8.7.2015 Catching Up and Auction things you might want to know

This summer has been a difficult one for market gardeners in my area of central Virginia. First there was the extremely cold spring, followed by the extremely wet early summer, followed by periods of intense heat. Now some people in this local area are still dealing with too much rain, while others are getting droughty. (Naturally, Apriori is droughty. I’ve got the radar screen shots to prove it.)

Tomatoes came late and they are just not right, somehow. The window between ripe and rotten is so narrow. Cucumbers and summer squash had a very short season before giving up the ghost. Succession planting made no difference. (Right now, all the squash bugs have finished off what few plants I had and are actually laying eggs on my lettuces.) The blackberry patch normally has a six week picking season. This year, I got one.   Beans just never took off. It’s not just me, but my garden has been an abysmal failure. I still get lettuce every now and then, but with the heat, it’s always iffy. Some farmers are reporting their peppers are already done as well. My field peppers never made it and my hoop house peppers came in late and are actually quite happy – the only thing that is happy at the moment.

Hard to make a living with just peppers though. So I’ve branched out a bit. I make and sell quite a bit of bread and bagels. I have eggs and jam and jellies. Still not enough. So I started going to the produce auction – as a buyer. Although I hate to do it, I’m purchasing locally-produced fruit and veg and using it to augment my offerings at the Farmer’s Market.

Soon after moving to the country, we learned estate and equipment auctions are often an all day social event. You can end up spending more than retail price on new equipment or you can sometimes get a really great deal, but you have to be quick. Things happen really fast at an auction. Having cell service and internet access in the show preview is really helpful. But once the bidding starts, you had better know what’s fair and have the wisdom to avoid a bidding war. Equipment auctions are still intimidating for me. I’ve been to two. Kept my wallet closed both times.

The produce auction is very similar. Let me give you an example. Green beans are sold in a half-bushel box weighing about 15 pounds. Retail price for green beans is $3 per pound. Depending on the supply and demand at the auction, beans typically sell between $10-14. This year, as you’ll recall, nearly everyone’s beans failed. Two weeks ago, a half bushel of beans went for over $30. When you factor in time and expense of getting to the auction and back, that sort of price doesn’t yield much of a margin. As a retailer, are you willing to sell at no margin (or even a loss) on one product to keep your customers happy?

And then there’s corn. It’s sold by the dozen, but comes in large sacks that contain 5 dozen. Often you are required to buy two or more. Sacks. So if you are the high bidder at $3 on a two or more corn purchase, you just bought 10 dozen ears of corn (unless you want more). You get to pay $30. Not $3.

Those large bins of watermelon that you see at the grocery store can be bought at auction. You bid per melon, but you take the whole bin. A winning bid of $2 could mean you just bought a bin of 40 large melons or maybe 90 smaller ones. That would be $80 or $180. Beginning to see the pattern?

Not so fast. Apple bins are starting to show up at the auction. These are sold by the bin. Apple bins weigh between 850-950 pounds. Going price is between $85 to 125. You brought your box truck to get the apple and melon bins home, didn’t you? And you have a pallet fork to unload them right?

Which brings me to my final point about auction: Whatever you buy must be taken home and stored until you’re ready to sell it. Do you have room in your transportation for that? How about cold storage?   It’s all about knowing your limits . . . and pushing them constantly.

6.7.2015 Trouble Monkeys, Chaos Gorillas and Mayhem Goblins

I guess this run began a couple of weeks ago when the riding mower went toes up and the minivan suddenly needed a new set of spark plugs. The trouble continued about a week later -the day I got the flat tire on my way back from picking up the irrigation equipment. I think that was also the day we lost Squatch. Then we lost the air conditioning and the vacuum cleaner. A week without AC turned out not to be such a bad thing. After five days of hot and muggy and hard to sleep nights, we had four solid days of cold and rainy. It was 61° in the house the day they fixed the AC and we didn’t need it until this Friday when I turned the oven on to bake for market. And the new vacuum cleaner is da bomb!

Today though, we lost the water. Something is up with the well pump/pressure tank/filter. It’s very hard to run a farm with no water. We’ve managed to eek out a few dribbles in the house, but nowhere near the 40+ gallons a day the horses require. My neighbor was good enough to bring 150 gallons over in a tank on his tractor. We topped off the horse trough and the buckets in the barn. The garden should be good for a while since we got about 5 inches of rain over the last week. Everything that is except the hoop house and the plants in pots. That’s going to be a problem. And this, children is why you have a manual well pump if you get all your water from a well. Except that we don’t have a manual pump. It’s been on the list for a couple of years, but we’ve had other priorities. But now it’s front and center and something must be done. Tomorrow morning, first thing I’ll start making phone calls.

