Monday, June 13, 2011

Sunny days and heat waves

Here on the mountain, spring has been feeling a lot more like summer for a group of Washington transplants. The sun seems to be shining constantly, and we've already had a few hot days climb above 90 degrees! The property is looking amazing; the blackberries are coming on, the pasture grass is tall but getting cut this week (Alan is learning to bush hog), and the wildlife is blossoming - turtles, lizards, turkeys, frogs, toads, etc.!

A lot has happened on the farm since our last blog post - we'll do our best to bring everyone up to speed:

Our chicks have been officially introduced to our adult hens, and coop is now a delightfully noisy madhouse! We lost one of our layers, Margaret, in a tragic farm accident. Let's just say Calloway got a bit overexcited while chasing around what she believed to be one of her feathered squeaky toys... Pups will be pups, but she is now kept under closer supervision with the birds and fortunately hasn't had a problem since. On the plus side, we got the chance to learn how to butcher poultry! We thank Marge for her delicious eggs and meat that we have enjoyed and nourished our bodies with.

Fran's first attempt at gutting a chicken

The garden is growing like crazy. Little green Italian heirloom tomatoes are bursting from crooked branches, sunflower seedlings are following the sun's arc, and the starts we got from the Roanoke Farmer's Market back in March have made many dinners but are on their way out just in time for our own from-seed veggies to take over. We eat homegrown salads twice a day, and soon there will be more than we can eat. In May we planted a number of flower and herb beds and eagerly anticipate the beautiful colors and aromas that they will soon bring to the garden. Some interesting new additions to our year one vegetable garden include grain corn and popcorn, red heirloom okra, edamame, and sweet potatoes. So excited about the prospect of homegrown sweet potatoes in particular, we went ahead and planted over a hundred vines of four different varieties. Excessive? Maybe, but we welcome the potential excess of our collective favorite root vegetable!

Overlooking the garden from the top of the hill

We've had some wonderful visits from friends and family the past few months. Our friends Aaron and Rob spent two weeks with us, diving right into our daily work schedule, and adding the extra hands and enthusiasm to help us get a lot of great work accomplished. While they were here we began the much anticipated earthen oven project. Special thanks to Aaron for planning out our rocket mass/double-chambered oven design, the creative fusion of two approaches for optimizing burn efficiency. The cob oven is now close to complete, and we should be firing some pizza soon! Kelsey's parents, Tim and Vicky, joined us for a wonderful mother's day weekend on the farm. They spoiled us with luxury items such as organic ketchup and killer homemade baked goods; it was really great to all celebrate at least one of our incredible mothers on her special day.

Cob stomping dance party!
 Our most recent guests were Mark (our original connection to Meredith) and Josh (Alan's brother-in-law), more friends and family from Seattle. Hard work, great food, cold mint juleps, and awesome sittin' porch conversation sum up their short weekend visit. Thank you all for making your way out to see us, we had a blast sharing this place with each of you.

Mark and Alan repairing the chicken run

We now have sheep! A rampaging herd of two Olde English Babydolls, Penny Lane and "One-eyed" Elanor Rigby. Yes, Elle is indeed missing her left eye. The sheep are impossibly cute, as you can see from the clip, but they are proving to be a bit more work than we imagined and not exactly effective lawn mowers, that being our original reason for purchasing them. We are learning a lot about sheep and see the potential for what a full flock could do, but we aren't sure about their immediate future. For now, they provide entertainment for the pups, and a reason for us to hop on the ATV every now and then to search the forest when they decide to escape their sheep tractor...

As we establish our roots in the community, we have begun to build the relationships that make this place feel more and more like home. We are so excited to have found some cool fellow sustainable farmers in our area - Holly of Island Creek Farm, and Lucy and Doug from Idlewild Farm. They have all been extremely encouraging, supportive and helpful, becoming informal mentors to us. We have been volunteering our spare time to help them out on their farms a few times a week in exchange for garden wisdom, local knowledge, and tasty farm offerings including eggs, pastured pork, veggies, and even homegrown hops!

