Archive for April, 2011

   The housework got postponed, as so often happens, and instead of cleaning bathrooms and vacuuming, we went to a farm auction today.  We nearly got run over by someone driving much too fast with a load of scrap metal, but lived to arrive at the farm in question, and bid on much of what interested, almost all of which went MUCH too high for our wallets, but it was enjoyable and interesting nonetheless.  We’ll make, or make do without, the tools we went there to buy.  The farm itself went for a price much lower than we had expected, and we plan to attend more auctions and see if this is a trend. 

   We came home to plant the rest of the potatoes, and now we’ve decided we need to plant some more.  One of the many experiments in sustainability and low-input farming that we intend to conduct, is to see if we can raise enough potatoes to replace the grain in our pigs’ diet.  If last year’s crop of potatoes is what we can expect on a regular basis, the answer is “yes”.  And if generations of Irishmen could survive on potatoes and milk, why not pigs too?  Milk we have in plenty, with only a little purchased grain in Isabel’s diet (another goal; cut out the grain in the cow’s diet), and potatoes are easy to grow.  How would you like to enjoy your sausage, ham, and bacon, to the tune of twenty cents per pound?  That, if our mental math doesn’t err, would be the cost of two-hundred fifty pounds of pork at fifty dollars the piglet.

   Ohio weather is still rather wet.  We defied the mud to plant the potatoes when we got home from the auction; sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.  Otherwise the potatoes don’t get planted.  We also did the vacuuming, belated, and washed a bunch of laundry, and did all the chores that don’t go away whatever you do.

   Good night.

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   Not to be too coy about what we are doing here, we want to state in so many words that this blog is being written, or published, or produced, or whatever it is one does to blogs, not because we want people to know about us and our family (we’re really trying to preserve some anonymity here), but to demonstrate for a public we believe is out there, that the small plot of ground with a cow, a couple of pigs, and flock of hens, that sustained the large majority of the western world for centuries, is still capable of doing so.

   A young friend told us that recently her husband was watching, with great interest, a video on “homesteading.”  “We could do this, honey,” he kept exclaiming.  His interest kept mounting, until the homesteaders pulled out their milking machine to milk Bossy.  “There,” he concluded in disgust.  “You have to have a bunch of money to live like that.”  Another friend has spent years looking for some acres in the country on which to raise his growing — and growing up — family.  Several months ago he posted on his facebook account –”  Let’s just face it, everybody.  You have to be rich to be a gentleman farmer.”

   This blog is to blow the cover off that conclusion.  You don’t have  to have a a bunch of money to live a rural lifestyle and raise most of what you eat; but you do have to work.  Of course, you can work hard at your paid avocation, and if you’re lucky, you’ll make enough to pay for your needs, or what you conceive to be your needs, with enough left over to have some fun to repay yourself for doing all day something you probably wouldn’t choose to do if you weren’t paid to do it.


   If you are one of those people, and maybe you don’t know if you are or not, who would like to dig in the dirt, and mess with animals, and shovel manure, and make a compost heap, and collect eggs, and live in rhythm with the cycles of nature; if you’re someone who thinks he would enjoy noticing that the bluebirds are back looking for nesting holes in the pasture fence posts, and turning over half-cooked compost and gloating over all the red, squirmy worms in it; if you feel as though you’d like your work to be more directly related to your needs and the needs of other people, and the shape of your life to arise from your loves, hates, tastes, preferences, inclinations, proclivities, talents, and passions — then maybe this blog has something to say to you.

   Because the reason for this blog is to say that Sun on Grass plus Milk Cow equals Food.  Lots of it.  Like, four steers in the freezer per year.  And a good share of three pigs, and a not inconsiderable proportion of two hundred dozen eggs and three dozen fat broilers.  Not to mention two or three gallons of drinking milk A DAY, and six pounds of butter and two gallons of yogurt a week, and a pint of sour cream, and about six pounds of cheese every week too.  And ice cream whenever we feel like making it, and cream cheese, and all the good hearty cream-of soups we can eat.  But to get all this, you have to want it badly enough to milk a cow, faithfully, at least once, and traditionally twice, a day.  No skipping.  No feeling tired, run down, sick, or just bored with it.  Faithfullness.  That’s what’s required.  Absolute faithfulness, and, hopefully, a liking for the work.

