Monthly Archives: February 2016

Ready for our first building!

Yesterday we completed preparations for our container building! Next Friday the pieces for our steel building barn are scheduled to be delivered, and the forklift we need to get the pieces off the truck is the same tool that can be used to move the containers onto their foundation. In order to kill two birds with one stone, we’re doing both on the same day! So we had to make sure the foundation was totally ready for the containers.

First, though, I just gotta tell you I was super excited. I went to bury this week’s food scraps and plant seeds on top. This time I dug up a small part of the garden bed near the girls’ playhouse. Guess what I found? EARTHWORMS! This is terrific! Earthworms in the soil are an indication of soil health, and this means our soil is not as bad as I feared!  Can’t wait to see those flower seeds sprout and grow.

Most of the day was spent installing concrete around the helical piers. We used these round forms, buried about a foot deep, and poured concrete all the way to the top of the pier.

We mixed all the bags by hand (and by “we” I mean “Andrew”). Ellie wanted to help, so she got to help measure the water added to each load! Poor kid; just after I handed my MIL the phone to get a picture of family concrete mixing I accidentally sprayed her in the head. She was a good sport about it but I still felt terrible!!

This is what it looked like when we were done! Because of the shape of the pier I got to get a 32 oz plastic cup and painstakingly pour cup after cup after cup in carefully between the form and the cap on the pier. My shoulder is super sore today after hundreds of repetitions with a 5 lb weight! Andrew is super sore too; he hauled all that concrete and mixed 14 80-lb bags himself. Farm work is hard but so rewarding!

This was our reward! Pancakes cooked over a campfire! My MIL brought them for dinner and man, if I could eat fresh pancakes every time we are at the farm I would be super happy!

Farm conference takeaways

Last weekend I attended the TOFGA annual conference and I LOVED it. It was super intense and it’s taken me a week to process what I learned.

One of the biggest questions I wanted to answer going into the conference was the question of what animals to start with on the farm. Through the workshops and sessions and talking with farmers and farm tours, I ruled out broiler chickens right off. Goats slipped down in my estimation when I heard how hard they are to keep contained. Horses are a money sink. Cows are great, but kind of a big investment and a steep learning curve for someone who’s never kept livestock. Laying hens are good if you don’t mind some loss to predation and if you have a market for the eggs. Sheep can be a great animal for a beginning rancher, and there’s a good market for lambs both in the commodity market (selling animals at auction) and retail (selling them for food). I still need to do research on the economics of raising sheep, and, you know, learn about how to care for them, but I think the first profit-oriented enterprise at Fields of Green will be sheep.

I also got plenty of validation that our goal of creating a life our children will enjoy is a worthy goal. One session I attended was taught by a man who did traditional ranching for most of his life. When his kids were grown, they got out of the ranching life as fast as possible. And this man, in his middle age years, rethought all he knew about his entire lifestyle and changed entirely. He started taking good care of his land, fertilizing it naturally, letting native grasses grow, and using high stock density grazing to replenish the depleted soil. I listened closely to what he had to say; a man who can make such a drastic change after being set in his ways for so long has got to have an excellent reason to do so.

I learned I really need to be able to figure out what is growing in our fields in order to properly address how to increase our land’s fertility. Even though the fields have been unmanaged for years, they’re not in really terrible shape. The worst thing about our land is the condition of the soil. I have not dug up one earthworm on our property, and water doesn’t absorb into the soil the way it should. It was depressing to see photos of simply gorgeous soils after the farmers had worked to increase their soil’s fertility. But it was encouraging to realize they’d only been working on their soil for 3-5 years. Hopefully someday we will have good After photos too 🙂

First flowers of 2016 and composting hack

At the farm yesterday, we spotted the first signs of spring!!

I have no idea what those little flowers are. I really need a book on Texas wildflowers and native grasses. If you have a book you like, please send along the recommendation!