In the meantime, I say, “You have no power over me, Trouble Monkeys, Chaos Gorillas, or Mayhem Goblins. Have an oatmeal cookie if you must (they’re good as gold, or so I’m told), but I’ll invoke black-eyed peas and cabbage if you don’t bugger off.”

Additional reflections/update: Our pump was the problem. The propeller/fan on the top of the pump disintegrated sending bits of plastic through the plumbing. I had the pump replaced on Monday and got to see the well workings for the first time. Our well is about 150’ deep, the pump sits at 130 and the water level is up at the 60’ level. All pretty cool stuff and we are glad the pump is hooked up with tubing and not pipe. (Heard a $2,000 horror story from a friend who had to bring in a derrick to pull the pump on his well which was plumbed with pipe.)

Not having water in the house was a real bear. Just the simple things, like a glass of water or washing your hands or brushing your teeth – all not possible. When you have to dip water out of the horse trough and schlep it to the house to fill your toilet tank, you are not inclined to eat or drink, because you want to save the last flush for when it’s really important. That’s not good one’s personal plumbing.

Forget produce. Water is critical for the garden operations. Aside from keeping the plants alive, is critical in the processing. Since I do mostly greens, I use a lot of water washing those greens and more importantly, cooling them down. I lost sales this week because of the water loss, just like I lost sales last week, because it was too hot to bake bread with no AC. Not a huge loss, because my operation is so small. Certainly not enough to warrant business interruption insurance, but it really gets you thinking.

Water. It’s so ubiquitous in our lives. Until it’s not. What is your back up plan?

And, yes.  I did concoct a potion of black eyed peas and cabbage.  It was delicious, especially since I now make my black eyed pea corn bread with Buckingham Berkshires hot sausage. The question is, does that magic work on any day of the year or just New Year’s Day?  We shall see.

5.31.2015 Haying, Homes for the bypassed, Irrigation and Heat

The end of May means haying season in this part of the country. The weather cooperated completely for the last two weeks of the months. No rain. Enough heat and enough wind to dry things down quickly. Enough coolness and enough breeze that old people stacking hay in the barn didn’t have a stroke. Although we had help from two neighbors, we really missed having all the kids here to toss the bales. Instead we approached the job with the wisdom gained with age. We broke it down into small, reasonable pieces, meaning we kept the stacks on the trailer and the truck fairly low. (Middle aged people don’t toss hay bales very high. Apparently, it takes young muscles to do that.) We took nice long breaks. We had plenty of water and Gatorade. Still, 240 bales went into the barn in next to no time. We’re definitely getting better at this sort of stuff.

After the hay went into the barn, I spent the better part of a day, replacing a good portion of the irrigation in the kitchen garden. There was rumor of heat wave with no rain for days and days. That rumor didn’t pan out, (thankfully) but it was enough for me to get that chore done. It’s very hard on the hands to force the diverter valves into the feeder line, but laying drip irrigation, while time consuming, isn’t all that difficult.

Once I had all my beds under irrigation, it was time to plant the flowers and herbs that I had started way back and never transplanted, because I was focused on getting the veg in the ground. It’s been a rather strange spring, as I’ve stated before, but finally everything it starting to take off. Probably got a lot to do with soil temperatures being too cold and the microbial life in the soil being slow to going.

Bug damage has been light so far, but the cabbage moths are here in force. I went after them with a butterfly net one afternoon. That got old real quick. Most of the damage seems centered on the collards and I cut them hard once a week, taking the cabbage worms with me. Potato beetles put in appearance, but I was smart enough to plant the potatoes along the path to the barn. Every time I pass by, my eyes are scanning for the little buggers and I squash every single one that I see. After a week of that, I’m not seeing many potato beetles or their larva. I’ve also seen a few harlequin bugs, stink bugs and cucumber beetles. They all seem to be coming at once.

