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Saturday, December 8, 2018

Never challenge Mother Nature!


Not too long ago I wrote about challenging Mother Nature and moving forward with my plans, to hell with the weather and all that she had planned.  Well, She answered back in a BIG way.

This summer challenged this farm with a 50 year drought.  Wells and springs that were plentiful ran dry, including the one on this farm.  Thankfully the generations before had provided backup systems that allowed this farm to provide water for its two and four-legged residents alike.   As fall came to a close and an earlier than usual winter closed in with ice-in on the lake a full week earlier than any that this farm had ever recorded, the rains came and the spring brought forth water once again.  The pipe that runs from the spring to the well has sunk and the gravity feed which was once reliable has become an every other day appointment to re-prime.  Family intervention brought a new drilled well with a gallon per minute source of water to feed the homestead.  Unfortunately, the drilling came a week too late and the ground has frozen so that the ditch from the well to the house will wait until spring before pipe can be laid.  No matter the weather and no matter the to-do list, the appointment with the spring will be kept every day for the next four months to ensure that human and critter alike will have plenty of water.

In August the boar broke through the fence and began romancing the sows.  This homesteader thought little more of it than to record the date in her calendar, just-in-case.  Well three months and three weeks later – and earlier this evening – while feeding, watering and providing extra hay, she noticed that one particular sow appeared to be coming into milk.  In three days or less, while evening temperatures are forecast to be below zero, we will – in all likelihood, be having December piglets.  An extra trip to the grain store, a few extra hours in the pigs pen shoring up housing and wind protection, running some new electric fence, and probably more than a few hours of lost sleep over the next few days; there will, hopefully, be a successful delivery.  All of the piglets from this summer remain on the farm.  Mother Nature answered my challenge in no small fashion.

Thursday, amidst snow squalls and falling temperatures, the high tunnel arrived.  I certainly was dreaming to think that the freight company would pull into the dooryard and plop a 30 x 72 high tunnel, completely constructed and ready for compost delivery, onto the site which is only slightly prepared for it.  Dreaming it was.  The truck who delivered her got stuck twice on the flat part of the driveway.  Were it not for my fantastic cousin, the truck would probably still be in the door yard.   The pallet she came on was only partially intact; the load was collapsing even before we came close to it with the tractor forks.  Patience, experience and some wire cutters were what was required to make a quick delivery into just over 90 minutes work.  Some more skilled tractor work and a strong chain to extricate the truck and trailer from the dooryard were required and now the pieces/parts rest on my front lawn.

Finally, tomorrow marks the close of muzzleloader season in Vermont.  The evening after rifle season closed – less than 24 hours – this beautiful (although the picture is quite blurry) eight-point buck posed about 75 yards off the front deck.  I am certain that he acquired a calendar from the local grain store and checks off the days of hunting season.  I expect around 5:00 tomorrow night, he will visit again knowing that he has made it safely through another season.

The balance of this weekend will be spent with family over coffee in the morning, shoring up pig housing, running some new electric fence, bringing in a pile of fresh, warm bedding in anticipation of farrowing, posting sales of pork at rock-bottom prices, staking out where the posts will go for the high tunnel, recycling the old greenhouse plastic into both swine housing and tarping for the new high tunnel parts.  All the while Christmas tree sales will thankfully continue, and in between all of the above, hopefully I might find some time for a little house cleaning, getting ready for the upcoming week of off-farm work and school, and, perhaps, a load of laundry or three in there somewhere.

I said, “Challenge accepted.”

It appears her response was - 
“OK Lady, Buckle Up!  It’s going to be a bumpy ride!”

Saturday, November 17, 2018

November snow - Challenge accepted!

Critters, both two and four legged alike, are confused by the weather on the farm this week.  On Friday, Mother Nature blessed us with a foot of beautiful white powder.  Certainly early for the season and reminiscent of winters 35 years past, it has been both a gift and a chore.

The Canadian geese were as puzzled as I as they gathered at the south end of the lake.  The 'cocktail party' that typically ensues at the end of October during their annual migration was alive and well this mid-November evening amidst Mother Nature's fresh coating of white.  Chores, usually assisted by the child's wagon found free on the side of the road, were completed these evening by plastic sled carrying feed and water to the pigs.  


That same sled, after chores, carried the almost seven year old down the hill and driveway more times than fingers could count, giggles and full bodied laughter echoing behind as the sled went over the snow bank into the Christmas trees.

The first tree of the season was cut today and left the farm in the care of a young family who travel a lot for the holidays and asked to come and get theirs early so as to enjoy as much of their own season as possible before visiting their extended family across the country.

