Hey! What’s Growing On?

While, there are some aspects of Beacon Farmstead that look reminiscent of what you’d expect from a typical farm or garden, much of our homestead is producing food in a far less conventional way. 

Because I am enormously inspired by the regenerative qualities of Permaculture design, I am often trying to find ways to stack functions–that is, creating productive and beneficial connections between different actions and elements on the farm. One seemingly magical example of this is the area of feeding our pigs. 

A main staple of our hogs’ diets is bread, fruit, and veggie scraps from a local health food store. Each time we feed them, many of the seeds, rines, and peels get left and mashed into the soil by those powerful pig trotters, which turns into quite a lovely bit of organic matter over time. We then shift the pigs in a woodland form of rotational grazing, leaving those “lost” seeds to do as they may without being disturbed and rooted up by those nosy pigs. As a result of this approach, we now have a plethora of patches all over the property growing cucumbers, tomatoes, a variety of squashes, and more! It has a very similar result of Masanobu Fukuoka’s “Do Nothing Farming” (though our approach is far from doing nothing). I highly recommend reading his book, The One Straw Revolution. Check it out!

 Here are some photos of things that are growing all about the farmstead (and some othe pics that I simply thought were pleasing to the eye). Enjoy!
    

Zucc’s in hand, with herb garden in the background.

  

Siamese twin summer squash

  

A handsome zipper- spider on the handle of our rabbit feed bucket.

  

Not raspberries–just one cluster of many unripened blackberries from around the property.

  

One of the many “volunteer” butternut squash that are sprawling about on the farmstead

  

A beautiful display of some giant poplar leaves that Judah created. He was very pleased with himself (the leaves were then fed to the goats who LOVE poplar!).

Some Spring Photos from the Farm

 

This is our little nigerian dwarf yearling, Bitsy. She’s out enjoying our new bit of pasture.

 

These are some of our heritage breed hatchlings enjoying some fresh veg.

 

Here’s Lulu, our un-farm cat, doing what she does best.

 

Yup… there was a lot more amphibian lovin’ this spring (I knew everyone needed another dose of that–note the passion in those eyes!)

 

We hatched out our own chicks this spring with eggs from our own flock. we had noticed a much higher viability rate compared to the hatching eggs we ordered last year… I mean look at the spunk and attitude in that chickie’s face! “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

 

We’ve been very fortunate to have minimal predation, but this has been our farmstead’s primary predator. Introducing the black rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta). Thankfully it’s a constrictor and not venomous, but it’s kind has consumed too many of our young rabbit kits, chicks, and turkey poults.

 

I found this gargantuan yard beast in a wheelbarrow filled with blackalicious compost!

 

And finally, our wonderful american guinea hog’s gave birth, another bit of new life at Beacon Farmstead this spring.

 

Jeepers Peepers!

Some will probably argue it, but spring is here–or at least the frogs and toads seem to think so!

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For the past few weeks, our days (and especially nights) have been filled with the chirps and cricks of the “spring peepers.” I hadn’t really heard of or noticed these little ones before, but after experiencing them out here on the farmstead in such symphonic surround sound, I will forever perceive them as a sign of the season.

Just so you are aware, if you play the video below, you will certainly witness some frog-on-frog-on-frog action (viewer discretion is advised 🙂

Here is the start of a lovely biology lesson that has unfolded before us. We’ll include more pictures as the tadpoles develop.

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These helixes started forming in our garden swales and really perplexed me before I took some time to look closer. Those aren’t chia seeds, folks. We’re expecting…tadpoles!20140419-203203.jpg

We couldn’t ask for a better home-education lesson for Judah. Julia and I both had what would typically be considered excellent educational experiences while growing up, but neither of us had witnessed anything like this before (note Judah’s reflection in the water)!20140419-203223.jpg

The tiniest tadpoles just after hatching.20140419-203437.jpg

Starting to beef-up.20140419-203452.jpg

In permaculture, we make use of the abundance and productivity found in the edges of systems because it is nature’s tendency to do so–this concept is made quite clear by the actions of the tadpole!20140419-203520.jpg

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Here’s what these serious swimmers can do (it’s quite mesmerizing to watch):

Stay tuned. There’s more to come!

