• First Day of Spring

    Another winter is exiting in a flurry of mud and fluxuating temperatures. It seems a very long time since my last post. Life on the farm always has its ups and downs. We lost a few pigs this winter and it’s always sad. And, today, we saw the fox that has been picking off our free ranging chickens. It’s one of the perils of free range: chickens are attractive prey to lots of wildlife. We are too soft hearted to catch and kill the fox so we may see about relocation possibilities. Meanwhile, we’re going to close the chicken gate to keep them in the hen yard during the day. They won’t be happy, but they will be protected. We are getting LOTS of eggs after having something of a drought last fall.

    Bob got the wood-burning stove online in the den so we have been able to expand beyond the library. It’s lovely to have a “hang out” room and it’s right next to the kitchen, which makes it cozy as well.

    We’ve also been enjoying the fruit of our bounty. The last blog post I wrote described all the preserving that was going on. Now, we are digging into those bags and jars to enjoy pear and apple sauce, green beans, tomato sauce, and more. We enjoyed eggplant parmesan yesterday and it was delicious enough that I will do it again: I cooked and froze the breaded slices of eggplant and yesterday made a big pot of homemade tomato sauce that included kale and basil from the freezer and a splash of home grown honey. I have to admit that I still get excited about using our own honey!

    On the plus side, my hives seemed to have survived another winter. There was lots of bee activity at both hives yesterday. I fed them two ro three times this winter and may do a light syrup to get them through the next few weeks if they need it. But the peach trees are already blossoming and the daffodils are in bloom so they will be foraging soon. I need to swap out some hive boxes that are getting rotted so today’s job is putting together some new deep boxes I bought. A little glue, a few nails and then a coat of paint.

    Bob’s seedlings are doing well and I am already imagining fresh greens in the next few weeks. The flower garden down front is on the list for a major overhaul so I’ll probably put a few things in pots today. We need to clean up the sight line for the driveway and just generally reorganize.

    For your viewing pleasure, yesterday’s photos:



  • Pigs, Produce and Preserving

    I need to stop making pledges about any particular schedule of blogging. Summer gets the best of us in many ways. The weeds begin to win and the wind goes out of the sails, often just when it is time for fall gardening. I don’t think people understand the importance of this overlapping time period, particularly where we are in southern central Virginia. There is definitely a fall season, just perfect for greens, with some like collards thriving AFTER the first frost. Many people won’t eat them before then. Add broccoli, lettuces, and kale and you have a wonderful fall harvest. But it means starting that while you are still doing the other even as the days are getting shorter. So, Bob is working hard, gleaning what he can before turning over the soil.

    So, there’s a lot going on farm wise including the addition of a new pig. We adopted a full blooded Berkshire boar to help bring some diversity to our gene pool. Watch out, ladies, he is a looker! We also still have Biscuit, who managed to escape the pen a couple times this summer, laying waste to the hen yard and stirring up the rest of the herd. I led him back at 3 AM one morning, tossing pieces of watermelons and squash along the way. He seems more secure now behind electric fence, but we always feed him first to discourage head butting the chain link. He has, Bob says, “No respect for the fence.”

    We had three litters of pigs this summer and learned a lot, including a few painful lessons with sad consequences. But, we also had a wonderful time watching one litter, Hamp’s Herd, grow up. They were the last group born and lived the most wild, natural life with their mama. In fact, for the first eight weeks, they were pretty much free ranging as they could easily slip under the electric fence. They used the nearby soybean field to move around, coming back for a meal with mama and then heading out to pillage the cantaloupe bed.

    Potatoes are coming in just now, redskins and yukon golds. Several varieties of sweet potatoes won’t be too far behind. We ate the first potatoes last night, roasted with chicken. I am looking forward to freezing mashed potatoes for us to break out at Thanksgiving. I’ve done them before and they are just like you find in the freezer case but you can decide what to add to them. Ditto for sweet potatoes which can go into muffins, pies and the traditional marshmallow casserole.

