Sunday, December 28, 2008

First Egg!!

Well, well, well.
Yesterday, during our warm spell, I was out doing chores in the barn. I had been out there almost two hours, and was just finishing up. I was replacing the water hose, and glanced down behind the water hydrant. My eye caught something-an egg! AN EGG! Finally! Good ol' Frances has finally come through and produced her first egg for us. I knew it was her, because the egg was green, and Frances is our only hen capable of laying a green egg. The others are all brown egg layers. Hooray! It's almost as exciting as the very first time one of my chickens laid an egg. It did have a crack from being frozen, so I figured it had been there a day or two, unfortunately. I knew she should be ready to lay pretty soon, so I've been hunting around in the barn in all the likely spots I thought she might try to hide an egg. We do have a nest box for them, but you know they won't use the thing you went out and dragged home. No, she decided to use a corner in the pig side of the barn next to the garbage can, on the floor. At any rate, it's hard to describe the feeling that comes with a first egg. It's pretty cool! Now we just need to get the cochin Billy, and the polish Tom and Sam to lay. Yes, they are all hens. You don't expect a 4 year old to care about gender restrictions when it comes to naming chickens, do you?

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Seed catalogs

Well, here we are at the end of 08, and looking at seed catalogs taking on a whole new meaning for me now that I have more than a few feet to garden in. I'm alternately excited but also intimidated. Our garden (2nd harvest garden) that we managed to throw in mid July right when we were moving in, did phenomenally well. It was exciting, and confidence building. We had squash pests galore, but it hit that balance organic gardeners speak of where the pests seem satisfied, but aren't thriving too magnificently, and yet we get enough. Our harvest was huge! But the garden we are planning will be 5 x the size, at least.

The vegetable gardening was always going to be part of our farming, while we have emphasized thinking about the livestock in our planning. The whole point really is to reclaim this integrated system where there are just enough animals per acre to improve soil quality, there is fertility to share with plants producing vegetables, and vegetable matter to share with animals. I just now asked Red how feasible is it to get a mill to grind our grain- the thought of home -ground corn meal for fabulous eating AND milling our organically grown corn for the chickens at least- is very exciting. But how much can two women do in a day when we are also working full time at our 'off farm jobs?' Now those of you who know me know that it's pretty unlike me to think about being less ambitious. I, well, have a tendency perhaps, to take on a little more than the average human. Maybe it's just that I have some sort of flu-bug this weekend (thank you Oscillo and Uncle Robb for providing it) my symptoms are manageable but I feel really weak and exhausted/achy- etc. And maybe it's my memory of my pnuemonia, which still plagues my energy level these months later, but I suppose I'm a little reined in from my 'we can do it all' enthusiasm. So I'm so excited to pin down our plans- to plan when we'll get our broiler chicks, when we'll start our seeds (and where????), will we start fencing this year to get going with grazing cattle? will we have to put more deer fencing up around our garden now that they may have figured out some fool is gardening here again? (last season we had very little lost to the invisible voles and 13 stripers that are very plentiful and NO signs of deer in our garden.) And then there's the issue of the pigs- when and where will we raise em again and MIGHT we keep one or two for farrowing? We still aren't sure they are all sold- and the date of slaughter is coming up in less than a month. We still need to buy a freezer AND a pickup.

So I think of all these 'one thing leads to another' elements of starting a farm and I'm a bit humbled for sure. I looked up the county extension's Master Gardener courses. Maybe I need to learn more. (Of course I need to learn more but how urgently do I need to consume the books, classes, etc? and should it be on vegetable growing, or livestock or husbandry? ) We will go to more conferences this spring. Plan to go to Mosa- and I'm awed to think how different my perspective will be from last year. We were just DREAMING last year- and I was being introduced to farming in many ways. Now we're really DOING it.

So I'm poring over the seed catalogs and making our lists. My baby is away for the holiday and it's hard, but reasonable. It's brief enough that I'm not so torn apart. But when summer comes, so much emptiness. Birkleigh wanted us to grow a picking garden- she mostly sick of my limitations that all flowers cannot be plucked! And I know that we will only maybe have time together to put the seeds in the ground and then she'll be gone. I know me- I'll be frantic to stay busy from dawn till dusk. I know I'll be learning about nurturing and letting go each day as I do chores with the animals, till up the soil, weed the rows. Honestly, I think I'm not afraid of the work, but I'm afraid of failing at it. Each crop that we put on our list I think of how awesome it would be if it grew just like the catalog pictures :). I guess I just hope that my work will come to harvest and it's not lost on me that this mystery ahead is like parenting- I suppose each year will be another newborn and I will be put to the test. Maybe I'll learn that you just keep trusting and do your best, learn what you can from the wise ones who came before you, and feel awe and pride for each seedling that becomes something nourishing and sustaining, each animal that gives us food and fertility. And maybe I won't worry so much about what doesn't come out the way I hoped.