New Chooks = New Digs

Back in February we acquired a new flock of 23 red sex-linked hens (in addition to the 18 chickens we already had). We had many people from far and wide very interested in buying our eggs on a regular, standing order basis, so deciding to honor the rule of supply and demand, we more than doubled our flock. This meant I needed to get busy building a new coop.

I have built two coops in the past: one for a small flock of 6 (though it could be modified to fit plenty more), and another (the duck house) that could accommodate about 12 – 15 birds. This most recent coop is definitely the best of my designs. When building coops I like to use as many “found materials” as I possibly can. In addition, due to the fact that our flocks our mobile (rotated with moveable electric fence throughout our land), in the woods, and we have no tractor to pull have coops, we need to have semi-lightweight coops (light enough to be pulled by one strong individual). This is why I turn to pallets for my foundations–they are very strong, but light enough to move quite easily once wheels are attached.

 

Thin and light plywood siding

With this coop, I did purchase some 2×3’s, hardware cloth, and fencing tacks to be used in conjunction with old scrap 2×4’s, plywood, nails, screws, hinges, clasps and Ondura roofing pieces that I had from a previous project. Judah was a big helper on this project and we were able to get it done in only a couple afternoons (along with all the other regular farm chores).

Judah tacking down the hardware cloth

The coop design has a large door for relatively easy access for cleaning, a hardware cloth floor to prevent sneaky critters from breaking and entering, and a vent on either side near the roof for good air flow.

The coop is coming together

The pre-used roofing is layered for proper watershed and could have a gutter piece added to gather drinking water for the girls.

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There is a large nesting box door for easy access to those yummy eggs.

Exterior view of nesting box door (+ Judah)

And three nesting boxes to accommodate the nesting needs of up to 24 birds!

Nesting boxes

There are 4 primary roosts and a 5th lower roost to be utilized as an assist up to the other roosts or as overflow if it is needed (I prefer to use actual branches for their roosts, as chickens in the wild would not typically perch on 2×2’s).

Roosts to accomodate 25 chickens

The girls were easily able to fit 6 on a roost, especially during the colder months. I call this my best coop design because it is mobile, it can comfortably hold 24 birds in a 3’x4′ space, while also keeping them completely secure from predation–I haven’t seen anything that comes close to this. It is efficient, inexpensive, and super easy to build as long as you have the proper tools. The most expensive part of the coop is the flat-free tires and axle–very important for woodland raised, mobile chickens!

Let me know if you have any questions about this coop project and remember to be safe and have fun during all building projects.

Talk to you again soon!

 

The VABF Conference

Hello out there! It’s been a while without a post, I know, I know… it’s for good reason, I assure you–much has been happening for the last couple months and I will do my best to get everyone caught up on all the hubbub as soon as possible.

It was my birthday at the end of January and my gift (from my lovely wife) was a ticket to the Virginia Biological Farming Conference! And what a gift it was: there were many workshops chock full of info that will help us develop our land into a fully operational farmstead! I attended workshops on how to run a market greenhouse , edible landscaping, small farm structures, beneficial instects,  herd management, and more, but the most enlightening workshop I went to was an all day, pre-conference event with Gunther Hawk on the subject of Biodynamics and beekeeping. It was phenomenal!

Gunther Hawk at the VABF ConferenceIt was inspiring and uplifting despite the challenging status for bees at this time and prepared me well for starting work with our first bee hive this spring. Gunther, formerly a Waldorf class teacher, also discussed Biodynamic farming in general and covered the preparations that are prescribed for healing the land and our food. I was also very excited to apply theses preparations to our land as we move along and develop over the years. Gunther (Pictured above) was a fountainhead of knowledge and a very witty presenter. I highly suggest you check out his website for up coming classes and information on why bees are so important, especially today– http://spikenardfarm.org/
Bee well!

Additions to the flock

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This past month, we’ve been very excited to produce enough eggs to sell a few dozen per week to friends and coworkers, as we get about 12-14 per day from our 17 hens. (I am convinced they lay more somewhere else.) There has been a bit of education on why our hens are not vegetarian fed (their primary diet being bugs) and the benefits of soy-free, pastured, organically fed eggs. The feedback has been wonderful so far and we are so happy to help nourish other families along with our own.

