Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Compost Bins Project

Compost Bins Project:

Compost, compost, compost! If you are growing anything at all, from a window herb container garden, to your perennial flower bed, if you have the space you can compost, and you don't need a lot of space! It’s the easiest way to reduce the amount of waste your household creates, and doing so recycles those nutrients back into your soil. Since we've been here three weeks, we have filed only two 32 gallon trash bags, one with recyclables  and one with non-recyclable/non-compostable trash. Given that, I don't think we'll be signing up for trash pick-up out here.

I will not give you a run-down on composting, here you can find what you can and cannot compost, and here you can find how to manage it to create your own “black gold”. My basic recommendations are: shred everything, keep your ingredients as moist as a sponge, and turn often, about once a week.

We re-purposed the previous owner’s burn bin into a temporary compost bin, until we could find free wooden pallets to make our own compost bins out of. Using 6 pallets, we made 2 areas large enough for our future tractor’s loader to fit in, for turning the compost. As you can see, we’re in the process of raking up all the leaves we can for future compost.

           Now what should we do as with the other 8 pallets…?

Our Egg-Laying Chickens and Chicken Brooder Hut

Our Egg-Laying Chickens and Chicken Brooder Hut:

A Silver-Laced Wyandotte hen

             After deciding that we’re ready for chickens, we've put in an order with Welp hatchery for 27 chicks, 10 Welsummer pullets (aka female chicks), 5 silver laced Wyandotte pullets, 5 golden laced Wyandotte pullets, and a straight run of 7 Ameraucanas (meaning unsexed chicks, either pullets or cockerels). ***If I sound like an interpreter and sociologist at times, please forgive me, I am a city-mouse waaay out in the country.***

The Ameraucana hen and rooster, and their
distinctive blue-green eggs
The Golden Laced Wyandotte



We chose these birds specifically because they are cold hardy, so they should do just fine in our winters up here in The North. The Wyandottes and Welsummers are also known for being good foragers and thus will take more nourishment from pasture. All three breeds are known for being good meat birds as well as egg producers, aka dual-purpose.  While Ameraucana chickens are not the best foragers, I couldn’t help wanting to start building and breeding our own flock of these “Easter Eggers”. The breed is well-known for its blue-green eggs, what better bird to try a hand at breeding?  Welsumers are known as particularly good foragers, and lay light brown eggs.  Wyandottes lay very dark, almost chocolate colored speckled eggs.

A Welsummmer hen

We’re expecting them to arrive at the end of the month, hopefully before our first snow!

In preparation for this we finished up our Chicken Brooder Hut. For those new to chickens and homesteading, a Brooder is simply a separate area for hatching new chicks. This could be day-old chicks mailed from a hatchery, eggs hatched in a heated brooder, or eggs hatched the old-fashioned way--with a broody hen. Lucky for us, the farm came with a wooden shed structure, easily converted into such a place. 

Our cheapo, quick and easy Brooder Hut
 made from leftover t-posts and fallen branches

We made few alterations to the shed, except to cover the ventilation holes in the corners with chicken wire, to prevent creatures from getting in and out. Fortunately, the shed has a concrete floor, so I don’t think we’ll have too many intruders from that direction.

You can see the chicken wire buried here under the sod, to
deter predators from digging their way in.

We also fenced in a small yard for the chickens till we set up a mobile range coop for the pasture.  The chicken yard fencing is pretty basic, with 6’ chicken wire zip tied to our extra 5’5” t-posts from our fencing project. We dug the chicken wire down about 3 inches, pulling up the sod about 6” and laying the chicken wire flat along the ground for those 6” and pulling the sod over it. We jury-rigged some old fallen branches from our forest, which we like to call Mirkwood, to make up the difference in height and support the chicken wire. 

Free roosts!


Donnie had the great idea to use some of the thicker fallen branches for roosts for the chickens, and we needed about 4 inches of roost, per chick, and later 8 inches when they were adult-sized. Wild chickens often roost on branches, so we thought, why not save a few bucks?


