Tuesday, February 26, 2013

We Finally Got Our Snow

This has been a mild winter and we had almost resigned ourselves to little snow which doesn't help the drought effects all that much but last night we got about 6 inches of snow and before that 3 inches of rain. Our ponds are now back to normal level, the snow is great for our pastures, and the beauty of a fresh snow is awesome.
Despite pretty good hunting of rabbits this last season we still have quite a few around the farm and see them almost every day. We have no desire to wipe them out (even though they like to dine on our crops) and we enjoy seeing them on our walks but we have one large guy who comes right up to our front porch and hangs out. The snow shows tracks like this all over.
As stated in a previous post, our visit to Bowen Creek Farm really showed that we need to increase our green house capacity for the plant starts we use for our market garden and the plant starts we sell. So..to the right of our existing greenhouse we will be putting in a combined garden shed/greenhouse that will look similar to the chicken coop. We will remove the hog panels you see in this picture that we have been growing cucumbers on, moving some of the raised beds and installing the new greenhouse perpendicular to the existing one. It will have electric fans and lights and running water along with two windows and an over hang that will be used to display bird houses and hanging plants we sell and the other side will be a double walled greenhouse. We should have it in place by early April. 

The front half of the house is old, built in 1938, but it just fits this small farm and its incredibly peaceful in winter.

As you can see, the lower pond is now full even though its currently iced over. We needed the rain and snow desperately and its our good fortune to have had this storm.

We haven't done much inside the shop lately but we just got the new water pump for the IH 424 tractor and we will be turning our attentions to that over the next week.

This is just another picture I found very pleasing and peaceful. Its hard to explain why having an old barn is so satisfying but it is.

We went for a walk today and Maybelle was in a playful mood. This is the same bottle baby calf I used to carry in my arms.

Our main pond is now back to normal level which is hasn't been since about June of last year. We still have plans for a windmill aerator up here and a small cabin...its just not real high on the priority list right now with all of our other projects pending.

We enjoyed walking around after our chores, seeing all the birds and a couple rabbits, and enjoying the serenity of the snowy landscape.

It is beautiful right now, not too cold, and its nice to get a good snow. But maybe one more day and then spring please!
Now for something completely different. I have been buying raffle tickets from various charities for decades and always just considered it a donation; I have never won a thing from a raffle. But this past weekend Holly bought six raffle tickets for me and six for her and one of mine was the winner for this Mossberg 835 12 gauge pump action shot gun. Its a turkey gun and I don't have a pump shot gun (though I do have a couple other shot guns). The spring turkey season is in April and this will get a good work out.
It has detachable chokes but the one that came with it is a full choke ideal for turkey loads.

This is a bad picture but the sights are great with two glowing red dots for the rear sights and a glowing green one for the front sight, very easy to get a good bead.
What else has been going on? Well our Grandson Caleb score a 28 on his ACTs and is getting a scholarship to Oklahoma State for next year, our Oldest son just returned to Active Duty with an Air Guard unit and can now finish up his career and retire from active duty, and our Daughter in Law Stephanie just got a new job she likes with the State of Alaska. Its been a pretty good month.

One Way to Get Involved in a New Rural Community

We hear a lot of people complain that its hard to get accepted when you move to a small rural community and it can be, but one way to get involved and meet people is to join local organizations and groups and one of the best in my opinion is your local volunteer Fire Department. We hadn't been here two days and I got approached at the local diner about being a volunteer fire fighter...the conversation started something like this: "Say your those Alaskan folks who just bought the ***** place aren't you?"...."You need to be at a meeting at the Fire Department at 0900 on Saturday...see you there". And that is how I became a fire fighter and first responder.

Now Holly is on the board of directors and Judy participates as part of the Axillary and we all find its very rewarding. My various injuries are just worked around and though I could not physically do it full time I participate in all fire fighting activities and am also a medical first responder. After having spent my entire adult life (since my 17th birthday) as part of something, mostly in the military, I find the camaraderie, the distinct roles, and the adventure of belonging to the brotherhood of Fire Fighters very fulfilling and it sure went a long way into meeting people and being accepted by the community.

One of our desires when we retired was to devote more time to volunteer work and helping others so this was a natural venue for us and besides, when I was a kid I wanted to be a Marine (did it), a Soldier (did it), a Farmer/Cowboy (trying to do it), an astronaut (still looking!) and a Fireman. If I could find a slot on the space station I would be all set!

I have been a Fireman and First Responder now for over 3 years but had never had the formal schooling or state certification, mostly due to the distance to the training sites, but also partly because I just was avoiding challenging myself again like I was used to in the military. So when the Chief just added me to the training list I was a bit grumpy but it turned out to be a great course and I just needed that boot in the butt to do it. There were numerous departments represented, we all have differing uniforms and equipment and of course like most things like this we all tried to out do each other...it was a blast.