As this year closes, I could not be more grateful. I can't believe my partnership is so satisfying and good, and has survived all the many stressors of the past year. I'm grateful for every moment we have as family and the everyday calm of making meals together, caring for each other and the farm. I'm grateful for peace, hope, health and abundance and for the perspective that comes from it's absence. I'm grateful for friends and family (both old and new). I'm grateful for the land that today emerges from the many feet of snow that is melting with a rare warm day. I'm grateful for the chance to try out something as meaningful, awesome, and challenging as sustainable farming.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Did we get a truck this weekend?

No- of course not. We baked and decorated cookies, truffles, and other holiday treats, decorated the tree, Red fixed our lights (a frustrating task no doubt) and visited the santa man. It was nice to just focus on our family. It will be my first holiday away from her we are all getting used to the new configurations of time apart. She is also talking of summer, which is early this year ;) to be wishing winter away. She is imagining it on the farm, when in reality she will spend it with her other mom. She talks of growing our garden, planting our picking garden (she wants to grow flowers with me and have a garden where she can pick all the flowers she wants- so maybe we'll be selling some cut flowers!) and I am gripped with sadness at how the summer will be without her. I can't help realizing how much it ties in with any farming plans and how my feelings about the seasons are changing. When summer comes, my daughter will go. I was thinking about how it is for parents as their children go off to college, leave home. I've been thinking more about being that older parent, in a new phase of my life. How much letting go is still ahead. So maybe I'll be a farming maniac come summer filling up all that time spent on mothering creating something else. Or maybe I'll want to crawl away and wither, like Demeter without Persephone. But that is ahead- and now I am appreciating the winter and the darkness and our snuggling in. Even if she is sassy to me. I'll just hug her tighter.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Full moon

We just emerged from Birkleigh's birthday and Thanksgiving the week before that. I've got my fridge stuffed with all the makings for holiday baking and truffles already underway and this weekend we hope to fit in our holiday preparations as well as finding a freezer or two! and finding a pickup. Our unending dilemma- we need a pickup but we need to sell my van and for some reason, I'm not getting any response from Craigslist. I'm hoping for a nice family weekend. We're busy with the pigs, trying to organize to sell them, still really working on unpacking and organizing! I inevitably feel too busy this time of year and sometimes the joy of making food, making crafts and all other things home made, in years past has made me more manic than peaceful. But I'm finding quiet. Tonight, I pulled out skis and made a loop around the pasture and the barns, and putting the pigs back into the barn under a huge full moon, made me feel another wave of gratitude. The work of the farm has added a 'busy component' to our lives for sure. I think of how different it is to do this as well as our full careers versus farming full time. But it's good stuff and I'm enjoying these moments when I can shut down my computer and get outside. Spending time with Birkleigh after school, watching a drama unfold in the snow (saw rabbit tracks, followed by fox tracks!), and still caught off gaurd by the everyday beauty of the sun going down.
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Monday, December 8, 2008

Monday, Dec. 8
20 degrees
5.5 inches of snow on the ground

Supposed to get between six and ten inches of snow between tonight and tomorrow. First though, a medley of rain and ice to keep it interesting. Karen has to drive to Chicago and back today for a big meeting. We have a plan to check in and me to leave work early if she can't make it back in time to meet Birk off the bus.

More and more happy with the decision to hire Curt to plow our driveway! He's already had to come out three times. Our driveway is long, and climbs steadily uphill. It's possible that at some point in the future we may address a way to do it ourselves, but whether we wind up buying a snow thrower for the Cub Cadet, or a plow for our future pickup, it will involve enough of a cash outlay that having Curt do it at $25 a pop is still cost effective (and time effective).

Our total of 5 and a half inches so far - and we haven't even hit the second week of December - is close to double our normal for this time of year. Uh-oh.

