Tag Archives: farming

Farm Lessons

We purchased our farm/homestead in January 2005 and spent the next several months getting the perk test for septic, drilling a nearly 800 foot well, laying out the floor plan and getting the custom log kit put together for us, hiring a contractor and finally breaking ground in November 2005.  In June 2006, I left my husband and recently graduated high school youngest son in an apartment on the coast and I took a second apartment in the university town halfway between where we were building and my new job.  This started a 3 year commute every few weeks back and forth across the state for hubby and me, sometimes meeting somewhere in between to see each other.

During the construction, before our eldest son (RT) who had moved to the area with his family to oversee the construction, could take over for the interior work and the weather would permit the stonework, he repaired our old pole barn.  It is a simple structure of a central closed room with a sided lean-to off each side.  One side stored the old farm equipment that we bought with the house and is low enough that we have to be careful walking in it to not hit our heads.  The other side is tall enough to park the tractor inside and to store the plow and auger and has a hay rack, so was probably used at some point to shelter cattle kept on the land or for the miniature horses that were grazing here when we purchased.  The barn was in disrepair, the doors were rotting and falling off, the roof had been the target for many shots from a neighbor’s yard and the metal roof, already in poor shape was riddled with tiny holes.  Son rebuilt the doors after repairing and shoring up the frame, roof cemented and painted the metal roof in a color close to the red of the house metal roof, making it a functional place to store the utility trailer, our kayaks, and tractor equipment.  It may soon become hay storage for the horses and cattle that should be added within the next year.

Also during this time, RT and his wife constructed a tremendous garden,6 huge compost bins, and orchard area.  This area was much larger than I can manage and has been reduced to about a 60 X 60′ vegetable garden and berry beds, the chicken coop and run, and an orchard with apple, Asian pear, and peach trees and two less compost bins.  This is an area that I can manage.  The vegetable garden has been a work in progress as I started building 4′ square beds for parts of it and 4′ wide strips of beds for other parts of it.  Two years ago, I added a row of blueberry bushes, a row of thornless raspberry bushes, moved a grape vine that a neighbor had given us, but was just growing randomly and not well on the edge of the garden and added another of a different variety and gave them the northern most row of the garden with trellis support.  I have tried different varieties of vegetables to see what grows best in this soil and climate, have discovered that radishes and turnips get riddled with little white worms and aren’t worth my effort, I just buy them in season at the Farmers’ Market.  The remainder of the garden provides us with beans, peas, greens, tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, potatoes, onions, garlic, cucumbers and sometimes when Mother Nature allows, pumpkins and squash.  Some years there is enough to get us through the winter.  Other years there is enough to share with RT’s family as well, and a few years, it has only been part of our needs and we have had to supplement from the Farmers’ Market or even the grocer.

Almost a year ago, I wanted to add chickens to the homestead, mostly for eggs and the compost they generate, and RT asked that I also raise some meat birds, that he would do the deed and butcher them.  I didn’t know that they couldn’t be raised together, that the layers would brutalize the slow heavy meat birds and that the meat birds couldn’t get up in the coop.  I also learned to be careful when buying birds.  My first chicks were day old chicks from two different Tractor Supply stores and there were lots of young cockrells in the first chicks.  Then I bought two from an animal swap that were both supposed to be pullets, one is my big rooster Cogburn.  I bought half a dozen from a local gal that was on Backyard chicken forum, she swore she didn’t know their genders and all 6 were cockrells (I’m sure she laughed all the way to the bank with my $30).  I got two more pullets, Buff Orpingtons like Cogburn and decided that they would be the heritage breed that I raise.  RT came in late spring and we put all the cockrells except Cogburn, the meat birds that survived and a couple of pullets in freezer camp.  It was not a pleasant task, but I participated to the extent I could tolerate.  The rest of the flock continued to mature as I looked forward to the eggs they would produce later in the summer.  In August, I raised a second brood of day old meat chicks, this time in a chicken tractor that RT had build for me during the summer, keeping the laying flock and the meaties apart and in October, they were dispatched to freezer camp with a higher lever of my participation this time, though I still find it very unpleasant.

Around August, the layers, one by one began producing eggs and everything I read said that I needed to increase their calcium intake so I purchased oyster shell to offer to the hens that wanted it, then had an Ah Ha moment when I read to feed their egg shells back to them.  Some sources say to just remove the membrane from inside the shell, wash, dry and crush.  Others say the shells must be baked.  I have learned that there is no right way to do anything, that you do what works best for you.  My hens get their shells back with the membrane removed and heated in the microwave for 2 minutes, then crushed.   I learned not to totally clean out their coop weekly, but put a thick layer of straw inside and turn it daily, adding more when needed.  This starts a composting inside the coop which provides winter warmth and surprisingly it doesn’t smell, then thoroughly clean and scrub the coop out come spring and good weather.  I have been told to keep the chickens in a secure run with chicken wire buried to keep digging predators out, but that idea doesn’t work here as it is difficult to even hammer in a post without hitting a rock in this county and alternately to let them free range.  I prefer the free range method, but there are too many dogs, coyotes, hawks, etc in the area to totally do that, so they are in a pen, not too secure, inside the orchard that has electric fence around it, but they usually get a few hours of free range time each day when there isn’t snow on the ground.  And I have learned that I want a pure flock of heritage birds that can self sustain, no more brooders in the garage for baby chicks.

This has been a learning experience, lots of instruction, usually contradicting someone else’s instructions.  So far, we are producing most of the vegetables we need, we have lost only 2 very young chicks and no adult birds that we didn’t harvest (hope I didn’t just invite a pack of predators), have purchased and learned to use a tractor with brush hog, bucket, and auger (still haven’t gotten the hang of the plow), have planted an orchard, a berry and grape supply, landscaped with plenty of perennials for summer cut flowers and love the mountain farm life.

Next up we add horses and cattle and hope that goes as well.

Life is good on our mountain farm.

Reward

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This is the scene this morning. The ridge a mile away is hidden by the snowfall. The snow is not heavy, just steady and expected until sundown, so we may see our first seasonal snowfall. It is later than usual, but we are approaching the 8 weeks when we are most likely to get snow cover.  We are in the Allegheny mountains in southwest Virginia at an elevation of only about 2300 ft (700+ m) on the south flank of the ridge. The ridge north of us rises to about 4400 ft (1341 m) so that it shelters us from most heavy storms. The snow is welcome for the garden moisture it provides, the seasonal beauty and to indulge my inner child who will bundle up and walk or play in it after morning chores are done.

The dogs hit the deck this morning and delightedly took off, leaping; well the German Shepherd leaps, the English Mastiff lopes, and chasing each other around and rooting around like hogs with their noses in the snow. Often when it snows, one of them will come up with a mole or vole with which they play, tossing it around until they tire of the game.

The chickens were less delighted. I filled their water pan with tepid water and hung their feeder beneath the coop to keep it dry and opened the pop door for morning greetings. The first one to poke her head out stopped short as soon as her foot hit the snowy ramp, gave me an accusatory glare and ducked back inside.  All of them were milling around in the coop making agitated sounds, but no one came out. It isn’t very cold yet, only 32°f (0°c), the cold is expected again tonight dropping to low single digits and remaining well below freezing for the next week or so. I may have to make a concession and at least put their food inside the coop. We have snow predicted again in a few days.

The woods are looking like a wonderland and with the snow cover, you can see well into the woods and see the foraging deer and turkeys. I love the mountains and the snow. Life is good on our mountain farm.