   A big price, but not in money.

   Think about it.  That’s all we’re here to say.  You can log off now.  Or you can come back periodically and we can tell you  how we do it.  Maybe you’ll end up inventing your own picture for how you can do it.  We wish you the best of luck.

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   ***  see the overgrazed patch?   That paddock was too small; but thus we learn!   ***

  It is finally and truly spring, as the silver chiming of the hylas infallibly attests.  The old pond has been dredged and refilled, and seven large frogs have taken up residence.  The verges are twined with slimy ropes of frogspawn, and the parent frogs have added their voices to the treefrogs’.  We are not always so liberally blessed with frogs, but the endless rains of this spring are obviously very much to the liking of the local amphibian population.

   The year-old steer have all gone to Cadiz for the  summer, to spend the hot months on fifteen acres of stripmined land being returned to the state of nature with the assistance of a small flock of sheep, and our steers.  Our friend Dale, he of the off-grid woodland shack, keeps them for us there, his sheep being not able, in the summer months, to keep up with the forage.   Our own west hill clearing is in better shape for the grazing the steers did there last week; we walked up today — the logging trail is steep! — to assess how soon it will need to be grazed again.   The north hill pasture is still running with water in many places, but Isabel and Bridget have been moved to new paddocks daily.  Right now paddock size is about fifty by twenty feet, depending on where we put them, but as the sward thickens, the paddocks will get smaller.

   We were gratified to see that the hens have ventured even as far as the bottom of the field to scrap out the grain from Isabel’s flops.  Small is beautiful; when your pasture will fit on a postage stamp, it just makes it easier for your chickens to help with cleanup duty. 

   We got into the hives this afternoon, and traded hive #1 five frames of drawn comb (left from the hive that didn’t make it through the winter) for five of honey.  #1 is the colony with three hive body boxes, and we felt justified in robbing them, partly because the honey flow is good right  now — we could see the workers putting new honey in comb — and partly because we got a second-hand extractor on Monday, and we wanted to try it out.  We will no doubt get more efficient, but for a first time, we thought we did very well.  Previously — as in, for the last fifteen years or so — we have harvested by what we have seen called the “crush and strain” method, cutting the comb from the frame, crushing it, and straining the wax from the honey.  This works, but has among others the disadvantage of requiring the bees to construct new comb before they can store more honey.  With an extractor, you simply cut the caps on the cells, run the frames through the extractor, and return the frames to the bees, cells intact.  Big improvement, and we expect the bees like it, too.  There was a little wind storm and shower while we were running the extractor, so the bees didn’t bother us much, but later in the evening the bees were up there in droves, cleaning out the honey left in the extractor.  It looks like we got about a gallon and a bit from the five frames, but I will weigh it tomorrow to see exactly what is there.  This is old honey, from last year, that they didn’t use up over the winter, and we would venture the opinion that it is mostly black locust honey, which is very dark and strong.

   Before they were shut down by the rain, some of the boys milled six beautiful two-by-tens for barn rafters, and stacked them with shims to dry.  The loft, as it has emptied of hay, has been filling up with lumber destined to become the new barn.

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   Today, Easter Sunday, it is still grey and rainy, but much warmer than the forty-seven degrees of Friday.  We walked the pasture to see how the grass is filling in, pictures of which I will post here if I can figure out what neurosis is troubling the camera now.  It is encouraging to see how even the overgrazing of last summer’s drought, as long as it was rotational overgrazing, has improved the pasture.  What used, in early spring, to be a forest of dead queen-anne’s lace and goldenrod skeletons, is now mostly short green turf.  There are present there, we will grant you, cinquefoil and yarrow in plenty, but if the cow will eat it, why should we complain?  There is much fine grass of varieties we will, this summer, attempt to identify, but we are of the opinion that native varieties are probably the best bet for establishing pasture on land as rocky, wet, sour, and sloped as these seven acres, and whatever the volunteer pasture consists of, we are unlikely to try very hard to replace it with something else.  The goal, here, is to see how tight an ecology can be established by cooperating with the land as we find it, not using cash inputs to remake it in some preconceived image of ideal pasture.  Nature knows more, and more subtly, than man does.