Last year was the Winter from Hell. And I mean that with a capital letter. No, wait, that's not bad enough: HELL. We had totals of over 100 inches of snow. The snow started soon after Thanksgiving last year and there were snowfalls of several inches about every. other. day.
After many years of complaining about winters not being like they used to be when we were kids, we got our royal kick in the pants. It's true, for years winters were a bit warmer and we had lots less snow than we were used to 20 or 30 years ago. And then, last year someone called La Nina came along and laughed at us and shut us up.

But that was an anomoly, right? I mean, last years' winter weather left a sour taste in a lot of locals' mouths. Very high numbers of us were involved in car accidents, or stranded on gridlocked interstates for hours in frigid temperatures. Used car dealerships and auto body shops were not able to keep up with the demand. Snowmobilers were happy, of course, and in fact, they literally rode up onto the interstate more than once to aid stranded drivers.

Once the sun returned and all the snow melted, I personally breathed a sigh of relief. No more long commutes in icy conditions. No more not stopping when you press on the brakes. No more shoveling snow staright up because there is no where else to put it. Done! And no two years can be exactly alike, right? In fact, I subscribe to a saying I've heard old farmers say, "One extreme follows another", especially when it comes to weather. So I'm betting that last year was one for the books, and we should have a much more normal winter this year. There's no WAY this year could be as bad as last year.

But all the locals have been talking about the Farmers' Almanac. "Did you know it says more snow even than last year?"

"It's calling for 150 inches!"

I just smiled and shook my head. This was when the sun was shining on my shoulders and I was weeding my garden. No way. Let everyone else run around worried about that. It ain't gonna happen.

Well, here we are, about two weeks into our winter weather pattern, and like I said - almost double our normal, and we are even ahead of last years' amounts at this time.

Don't know what else to say, except good thing Curt has a big truck.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dec. 6th

December 6, 2008

High 23, low 0

snow falling

Pigs: about 150 lbs.

Chickens: no eggs yet

It's Birkleigh's 5th birthday today! Happy birthday, Birk!!

Winter certainly has arrived here. We've got about 4 inches of snow on the ground, and it's gotten below 20 several times now in the last week. We've been adjusting to the conditions and learning how to best do that during our first winter here. It's always interesting to go through the learning process. Where will the snow pile? Should we shovel the snow ourselves or hire a neighbor to plow for us? How will we keep access to the barn open? Will the animals be warm enough? What about keeping their water from freezing? Do we have enough outlets and extension cords? How much fuel will we use to heat the house? Are the windows sealed well enough?

I was all ahead of the game. Things were in place. But you know that doesn't always mean what you think it will. I had bought a water tank heater for the pigs' water. For those of you who don't know, this is basically a heavy heating element on the end of an electric cord. You submerge it in a water tank, and plug it in. It keeps the water from freezing. I had it all set up, in the tank, ready to go. Didn't have it plugged in yet as temps in the barn were a bit warmer than outside and it wasnt needed yet. I keep a heavy piece of plywood over the top ot the pigs' water tank. The tank is actually a plastic 55 gallon barrel, with a drinking nipple at the bottom. It sits on a wooden platform. So the board at the top of the tank is too high for pigs to reach. Anyway, have I mentioned yet how mischievious pigs can be? I came into the barn a day later, and they had somehow managed to pull the board off the tank, and pull the heater completely out. The tank, filled with water, was thank god too heavy for them to overturn. But they chewed the hell out of the plug end for the heater, rendering it useless. It was all full of little chew marks, just like it had been in a puppy pen for four hours. Oh, they're so naughty!

Since the temps really plunged this week, the tank started to ice up, so I had to get a new sinking heater for the water. As soon as I came home from work last night, still in my work clothes, in the dark, pulled straight up to the barn and went to work putting the new heater together. Just in time, too, since the pigs were acting like they were trying but having trouble getting water out of their nipple. Nothing less fun than 1,000 lbs. of frustrated, thirsty hogs fighting me and eachother over one nipple. I think I averted total water meltdown by about an hour.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thanksgiving Prelude

Well, Thanksgiving has come and gone! Can't believe how fast the time is flying! We had a lovely time with family. Don't have enough time to spread out all the details this minute, but I promise to post more before the end of the weekend, and include some new photos. But for now, the sun is's going to start snowing tonight and we're due to get 2-5 inches before it's over tomorrow. So that means I need to put up the holiday lights right now!