After two weeks of class room instruction and field training we culminated in the final smoke chamber exercise where they light a fire in a bunch of straw and wood inside a shipping container and you go in with your Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) on and feel the effects of thermal heat layers.

It was cold and sunny outside, not so cold inside the container and it actually blistered the numbers on the helmets but it did show the equipment works.

I have been in several burning buildings with my SCBA on since I joined the Fire Department and a lot of the training was mostly already known to me but I did learn things and if nothing else, it demonstrated that my department is doing things by the book.

Almost everyone in the class was a volunteer, they all have jobs and yet they volunteer their time to train, work on the apparatus and respond to almost daily calls for fire and EMS services. I was second oldest in the class and it was gratifying to see so many young guys give their time and efforts like this. You hear about the bad but there are also a lot of dedicated young people still around who give back.

Fire fighting is dangerous and each situation is different but its also enormously rewarding and if you thrive on adventure and like a challenge I cant think of anything more exciting you can do that's legal.

The course of instruction included everything from radio procedures, public relations, classes of fire, safety, rescue, forcible entry, hose work, maintenance, ladders, emergency vehicle driving procedures, ventilation, SCBAs, etc. I am now state certified at the basic level, I am going to pursue more advanced certifications, and I am already enrolled in formal EMS certification training. I am glad I did it and encourage anyone, male or female, to join your local volunteer Fire Department even if in an administrative support capacity. 

A Visit to Bowen Creek Farm for Some Inspiration

We visited our friends Susan and Blenna at their farm not too far from us a couple weeks ago and  had a very enjoyable day looking at their operation, having a great lunch, and getting advice. Bowen Creek Farm (www.bowencreekfarm.com) is a 97 acre mixed beef and sheep operation with a large 300 tree orchard and Susan and Blenna are kindred spirits in their pursuit of a simple sustainable life.

As we progress in our own farm operations its really helpful to see how others are doing things which not only gives us inspiration it gives peace of mind that we aren't totally out in left field. We found plenty of inspiration and ideas at Bowen Creek and now if the weather would cooperate we are anxious to get going this spring. They are both a little older than us but they work around their challenges and Susan is even a published author so it kind of makes my frustration with my own physical limitations seem kind of selfish and there is no doubt about it I need to get back to writing. My writing in the past has centered mostly around grant writing, technical writing and the occasional magazine article but there is really no reason I am not more prolific other than I get lazy.

We are looking at getting some goats this year but seeing the sheep has made us rethink a little bit. Goats I know a little about and sheep not a bit but they sure were appealing. As you can see they weren't far removed from lambing and the lambs were just enjoyable to watch as they played and suckled their mothers.

This little guy had to be bottle fed as his mother doesn't produce enough milk and he followed Susan and Blenna around like a little puppy all the while his mother would bleat her dismay.

But this is a working farm and they do sell lamb and from what I remember the wool.

Their farm is similar to ours in that they build things themselves and reuse what might otherwise have been thrown away but its laid out nice and its a great little farm. You show up to their place and the dogs bark, the sheep are bleating and the cattle and horses (and donkeys) make their own distinctive sounds which all just feels right. One of the things we enjoy about our own farm is having the dogs come running and barking when we come home, the sounds of the chickens and our rooster Carmine, and the cows letting us know its time to feed. Its all part of what makes the place seem alive.

It was a cold blustery day when we were there...until we entered their 30'x80' Farm Tek green house. They were just beginning to prep the beds while we were there but with the cold winter wind whipping outside it was about 70 inside the greenhouse and the grass was already green. We helped plant some ginger root (and learned how to do it in the process which will be the subject of a future post) and got some good ideas for our own operation. One of the things we have already realized and confirmed with this visit is that we need more greenhouse capacity. Their operation is a lot larger than ours and we wont be getting such a large greenhouse but we have already figured out what we want based on this visit and will be ordering ours this week.

One of the things we enjoy seeing when we visit other farms is the unique structures people make out of what is available. This greenhouse was constructed with old windows and pieces of lumber that were laying around the farm from other projects and its full of Blenna's tropical plants. It was warm inside, very tropical and we plan on doing something similar with all of the windows we have from replacing our farmhouse windows.

Not content with making me jealous over the greenhouses Blenna had to take me into her shop to show me the 1972 Harley Davidson 175 dirt bike she is restoring. These are pretty rare and very rare in this condition. Everything was original and it had virtually no rust and it would just be a kick in the pants to ride on the farm....kind of gives me some ideas ...now just to figure out how to get these ideas past Holly.

I just thought this was a pleasing picture and I took it to help me design our own road that we need to define access to our own various pastures. They have nicely sectioned paddocks and to the right here is a nice pasture and wood lot, directly ahead is a large pasture where they are running cattle and to the left are a couple of other pastures where they hay and keep horses and a couple donkeys. You have to have access to feed and water your animals, you need to ensure you have good fences and gates, and it need to accommodate moving livestock between pastures for rotational grazing. It sounds easy but if you put the work into something and it isn't ideal you will regret it and can waste a lot of energy and money.