Kelsey and Calloway watering in the bamboo forest we call our garden

We are finding that farm chores and maintenance demand an increasing portion of our time and are shaping our work schedule. The daily needs of our livestock and garden combined with rapidly rising daytime temperatures have pushed back the start of our mornings earlier and earlier. Our new schedule has the pups walked, the plants watered, animals fed and in their appropriate spaces, and us feeling energized and fulfilled by breakfast at 7 a.m. A quick morning meeting, and we're off to try and get as much work done as we can before the heat become incapacitating. We give in to enjoy a leisurely lunch and a refreshing iced beverage on the porch and spend the rest of the afternoon researching, planning, resting, etc. When it cools off enough in the evening, we get back outside to put in a few more work hours before calling it a day. We are getting used to this new and different schedule and in fact, really enjoy it.

The puppies are good; Bear weighs 60 lbs now! Life is GREAT all around.

The pups love bamboo!

We want to thank Jacob for his time with us on the farm the past three month. We have truly appreciated his hard work, enthusiasm and intellect in the earliest stages of this project. He is currently on his way back to Seattle to pursue other exciting opportunities. We all look forward to our paths crossing again in the future. While we are no longer farmers four in number, we remain farmer for, that is, farmers for the earth - farmers for freedom - farmers for peace.

Much love to all, more frequent blog posts to come, but no promises!

Kelsey, Fran and Alan

A cattle hay feeder reinvented as the perfect afternoon nap spot

Monday, May 2, 2011

Spring is here. The recently barren forests are lush, the dogwood trees have bloomed, morel ("woodfish" to the locals) season has come and gone, and our plants are growing like crazy. So much has happened over the last month we won't be able to show you it all but here's some of the big stuff.

Kelsey, our chicken whisperer, socializing the chicks
Early in April Meredith Skelton, our patron saint, came for an amazing three day visit. It was incredible to see her excitement and we were once again energized and assured by her support. A perfect way to start our second month.

We've added 10 baby chicks and 3 laying hens to the bird flock. Socializing the chicks has been a priority and they seem to be getting quite comfortable with us. They grow larger everyday and will be joining the free ranging older hens in only a few weeks.

Ken and Mary, a couple of dairy farmers down the road, run a cow share program. We purchased three shares in a cow, getting us three gallons of fresh, raw, delicious milk every week. Taking the cream off the top we regularly make a pound of butter and occasionally boil up some farmers cheese or whip together some ice cream. We have set up a work share so that we pay for our milk by working 8 hours per month. As an added bonus they have a huge mound of composted cow manure and we grab a load every time we get milk.

Morels. Butter. Enough said.
Spring is "Woodfish" season. The Morel mushroom grows throughout the forest on the property and in the surrounding hills. A few hours of searching is well worth a pan of these tasty fungi sauteed in homemade butter.

We have a little irrigation system now running off a small 12 volt pump. We use a deep cell marine battery to run it and are considering purchasing a solar panel. We can easily move 300 gallons of water per day the necessary 100 yards and 35 vertical feet from our spring to 6 barrels above the garden beds for storage.
Jacob, master of all that is bamboo sweating
Alan and Jeff building the deer fence
Almost every person we talk to mentions the importance of deer protection and we have now completed our fence around 1/4 of an acre encompassing the main vegetable gardens. Hollow fiberglass poles dug 3 feet into the ground hold 12 foot bamboo posts that have been roasted in a  fire ("sweated") to increase their strength and weather resistance by polymerizing the sugars in the bamboo and bringing the waxes to the surface. The vertical posts are joined by 20 foot horizontal bamboo poles and the bottom is sealed with chicken wire. We have plans to strengthen the fence and either grow plants up it (HOPS!) or weave something into it to make it appear more solid.

Planting our summer crop of potatoes!

One of the main focuses has been building and preparing all the garden space we would need for the 150 different varieties of plants we will be growing. This has been an ongoing project since we arrived and has now reached completion! In total we have about 3000 square feet (about 1/15 of an acre) of fertile sheet mulched growing space. We are extremely excited that this year's garden building season has come to a close.

Blue Ridge Mountain heirloom tomato seedling
All this preparation was in anticipation for the bountiful harvest we are planting for this year. 
Already we have transplanted the brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kolhrabi) and lettuce, and have direct seeded carrots, beets, radishes, arugula, mustard, orach, chard, lettuce, spinach, potatoes, and peas.  Sprouts are up and growing fast!