Sunday, November 2, 2008


This week was glorious for the end of October and the warm weather gave us more time to put up fencing (ok- Red did most of it herself. I was working in the house and came out just in time to put the last strand of wire in) and to coax the pigs onto pasture. I knew that we were getting these guys from a farm where it's not exactly confinement, but there was no pasturing. Stalls in barns that let out to some concrete pads. We would love to only get pigs from other pasturing/organic folks but we had the opportunity and thought we should jump in. And sort of like adopting from an animal shelter, you feel like you'll give them a better go of it. So these pigs for the first time were having real soil under their feet, and fresh air and sky! So Reddie is the one most like her duroc parentage ran right out, dug her snout deep into the soil and began foraging for goodies. Several had their moment with the electric fence, and one, the Hampie, managed to bolt through and before Red or I could say "PIG!" bolted right back IN! Another thing to be grateful for. We turned off the fence for a while to get some chores done around the fencing and knew it was risky but we realized that Sandie (ok really not too original in the name department.... I think it's our ONLY concerted effort to not be too attached to them) had not come out at all. We really wanted her to get over it.... and it worked out just fine. Ok- some escaping happened.... but I think it was a good idea. She totally got more confident and they've been able to explore the whole pasture, finding our garden leftovers, the yummies where the compost bin was, and lots of soft warm dirt and green grass to play in. They were galloping, and trotting, and hopping all over as well as burrowing and lounging on the pile of dirt that was left from our trenching. And they all seem to get the very important lesson that three strands of wire teach you. Red got lots done outside today but mostly she just didn't want to come in, I think. She told me she would rather shovel manure than do dishes. I don't know if I should take her up on that or not. I'm thinking it's not exactly either/or , ya know? I worked on chores outside but also kept coming in to clean and cook, bake some bread... but this woman loves her farm. I think for me, it's all so new. I'm loving it, but I think I like coming back to things familiar. For her, I sense her relishing this in a way that I don't know yet. It's a returning to something so cherished but lost and now found again. I think all of us are so filled with joy. But maybe Red knows how to breathe more deeply in these moments. Birk is so happy, too. My kid, once so stressed out with my divorce and upheaval, is so IN her skin. So we're all learning to be on pasture. To breathe in that smell of dirt warmed by an Indian Summer, to hear leaves breaking under our footfalls, to listen to the ways the wind blows differently on these hills with the trees now mostly bare, and to remember our instinctual selves.
Red;> Nicely put, my love. A clarification about the escape today: we had filled their trough with several half gallon containers of milk. oooee, pigs really love milk! We had temporarily tossed the empty containers just outside the electric fence to be disposed of later. The fence was off for various reasons. When I looked over, there was one of the piggies just outside the fence picking up the containers in her mouth and running back inside the fence to tease her mates with it, whereupon they all joined in a game of chase. This is one of the moments when you just gotta be there!

I laughed at her description of me saying I'd rather shovel manure than do dishes. Absolutely true. Even when it's very wet and heavy. Even when the pigs think it's funny to keep tipping the almost-full wheelbarow over. Again and again.

And don't even talk to me about cleaning bathrooms. I'd rather do something gross than that.

Why? I dunno. It's part of the reason it's hard for me to come back inside. I can spend hours watching livestock. I'm not just staring blankly, as some might (ahem) imagine. Why no siree, I'm looking at conformation, at breed characteristics, at rate of gain, behavioral cues and quirks, planning fences, gates, layouts, pastures, gardens, listening to their vocalizations and trying to understand what each means, watching for any sign of illness or injury, and of course contemplating the ever-important load out (and in) intricacies. I'm using my hands and my back. My arms and legs are getting the kind of workout they used to, and it's good for me.

In between my busy study of my herd and their wastes, I was often reminded to look up by the raucous calling of geese flying overhead. Had the Packers game on the radio in the background. When I looked up across the horizon, I saw rolling fields of browns, golds, and greens against a cloud-streaked Fall sky. I could smell apples on the ground and a wisp of woodsmoke from the bonfire last night. Getting some work done. Real work. Not that any other kind of work isn't real work as well, but this kind of work, in my mind, is very satisfying because of what it means and what it returns. There is something very deeply satisying to me about raising food in this manner. It's a connection to the past, when plain folks knew how to take care of themselves.

As I went through my barn this afternoon, sealing up cracks around windows and doors to block the major drafts, I looked at the old wood set into stones. As I pulled cobwebs away from nails and mortar, I wondered who put them there. What were they dressed like? What era was it? What kinds of animals or other purposes did this barn serve then? There is a piece of limestone on the front of the barn that has 1866 etched in it. For this part of the country, that is pretty durn old. I am awed and thrilled by that stone.