And I planted my first small plants in the hugelkultur bed!

These are onion starts – I bought a bundle of 25 or so at a local feed store and split them between my RV park garden, the hugelkultur bed, and a new idea.

I’ve been having a problem that I think I solved yesterday. Let me explain.

No, that would take too long. Let me sum up.

I have been saving food scraps to compost. Since we live in an RV park it’s not practical or neighborly to start a compost heap here. I have a composting bin at my MIL’s house, but it’s not really animal proof. I thought putting the food scraps in the hugelkultur beds would help with their fertility, but it just attracted animals that dug up the newly placed soil to get the apple cores and banana peels.

So there was my problem; I didn’t want to throw away food scraps that could be used for improving our awful soil but I didn’t want to encourage wild animals to help themselves to everything in my garden.

At the farm conference last week, a couple ideas stuck in my head, and together they brewed up a solution to my problem. First, any bare soil on your farm needs to be addressed. Bare soil won’t soak up rain or sink carbon, and just isn’t producing anything at all, much less anything valuable. Second, the goal of everything you do on your farm should be to 1) make money and 2) increase the fertility of the earth.

With those ideas in mind, I came up with a plan. I found the worst patch of dirt on the farm. It was where we had a couple bonfires before we put the fire ring in place. The soil was bare and scorched. It wouldn’t absorb more than about a quart of water. And when I dug it up, there was ZERO insect life in the soil. It was dead, dead, dead.

I dug six inches down and dumped a week’s worth of compostable food scraps in. Banana peels, egg shells, old bread, etc.

Then I filled it back in, taking care to crumble the very dense clay into smaller clods.

And I put the rest of my onion starts in the soil on top. I think the view alone will encourage them to grow nicely!

I’m really excited about this idea. It solves many problems all at once. The next few months I’m going to concentrate on planting patches of wildflowers all around the farm to attract bees and butterflies.

In other news, Andrew got paint samples and my mother in law did a corner of one of the containers for the building. Oh my gosh, I love it! The main greenish color blends in beautifully with the landscape, and the brown trim sets it off so nicely. It’s going to look so…RIGHT.

Yesterday was WINDY. 20-30 mph constantly, all day. It wasn’t too fun, but hey. It’s our farm. I’ve not had a bad day there yet, windy or not.

Next week: we pour concrete to finish the foundation for the container building!

Farm tour

This weekend I’m getting to go to a farming conference. I am very excited to go and meet folks who farm for a living and learn from them. Today the association who is putting on the conference offered some farm tours as part of the pre-conference workshops, and I got to visit Cobb Creek Farms in Hillsboro to learn more about their pastured poultry operation.

If seeing carcasses or reading about killing chickens is going to disturb you, here is a picture of some bluebonnets you can look at instead. 😉

First we toured the slaughterhouse. There were plenty of jokes about dead chickens. Grady, our tour guide, called the above machine the wheel of misfortune. Chickens go in upside down and they’re beheaded.

Once they’ve bled out, the carcasses are scalded (left) and sent through the plucker. Then they’re eviscerated, washed, and cooled in huge tubs of ice water.

Once they reach the proper temperature, they’re sent into the super cold dis-assembly room where they’re butchered (if the supplier has requested that), labeled, vacuum-sealed, and boxed up. After that, they’re frozen and ready for the supplier to pick up or be sent to distributors. It was a super clean, honest operation and I was intrigued to see how chickens can be processed on this medium scale level. It’s much less intense than the giant slaughterhouses, but much more efficient and professional than having to do the whole thing yourself.

Since it was a gorgeous 75* February day, we then went to the pasture where the chickens spend half their lives to see the mobile coops and learn about how they improve the land while getting to be fat, happy chickens.

There are about 600 Cornish Cross chickens per coop, and the coop is moved every day. They get all the feed and water they want while they’re on pasture. The chickens only live for about 7-8 weeks before they’re butchered, and they spend about 4 weeks of that time outside in these coops.

There’s a single line of electric wire around the bottom of the coop to discourage predators. I thought that was pretty genius.

Above you can see how the chickens improve the pasture. On the left of the wire the pasture has had one pass of chicken grazing. On the right, the pasture has had two passes. Even in February the forage is much greener and thicker where the chickens have fertilized and lightly tilled the soil. That’s pretty cool.

Here’s a picture of how the feeders and waterers work. There are also misters in the top to keep the chickens cooler in the summer.

One of the best things I heard today was that a good farming operation needs to be focused on improving the soil – no matter how it looks for your land, you will never go wrong if you’re working to make the land better. And a close second is profiting from those efforts. They’ve managed to make that happen here. I don’t think a broiler operation is the right one for our farm, but I did get some great ideas about mobile coops for laying hens and I really enjoyed getting to see a successful operation like Cobb Creek!

Seed starting 

Many times when gardening in my little raised bed, I would simply buy a few seedlings at the nursery and pop them in my dirt. But I’m thinking that’s not going to be incredibly cost effective for a big garden, since one tomato seedling is about $1.50 and an entire packet of heirloom seeds is $1.50. Starting seeds takes some planning, but I’m having a blast getting my garden started a couple months before the last frost date!

The first thing I did was repurpose two salad greens boxes into little greenhouses. I dampened paper towels and carefully laid the seeds on the paper towels – and labeled them very well, because four of the seeds I started were nearly identical! In two days the kale and cabbage were already sprouting!

For Christmas, my mom got me these tweezers that are ostensibly for plucking eyebrow hairs. And since I am unkempt morally opposed to yanking hairs out of my eyebrows, I repurposed them. They’re perfect for pulling teeny tiny sprouts off a damp paper towel and placing them in seedling trays.

Trying to find a place to start seeds in a fifth wheel was a bit of a challenge for sure. We tucked a small wire shelf between the table and the couch. It’s making mealtime a bit of a squeeze but I’m super happy to have a little space for growing!

I set some lettuce, cabbage, kale and broccoli in their trays first since they sprouted earliest. Then I had some help a couple days later getting chard, cauliflower, spinach, and extra lettuce into soil.

I love these adorable helping hands! Ellie dived right in to helping carefully pluck seeds from the greenhouse and setting them carefully into the soil.

One thing I’ve learned so far: It’s easy to get carried away when starting seeds! I started wayyyyy too many seeds in the plastic boxes and now I gotta find something to do with the extra sprouts. I might try growing the sprouts in jars and put them on sandwiches – I can’t bear throwing them away after they were so successful in sprouting!

A chill(y) day at the farm

This week, farm day was a pretty chill day. Primarily because it was pretty chilly. Aren’t I hilarious?

My first task of the day is usually building a fire. Ellie was very cold and wanted to stay in the truck, so Emily was my adorable helper.

At 10 am I realized I had 1) a roaring fire 2) roasting sticks and 3) half a bag of marshmallows. Sooooo…there was no good reason to NOT toast a marshmallow!

One of the next things I want to do is make a flower garden for the girls down by their clubhouse. I saw a great place for it – it’s in the left side of this photo, right in the center.

Above it’s on the right hand side. I wanted a border, but I didn’t want to work hard for a border or have to pay a lot of money. Well guess what – we have PLENTY of fallen limbs around the property to border a little flower garden! I dragged several into place- below are the after pics (taken much later in the evening)

I’m really looking forward to planting this flower bed! It’s going to be total chaos and I love the idea.

Andrew and I and the girls and my mother in law and little Oliver then took a walk together. Some of us did more walking than others!

We took a break for tire swing fun 🙂

I didn’t get good pictures of this, but Andrew and his dad finished all the underground conduit work for water and electricity. We now have running water all the way to the barn site! Next week we’re having a whole lotta dirt delivered and I get to start planting in my hugelkultur beds!