And finally, this time of year is the mud season. Snow, then rain, then periods of sunny weather, more snow, more rain and no matter what you do it gets muddy. It also doesn't help that our sewer project last fall left large patches of soil where we used to have grass and that wont be corrected until spring (the contractors will come back in a month or so and smooth out the dirt work and hydro seed).
We have been busy, we continue to progress and spring it just around the corner.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Starting Early and Some Changes

The mild winter and early fitful spring has allowed us to start the spring push a little early this year and we are back to doing maintenance and prep for the upcoming growing season which means lots of manual labor, a full schedule, and the satisfaction of once again being outdoors more than indoors.

I have never been very comfortable working indoors and find that my temperament is much more suited to physically demanding jobs where I can physically see and feel the fruits of my labors.

However, (there is always a however), we are significantly behind our objectives in turning this long neglected small farm into a self sustaining and financially solvent operation (the drought and my back surgery and physical deterioration have significantly impacted us)  and we need focus and a more structured framework in which to operate. So we are in the process of writing a new business plan that builds on our past 3 years of experience, we are filing as a Licensed Limited Corporation (Stonehouse Farm LLC), we are investing in advertising and infrastructure to build up on and off farm sales, we are seeking technical assistance from the University of Missouri and the USDA Regional Office, and we will have a separate budget where it is easier to manage both operational costs and the true cost of the income generated. I have a business background and looking at what I just wrote I almost want to smack my forehead but if your contemplating trying to make your small farm productive we have learned you have to be even more structured than say a more conventional business as margins are closer and there are so many factors out of your control (weather, commodity prices, injury/illness etc). The first three years have been spent building infrastructure, purchasing capital equipment, and learning the market and now its time to put that to practical use.

The weather has been up and down but overall nice enough that we have all been out working on spring projects and we are starting to shake off the winter blues.

Our fencing of the new property has progressed all the way to the back now where we have set corner posts and will be fencing across the back this next week.

If you own land one of the things that is a constant maintenance issue is the need to keep your roads in good repair. During winter and spring the mud season starts and the roads take a beating with mud pits, ruts and erosion being the primary focus since we don't really get enough snow to worry about plowing.

We just try and stay on top of it before it gets overwhelming and later this spring we will be dropping more gravel.

This is looking at the back southeastern corner of our new property addition and the three corner posts have all been set in concrete and await bracing and barbed wire. The posts were so close to a big Oak and some Cedars that I thought it would be a bear to dig the post holes but it was surprisingly easy back here.

There never was much of a fence back here so we pretty much have a clean slate to work with and didn't have to dismantle an existing fence.

The shot looks north towards our old property line and we will fence across the back here to meet up with our existing pasture fence. Clearing the old brush from the property line so we could fence was the most difficult part of this fencing job.

Looking East and to the back of our new property all you can see is pasture, then woods, and on the other side of the woods way in the back is another couple hundred acres of pasture and then more woods. There is tons of wild life back here and its just peaceful and quiet.
Part of the new property we bought last year was a small wooded area that had been used as a dump site by the previous owners about 15 - 20 years ago and we hauled out this pile of junk to take to the dump yesterday. It was completely screened by trees so you couldn't see it but it really bugged us so it was a priority to get it cleaned up.

I don't know why I didn't take a before picture but imagine this little wood copse being covered with rusted metal, old tires, broken glass and lots of bits of plastic and plastic containers. We plan on mostly fencing it off so the cattle don't start rooting around in there and cut themselves on something buried in the soil but its now a nice and enjoyable place where we will let the rabbits, squirrels and birds have free reign.
We have some seed starts already going in the greenhouse and Holly and Judy have been prepping the raised beds but we will be greatly expanding them this year. The new dirt work in the back of Holly (we did last fall with the left over dirt from the sewer line extension) will support a doubling or more of our existing raised beds and we will be also expanding our market garden area.

This picture was about 2 days ago, its still early February but it was about 63 degrees and sunny....yes! We ere also well supervised by the animals who all like to hang out wherever we are on the farm and in this case Rose the Farm Dog and her buddy Jake kept a close eye on us.

Bandit will chase birds now and again but he never catches anything and mostly just lays around and sleeps. He just wants to be close to the action, not particularly participate in anything strenuous anymore.
This week we work on finishing the business plan, we will be fixing the IH 424 Tractor (replace the water pump), more fencing, and build the new raised beds. Spring is good.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Feb 2 Update

Four days ago it got to 72F degrees here, two days ago the high was 26F and the low was 9F and we got about an inch of snow so things are a bit confused. Some of the grass is greening, the forsythia has buds on it and the Daffodils are peeking their light green shoots out of the snow. Tomorrow starts another warming trend and it will get up into the 50s and low 60s all through next week and I know that sounds great to our Alaskan friends but its almost torture because you get a feeling of spring and then "BAM" another blast of cold will descend out of the Canadian plains.