In addition to the new hens and chicks we added two very important members to the farm family, Miss Calloway and Mr. Bear. On the 14th of April, Fran brought home a German Shepherd/Australian Cattle Dog (Blue Heeler) mixed puppy who now goes by Calloway.
  She is 5 months old, quick to learn, and full of energy, greeting us each day with enthusiasm to "herd" the chickens and excitement over the chicks.  She also loves getting loved, especially a good belly scratch. 
Two best friends napping in the Bear Cave
Last weekend, Alan and Kelsey brought home a Great Pyrenees they have named Bear.  He is 11 weeks old, and a big boy at 35 pounds. He is extremely curious, sniffing and exploring the property and occasionally finding himself a nice little snack of chicken excrement.  Not our favorite habit he has picked up, but hard to control now that the lady hens are free range chickens roaming all over the property leaving countless presents for Bear.

The next few weeks are promising sheep, guinea hen babies (keets), more planting, and some early harvesting of spring greens.
Fran planting some everbearing strawberries

We hope that the sun starts shining for those of you on the west coast and that you all are happy and healthy.


Kelsey, Fran, Jacob and Alan

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Settling in and getting started

The first two and a half weeks here have been the incredible transition of dreams into realities. It has been sore butts (road tripping) to sore backs, and soft hands to calluses (and blisters). We spent a few days getting settled into the house and our respective rooms and then got to work.

Alan surveys the finished water catchment.
A big priority from the beginning was water retention, because it gets pretty dry here during the summer. There is a spring with a spring-house, so we built a 300-gallon catchment below it out of an old cattle sweet feed barrel that we found. The water was murky at first from all the digging but now it's crystal clear.

We’ve turned the stuffy den termed the “Republican room” into a warm, sunny spot to germinate starts. Dinosaur kale, Cossack Pineapple ground cherries, Red Acre cabbage, and Green Zebra tomatoes are just a few of the beautiful heirloom varieties found in the many flats of little seedlings currently in the loving care of the farmers four. We are using only natural light, cold frames, and a homemade potting mix.

Fran holding a section showing sheet mulch layers.
Building sustainable soil fertility is of fundamental importance to this project, and we began developing this before we even moved into Twin Oaks. Fran and Jacob were here in October of 2010 and sheet mulched the main 26’ X 70’ garden plot. Their hard work has paid off five months later with soil that has been entirely transformed into rich black loam teeming with life! We’ve created more garden space by sheet mulching, including our beautiful Om-shaped bed, two keyhole beds, a hugelkutur bed, and the flower beds lining the breezeway. To suppress weeds and retain soil moisture, we plan to cover all of our nearly 2000 square feet of bed space with a thick natural mulch layer that we’ve been making ourselves with collected materials (leaves, tree limbs, grasses, acorn shells) and a handy little wood chipper.

Chickens enjoying the new chicken house.
There is a small shed just to the south of the main garden which contained a handful of rusty tools and tons of rat-gnawed dusty junk. We cleaned it out, removed the old shoddy workbench and converted it into a beautiful chicken house. We picked up four year-old laying hens on tuesday to jump-start our egg production, and we'll be getting six or eight hatchling chicks in about two weeks to round out our little brood.

Left to right: saurkraut, vinegar, kombucha, sourdough.
When not wielding pick axes, mauls, machetes and shovels for the sustainable garden cause, we’ve been keeping ourselves busy diving right into the homesteading lifestyle: Fresh baked bread. Hummus. Kombucha (yes, Scoby Steve lives!). Gurgling wild yeast sourdough starters. Pressed apple cider vinegar. Herb cheese. Fermenting crocks of sauerkraut. Homebrew beer (Alan’s cinnamon oatmeal stout will be ready in a few weeks, and we will soon brew our own jasmine IPA). Mmm, gotta love that self-sufficiency!

Working outside completing projects of our own design, built with our intention, molded to our goals is incredibly empowering. There are no imposed rules to follow or expectations to fulfill. WE ARE LUCKY! That being said, we have set a few for ourselves, a foundation on which we are trying to live so that we can increase our physical and mental health and decrease our negative impact on the natural world and the people that we rely on for goods and services. The majority of these “guiding principles” structure how and what we consume. We’ve decided that whenever possible we will rely on resources from our land over purchasing - fortunately, there are lots of miscellaneous materials scattered around the farm already. If we do buy goods we try to do it locally and in the most socially, ethically, and environmentally responsible way available. It’s definitely a challenge and an experiment, increasingly so with all the building that we’ve been doing.

This opportunity would never have been available to us without the support and generosity of Meredith Skelton - she has helped make our dreams reality. Thank you Meredith!
Meredith and the farmers the day after arrival.

