soon!”

“Oh.” <pause> “You’ve never raised ‘em before?”

“Nope! But we’re doing a lot of research!”

“Hahaha. Hah. Haha. Good luck to you!”

In the end he recommended a book for us to check out, and talked a lot about how smart pigs are and how likely they are to escape. (Which is no problem, we are quite used to our animals escaping. This past weekend while we were away the goats seemed to learn that the electric fence really isn’t all that bad, and now wander in and out of the enclosure at will. Some part of me thinks Zephyr sneaks off at night to show them how it’s done).

The nice thing is, when people realize we are coming at this from ground zero they generally think it’s great, and are willing to share some bit of wisdom or tell stories about when they first started out. There is certainly a big difference between “book knowledge” and “practical knowledge.” We have a lot of books, and have been researching as much as possible, but the solutions in the books don’t always apply. More often than not when I mention I read how to do something to Eric, he will politely point out that whatever I read is in fact completely impractical and it should be done this way instead. I am hopeful that after a full season on the farm I will have my own memory bank of knowledge to draw from, so I can consult the books when I am stumped, rather than scanning through them every day!

Things have been progressing at the farm very rapidly, and I am anxious, excited, and nervous for the real “season” to begin. Our cute little chicks are now huge, awkward, fairly unattractive “teenagers,” and will be heading down to the farm this week. Eric also dropped off our egg layers down at the farm, so we now have around 150 little peepers to keep happy and healthy. This week our pigs will arrive, and pretty soon we will be getting ready to welcome some turkey chicks to the mix! On top of that we are still working on irrigation, mowing and tilling the fields, planting seeds and starts, weeding ad infinitum, and waiting for the weather to finally decide it’s springtime!

The tiny house project is coming along, and with a roof, windows, and a door it actually feels cozy and home-like! We (ie: mostly Andrew) have a few more major things to accomplish before we can move in, but we are hopeful that within a few weeks will be down there, falling asleep and waking up to the cacophony of animal sounds that abound on the farm. In addition to our livestock, we are frequently treated to calls and flyovers by the resident geese, ducks, bald eagles, hawks, herons, sparrows, robins, woodpeckers, (and more!) that call the farm home.

On a side note, in case any of you are wondering, my grandmother is doing exceedingly well down in Tucson. It was really hard leaving her, not knowing exactly how she was going to get along since her health wasn’t as good as it could be, but when I speak to her on the phone I am so relieved to hear how much better she is. She is walking (although often with a walker), is trying to make new friends, enjoys the pool in the retirement home (that I never knew existed while I was there!), and sounds genuinely happy and healthy. I am looking forward to celebrating her 90th birthday next January with the entire family… and what a year to celebrate!

Speaking of years to celebrate, April 28th will mark our first wedding anniversary. This has been the most unexpected, adventurous, momentous, stupendous, love-filled year of my life! From living happily with my sweetheart in sunny San Diego, getting married in Joshua Tree National Park, traveling 15,000 miles with a teardrop trailer, spending some difficult months apart, and moving to Washington to work on an organic farm, we really have done it all! And you know what? We’re just getting started!