So last week, Judah & I picked up 23 more 19 week old red sex link pullets, our favorite for laying huge brown eggs while being very active foragers. The sun was out, it was fairly warm, and he was quite helpful as I was transferring them alone. He closed the carrier each time I loaded one, and all went smoothly until bird 23 when he left it open and I almost lost them all! Thankfully, they were all a bit shell shocked from the transfer and didn’t rush out faster than I could close the carrier door, but those three year old assistants always keep you on your toes! We are very hopeful the new hens will start to lay soon so we can keep up with egg orders, and give these amazing orange yolks to all who desire them!

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New sow and piglets!

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We recently acquired the mama sow of our other Guinea hogs along with four of her remaining piglets from the same litter. We picked them up during our recent cold snap post-snow and it was quite an adventure! The farmer who sold them to us decided raising pigs was not for him, as he had become too attached to eat them. It’s definitely not an easy thing to wrap your mind around; it is not comfortable for us either, but it is definitely something we feel compelled to be a part of if we are going to eat meat, and is a significant part of why we have chosen to start our small farm, to feel a connection to the lives that are given to sustain our own.

The farmer, Ken, rounded up his friends to help and we used two cattle panels tied together to walk the pigs up to our truck. There we had boosted their previous pig house as a ramp using hay bales with a strip of burlap for traction, and had a cattle panel inside in a teardrop shape to secure the pigs. Convincing them to “walk the plank” as I called it was not too easy, other than the little runt Ken called Froggy for her funny voice. She clearly loved him and was a people pig from the time we met her when we picked up our first set of piglets from him. She walked right up for scratches the first time, even as we were grabbing her squealing siblings to put in animal carriers, and this time was no different. Once Ken was up in the truck bed with some food, she walked up to him without fear. One or two siblings joined in though the rest took more cajoling. Eventually everyone was up munching in the hay, we secured and covered the cattle panel with a tarp and off we went for home. Unloading went fairly well using a pallet for a ramp since the ground level was higher than our driveway. They are now settled in, enjoying the pile of wood chips to root in and sunning this past week when we had a couple spring-like days. We can’t wait for more days working outside together as a family to develop this piece of land!

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Gobble, Gobble!

While on a break at work I received a message from Julia: “Coordinating pick up of six turkeys, raised with non-GMO feed.” Lo and behold, we’ve got Turkeys!

One fine bunch of toms!

One fine bunch of toms!

You all must know that I truly adore my wife! While many years back she was hesitant to adopt the idea of getting land this early in our lives, she is now fully on board! Julia has been the catalyst in the acquisition of all of our animals here on the farmstead and I can’t express to you how amazing it feels when I see that excitement burning in her eyes upon realizing the potential for further animal diversity. We both know that it means a deeper variety of fertility for our land, an opportunity to further our knowledge in animal care, and, in this case, the daunting task and learning experience of processing an animal by our own hands. Yes, that’s right. These birds are destined for the table (but first, the freezer).

I am definitely not a man of bloodlust. I do not look forward to “harvesting” these turkeys, but I do feel deeply that if I am to eat meat, and I do, then I should be responsible for the animal’s death, or at least be as intimately involved with the process as possible (knowing and visiting your farmer on a regular basis or even volunteering on processing day at farms that offer such an opportunity). There are many objections to this idea, and I’m not saying that this is for everyone. It is just something that is extremely important to me considering the condition of our current food system (a topic that I will explore in many future posts).

For now, we are just enjoying these amazing creatures, watching their natural behaviors, interacting with them, and learning from their presence. We have 4 toms and 2 lady birds. The females make a high pitch, single-note chirp, while the boys, of course, do their famous “gobble, gobble.” The most entertaining part is that no tom gobbles alone. They all call in unison, like a flock of birds moving as one, darting about the sky as a dynamic avian cloud.

A very handsome tom! You can tell he was ready for his close up.

A very handsome tom! You can tell he was ready for his close up.

Little lady bird.

Little lady bird.

These birds, however, are far from dynamic. The man who sold them to us said that they dressed out at 40 lbs! Jeez! I can corroborate, too, considering I had to lift them in and out of their crate in the back of our pick up. They are monsters! but very gentle though, for how enormous they have become.

They're almost as big as the boy!

They’re almost as big as the boy!

So, we have six new members in the Beacon Farmstead family (although, their stay here will not be a long one). It seems that I wake up every day with new tasks to accomplish (and new animal friends to entertain), and while life can seem a bit crazy at times, we’re all having a lot of fun (especially Judah)! If anyone is a bit stressed, all it takes is a nice forage walk with Judah and the goats, and everything seems right as rain again.