By Wednesday, it was time to do something with the flat of strawberries in the fridge. I made jam and syrup, and I discovered the “foam” that you’re supposed to skim off is the best strawberry marshmallow you’ll ever encounter and should never, ever be discarded. So I didn’t skim if off my jam. Instead I put it in some of the jam jars. It doesn’t look as pretty, but I’m pretty sure I can sell it as the special treat that it is. The foam from the syrup? Well, I claimed that as cook’s privilege. The strawberry syrup was a brilliant idea that didn’t pan out. Very time consuming and expensive to make. I don’t think I have a market that will pay me what it’s worth.   But, oh, the possibilities! Pancakes and waffles, of course, but also flavored tea and soda, not to mention a marvelous topping for cheesecake or icecream.

I was literally sweating over a hot stove because that’s the day our air conditioner broke. Blower motor is blown. Since then, any cooking has been done on the grill and a good night’s sleep has been hard to come by. No oven usage meant no bread for market on Saturday and that was a pretty big hit to take. I am hopeful the part will come in and the air conditioner will be fixed on Monday. The part should be covered under warranty, but I’m pretty sure I have to pay labor. Lovely. Did I mention the vacuum cleaner exploded in a cloud of dust on the same day? Thursday. Masquerading as a Wednesday. Happens from time to time.

In the meantime, life on the fat farm progresses. The horses: Ophelia, Cookie and Sadie all lost weight this week. Pony, back in her muzzle for the week, is clinging stubbornly to every floppy bit of neck fat. My daughter’s fat cat discovered the joys of nights out hunting dragons with the dog. The happy result is a cat that sleeps more during the day and obsesses much less with food. She’s trimming down and no longer seems to bounce off the walls.

One of my Cuckoo Marans hens insisted she was broody, so we set her up in the crate in Squatch’s old spot in the big barn. We gave her ten eggs to set because she’s a big girl. Among the ten eggs, was the very last egg our dear Squatch laid before she was murdered. Broody hen stayed with the eggs for about 36 hours and then ran back to coop. I caught her and put her back to work. She’s there still, sulking and brooding. There’s nothing else for her to do, locked as she is in a dog crate. I’ll let her out briefly once a day so she can relieve herself in one of the horse stalls. Hopefully, hormones will take over once the eggs start talking to her.

The daughter and her boyfriend are back from California and off again to summer jobs.

Busy week.

5.22.2015 The Fat Farm

For the next couple of years, I’m looking after a pair of equines for a friend while she looks after her new grandbaby. The horses arrived on May 1st. The very giant Cookie and her Mini-Me, Lady O. Very sweet girls, but both on the pudgy side. Okay, extremely pudgy. My friend loves her girls, and like many women, she shows her love with food. Before she left them in my care, she told me she feels like they were meant to come here – for rehab. In other words, Fat Camp.

Cookie and LadyO on Day 1

Still in winter coats and downright portly. Day One at Fat Camp – Cookie and Lady-O.

You see, I know my animals are well fed and I know they’re lying when they say, “I’m starving. I’m going to die soon if you don’t feed me.” All of them lie. Many times each day. I am immune to their lies. It’s taken me 5 years, but I’ve finally learned how to keep my big fat, fatty, Ophelia, close to fighting trim. And now I am applying the same principles to Cookie and Lady-O. Muzzles and pasture during the day. Round pen or stalls at night. They lose weight rapidly and I get lots of muck for the compost.

Cookie after 2 weeks

Two weeks and several sessions with the shedding blade later, a little less pudgy and a lot less winter fuzz.

Cookie was so large when she first got here, the weight tape wouldn’t go around her. So she’s got her own special weight rope. Weight tapes, in general are not precise instruments, but they are a useful tool to indicate whether your horse is increasing or decreasing in girth. Having said that, Cookie clocked in at 1650 pounds on her first Sunday Spa Day. Two weeks later, she was down to 1475. (If only humans could lose weight that quickly.) It will likely take several months to get her down to somewhere near a healthy weight, but we’ve made a great start. It will be interesting to watch her evolve and to see whether the superficial cracks in her hooves are weight related or just the way she’s built. (The farrier says not to worry too much about those cracks, but to get the weight off her ASAP.)

Lady -O, also scraped mostly free of her winter coat and a little trimmer.

Lady -O, also scraped mostly free of her winter coat and a little trimmer.

Lady-O, aka Mini-Me, aka Pony has trimmed down as well, and of the two, she’s the most troublesome. But really, it’s hard to be afraid of her when she starts bucking and stomping while on the lead line. She’s so small and doesn’t have much reach with her short little legs and tiny little feet. I’ve never been around a pony before. Grooming is done in a flash and she has an honest to goodness pony tail. It’s so small!

Ophelia, looking nearly as trim as when I first got her.  She really needs a general and a battle to fight.

Ophelia, looking nearly as trim as when I first got her. She really needs a general and a battle to fight.

A week after Cookie and Lady-O arrived, my daughter dropped off her cat for a couple of weeks. Just a year old and that cat is already a porker. But then she’s been living with a bunch of college kids who had the habit of leaving bits of food unattended. Karina’s cat, Venus, aka Kitten, will eat nearly anything. She sits and shakes hands on command too. (Dog in cat clothes.) I wish I could say we’re making progress with her weight loss, but no. Not so much. She bullies my cat Mushu and eats his food if we’re not standing guard. Kitten is a good snuggler though. Not nearly as particular about sleeping arrangements as Mushu. Eating disorder aside, Kitten is very happy here. This house was built for cats.

Kitten on the beam in the family room - because she can!

Kitten on the beam in the family room – because she can!

4.26.2015 Spring? What Spring?

Last Saturday, I celebrated one year at the Heart of Virginia Farmer’s Market. It’s been a wild ride and quite frankly I was rather surprised when the other vendors told me they were sure from the outset that I’d make it. A year ago, I wasn’t so sure. Having product every week was a huge challenge. There were times over the winter that I had nothing but eggs, jam and garlic for sale. But I had something. Every week. For me that is a huge accomplishment. There’s still tweaking to do with the grow plan so I can avoid those minimal offerings in the depths of winter. I’m using homemade bread to bulk up my offerings now and it’s selling well. I try to stuff as much wholesome vegetable goodness into the breads as I can – Beet Bread, Kale Pesto bread, Potato Rye, etc. You get the idea. Apriori Farm Bread – a gateway drug to get you to eat your vegetables.

My latest problem is the lack of a real spring. We had January cold in February and February cold in March. After a few mild weeks in April, we’re back to the pattern, with March cold in April. The result of the unseasonable cold is the spring brassicas got transplanted according to the grow plan, then the cold convinced nearly all of it that winter had come. With the first hint of warmth, any plants that survived the cold bolted. I have no kale! How is that possible? Kale is so cold hardy. There is no cabbage, no broccoli, no cauliflower. The garden is such a sad place right now. This time last year, it was bursting with life. February sown carrots sprouted just last week. The beets haven’t even considered germinating. The other vendors at market are advising me to just rip it all out and plant summer veg. Um, yeah. Low temperatures this week are forecast to be in the lower 40’s. Not exactly squash, bean and tomato weather.

I do have tomatoes in the hoophouse, but they’ve been reluctant to get going. Not big enough to trellis, but still short enough to easily cover from the threat of frost we had a few nights ago.

Out in the riding ring, 90’ of peas grew 3” and stopped. I guess the horse manure we put down wasn’t finished enough for peas. Some experimental corn transplants (Trinity F1) languished for a while, but had started growing pretty well during the brief spell of April warmth. Don’t know if it will make it past this current run of cold and nasty. Turnips and horse radish never sprouted, but the onion sets I put out last week are started to establish themselves. Mostly though, that area of the grow space is in a holding pattern, waiting for warmth.

One bright spot right now is the hoophouse, where I have more lettuce than I can sell and the chard is producing enough harvestable leaves to keep chard lovers happy. I’ve been interplanting onions among the lettuce heads and chard and the aphid infestation has backed down considerably since the onions got established.

It’s been a bad spring for web worms in the fruit trees, but most of the orchard crammed its blossom into the mild first weeks of April and thus dodged the frosts. There might actually be tree fruit this year!

I installed two new bee packages on April 4th and their first round of larvae should be hatching this weekend (it took a week for the queens to get loose from their cages.) There’s plenty of pollen and nectar about for them since everything that blooms late winter to early spring all came in at once. Even the maples, normally a February bloomer, waited until April.

All over the farm, life is finding a way around the bizarre lack of spring time. The major plants we put in the new hedgerow last spring survived well, despite total neglect. Same for a surprising number of the wee tree seedlings we set out to get new wind breaks going. And the goldfish we dumped in the pond several years ago have survived and multiplied. We had written them off a long time ago and were delighted to discover them still clinging to life in our tiny little pond.

I’ve begun harvesting asparagus for the first time only to discover when I have asparagus so does EVERYONE else. Tough to sell.

Last week, I became a vendor for Buckingham Berkshire Pork and that is going to take some clever marketing to move. But having to store it here on the farm, forced me to go out and buy a couple of extra refrigerators. That’s been on “the list” for a long time. I knew I would need them come summer.

In short, it’s been non-stop activity for about two months now without a lot to show for my efforts, save experience that will dictate yet more changes for next year’s grow plan – small sowings of cool season crops transplanted weekly instead of large plantings scheduled a couple of weeks apart.

3.5.2015 And We’re Off!

Finally, the 2015 grow plan is done! Been working on that for months. The garden expansion still isn’t finished, but the grow plan currently takes up 11 of the 12 new rows that are in place. I have enough manure and spoiled hay to lay down another 4 rows in the riding ring and those I will designate as the husband rows. (Unless I get a wild hankering to plant something strange like fodder beets or field corn)

At the moment, the only thing that has come through the intense cold and snows of February and early March, is one paltry row of spinach. It’s alive but not doing a whole lot of growing. I put in a row of lettuce starts into the hoop house. They’re hanging on and growing slowly, but nowhere near harvestable.  

Market has been cancelled for the last two weeks on account of parking lots covered in snow. And chances are good that it will be cancelled again this week. Snow is coming again tomorrow, followed by a couple of days of nasty cold. All the farm has to offer at the moment is a preponderance of eggs and the last of the garlic. So it’s not much of a financial loss for me, but this stretch of cold definitely influenced the grow plan. For next winter, I need more options – squashes (if I can get them past the bugs) and root crops, and a broader variety of hardy greens in a protected grow space. All part of the plan.

2.18.2015 Tidings of Peace and Joy


I know that’s an unusual title for a blog post in February.  Yet I don’t know a better way to describe the day after the Presidents’ Day Snow storm.  Perhaps I would have felt differently had it been overcast and windy.  As it turned out though, it was a crystal clear, cold day with little wind.  With everything blanketed by 8 inches of snow, packed down to 7 inches by a storm-ending sleet fall, the farm was exceptionally beautiful – one of those days where the beauty of life is so intense it fills you up.

Second breakfast for horses, after grain and alfalfa tea and after they had a lot to say about how I mucked their stalls.

Second breakfast for horses, after grain and alfalfa tea and after they had a lot to say about how I mucked their stalls.

Sparkling bubbles of joy reflect off the snow lifting the soul and putting a spring in your boots.  All the while, the uniform whiteness and quietness of the day wraps you in a comforting blanket of serene peace.  Neighbors come out and do for neighbors.  All is right in my corner of the world and I hope each of you can experience such a day at least once in your life – A day where you actively participate in the web of life around you, serving others, appreciating the service of others and finding joy at the tasks before you.

Your day may or may not involve shoveling snow.  I did a lot of that yesterday – cutting trails to the barn, the duck house, the compost pile, the chicken coop and the hay barn and digging out the cars.  Idon’t normally go to this much trouble because Virginia snow doesn’t often linger.  But this one will and to make my life easier for the rest of the week, I shoveled.  (Slogging through fresh snow is hard enough.  Slipping and sliding on ice encrusted, uneven snow pack is dangerous.)  The work wasn’t difficult as the snow was a fine powder and it took only a few hours, plus the OCD part of me takes great pleasure in my neatly constructed paths.

The path to the barn.  One of many.

The path to the barn. One of many.

The dog, the husband and the neighbors also appreciated my bunny trails.  The ducks insisted on doing things the hard way and spent the entire day either clamoring through unbroken snow or shivering in the shade despite my best efforts to make them comfortable.  (Today, they are much smarter.)

The ducks got turned loose first thing in the morning before I broke out the shovel.  I did take extra care on my way down and back from the duck house to thoroughly trample the snow to give them something solid to walk on.  They ignored my path and struggled through the powdery snow up to the house, where they shivered in the shade all day.

The ducks got turned loose first thing in the morning before I broke out the shovel. I did take extra care on my way down and back from the duck house to thoroughly trample the snow to give them something solid to walk on. They ignored my path and struggled through the powdery snow up to the house.

The horses were happy to have a roll in the snow and blaze the trail to the compost pile for me.  The chickens sulked in the coop until I tossed hay on top of the snow in the run.  Then they spent the rest of the day basking and picking through the hay for seeds, happily clucking away.

Just happy to be here and glad to have something other than snow upon which to walk.  It's the little things.

Just happy to be here and glad to have something other than snow upon which to walk. It’s the little things.

My dog and my boarder’s three legged Doberman played hard, racing around, chasing each other.  Loving life.  Loving snow.

Catching their breath after a game of chase and wrestle.

Catching their breath after a game of chase and wrestle.

One neighbor plowed my driveway after we helped him dig out his stuck car.

The nice thing about great country neighbors is they have implements for their tractors which you may not have - a grading blade for instance.  Nice for moving snow off a driveway.

The nice thing about great country neighbors is they have implements for their tractors which you may not have – a grading blade for instance. Nice for moving snow off a driveway.

Another brought me a peanut butter and chocolate cheesecake.  (Yum!)   I got a brief nap in the middle of the afternoon and there were enough leftovers in the fridge that I didn’t have to cook dinner.

I am so blessed and so thankful.  I truly wish this peace and joy on every one.

Farewell to the day.  Thank you.  It was wonderful.

Farewell to the day. Thank you. It was wonderful.

2.16.2015 Ophelia and the Cat

Ophelia and the Dragon

Saturday was what you might call a blustery day.  The winds started early and at market, all us vendors had to weight our tents to keep them from flying away.  The customers came out to get a little something special for their Valentine’s Day dinners and all things considered, it was a great market for a cold, windy day in February.  My Heart Beet bread was a smashing success.

It's bread and it's red.  Made with pureed beets, this turns into a soft loaf that would make great sandwich bread if made in a loaf pan.  The warmer it is, the more you taste the beets.  Good stuff.

It’s bread and it’s red. Made with pureed beets, this turns into a soft loaf that would make great sandwich bread if made in a loaf pan. The warmer it is, the more you taste the beets. Good stuff.

The winds continued throughout the afternoon and into the night.  We got a snow burst sometime after dark.  Once it was done, I went down to check on the horses.  My boarder horse, Sadie, is a bit thin skinned and didn’t have her blanket on.  I called them up to the barn and in the process discovered Ophelia had gone on walkabout.  I didn’t know how she got out, and I wasn’t going to search the pasture on a dark and windy night to find out.  I just put the horses in the barn and went to bed.

The next day though, we discovered this:

Impressive.  No?

Impressive. No?

Dragons had been flying in the night and Ophelia had done what big, fat, fatties will do when they’re attacked by dragons.  Run away.  Sadie did what Sadie does when presented with danger.  She just stood there and waited to be consumed.  Every herd needs a sacrificial slacker so the rest can escape.  That’s Sadie’s job.  Opehlia’s is to clear the path for the rest of the herd to escape.  (Yeah, I know.  Ophelia is the entirety of the rest of the herd.)

Luckily for Sadie, the “Dragon” wasn’t hungry.

Ophelia's Dragon.  A fiery, vicious tarp that had been covering the compost pile before that pernicious wind gave it wings.  And now I remember why we haven't been covering our compost piles with tarps.

Ophelia’s Dragon. A fiery, vicious tarp that had been covering the compost pile before that pernicious wind gave it wings. And now I remember why we haven’t been covering our compost piles with tarps.

Amazingly, considering the damage to the gate, Ophelia is unharmed.  She’s definitely given the term Gate Crasher a whole new meaning.

The Cat’s Tale

Fairly early Monday morning, we discovered Mushu, the, cat had gone missing.  My husband had let him out the night before and he had not returned.  It was very cold out overnight and stayed very cold all day today. Cold as in teens.  Usually, he’s at the door at dawn, waiting to come in and if it’s too cold, he just doesn’t go out.  Normally, he’s very sensible about such things.

My husband walked the farm looking for him.  I walked the farm twice, checking trees and roofs to see if he was stuck.  I looked all through the hay barn, which is Mushu accessible despite being closed up thanks to a ground hog that tunneled in and made it home for a while – before the dog got him.  I searched the ground, looking for signs of foul play.  I even went down to my neighbor’s place to see if maybe Mushu had picked a fight with the neighbor’s cat.  I found nothing.  My husband caught only a glimpse of a possum down in the bottoms.  No cat.

Living out here, we understand there is a food chain.  Small animals like poultry, cats and dogs often encounter predators and sometimes the predators triumph.  Since the cat went missing overnight, he might have encountered owl, fox, raccoon, possum, coyote, or stray dog.  My husband wasn’t optimistic, but I held out hope.  He’s a black cat and almost never ventures out during the daytime.  If he hadn’t been got, as soon as it was dark, he would come home.

Still, I was very sad.  The cat and I don’t normally spend a lot of time together.  He’s not much for socializing, but if I’m sleeping in the chair (which I’ve been doing a lot of lately because I’ve only just gotten all the extra fluid out of my head and lungs from being sick last month) he’ll snuggle between my feet, and sometimes he permits me to rub his ears and scratch his neck.  It was a cuddle-with-the cat kind of evening, but I had no cat.

The snow began falling at noon today and we were forecast to get up to 10”.  By dusk this evening, we had five inches on the ground.  Getting deep for a little black cat. The chores done for the day, we retreated to the warmth of the house.  My neighbor came over for dinner.  Just before we sat down to eat, Mushu showed up at the front door.

My husband, son and I were all so delighted and made such a fuss that Mushu ran right past his food dish and disappeared upstairs.  He doesn’t like a lot of attention and we gave him too much in our joy at seeing him alive.  So we let him alone while we ate and told stories around the table.  After my neighbor left, and I had swept the snow off the hoop house for the third time, Mushu finally came down to eat.  Afterwards, I got a brief cuddle with him.  He was still very cold, despite a couple of hours spent under a sleeping bag during dinner.  And edgy!  Normal household noises made him bolt for a hiding spot.

Mushu does not want to talk about his adventure and we will never know what scared my cat so much that he spent an entire day out in the cold.  Most importantly, he is home, he is unharmed and not at all interested in going back outside. For now.

I could have lost a horse and a cat, but somehow they came through their battles with dragons completely unscathed.  So blessed and so lucky.

2.10.2015 Getting Started Farming

Crowd funding. I’ve heard the term. But I live on the fuzzy edge of the map in more than the literal sense. I tend to nibble at the edges of technology both in farm equipment and in computing innovations. Facebook and text messages are as far as I’ve gotten into social media. But, if the technology doesn’t intimidate you. . .

Recently, I encountered Paul Meyer, a new farmer in Powhatan, Virginia. He reached out to me to help support his Kickstarter campaign. He runs a small, new CSA called the Virginia Vegetable Company.  He’s hoping to bring Central Virginia more local access to healthy foods. This guy thinks big! He is transforming two 30X360’ old Tyson chicken houses into high tunnels. He’s already done a lot out of pocket and with the help of volunteers. Now he needs a little bump to finish up the renovations. You can support him by backing his campaign with a pledge at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/paul-meyer/small-organic-farmer-gives-new-life-to-old-chicken

You often hear on the news that America’s farmers are getting older and not enough new people are getting into farming these days. But as with everything you hear on the news, you’re not getting the whole story. There may not be a lot of new young farmers working hundreds or thousands of acres of corn or wheat or running large feedlot operations. But there are a lot of people like me that are new to farming. We are people with very little background in agriculture and thus aren’t hampered by a cultural need for $200,000 combines working the vast prairie. As a group, we are very open minded, willing to try anything once and not afraid to try stuff that conventional farmers cast aside 100 years ago.

America’s new generation of farmers (some young , some old and quite a lot in the middle) are working smaller acreages with smaller equipment. Instead of a few people growing most of the food, we’re moving to a farming industry that has a lot of people growing a little bit of good food closer to the people who actually consume the food. This to me is what food security is all about. Lots of people growing lots of stuff in lots of different areas so when there’s a drought, a freeze, a hail storm or whatever in one area, others can take up the slack.  It’s going to be a slow transition, but I think it is inevitable, for a lot of reasons.

This new generation of farmers, deficient in traditional agriculture lore as we are, approach their farms in many different ways. Some grow mushrooms in their basements. Some, like me, simply scaled up their kitchen gardens. Others prefer working with larger animals and run small herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and/or pigs out on pasture. Some have large indoor growing spaces and fill them with hydroponically grown fruit and veg. Some have highly integrated systems that involve veg, chickens and fish.

But how to get started? Land and tractors are expensive. Greenhouses and fencing require a substantial investment. Where do you get the capital to start a farm?

For us, since we were paying a mortgage or rent regardless of where we lived, we decided to make payments on land that did not have zoning restrictions or homeowners associations rules prohibiting the growing of food or livestock in the front yard. I funded the equipment and supplies out of my husband’s off-farm income. Five years on, the farm side of our farm pays for itself most of the time. I am not interested in loans or government assistance. Now that I’ve got my start, I will pay as I go.

Market gardening doesn’t have to cost a lot to get started. I’ve found all I really need is a shovel, a rake, a wheel barrow, a trowel, a couple of hoses, some seeds and a lot of compost. The gardens are fenced to prevent rabbit thievery. And the hoop houses are inexpensive but vital season extenders. I also use my 16 year old minivan and a couple of coolers to get my products to market. Our one indulgence was the tractor.   I don’t use it very often, but the front end loader makes turning the compost pile a breeze. (But then I could have vast quantities of professionally made compost delivered for what I paid for that tractor.)

I’ve set up my farm with an eye to my golden years.  I’m not getting any stronger.  My vision and my hearing degrade by the day it seems and my sense of balance isn’t what it used to be.  So I’m set up for simple hand tools, no above the waist lifting, no ladders and no heavy equipment.

You don’t have to buy your land.  You can rent it.  Remember all those old traditional farmers?  A lot of them aren’t physically able to farm anymore but want their land to remain useful.  They’ll often agree to lease the land and mentor you.  You just have to find them.

Other new farmers use government cost-sharing programs to build fences and ponds, greenhouses and irrigation systems. Depending on your circumstances, that may be an option for you. Visit with your local extension agent; they’ll be able to direct you.

Farm Credit is another way to get the working capital you need, but you’re going to have to go to the bank armed with financial statements, projections, collateral and all the ballyhoo that comes with getting a loan these days.  And if you don’t have farming experience, you had better have a really good plan and a locked in market for your goods.

If you’re young, have no kids to worry about and haven’t yet acquired truck loads of stuff, try living on rented land in a yurt while you tend your animals or your garden.  You’ll be saving a lot of money and making the stuff of really good stories later in life.

Bottom line is, if you really want to get into farming, there are a lot of ways to do it.  Sometimes you have to get really creative, but farming is all about creativity.  Animals are always creating new ways to die.  The wind finds new ways to pull down your stuff. The weather finds new ways to destroy your plantings.  New bugs get imported that sicken your animals and eat your plants.  The government makes up new rules.  Some days customers don’t show up at market.  There’s never a dull moment when you’re a farmer. It’s a good life.

2.4.2015 The Sandbox

One of the cool things I saw at conference was a heated seed propagation box. It’s basically a sandbox with a heated gutter cable inside. I never knew there was such a thing gutter heaters, but then again, I’ve never lived where snow on roofs and gutters has been much of a problem.

The hardest part of this project was cutting a 4×8’ sheet of lumber on the table saw. Hard for one person to handle a 4×8. After that, add a few pieces of repurposed 1×6 stair treads and, voila! A sandbox.

A simple box made of plywood, recycled stair treads off the front porch, and 1 inch thick foam insulation.

A simple box made of plywood, recycled stair treads off the front porch, and 1 inch thick foam insulation.

Next, I cut a 4×8 sheet of 1” foam to fit in the bottom of my box and then lined the whole thing with a sheet of plastic. Then came the second hardest part – manhandling the box into the white room with no man, or other help. I then added one inch of sand and put my 2×4’ heated seedling mat on top. (My gutter cables haven’t arrived yet.) After that, my preliminary garden plan insisted it was time to start the brassicas, so 8 fresh flats went onto my new table.

Partially filled with sand and awaiting the arrival of the gutter cables.  Regular 1020 flats are a snug fit inside the box right now.  They'll be more comfortable once the box is full of sand.  But it's already working wonderfully.

Partially filled with sand and awaiting the arrival of the gutter cables. Regular 1020 flats are a snug fit inside the box right now. They’ll be more comfortable once the box is full of sand. But it’s already working wonderfully.

I am happy to report that even though only 1/3 of my table is being heated at the moment, the soil temperature in the flats is warmer than with the heat mat alone. And the temperature in the white room has come up by a few degrees. The lettuce seedlings I started a few weeks ago are looking much less sad and pathetic. Amazing what 52° will do for lettuce starts and 48° won’t.

If you want to see how these things are made, check out this video. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wwkGXEatKSk