Perhaps over all the years, my barn has been occupied by different kinds of habitants. The old headgates clearly show at one time cows were milked here. Perhaps at one time, before she sat empty, someone had a diverse collection of animals necessary to any homestead-cattle, a few hogs, and chickens. We know that for many years before we got here, this barn was filled with dogs and junk. Maybe some day we'll tell you that story. But I like to think that the old farmers who settled here would be glad to see this old barn housing some real hogs again.

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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Did the Swedes consider leaves?

The deep bedding system that gives pigs cozy warm bedding, lots of fun stuff to root in, composts to provide heat and later feed the garden, and keeps em healthy and not so stinky in their winter homes- involves DEEP straw. It's been hard to find straw.
Straw and hay prices are crazy high for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the flooding in our area. We got a truckload a month or so ago, but haven't been able to find more. Keep looking, but no luck. So when we forged ahead and got our pigs, Red had a brilliant idea. It's autumn, and what better use for the leaves! She's been picking up the bags from Madison neighborhoods and they've all been clean and dry so far. We're stashing them in the hay mow along with the remaining straw. They think it's plenty fun. And it's pretty ;)

They have gotten over any of their initial shock at relocating and are really loving our attention. I think they like the scratches as much as the root vegetables and apple treats.

Red:> Heh heh. Yup, I am loading up on as much/many leaves as possible while they are still a commodity. Technically, they are carbonaceous meterial, and any and all carbon materials help in absorbing semi -solid and liquid wastes and turning them into beautiful compost eventually.

The deep bedding system accomplishes several things that we feel help bring pur piggies back to a normal balance: it absorbs their wastes, as mentioned above. It provides a softer, warmer environment to walk in, play in, snuggle up in. They like it. And it provides an outlet for their curiosity, playfulness, and general need for rooting and scavenging. Just like us, when a pig is mentally happy, cheerfully exploring and discovering new tasty things in it's environment, it is a more balanced, happy pig, and it is a more contended, healthier pig.

I love spending time with my animals. Karen has to come fetch me from the barn at night, cuz I'm usually just standing in there with them, hanging out, watching, giving ear scratches, listening, smiling, sniffing, feeding, talking to my pigs. Looking at them critically, playfully, happily. I just can't believe how lucky I am to have pigs again. Large livestock. The kind I can offer to other people to feed their families with. I can love them, and handle them right, and then I can participate in the sacro-sanct tradition of sending them to market. My hope is that old timers who might happen to get a good look at them along the way might say something flattering like "Nothing wrong with them". Then I know I did good. I did it right.

As for the title - Karen knows I've got Swedish blood in me. And my ancestors loved nothing more than getting by on less. Making something out of nothing. Hence the leaves. I think my grandpa would have been proud. Or, perhaps, he would have simply thought "Of course." So I go out and pick up more leaves.
Tomorrow we will get them trained to the fencing so we can get them out on pasture! I (Karen) can't wait to see them run about. At the same time, a pig yawning is just the cutest thing ever. I have recently done all this lecturing and presenting on oxytocin, the 'love hormone'. I think we ooze a little oxy over these pigs. We're all acting a little ridiculous. I call Red during the day to tell her pig stories. Can you really take us seriously as farmers?

Monday, October 20, 2008

Ok- so now we're really farming

Last night 6 porcine wonders arrived at Prairie Fire Farm. I had been in Chicago, celebrating Jeanette & Tanya as they get ready for a new baby this winter, and was able to come home a couple of hours after the pigs. I guess one escaped during the loading in and our new neighbor Larry arrived just in time to help. Birkleigh was excited to jump right in with the excited pigs and perhaps contributed a bit to the chaos. Red worked so hard to get the barn ready for the deep bedding system that will keep them warm this winter and on Saturday we went to her old farm to salvage some gates and supplies (thank you Kathy). Thanks to another neighbor, Curt, who lent us his pickup and flat bed trailer.... and our new friend Julia who thought to call us when she heard someone was looking to sell some feeders.... and my friends in Chicago planning to find room in their freezers for the end result. The arrival of the hogs is exactly what I hope farming to be. A connection to community. I could not be feeling more grateful as I have this last week. Can't wait to get to know these piggies!