   The new strawberries, in the small orchard, are up and looking valiant, and the old strawberries are blossoming.  So is the large cherry tree, but the other, always behind it, just has leaves.  The apple trees are all just about to bloom, and the new peach trees have leaves coming on.  The arbor vitae and redbuds we put in nine days ago look a little soggy and forlorn, but then, so did they when we set them out.  God prosper them.

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late spring


The new Speckled Sussex chicks, hereafter to be known as “the new laying flock” because that way we don’t have to hit the shift key, arrived one chick short and three DOA, but the hatchery made no cavil at replacing the birds.  We would have been dissatisfied with a mere credit for the cost of the birds, since we ordered with the size of flock we desired in mind; also, a credit for the chicks would not have covered the (considerable) cost of shipping.  The nice lady who took our call was very helpful, and in appreciation, we list here that Meyers Hatchery is strong on customer satisfaction. 

   It is cool today — forty-seven degrees — and it is supposed to rain for the next five days at least, but should warm up.  The long wet season is affecting our rotational grazing, since the south pasture is wet as a bathsponge and not likely to dry up in the foreseeable future.  There are patches that are solid enough that S-3 put Isabel and the mini in paddocks for three days last week, and we saw first-hand why one makes spring paddocks large; standing at the kitchen window, you can trace the outline of the first two paddocks, grazed down to pale new grass.   We are always learning.  The third paddock was two or three times larger, and the animals only grazed enough to encourage the grass to send out more tillers.  Success.

—  one end of Thursday’s overgrazed paddock  —   

We planted seventy by forty feet of potatoes  — about 120# — but when the ground dries up again — as people were probably saying about the time God closed the Ark on Noah — we are putting out another seventy-five pounds or so.  The decision has to be made whether to plant the new tillage to sod potatoes, in order to embark the sooner on our milk-and-potato-fed pork experiment, — in which case we lose the advantage next year of a garden plot that has not yet been used for potatoes — or to plant the new sod to buckwheat, postponing the potato-pig experiment (see piggies), but giving us a well-tilled and manured plot for potatoes next year.  We’ll let you know how the decision comes down.  Maybe we need to till another couple hundred square feet.  That’ll excite the sons who run the tiller.

   The men set up another 300 gallon tank for rainwater, this one receiving the rain off the west side of the garage roof.  Should fill up soon, given the forecast.  This water-hog  is to provide for the needs of the raised beds that serve the house, not that there seems any immediate danger of those drying out.  It is fortunate that we got the spring seeds in before the Deluge really got going; the peas, as Elizabeth Enright has it, are “more than just a ruffle”, the over-wintered lettuce will soon be providing the table, and the spring planted greens, beets, and carrots are just showing.  These should provide a much-needed spring tonic; we are all dragging through this dilatory spring.  When one of us offered a pint of blood to the Red Cross recently, the offer was rejected because the donor was anemic — and we eat red meat almost every day!  When the nettles finally come up, we will have to have nettle soup.

   Today we drag because it is Good Friday.  Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent — many do so on all the Fridays of the year — but on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday they also fast, eating half or less than on a normal day.  What others do for their figures, Catholics do to express their identification with their Christ, and, furthermore, to practice for a day when they might have no choice about suffering for their beliefs.  I find these practices and attitudes strangely athletic and real; like the art and architecture of most of the church’s two thousand years, it strikes a note of longevity in me, as though ancient things, things I once only met in books ,suddenly stepped off the page and began breathing. 