Our early season covering of white has made the ensuing construction of the high tunnel all that much more interesting and predicted low temperatures of single digits below zero on Monday aren't helping.  Sore muscles from regular chores and maintenance on the farm scream just a little louder as shoveling has become a necessary addition to ensuring all the critters have fresh, thawed water and feed.  This farmer remembered how to plow, albeit not a very pretty job, after better than 30 years away from being behind the wheel of a plow truck.

While chores may take a little longer and the grand plans for the coming season may be delayed a little - this farm moves forward.  Challenges have been laid down.  Perhaps the plow truck will clear the spot for the greenhouse instead of the 70 year old tractor.  School is out this week and this farmer has a chance to make a dent in some of her long overdue projects.  Mother Nature has laid down her challenge with a solid covering of the white stuff. 

To quote one of those popular movies that came out in the last few years - 
"Challenge accepted!"

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Infrastructure & not so fixed pigs fence

If there is one lesson, word of wisdom, gem of information, tidbit of knowledge that I can pass on to a new farmer; it is infrastructure.  Spend your time and money on it.  Get it in place before you add new critters or gardens or crops.  The time and money that you spend in the beginning will save you hours later down the road.

This homesteading/farming adventure began when Little man's father brought home seven chickens.  We had discussed getting chickens to have some meat and eggs for our own personal use.  Discussed it.  One day he arrives home with seven of them in his car.  There was no place to put them.  They could have stayed in his car, anyone who knows him knows that he probably wouldn't notice livestock in the passenger compartment along with all manner of other stuff that he accumulates there.  But a car is obviously not the best living situation for a chicken so we scrounged around and found some plywood and a couple of old 2x4's and we made a small chicken coop for them.  

That was the beginning of the homestead style projects that have happened here.  Each of the pig huts are made from salvaged materials.  My shed is made from mostly salvaged material.  Two of the three greenhouses that we had were made from salvaged windows, plywood and bricks.  Our fencing was reclaimed from the farmer who leased this land before me and had beef cows here.  And the piglet's fence (some woven wire portable fence with step in posts) was bartered for from a friend two towns over.

Our salvaged/bartered for/hobbled together fencing has not held up to 11 pigs.  It has kept them in, but as they get bigger and the rains have turned their pasture into a very large mud yard, it hasn't stood up to their desire to find more palatable ground.  The fence posts are beginning to rot causing sections of the fence to ground out.  Woven wire without sufficient power to deter impatient piglets is nothing more than a big chew toy.

Yesterday's attempts at fixing the fence were successful until I put the fence tester on the wires.  The exterior fence was plenty strong, but the woven wire was grounding out in the mud somewhere.  I had traced and replaced the wire, checked for breaks and frays, and fought eight 200 lb piglets in the process.  When I thought I finally had it all repaired and back in place, the wind picked up.  Three to six inch deep mud is not strong enough to hold the fence against 35 mph wind gusts.

In between electrical work on the old tractor and site work for the new hoop house, I will be running new fence for the pigs this weekend.  They aren't happy being all mixed together, but at least no one is in heat right now!  Let's hope that between Little man's father and I, we managed to save the fence post insulators that came off the old fence posts and that at least one of the two chainsaws hasn't been beaten up too bad by Christmas tree brush that it can be used to cut fence posts.

One more thing that I recommend keeping in running order - your washing machine!

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Rain, mud and fences

This summer was one of the driest summers in more than two decades.  The ponds at the top of our driveway were almost completely empty.  The farm ran out of water in July – thanks to my grandfather’s foresight we have a back up supply.  The lack of water made the ground pretty hard but we managed to install the piglet’s electric netting fence in the hard, dry ground using a little extra elbow grease and a heavy hammer.


Four weeks ago it started to rain again.  It has rained for two to five days out of each week for the past month.  Our ponds are full again and the ground water is slowly rising to where the farm has a nominal supply of water if we are careful.  While we are thankful to have the rain to replenish the water supply; it makes a pile of mud.  Livestock, especially our pigs and chickens, tend to stir up only the first two to six inches of dirt leaving hard packed earth underneath.  The recent rains have only penetrated the ground so far creating two to six inches of mud.  Pigs also love to root.  Where they have changed the layout of the topsoil, the water has tendency to settle instead of runoff where it traditionally had.

“Mom, I think there is a problem with the pig’s fence.  Cole is in the piglet’s hut.”