Much love,
Alan, Fran, Jacob, and Kelsey

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Driving East

After nearly a year of preparation and the whole gamut of goodbyes, we piled about 1500lbs. of personal possessions and our four selves into our christmas-colored truck on a snowy February morning in Olympia, WA and began our adventure East. We drove first to Boise, ID and stayed with Alan's sister for two nights, and met Kelsey's cousin for breakfast on our way out of town. We drove south through Utah and eventually the snowfall became so heavy that even after dark it was easier to see with the headlights off than with them on! We were tired and delayed several hours, but after a 12+ hour drive we finally arrived at our motel just outside of Zion National Park.

Zion was a stunningly beautiful place,
snow dusted red-rock canyons scattered with cacti, naked trees and juniper. We spent a full day hiking around the more accessible sections of the park, doing a little bit of bouldering and scrambling where the rock was exposed and just enjoying the vistas. The sun came out in the afternoon and we got glimpses of blue skies before the sun went down.

Las Vegas is a few beautiful hours drive from Zion but it truly is a world away. Fran’s parents graciously hosted, fed, and entertained us for two days. We explored a sustainable living education center, similar to the Seattle Science Center, ate great food, and gambled a little (Kelsey was the big winner $8!).

After losing the skis off the top of the truck in the middle of a Las Vegas intersection we were headed southeast for the Saguaro National Forest. Twelve hours of varied desert landscapes: Saguaro Cacti, Joshua Trees, and dust. We caught a spectacular desert sunset in Tucson and then began looking for a place to spend the night. The intention to camp ended after a few failed attempts at finding a spot close enough to the highway and we crashed in a good ol’ Motel 6.
We left the motel outside of Tucson ready for a long drive and made good enough time that we were about an hour ahead of schedule when we got to El Paso, TX. About 30 minutes east of El Paso there is a US Border Patrol checkpoint, and we were lucky enough to be selected for a search. We sat in the office while a man we referred to as "Vin Diesel" started unloading our life possessions from the back of the truck but got less than 1/3 of the way into the bed before giving up to re-pack. They had set aside a package of brewer's corn sugar that probably looked suspiciously like cocaine, but in the end we left with all of our belongings and no further hassle.

After 14 hours on the road we got into San Antonio and met Fran's old friend Alanna from middle school. We chatted with her and her mother for awhile and they kindly housed us for our two nights in SA. The next day we went and saw Fran's old house on the army base and then went downtown. We had some drinks on the riverwalk (you can walk and drink as long as you stay on the riverwalk!) and saw the site of the Alamo with Alanna and her boyfriend before dinner. That evening we chatted with Alanna and her folks for several hours - their hospitality was amazing and we had a great time in San Antonio!

The next morning we drove to Austin and met Jacob's friends from UW, Joe and Emma, who are in Austin for school. We had a delicious lunch with them at a taco truck and then explored some of the artsy parts of the downtown area. In the evening we were joined by Kelsey's friends Meg and Steve to celebrate Meg's birthday. We had Avocado margaritas and delicious mexican food before crashing for the night.
Leaving Austin was daunting, nearly black rain clouds and the promise of 10 hours of driving between us and The Big Easy. Pounding rain became monotonous until we learned at a rural Louisiana gas station that we had been driving, and were going to continue driving, through a tornado storm system. We made it through and pulled into Phyllus’s (a relative of our good friends the Monthie family). We had unintentionally arrived in New Orleans for Carnival, the days leading up to Mardi Gras. After a restful night sleep we wandered through sleepy New Orleans neighborhoods into downtown, passing middle aged men smoking hangover cigars and groups of young 20’s drinking from red cups. Mardi Gras is massive crowds, parades, serious drinking, music, beads, evangelical Christian sign holders and more. We joined the fun northwest style,grabbing a micro brewed 6-pack to
wander the streets. We spent the day meandering about the French Quarter, eating good food, drinking beer, listening to
music, and simply watching the madness.

The next morning left us with a question: drive 8 hours and camp in the Smokey Mountains or make the 14 hour trek to our new home? The decision was easy and by sunset we were cresting the rolling Appalachian hills. After almost a year of theoretical planning, and 12 days of discussion, the final hours of the drive felt heavy with expectation. Despite all of our "plans" the approach was filled with similar questions of what the next 8 months would bring us. Throwing any worries to the side we sang our way into our new driveway and embraced Meredith Skelton (the woman who is making this all possible) who was waiting with hot food, wine, and optimistic excitement.