 

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Be well, folks. Talk to you soon.

The Wood Stove

It’s official: Beacon Farmstead is now heating with wood! I have to admit, it has taken us a long time to get here. One wouldn’t think that achieving such a simple concept would prove to be so complex–yet, it certainly was!

We initially started our goal to heat with wood, like so many of our projects, by doing research on-line and then obsessively scanning Craigslist.com. We first discovered a remarkable amount of free firewood posted; some in the form of a fallen tree, some that had already been cut into 18” log sections, and some already aged and split. Over a month or two, I borrowed my father-in-law’s beautiful truck several times (thanks, Randy!) and “harvested” this gloriously free wood (free with the exception of the fuel to operate the truck). I spent many hours splitting wood while Judah explored in the yard and climbed on the wood stacks with the cats.

Lumberjack Judah.

Lumberjack Judah.

It felt good! The wood was free, but so was the workout and the experience. In a funny way, as I swung the axe, if not for but a fleeting moment, I felt connected with all those ancestors who split wood before me, out of necessity, for survival, and certainly not for some suburbanite desire to be sustainable. We had no need to heat with wood. We could still pay for electric heat, but we saw the potential for using a renewable natural resource that would otherwise end up at the dump and with a bit of effort on our end, pulling it out of the waste stream, we could provide our own heat. How nifty. So we had our wood. Now, we needed a stove. Back to Craigslist.

With wood stoves you really need to find the right size stove for the right size home. We found an inexpensive cast-iron Vogelzang box stove for under $100 that would heat 800-1000 sq. ft. This seemed to be appropriate for heating the lower level of our home and we would just let the heat rise to our second story where all the bedrooms were located (we like sleeping in cooler temperatures anyway). We responded quickly and snapped up the Vogelzang from a very nice couple in a nearby neighborhood. It was quite heavy, but light enough for me to lift, although laboriously, on my own. Wood-stove: check.

Imagining I could retrofit our existing fireplace to receive a wood-stove by the sweat of my own brow, we did a little more research and found that unless it was professionally installed and inspected, in the event of a fire, our insurance would not cover the damage. After calling around, I discovered that this meant $1,000-$3,000 to install the steal-of-a-deal wood stove we purchased. So, that wasn’t going to happen and we opted out of heating with wood for that season. Dead end.

Fast forward to the present. Our current home on the farm is a mobile home, and although it has an appropriate wood-stove duct that had been installed by the previous owner, one can’t just go throwing any old wood-stove into a mobile home–they have to be mobile home approved. The Vogelzang was NOT mobile home approved. Bummer. We now needed to invest in a new wood stove and the only one we could find that was somewhat affordable AND mobile home approved was at one of our local big-box stores (I’ll let you guess which one: it starts with “H” and ends with “ome Depot”). This made it pretty easy. No having to get one shipped to our house or driving to some obscure wood-stove shop in Who-knows-where, Virginia. Great! We had another stove and one that would work for our home on the farm. Now we needed stove pipe.

The particular stove we purchased required15ft of stove pipe for proper draft which meant we needed a bunch of stove pipe (but WAY less than that $1000-$3000 promise in our old house)! This also meant we needed a number of other pieces, adapters, roof bracings and such, and we couldn’t even identify what the brand was of the existing roof/stove duct installation. While we could have ended up driving from stove shop to stove shop, we were fortunate in finding the right brand of pipe at our other local big-box store (Hint: starts with “L” and ends with….ah, you know which one). Once we had all the pieces, the stove was up and running in a matter of days.

The tricky parts were as follows:

Getting the stove outside for the first three burn-off fires (this gets the factory chemically smell off the stove and cures the paint without stinking up your house, but boy that stove is heavy!).

Watching the smoke rise on the first of the three introductory burns.

Watching the smoke rise on the first of the three introductory burns.

Fireside chat.

Fireside chat.

Installing the air intake (this entails creating a 5 1/2 in hole in your home and running a tube through it that connects to your stove for proper air flow).

Ready...

Ready…

Set...

Set…

Judah!

Judah!