 We placed a layer of cardboard boxes leftover from the move across the cement floor of the hut, for easy clean up. We’ll be doing a deep-litter method with straw which basically sets up a self- composting system, where the chickens stir up the pile, and it also helps provide heat for the coop.  Pretty neat, eh? This method also reduces the frequency of having to clean the chicken hut, and when you do, just put your shovel under the partially composted cardboard and it comes up in a block. Instead of having to clean the hut every couple of months, we’ll have to clean it once a year.

A layer of cardboard and 2-3 inches of straw or other mulch, 
then allow thechickens do all the work, just layer on more 
mulch until its all composted!
As for the actual brooder "pen", where chicks normally spend the first few weeks of their life, we’ll be using wood shavings, inside a large cardboard box. This is a temporary brooder pen that we’ll be replacing with a wooden frame pen and removable tarp bottom with our next flock, broiler chickens. I feel like brooder equipment has become pretty standard--an infraredheat lamp and 2 250 Watt Red light bulbs (always have an extra), electrolyte packets (yes, such a thing exists outside of Idiocracy and can help chicks through the first few days), a water source, feeder, and some grit. 

The essentials. We also found a great solar thermometer
that relays the temperatures to us indoors

For anyone looking to start their own flock, we highly recommend the Storey’s Guideto Raising Chickens and Chicken Thistle Farm as resources
Next week, I'll be looking for so-called "real-jobs", while Donnie works at his new "real job". We'll also be attempting to clean out the barn, fix where we've got water draining into it, and get some free kittens to kill the resident rat population so we can eventually get a cow! 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Fencing Project

Fencing Project:

Our northern perimeter fence, the top wire is red, and a little harder to see. 

For our perimeter fence, a significant infrastructure cost of huge importance, we went with 5.5’ t-posts with 42” high tensile wire fencing, attached by zip ties, all from Tractor Supply. For this project we were definitely trying to watch our costs and stay on budget, so we chose shorter posts and fencing then others may have. But, we are also choosing to have a cow breed that is smaller than average, the Dexter cow. As Donnie will tell you though, they are not miniatures, they’re just small cows! We chose this cow because they are very efficient grass converters requiring only about a ½ acre per cow, and are also a dual-purpose breed for milk and beef. Therefore we figured 42”, for a back-up fence, would be sufficient for what we want to do here. A great bonus to this fence, there is a good foot left of t-post sticking above the fence, so if we do find that we need to keep the deer out better, or the cows in or what have you, we can use electric wire at the very top of the t-posts.

We’d hoped there might be a more mechanized way to insert 200 t-posts a foot into the ground and save us some trouble, but it seemed the old ways were our best and only option. Mikey and Donnie used T-posts drivers and manually beat them in for near 8 hours straight, though they seemed to have fun and were racing each other. Having done this myself in the clayey soil of Colorado, it was a piece of cake in our soft sandy loam, especially once we got into the forest, where it is a very sandy soil, three bonks with the digger and you were done.

The t-posts actually came with some metal clamps for the fencing, but as Donnie and Mikey will attest, they were less ideal in practice. So we took Bryan from Tractor Supply’s advice, and went with zip ties, and wove the posts into the fence, which worked great! 

Farm Update: Moving to Michigan and Week One

Moving to Michigan...

Poor Katniss spent most of the trip on Farmer Figgins' shoulders,
like a monkey. 
We’ve been in Michigan for about a week and a half now. We left Colorado on Friday morning in a caravan—two trucks, two uhaul trailers, and a tiny red chevy with a miserable kitten whining inside it, arriving Saturday.  We were very fortunate to be joined by Donnie’s brother Mikey, who helped us load, drive and unload two truck beds and two trailers, and then helped us fence in our 10 acres and a small chicken yard, more to come on those projects later.

Thank you Mikey for all your help!

We celebrated completing our first big project, fencing, and moving in, with a bottle of red, courtesy of my Aunt Margaret, from the Figgins Winery in Walla Walla Washington, whom we might be related to. Initially we said that we would open and drink it the night we moved in, but, being a bit weary from the road trip, a bit sore from packing and unpacking the trucks and trailers, and a little on edge from Katniss’ 3 hour tantrum during the car ride that was like a never ending alarm clock next to your ear going MEOW MEOW MEOW, we decided to postpone the celebration to a more laud worthy event. 

Thanks again, Margaret, we really enjoyed the wine!
Besides that we have been swamped with the plethora of duties of being a new homeowner, setting up utilities, vet visits, dmv, setting up a business, learning bookkeeping, changing electrical outlets, and fixing a barn door that blew off the barn one rainy night.

For all those concerned about job prospects here in Michigan, there are jobs to be had, maybe not good ones, maybe not careers, but there are jobs, a whole lot more than in Fort Collins. While at a local dinner, The Brickyard, which was hiring, eating broiled chicken, and doing everything that we can on the Internet since we still don’t have it, Donnie applied for a job. Before we left the restaurant to go home, they had called him and set up an interview. My turn next, blerg.

As far as weather goes, it’s definitely colder here than in Colorado. It’s pitch dark by 5:30 pm now, and the sun doesn’t warm you up as much. But, interestingly, it’s also significantly greener here, and despite the rain before we came and the one day of rain we’ve had since arriving, it has thus far been a “dry” cold. Oh, we also haven’t gotten snow yet, whereas Colorado has had two snow storms.

Next project to be completed will be our chicken shelter and brooder, and we will post on it next week when it’s completed. We miss you all and we miss having internet!

Meet Your Farmers

Meet Your Farmers...

I, your humble blogger and farmer Sara Figgins, have been farming off and on the past 5 years, on 3 different farms across the Front Range of Colorado. I studied Organic Horticulture at Colorado State University for 3 years, and earned my degree in English. My partner, Donald Fahler, attended Colorado State University as well and earned a degree in History. After graduating and finding himself still at his call-center job for Tivo, he was more than willing to make the leap with me back to the land. Not your typical farmers, but these are atypical times.
After 2 years together and my own experience managing a small vegetable and egg farm in Longmont, CO, we decided that we were deeply frustrated with the landless, consumptive apartment life. Tired of not being able to compost our kitchen scraps, feed our stale and unwanted leftovers to a pig who’d gladly turn that waste into delicious bacon, tired of looking at a hill and thinking, ‘what a great spot that’d make for a root cellar…or a hobbit hole.’ Essentially, we were tired of all the waste. As Wendell Berry in The Unsettling of America wrote:
"There is no group of the extra-intelligent or extra-concerned or extra-virtuous that is exempt. I cannot think of any American whom I know or have heard of, who is not contributing in some way to destruction. The reason is simple: to live undestructively in an economy that is overwhelmingly destructive would require of any one of us, or of any small group of us, a great deal more work than we have yet been able to do. How could we divorce ourselves completely and yet responsibly from the technologies and powers that are destroying our planet? The answer is not yet thinkable, and it will not be thinkable for some time—even though there are now groups and families and persons everywhere in the country who have begun the labor of thinking it" (18).
As frustrated as we were by these daily reminders of the destructiveness of our economy, there are few ways for the landless to compensate. As yet, our economy does not provide a way for us to live “undestructively”; in some way not producing waste for the landfill, or participating through our pocket book in agricultural, corporate, and energy-related practices that are destructive to our environment, our health, and others.
This is an experiment in another economy. I remember at Fountain Valley, my high school, good ol’ terrifying Mr. Kim with his deadpan monotone saying in Freshman history class that the word 'economy' was Latin, and prior to the 1600s meant “household management” or stewardship. The average landholding household prior to the 1600s included both crops and animals, often many types of each, rather than the separate monocultures that populate our countryside. Household management circa 1600, a world pre-plumbing, was about usefulness and waste. You could throw the cow shit and the piss pot in the street, but until the rain came, you’d be stuck with the stench. Pre-industrial households were more concerned with the utilization rather than disposal of waste. Kitchen scraps, leftovers, food that’d gone bad, manure, and other animal byproducts? The answer was responsible management. 
On such a diverse farm, multiple systems are in place that can relate to and benefit each other, and doing so reduces waste while promoting fertility. For instance, pigs can drink the leftover whey from cheese making for protein, rather than relying, as we do, on soybean and corn. Pigs and chickens gladly eat leftovers, scraps and ugly, unsellable produce, turning it into meat, eggs, and manure. Cows turn solar energy from plants into meat, dairy and manure. All of these produce high in nitrogen manure, which can be used to fertilize our crops and fields, rather then paying for these nutrients in synthetic chemical fertilizers. Rather than "waste" these by-products are seen as "fertilizer."All of these can supplement their diet with the easiest and most visually pleasing thing on the planet: pasture. Pigs, cows, poultry; all benefit from pasture in their diet and environment. But this quintessential piece of what most consider a farm is now absent from most farms. Alfalfa and clover are spoken of as weeds, instead of the Nitrogen fixing cover crops our predecessors relied on to replenish the Nitrogen availability in our soil. Manure is now “waste”, collecting in lagoons festooning factory farms, choking our neighborhoods and our ozone. In the household-sized economy, “waste” is manageable, compostable, recyclable; it can return nutrients to the soil precluding the need for outside inputs such as synthetic fertilizer. Almost a closed system.
These are not pre-1600 practices. These are pre-WWII and the adoption of agrochemicals; the “Green Revolution" practices. The adoption of these practices, while saving many from famine, also started us on a path to near-total agrochemical dependence and the loss of the family and small scale farm.
We believe that a combination of modern technology and traditional farm practices and wisdom can again change our understanding of economy and our food system; we can reduce its scope and size to a more manageable size by living more locally. One which we can see and understand in its entirety. Where do my dollars go? Where does my trash go? Where does my food come from? We hope that someday, when the farm is near the romantic, idealistic vision in our hippie heads, we can answer this more simply: Back to the land, back to local, to bring them back to life.