All the rain we have had lately and the resulting mud are grounding out our electric netting making it difficult to keep the pigs where they belong.  Changes in the grade of the ground in the pasture caused by pigs doing what pigs do has caused some water issues in their huts as well.

Instead of working on the site work for the new high tunnel this afternoon, my adventures will include going out in the pouring rain, separating piglets from boars and sows, and seeing if their fence can be repaired.  I will also continue working on the drainage around their huts.  This work is done by hand, with a shovel since working on the electrical system of the tractor in the rain probably isn’t the smartest idea.

Here’s hoping my new jacket and my washing machine can stand up to yet another afternoon of pouring rain and slick mud.

I think I will go vote first while I am still dry.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Piglets - finally - and cautiously throwing caution to the wind.

The history of pigs on this farm is very similar to the history of the next generation of this farm.  I can't say whether my great-grandparents played safe bets or whether they were gamblers of the truest sense.  I know that my great-grandmother worked too hard, often on the farm alone with hired hands and a team of twelve horses in her hand while my great-grandfather was off chasing his next business venture.  I am eternally grateful for her hard work and that of her sons, since I am afforded the opportunity to show my son what it is like to live in this tiny corner of northern Vermont.  The history of pigs on this farm has been a balance of safe bet versus, 'you have got to be kidding me, I am five months pregnant, I can't take care of piglets!'

Much like the the first chickens that Little Man's father brought home, the first piglets arrived with a hobbled together pig hut, some scrap lumber, an old carpet and a couple of pallets stood on end.  They arrived in a dog kennel in the back of a minivan and we managed to keep them alive, raise them amazingly well for not knowing what we were doing and provided almost 400 lbs of pork for ourselves and to trade with for beef and hay. The next set arrived with only slightly better accommodations, but at least one year's experience under our belt.  Although the first two were a welcome surprise, the second two were planned for even if we had no real idea of the scope of raising pigs to pork on pasture.  Our first pig illness hit during the summer of our second two pigs, alongside a visit from my step-children.  You learn fast when a recent farm transplant is looking up at you with big eyes as night is beginning to fall, your infant is screaming for you to feed him and your young pig is down in the field with a raging fever.

From there we rescued a sow who was bound for sausage.  We thought long, read a lot and then tempted fate with a terribly unsuccessful artificial insemination.  Our poor sow even ended up having a false pregnancy going so far as to get big, fill with milk and then - nothing.  After spending some serious change for this little farm on mail order sperm, I was hooked on pigs and wagered on a new boar.  One from the same heritage as our sow.

I drove three hours to lower New York state, spent better than half a weeks paycheck and brought home an eight week old, heritage breed boar from one of the best reputed breeders around.  Zeb was carefully raised and he tried his darndest, but the sow was too old and never got pregnant, no matter how hard he tried.  She was pretty old, so she filled our freezer.

Six months later, I purchased a gilt from friends two towns over.  I was determined to make this pig operation work here on the farm.  We waited until the time was right, took down the electric fence between Zeb and Little One and let nature take its course.  Well the first heat cycle passed, and not for Zeb's lack of trying, but there was no pregnancy.  Then the same farm we got Little One from had a sow that they were going to send for sausage; instead they delivered her to us and we were thrilled to have an opportunity for Zeb's good lines to meet with Sally's and for certain we would have spring piglets.  21 day cycle, after 21 day cycle - each time we were met with the girls in heat.  Although he was trying Zeb was just not getting the job done.

In December I had seen the posts about some boars for sale in lower Vermont.  I already had a boar, so I glossed over them hoping my girls were growing their next generation.  When heat came again in January, after the girls had been with Zeb for almost four months, I knew, for certain, that there was a problem.  I only assumed that problem was Zeb.  Two weeks later, that fateful Facebook post popped up again in my news feed.  The two boars were still available.

It was late at night in January and I tempted fate, almost 11:00 p.m., I messaged the seller.  He immediately responded and told me that both boys were still available and that they were only about 225 lbs.  I jumped on the opportunity, talked with him over a couple of days and we made an arrangement for a payment and then scheduled a weekend where I could travel down to get him.  Then the weather turned.  We couldn't have a second boar on the farm without the two of them fighting and there was too much snow on the ground to get Zeb from the pasture to the freezer without serious excavation.  It looked like my impulse was all for naught and there would never be piglets on this farm.  Well, the following weekend the weather turned, my cousin was available with the big tractor, a friend could come and help with the major parts and my mom could come and help with the packaging and labeling.  It was a sad day as the pig with the longest history with us was no longer.  The one pig I had figured as the future of my life here on the farm was being relegated to the chest freezer.

The following night I put a plywood wall between the second row of seats and the rear of the minivan, put a tarp on the floor and added a third of a bale of hay.  Saturday morning, I drove 100 miles south into the unknown and completely on a whim and loaded a 300 lb boar into the back of my minivan.

We got him home, and although it appeared he was trying his hardest - he was too small to effectively breed Sally and Little One wanted nothing to do with him.  I was concerned that I had spent far too much money and far too much time on another failed piglet venture.  Each month I watched as  at least one of the two of them appeared to come into heat.  When the heat stopped,  I saw no signs of pregnancy.  I bought a doppler ( I now know I spent far too little money on too cheap of a unit) only to hear nothing week after week.

Little man's father and I were having serious discussions about who was going to go into the freezer first.  Too many months with no visible signs of pregnancy, an ever increasing feed bill and a significant lack of cash flow.  I said to him - the one time I was spontaneous, threw caution to the wind and tried something just a little crazy and now I have to consider how much room there is in the freezer and that we might be done, completely done with pigs on the farm.  I was heart broken.  But the fateful day, 3 mos, 3 weeks and 3 days from the last confirmed heat cycle were just a week away.  We would wait two more weeks before we made a final decision.

Little One did not disappoint, although I was sure that Sally was the one that would be delivering first if it was at all possible that she was pregnant.  After a night of violent thunderstorms, Little One was in the pasture, pulling down old fence posts to make a nest in the hut.  She would eat, drink, then tear out another piece of fence and try to fit it into the hut.

Exactly one week after arriving on the farm, Cole did his job, and three months, three weeks and three days after that, the first piglets to be born on this farm arrived.  Eight were born and seven survived.

One week later Sally started grabbing some of those same fence posts and pulling them into the other hut.  Unfortunately her labor was not so successful - six piglets were born but only two survived.  Almost five months later we have eight healthy 'piglets.'  They remain for sale as breeding stock or as Christmas roasts.

This level-headed, normally cautious, list-building woman threw caution to the wind an bought a boar, sight-unseen, on facebook late on a Tuesday night.  Then she followed through, actually went down and got him in the back of a minivan!!  Perhaps this woman should learn to be a little more spontaneous.  She has learned not to be so cautious.  She will attempt a little more risk and sense of adventure... 

On a whim she called the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) about a grant for a high tunnel.  The deadline was the following day - she scrambled, applied and was awarded a grant for a high tunnel.  She now has 90 days to get the tunnel constructed and the plastic on.  Did she mention that it is the beginning of November and it snowed two days ago...

Time to jump in - to hell with the consequences!


Monday, January 8, 2018

Only one thing crossed off the to-do list today

Sometimes the end of the day comes and I look at my list and I may have only crossed off one thing and some days I don't cross off anything.  As a person who makes lists, not crossing anything off is pretty disheartening.  I look around at the end of the day and try to figure out where it went.

Today I started to work on rabbit waterers when Little man's father came inside and said that his car was stuck in the driveway.  To some that would seem strange, but our driveway is a little better than a third of a mile long with a hill flanked on either side at the top by two ponds.  Sometimes you head for the ditch to ensure you don't sink your car in either pond.  Thankfully he was only stuck in a three foot snow drift.  After several tries and some sheer determination I managed to get his car up the hill (not on the list).  While I was spinning and sliding, he took care of the rabbit water bottles.

Inside to warm up and pour myself a cup of coffee, I looked at my list and decided where to begin.  There is squash in the back room that froze in the double digit below zero temperatures that we had last week.  Since the temperatures for the end of the week are predicted to be well above freezing, I started there so we wouldn't lose the squash (on the list).  I needed a clean sink and a clear kitchen table; dishes washed and counters disinfected.  Some play time with Little man and a couple of emails answered (not on the list), then I went to the back room to retrieve the squash.  

Our back room is very cool most months of the year and will usually only dip below freezing during the coldest of weather.  I will often set leftovers or the carcass from the chicken we had for dinner last night out there to cool while keeping it safe from our four-legged family members.  I grabbed that along with the squash and returned to the kitchen.  I washed, cut, and scooped out the seeds from the squash and put the first couple of them in the oven.  Then I stripped the chicken from the carcass (some for chicken sandwiches and some for chicken and biscuits later in the week) and added it to a pot on the stove for broth (not on the list).  I pulled the squash I had cooked two days ago out of the refrigerator, processed it and put it into two cup bags for the freezer.  

I had one lonely cup of butternut squash leftover.  Hmm, I don't have much for afternoon snack so I took to the internet and made a modified version of this butternut squash apple bread.  It was delicious!  If I am lucky there might be two slices left for snack for Little man and I to take with us tomorrow (not on the list).


Two more batches of squash were cooked and set on the counter to cool.  In between I took the seeds that I wanted to save, washed them and set them on labelled paper towels to dry over the next couple of weeks (not on the list).   Some lunch, play time with Little man and a few more emails dealt with, another batch of dishes done and it was back to processing the squash I had just cooked while I added the next variety to the oven.

Little man's father came in and asked for some help with changing the tires on his car.  I was busy, but figured my time would be better spent helping this afternoon then trying to unstuck a car again in the wee hours of tomorrow morning.  A little play time outside before the snow squalls came and forced us back inside.  Some more dishes, some more squash, some paperwork, a little business accounting and another set of seeds set to dry (not on the list).

Dinner was easy tonight as we had leftovers in the freezer I wanted to use up to make room for all this squash.  Afternoon/evening chores assisted with and a last check of emails for the evening.  A blog post written and then to some quality time with family before dinner (not on the list).  

I checked the list before heading into the living room and realized that after all that I had accomplished today I had only crossed one thing off my list.  There remains a pile of squash in the back room that should have been moved to the cellar before the below freezing temperatures.  Lesson learned.  Tonight, eggs will be washed for a regular customer, more dishes done, some more playtime then showers, teeth brushed, stories read and a Little man tucked in (not on the list).  After Little man and his father have retreated to dream-land, I will try to cross one more item off the list.  The goal remains that by the end of the week at least two thirds of the items are crossed off.  Each week is a new challenge, but I continue moving forward.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Testing seed germination

I have been saving seeds for the past six or seven years.  Much of what I choose to grow are heirloom varieties so the seeds that come from those plants can be saved from one year too the next.  After I collected all the seeds that I saved from this fall, I went to add them to my seed stash.  My brown paper bag that I had begun with more than five years ago was finally torn beyond it's holding capacity. I went out to the greenhouse to collect the cardboard box that I had some other seeds stored in and found that it too had seen many years of abuse.  Then as I turned to head back to the house I saw the brown paper lunch bags where I had collected flower heads, sitting on yet another surface.  It was time for some organization.

I went in search of another box or bag that would work,  I knew there was a shoe box around somewhere, but since the full size brown paper grocery bag was overflowing, I thought I should look for something bigger.  Any container too much bigger wasn't going to fit in the cabinet where I have stored my seeds for a long time.  In my search I found yet another grocery bag full of seeds that were saved by my mother-in-law and her boyfriend.  After they passed I was blessed with the collection.  Some old heirloom corn grown by the Native Americans and  seeds from her boyfriend's homestead in Maine - many undated, some just collected in the outer wrapper of a cigarette package and tucked into the bag.  I  needed two boxes.  After about 20 minutes of searching for the perfect cardboard box, I found a three drawer plastic storage bin in the wood shop.  Two of the drawers were already empty.  I washed off years of sawdust and cobwebs and set to work.

Any seed less than five years old whose packaging was in good shape was inventoried and placed in alphabetical order into a storage drawer  Anything older, with a damaged package or unidentified in a paper bag, glass jar or cigarette wrapper, was added to the original falling apart paper bag to be tested for germination.  Round about mid November I was in between soccer and fall yard clean up, I pulled out some snack bags, some paper towels, a permanent marker and ten seed packets.

Ten paper towels were removed from the roll, moistened and placed on a dinner plate.  From the first seed packet I extracted ten seeds.  If all of them germinated then I had 100% germination rate.  If only two germinated then I had a 20% germination rate.  I rolled the seeds into the moistened paper towel, placed the roll into a snack bag and carefully labeled each bag with the information from the seed packet, including the year.  I set the filled plate in a warmish corner of the kitchen and let them simmer for seven days.  A few sets of tests went to ten days, but those got a little moldy so I tried to keep subsequent tests to seven days.  


It took about eight weeks to get all of the questionable seeds tested.  Amazingly enough, some of the seeds from 2006 still germinated.  Many did not.  Those that were cleaned and dried well had great germination rates.  Some that were just tossed into a bag and stapled remain as yet unidentified, but if they germinated at 80% or better, I kept them anyway.  I was going to throw away everything that didn't grow, but Little man's father asked me to keep them.  He is going to take a corner somewhere with good soil, till it up and dump everything that was left into it and see what happens.