Finally, installing the stove pipes in the house and on the roof and securing them with roof bracings (this was possibly the most challenging part to do with a 3 1/2 year old wanting me to look at what he is doing down below every 30 seconds while I’m standing at the edge of our roof adjusting 8ft. of heavy insulated pipe and a bit afraid of heights to boot).

Drilling in sheet metal screws to secure stove pipes.

Drilling in sheet metal screws to secure the stove pipes.

Installing the insulated stove pipes.

Installing the insulated stove pipes.

One section of pipe...

One section of pipe…

Two sections of pipe...now we're in business!

Two sections of pipe…now we’re in business!

Even with all of that, the stove is now installed and working properly! And the best part is that we were able to do it all ourselves (and do it well). Learning to control the stove and operate it with efficiency is a whole other story, one which we will share with you on another day.

We have some cold days approaching, so stay warm, y’all. I know we will!

Hot stuff!

Hot stuff!

Happy New Year!

They say that somewhere between 80-99% of New Year’s resolutions result in failure. This happens for many reasons ranging from unrealistic goals to the actual physiological inability of the prefrontal cortex to process new goals while managing the status quo. Our family has been quite successful in accomplishing our resolutions over the last few years and after some thought on the matter I now believe that I know why.
The first reason our family has been successful with our resolutions is that we utilize a very powerful gift that many people in our culture possess: procrastination! I mean come on! Who in their right mind is going to shackle themselves to new diet and exercise routines on the heals of 30+ days of holiday binging? It’s just poor form. We never start our new year’s resolutions on New Year’s Day. EVER. Like last year, my wife (Julia) and I are once again doing the paleo-based Whole30, which is a sort of cleanse for us in order to re-awaken our nutritional goals and refocus our view on what we are putting into our bodies and why. The premise of the Whole30 is quite simple:

Eat meat, seafood, eggs, tons of vegetables, some fruit, and plenty of good fats from fruits, oils, nuts and seeds. Eat foods with very few ingredients, all pronounceable ingredients, or better yet, no ingredients listed at all because they’re totally natural and unprocessed…do not consume added sugar of any kind, real or artificial…do not consume alcohol in any form, not even for cooking… no tobacco products of any sort… do not eat grains…do not eat legumes…do not eat dairy… do not eat white potatoes…do not eat carrageenan, MSG, or sulfites…and no paleo-fying baked goods, desserts, or junk food (whole30.com).

Just eat real, whole foods. For us to achieve this resolution we prepare ourselves all through the month of January. We “eat down” the sweets and treats and forbidden foods that we don’t want in the house during our cleanse, we plan out every meal of the 30 days, and we start shopping for the many healthful foods we do want around, so we are empowered and prepared for success.
The other main justification for our having done so well with our resolutions is our knowledge of what I call the Rule of the Fortnight. Many studies have revealed that it takes approximately 3-6 weeks for most people to establish a new routine within their lives. I believe, from many years of personal experience, that once one reaches the 2 week marker of practicing a new habit, there is a particular level of mastery that is absorbed into one’s psyche. The “muscle memory” becomes quite strong at this point and what would have been a great temptation a week earlier seems paltry in passing from the plateau of the fortnight. Knowing that the excruciating torture of change will be heavily mitigated in just two weeks is a very empowering concept.
Furthermore, Julia and I are not doing the Whole365–we’re doing the Whole30! So many people have already reneged on their resolutions by mid-January due to the daunting thought of maintaining new habits for an entire year. I cannot blame them. Our family’s New Year’s resolutions are bite sized. We enter into our 30 days knowing full well that at the end we will be stronger for it, and as a result, more likely to continue on with that fortitude into the next 30 days. Lao Tzu once said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Who could disagree? So too, the journey can only continue with a 34th step, and a 238th step, and so on. Preparing one’s self for each step along the way is the way.
So, my friend: if you’ve already given up, already fallen short of your resolve, have no fear–it’s still January! Dig your heels in (or just get comfy on the couch), grab a notebook, and write yourself a plan of action. Whether you’re trying to drop a vice, or you’re attempting to incorporate new, healthful habits in your life, try seeing the trees for the forest this time. Take it one moment at a time. Breathe. And be present in each moment. Humans are habitual beings, and making change is monumental. Summon your strength and your patience, for February is on it’s way. But worry not, my friend. We must only make it through a fortnight. I’ll see you on the other side.

Josh.