   We are looking on Craig’s list for a honey extractor — expensive — and pricing replacements for our grain mill — also expensive.  We never had an extractor, preferring to cut the comb from the frame and use new foundation every time, but as we grow more successful with our beekeeping, we think it may be worth our money to acquire an extractor.  Our old grain mill ate one of its gears, which to replace will cost us upward of $115, but a new grain mill begins at twice that figure.  Maybe we should just get the new gear, even though Beth has a pique with the grain mill company, because when they replaced our stones eighteen months ago, they didn’t clean the adhesive out of the drive pocket, and the mill ran crooked for a year and a half before we figured out the problem, the company having sworn it couldn’t be the fault of the new stones, suggesting instead that we send them the mill — what does it cost to mail a twenty-five pound grain mill? — and they would let us know what they thought was wrong in two months or so.  Thanks.  Do we buy a new mill to avoid doing business with  these people, or buy a new gear for an otherwise quite satisfactory machine?

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   Last year’s drought has inspired us to be creative in our water storage.  The two small ponds we are improving are additional evidence that water is of primary importance to land users; the seep which the boys improved last summer keeps the stock tank constantly overflowing, and when the ground is firm — in a week or so, we hope — we will direct the overflow into a smaller tank we can move across the pasture as we rotate the animals.

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warm day


April 15:  Fridays are latin and confessions, when S-6’s godfather comes for a half-day, but since he went first to hear the Sisters’ pecadillos, most of the family went on up there to plant potatoes before the rains that are predicted for tomorrow.  They set out 120# in rows on 3′ centers, so that they can use the BCS to cultivate and hill the potato plants.  Not being as good about keeping records as we might be, we are uncertain how many pounds of seed potatoes we put out last year, but today’s potatoes only filled two-thirds of the old garden, so we will be cutting more seed potato tomorrow.  Last year we raised an even ton of potatoes, and we need another three or four hundred pounds if we want them to last until August provides another crop.  For an Irishman to run out of potatoes is unacceptable, so we must put out another seventy-five or hundred pounds of seed potatoes.

   Our windbreak/privacy screen trees came into the SWCD today, and we picked them up this afternoon.  When S-3 got in the van, he wondered why we hadn’t taken the back seat out to make room for the little trees; Mom knew better.  All thirty-five trees — thirty arbor vitae and five redbud — together weighed about twenty-four ounces.  These are baby trees, infants one hopes to be able to nurse to young childhood.  We set out twenty-five of the arbor vitae at seven-thirty p.m.,after attending stations of the cross; the wind was roaring in the trees on the hilltops two hundred feet above our heads, but down in the valley where we were setting out the hedge it was only a little breezy.  With those trees in, we are set for the rain predicted for tomorrow, and the few that are left will go up by the house, where we can set them out in the morning, rain or shine. 

   April 12:  Yesterday was a day anticipating summer, and academics took a back seat to necessary farm labor.  No one mourned.  Although with some reservation, we tilled the large potato patch at the Franciscan Sisters’ (a cooperative garden: their land, our labor).  The test for soil dry enough to be tilled is to squeeze a handful and see if when you release it the soil remains in a ball  — too wet — or falls apart in your hand, in which case it is dry enough to be cultivated.  The committee of two who went up there to see elected to till despite indications to the contrary.  S-4 spent about five hours behind the BCS, which did a fine job on the old garden,but the newly-broken soil of the new part of the garden would really benefit from a real plow behind a tractor.  Since we don’t have this, we count on the first year of sod potatoes to break up the soil for us.

   The onion-planting committee, consisting of Mom and the little chicks, got three pounds of sets put out in record time, bringing the total planted to six pounds; S-5 cut garden stakes and seived compost for seedlings, while S-3 dragged the pasture to spread hay and manure clumps.  In the afternoon the men got the small tractor running, with the help of a new starter coil ($20 at the auto parts store), and other people transplanted sage and shastas from one of the raised beds into the borders, to free up space for the vegetables that will go in the raised beds.  To blazes with housework, laundry, cooking; people will be lucky to be fed once a day when summer comes.

   After dinner the seed potatoes were cut up and set out on the porch table to cure.

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