  • First Honey Harvest

    After nearly 18 months, two failed hives, and a long cold winter of worry, I harvested two frames of honey today! Only one of my hives produced any honey–and it looks like there are easily three or four more full frames in the super–so I decided to go the slower, low tech route of draining the frames rather than investing in an extractor. I belong to a bee club that shares an extractor but I will be away next weekend when they have the “extractaganza.” Even inexpensive hand crank extractors that do two frames at a time are over $300. I invested in a straining system for was closer to $100.

    You can check out the very short video below that shows the system and doing the uncapping of the comb:

    I haven’t messed with the bees for awhile. They appear active and healthy and the few times I have checked, there has been lots of fresh brood and plenty of bees in the box. I forgot that August is the time to dust them, so I added that to my list. You dust them with confectioner’s sugar over the course of a few weeks to help cut down on mites. They groom themselves to get the sugar off and take the mites along with it. I should do a mite test but I think I’ll just go with the sugar.

    Every time I open the hives, I learn. The lesson today was two fold: get the smoker working at full capacity before you get to the hive and, if you have a specific goal, don’t use the time to do a full hive inspection of the non-honey-producing hive. They tolerated me checking a frame in the top box but were not at all happy when I moved that top box in an effort to check out the bottom box, something I haven’t done since early spring when I swapped the boxes. Even in a bee suit, angry bees are scary bees. I got stung through the suit on my knee. I retreated, relighted and got the hive back together pretty quickly before grabbing a few frames from the other hive. I didn’t both to do any kind of inspection. I will give them a couple days to calm down before doing the sugar treatment.

    I had to try a little of the honey and I think it’s pretty good. It’s a light honey–we have lots of clover–but it has a good, solid honey flavor. We should get about 5 to 6 pounds from the two frames I brought up and I may do 2 more before the season is over. I’m already looking for baking recipes that use honey as the sweetener and I added some to a lovely cold brew decaf with milk and a little vodka: wonderfully refreshing as we head into the evening.

    Dinner is pan seared tuna (a gift from friends who went to the Outer Banks) with roasted vegies and pasta in tomato jam made by another friend. I had never had it before and found it very good: he thought it was a little too sweet but I think some pasta and cheese will help cut the sweetness and make a nice summery sauce. We’re having King Arthur Flour’s Chocolate Zucchini Cake made as cupcakes and I’m going to put on Hershey’s “Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Icing. I see it as a perfect balance of healthy (whole wheat and zucchini) and sinful (lots of Penzey’s Natural High Fat Cocoa Powder).

    I took advantage of the hot oven and baked a batch of King Arthur Flour’s Simplest Muffins using shredded carrots and raisins as mix ins. We have had an amazing carrot crop this year: Bob did purple haze along with some vibrant orange and yellow.

  • August!

    rudbeckia_thumbnallAugust has arrived very quickly, it seems to me! The weekly updates I promised got lost in my my work travel and the farm. We are taking produce to two markets each week. We are in Claremont, Virginia, on Fridays from 6 to 8 PM, at the Claremont Circle Store. Then, Saturdays, we attend the Waverly Farmer’s Market on the grounds of the Miles B. Carpenter Museum in Waverly, Virginia. The market at Claremont has become something of a community party. Isaiah from the Circle Store provides hamburgers and hot dogs and there’s live music planned for this week.

    It is a great produce year: cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, eggplants, green beans, cantaloupes with watermelons and pumpkins on the way. Fortunately, the pigs LOVE vegetables, especially cucumbers.

    My flower garden is blooming, even as the weeds threaten to take over. I am getting started on reorganizing now, moving the liatris and obedient plant to a more prominent place. They were overwhelmed by the black eyed susans. Zinnias are coming up through the grass and I have a row of sunflowers that should be blooming soon. It is glorious chaos and I despair of making any kind of headway against the weeds.