Our Farm:

Our Farm: 

           Here at The Shire Farm, we believe that in agriculture our primary goal should be health. By nurturing and managing the health and integration of all parts of the farm—the soil, plants, animals, even the insects—we can improve our own health, revive and revitalize the health of our soil and our communities. Our aim is to develop our farm into as closed a system as is possible—providing our own feed, fertilizers, pest control, and eventually energy.
          2013 will be The Shire Farm’s first year; we will be offering fresh and local vegetables, eggs, and chicken at Farmer’s Markets in Greenville, Sheridan, and Ionia Michigan. We will also be offering vegetable shares and egg shares, in the Community Supported Agriculture model , which we will be releasing more details about soon! In the future we plan on expanding into pork and milk shares.
          All produce is grown sustainably and naturally, with no use of synthetic chemicals. We will be using a blend of permaculture, organic agriculture and management intensive rotational grazing, and welcome questions about our methods and practices!

Our Mission:
The Shire Farm aims to supply the local community with a fresh supply of naturally and responsibly produced vegetables, fruit, dairy, meat and poultry products while establishing a sustainable balance with the environment.

What is a Shire?
From the Dictionary:
  1. A county, esp. in England.
  2. Used in reference to parts of England regarded as strongholds of traditional rural culture, esp. the rural Midlands.

Or from the Shire you may be more familiar with, and an inspiration of ours, J.R.R. Tolkien:
Hobbits have been living and farming in the four Farthings of the Shire for many hundreds of years quite content to ignore and be ignored by the world of the Big Folk. Middle-earth being, after all, full of strange creatures beyond count Hobbits must seem of little importance being neither renowned as great warriors nor counted among the very wise.
In fact, it has been remarked by some that Hobbits' only real passion is for food. A rather unfair observation as we have also developed a keen interest in the brewing of ales and the smoking of pipe-weed.
But where our hearts truly lie is in peace and quiet and good, tilled earth. For all Hobbits share a love of things that grow. And, yes, no doubt to others, our ways seem quaint. But today of all days, it is brought home to me, It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life.”
-The Fellowship of the Ring, The Movie.