This is also the time of year when everything is muddy and we are anxious to start living outside like we usually do. On top of that, my shoulder surgery has been delayed and now it will be delayed further because of some medical courses I am scheduled to enroll in which pushes the possible surgery date into late spring early summer which wont work, and then we have fall when we need to be prepping for winter so......AHHHHHHH.

But we have been busy.

Our hired hand Travis and I finished up pounding the T-Posts for the new pasture, to be exact, because of my back he pounded and I held the post, but we got it done and took advantage of the soft ground from all the rain and snow we have had lately.

This is one side of the gate posts we set earlier last fall and we finished bracing them to take the gate and to allow us to stretch five courses of Gaucho barbed wire. Everyone has a favorite way to brace corner and gate posts and I prefer to set them in concrete that I have mixed (some like a dry set) and then use an H brace about chest level and a diagonal wire bracing under tension.

This is an acre long and narrow pasture with trees for the cattle to take shelter at one end, and a good bit of nicely established mixed grass. The 8 foot gate opening by the truck will be used in case any of the animals get out and to allow movement of steers we will be running on the neighbors pasture to the right of the truck. This is a further movement towards our eventual rotational grazing scheme.

Our cattle in the mid pasture have been fascinated with what we are doing and follow us down the fence line as we work.

Looking in the other direction, we still need to run wire from down the hill but that's the easy part. If your wondering, we are using 6.5 foot T-Posts for the perimeter fence with five strands of barbed wire and the 6.5 foot T-Posts are now almost 5 dollars each. We have a stash of used posts for some cross fencing but we feel more comfortable with putting in new and taller posts for our perimeter fencing.

The drought left our winter pasture a bit thin so we have been feeding about a bale and a half of  hay every day and we are getting to the point where we will have to buy more hay soon at current prices of $7.50 a square bale. We just didn't get the hay harvest this last year we have had in previous years because of the drought and normally we haven't had to purchase hay. I am posting costs because we have had some people ask and they seem shocked by what it costs to even run a small operation like ours. The romantic notion of having a few cows, some chickens, and a small family farm like ours is appealing and can lead some people astray and its easy to get into trouble if your not careful. Since we bought this farm and moved here numerous others have done the same in our area and most of them are no longer here, either losing their farm to foreclosure or taking a big financial loss when they sell. I am not trying to be negative but you have to go into a life like this with a realistic view of what it really costs to live the "Simple Life" in the manner we do. Not to say it cant be done a lot cheaper than we are doing but we have zero desire to feel like we are barely scraping by at our age.

Speaking of drought, our main pond has been really low since last summers drought but with the recent heavy rain and some snow its coming back up. Holly is standing where the water level usually is so we still have a couple of feet to go but its improving and we are thankful for that.
This is looking at the new pasture we just enclosed from the other end and you can see the new gate posts in the far distance on the left.

We run the fence lines daily in the 4 wheeler and if it looks cold here it was. Our mid and back pasture is on top of a hill and really gets the wind.
Can you say pregnant? Louise is really showing.
Thelma isn't showing as much but we think she is pregnant too.

You can really see how big Louise is getting compared to the others in this picture. If all goes okay, we should be calving in July.

Chores don't stop when the weather gets cold or nasty and besides the cold and mud, we have to break up the ice in the water troughs, feed the hay, feed the chickens and change their water, mend the fences etc.

I included this picture of Rose the Farm Dog because you can see just how much the grass is greening. Its Feb 2, we just hope we don't get a bitter March but according to Puxatawny Phil we are supposed to get an early spring and ...we are ready.
And finally, last week we made more progress on the Blue Dodge D-150 project. New upper and lower ball joints..

New brake rotors and pads (the calipers were fine)..

and a new exhaust system from the catalytic converter on back.

A local shop fabricated the exhaust system for us and I am really happy with their work. Its stock as I didn't want a noisy shop truck but it has a good sound and sure beats the pfft pfft of the old leaky exhaust.

And last but not least we replaced the O2 sensor which solved the rich idle when cold. The truck would start easy but it would idle kind of rough when it was cold and it was really putting out the soot from the tail pipe when it was first started. Turns out just as I suspected the catalytic converter was shot and clogged which sooted up the O2 sensor which in turn told the ECM the truck needed to be run rich. All that is now history, the truck runs even better than before, no soot, and it has a lot more power. Next up, new tires and an alignment. On the alignment, some people say you don't need an alignment after doing ball joints but the ball joints on this truck were so worn that to me it just makes sense.