    The pigs are almost all out on grass now. We just have one sow in the pen. Her litter is almost four weeks old and will get weaned in another week or so. They will all end up on grass in the next few weeks. Some people wean at three weeks but the litter we did that early just didn’t seem to do as well. My pigs may end up as food at some point but I want them to have as much piggy fun as they can before that happens!

    I put together a video with clips of this particular litter, captured over the last month. We call them Hamp’s Herd: they run around together, in and out of the enclosure, playing in the soybeans. We only lost one, the runt. The rest are just happy little piggies.

    Today, we sent off Biscuit, our boar, to provide services to some sows up the road. (Did I say that gently enough? We think that loaning out our boar makes us real pig farmers.) He was easy to get into the trailer: we just threw in an overripe cantaloupe. While he is on his adventure, we are going to better secure a pen for him so we can get him out of the very muddy building and yard he currently occupies. We can’t get him on grass as he seems to be impervious to electric fence.

    This time of year, I am in charge of preservation. My freezer is a lively place right now: green beans, pesto, peppers, tomato sauce and eggplant are nestled on the shelves. And we are loving eating fresh vegetables as I experiment with recipes. I’ll try to put a few together to share. I tend to be an “on the fly” cook, trying out different methods and sauces, whatever is at hand. We loved eggplant parmigiana made with pesto rather than red sauce. And, the roasted vegetable ragout had a bit of a punch with the jalapenos but was rich and tasty as well.

    We continue to dream of improvements: we bought a trailer to serve as the base for a chicken tractor, our next project. That way, we can get the chickens out on grass as well, moving them as they eat the grass. They get lots of vegies this time of year, but we really want them to be more free range.

    We also want to make an actual market stand on the property and aren’t sure how to do that: build or buy? We could customize one of the storage sheds more quickly but could probably save money if we built it ourselves. This is an ongoing dilemma. We usually end up using a mix of repurposed and purchased materials. For some things, like irrigation and electric fencing, buying new is the only option as all the components work together.

    As we become more known in the community, we are beginning to become part of a network of farmers. We share knowledge and resources as we all work to make our farms successful. Once we get past the growing season, we are hoping to strengthen that network. It is easy to get isolated as the farm demands so much work. But networks can help support bulk buys and local advocacy. We are encouraged by local food initiatives like the one in the Roanoke Valley.

    As I write, a thunderstorm is boiling up outside. The summer has been amazingly mild: today was the hottest day this week and we barely broke 90 degrees. We’ve been sleeping with the windows open and keeping doors open to the back yard during the days. The dogs love it, coming and going as they please, keeping track of the world of the farm and then retreating inside for long summer naps.

  • Five Months Later

    It was a tough winter here at the farm. We didn’t get a lot of snow but the freezing temperature required extra work keeping pigs and chickens war, keeping water from freezing and worrying about the bees.

    I’m happy to say that both hives survived and are now busy making honey! I added a queen excluder and honey super to each one about a month ago. And for the first time in my tenure as a beekeeper, I saw the queen! I want to go down and give a quick look to see how the honey is coming. Everything I read says to let them alone while they are working so this will be a quick peek into the top.

    We had an unexpected litter of piglets in mid-March. The sow didn’t look pregnant and also didn’t seem to be able to feed her babies so they ended up on our sun porch. We bottle fed them, fought off disease with antibiotics after losing two of them, and have managed to sell four of them in the past few weeks! We also sold six gilts (female pigs ready to breed). All this is a good thing since we have 14 new piglets down with their mothers. Two groups born a week and two weeks ago. Everyone seems happy and we have already sold a couple of them once they are weaned. We have had calls as far away as Connecticut: the pig virus you’ve been hearing about seems to be taking a toll on herd stocks.

    The gardens look better than ever and the vegetables are coming in. I have beans to freeze after this blog post. We welcome visits to the farm and you can find us at the Waverly Farmers Market every Saturday. Starting next Friday, we’ll be at the Claremont Circle Store from 6 to 8 PM.

    I’m going to commit to making a weekly update here on Sunday mornings. The story of trying to be a small farmer is one that is important to everyone, I think, as we struggle to create something that could be a model for others. We have benefited from a project at Virginia State University called 43,560. This demonstration farm has a goal of making $1/square foot and thus, $43,560 on an acre of land. It benefits from volunteers like us who then also learn techniques we can apply on our own land. You can learn more from the article.

  • Making a Life

    Over the holidays, a friend strongly encouraged me to read Kristin Kimball’s memoir of her beginnings as a farmer. I knew I had a copy of The Dirty Life on the shelf but I had someone managed to avoid reading both it and all the other memoirs of life as a farmer. For me, reading is something of an escape, and I wasn’t really interested in escaping to other farms as I settled in to living on mine. I was making my own life and wasn’t ready for outside influences.

    But my friend’s insistence and a lovely long holiday break provided me with the incentive to dive in. Kimball’s story captured me and didn’t let go. It was a story of farming but also the story of her own life journey and how it was impacted by her relationship with her husband. I found myself wondering how things would have turned out if she hadn’t met Mark and been taken in by his passion for living close to the land. As I’m feeding the pigs on a cold morning, I find myself wondering the same thing. I may not have chosen the farm life if it weren’t for my husband. But, like Kimball, I would never go back.

    Kimball’s tale is compellingly honest: her life is not for everyone. I laughed at her description of her fashionable clothing slowly being turned into work clothes. I sympathized with her struggles to become skillful with the horses. And, I completely understood the dirt. There are days when I just strip down in the mud room. After spending the day in a very wet and muddy pig pen, I soaked my jeans in a bucket first because they were too filthy to go into the washing machine. Sometimes, even the simplest chores like feeding the chickens, end in dirt when you step in turkey poop or rub up against a wet hay bale.

    I was awed by the challenge Kimball and her husband undertook to produce more than just seasonal vegetables. From dairy to grains to meat, they are showing the way to not just local but personal eating and some of my favorite passages are her descriptions of the simple meals they shared at some of the toughest junctures on the journey. I am planning to add dandelion greens to my spring cooking this year.

    I may not tackle the rest of the new farmer books on the shelf but if The Dirty Life is an example of their quality, maybe they are worth a try. Or maybe I’m just ready to welcome fellow travelers into this new life we are making.

  • An Autumn Update

    Displaying This morning was one of those mornings that have me questioning the farming life. It was about 20 degrees when I headed out for the chores. Fortunately, I am prepared for such mornings with lots of warm clothes from long underwear to boots to hat and gloves. And the animals seemed no worse for wear, especially the turkeys who spent the night outside, roosting in their usual spots on the wash line and overhead power line.

    We worked until dark last night, digging up the last of the sweet potatoes. We had a bumper crop so if you’re in the market for potatoes, come on by. I’ve been baking pies and did a delicious batch of sweet potato donuts using my new donut pans. For Thanksgiving, I’m making Sweet Potato Tarte Tatin.

    Last weekend, we weaned the baby pigs by transferring them to the pen with chain link for better security and moving the mamas to the wider open pen with electric fencing. It’s pretty amazing that three strands of wire can keep them in. There was a little weeping and gnashing of teeth but nothing that some greens and scoops of food couldn’t fix. The babies merged quickly and they can still see mama so everyone seems happy.

    What a nice day!Well, except for Biscuit, our boar, who is now alone in his pen. He was with the last sow, Hamp, who does not appear to have gotten pregnant. We went ahead and moved her in with the other two females. Biscuit figured out how to look out through the window of the building where he stays. Very cute but we strung a piece of wire just in case. The plan is to get him out into the field, but we need to build a shelter.

    The babies seem to love their new pen. I sat out with them for awhile and enjoyed listening to them rooting in the dried leaves. For those of you who need a cute pig fix, here’s the video: