I know, just as I promise to try and get back to blogging and keep up on posting in a timely manner...nothing for months. Turns out, I HAVE been writing, just not here. I got an email out of the blue from someone working for Mother Earth News. I was offered the opportunity to become one of the bloggers for a new venture, a website called Homestead Hustle. Its focus is to educate and empower folks looking to make an income, whether full or part time, from their homestead by providing educational articles written by folks doing the same. She had found me online, checked out my website and social media I do for the farm and extended the invitation before the website was up and running, which was a huge compliment! I'm getting paid a small amount for each post, so I guess I can add freelance writing to my resume now :) My posts go up at my convenience, about once every two weeks and are permanently available on the website, and may be considered for print as well, which is really cool. I really want to use the skills I learned as an educator in my life before the farm, and this is a really neat way to be able to share some of what I've learned.
This new blogging adventure is focused on running a business, so I have lots to share, and it is a bit different as I can't just share events, recipes, or feelings like I do here, but at the same time I'm trying to be realistic about how many things I can successfully juggle, and still do all well. So I once again am not sure how often I'll be posting here. I want to say frequently, but in reality I'll be posting much more regularly on Homestead Hustle. There is something about the accountability of a paycheck to keep motivated, after all! And while the focus is education for those looking to start their own homestead/self-employment dream, I hope that many of my articles will have a broad interest, as an inside look into how and why we do things the way we do here at the farm. My ultimate goal of having a blog was to be able to use it as a platform to educate, while also making a little money somehow. I'm very excited about this new opportunity. I hope if you've enjoyed reading my thoughts here, you'll check out what I have to say in this new forum. The success of any new web venture depends on how many folks check it out and support it. And who knows, I may find that dedicating more time to writing results in having more things to say and will result in more posts here, too. I haven't decided yet!
It's a little over two weeks until opening day. I've returned only three days ago from nearly a week of being off the farm- my sister was married in a lovely ceremony in North Carolina, and as both a bridesmaid and a sister I wanted to be there for as much as I could. In previous years, this is about the time I start freaking out that the tables will be bare and we won't be ready. But, every year, we have things to offer, and more every year. There is a lot to do, but we always take care of what needs to be done. I'm trying to learn to take deep breaths and not hold on to the opening-day-is-almost-here stress I'm so good at.
We've done well planting things in plenty of time, but the weather has been typically unpredictable, with heavy frost earlier this week after days two weeks ago that reached the mid-80's. Hopefully, warmer (seasonal) temperatures next week will help the lettuce and radishes, and we should have green onions. The rhubarb is growing so fast I made my rhubarb barbecue sauce today, and will be making rhubarb marmalade soon as well. Perennial herbs like mint, lemon balm, and chives are dependable for cut herbs. I'm thinning herb plants and potting them up for sale, and I should have a few flowers and extra assorted seedling plants after I plant what I need here in the coming weeks. Chicken and pork will be ready, with beef & lamb following the next week. I'll be making arrangements for coffee, tea, and cheese, and will be getting soap along with my final batch of heritage breed duck eggs soon. I have an inventory of jars and vinegar, and spent much of the winter making lip balms and lotions, aprons and tote bags. Blacksmithing and jewelry and peacock feather hair clips. Live chicks and hungry birds waiting for visitors to see them with small cups of food in hand. Could I have gotten to x,y, or z? Probably, but even with two separate trips to North Carolina this spring, and one where Dan was away as well, we have more than ever before. It will be enough.
So rather than panic, I just try to cross as many things as I can off my to-do list each day. Greenhouse work, garden work. I'm fortunate to have a wonderful brother-in-law who not only kept the critters fed for us, but worked on things like yard work and gardening in our absence. I'm trying to fix up a few extra pens, between young rabbits which are almost ready for sale and the explosion of baby poultry that is about to start coming out of the incubator, I need all the small animal space I can muster at the moment. (Long-term goal- more pens, both small raised pens and larger portable ones with access to grass. You have to invest in infrastructure when you're building an empire.) The important thing is, I feel like things are getting done. As a farmer, it's always tempting to try and push the season as far as you can, try to get things in early. But Pennsylvania weather pretty much always includes late frost- sometimes it's smarter to wait and not have to repeat the work. Or sometimes, plants that were planted later do better because they didn't fight the cold. It's good to remind myself of that. And so I'm trying more than ever to not only work hard, but to take a moment and enjoy what I'm doing. To stop in the middle of chores to watch the first orioles of the year in the back yard, or notice the flocks of goldfinches on the hop vine trellises. To take a moment and focus not on the weeding that needs done, but to step back and admire the season-long supply of blooms- both the wild ones and the perennials, herbs, and bulbs I've tucked into myriad corners of the farm. The wild ones inspire an awe of nature, but the others are all the more amazing because I picked them, in most cases edible or medicinal or some kind of amazing heirloom. They make the farm more beautiful and more useful, and I can see how I've left a mark, painting the landscape with flowers.
I love hatching season, it's great fun to hatch baby poultry and make a little money helping folks start their own flocks. It's also more complicated than it sounds. First, you have to separate different breeds of the same species in order to have purebred eggs. We've made great strides there so far this year! Then, hatching continuously like I do requires careful notekeeping- when eggs were set, when they are expected to hatch. This varies by species- 19 days for quail, 21 for chickens, and 28 for geese, ducks, turkey, guineas or peafowl, so setting eggs one day may not mean they all hatch the same day in the future! I mark eggs with a Sharpie marker and note it in my planner so I can be sure I can keep track. Then of course, I have to advertise (website/social media, Craigslist, old fashioned feed store flyers), answer inquiries via email, social media, phone and text, run a waiting list at times, and plan meeting times with folks so they can pick up their baby birds.
This year, I'm offering only Barred Rock and Ameracauna chickens as I have Delaware hens but no Delaware rooster. Plus I'll offer Coturnix quail, Bourbon Red turkey and peafowl. I unfortunately have only a lonely female guinea and two hen ducks, so I don't have the variety of some things I've offered in the past. But, having an incubator means I can expand my own flock, and I'm doing that this year! I purchased some Delaware eggs online and had them shipped so I can have a rooster and select the best hens for the future. The first batch had a rough trip in the mail with many broken eggs and I'm nervous about a less-than great hatch rate for the rest, but we were able to have the seller claim a damaged shipment with the post office and ship me replacement eggs, so I'm very hopeful that I'll have Delaware chicks hatch next month I've also spoken to a farm stand customer- I knew she got Ancona ducks last year, so I was hoping I could get some fertile eggs. That is not only in the works, but she has a few Welsh Harlequins now as well so I'm tentatively getting eggs of both kinds to raise, and it works for her because I can hatch enough so she can also expand her flock, a win-win!
It's wonderful to get to know other folks who may not farm, but are involved with livestock or poultry, because it often leads to connections like this. While we've had lots of luck sourcing even hard-to-find heritage breeds online, sometimes things are easier if you know a guy or gal. We got our Katahdin ram last fall because through casual talk, our livestock hauler (who also works at our meat processor) knew we were looking for a new ram, and passed along our number when he talked to some other folks looking to sell but hoping to avoid running their Kahtadin ram lamb through a livestock auction. Another win-win!
Yesterday, I saw on social media an acquaintance was selling chicks, duck or chicken hatching eggs, and taking orders for ducklings. She's bought poultry from me in the past, and I've eaten at the local establishment where she works many times. While I wasn't interested in the chickens, I was interested in purebred Khaki Campbell duck eggs. This would mean going from ZERO breeding ducks (only two crossbred hens, no drake for even crossbred babies) to THREE purebred varieties. Too much? Perhaps, but I still have room in the incubator and I have three pens to isolate chickens for purebred hatching. Running one kind of duck and one kind of chicken together is fine, they cannot crossbreed, so I'm being ambitious but perhaps not biting off more than I can chew. Plus, I love ducklings!! And once again, I was able to make another win-win transaction. I was able to pick up eggs that she didn't have room for, and we worked out a trade that felt fair to both. She loves her birds too, and wanted the naked neck chicks I had hatched ( a product of "Muppet Chicken" the rooster and Delaware hens) and was unfortunately also was down to a lone guinea. I had already decided that when I lost or sold my guinea, I was done with them. They are an African bird, not a heritage breed, which is what calls to me the most. They are loud, not terribly bright, and sometimes seem to forget where their coop is, sleeping outside unknown to me when I latch in birds for the night, making them easy prey for prowling predators. While there is high demand for them, I had terrible luck hatching them last year, and just don't love them enough to start a new flock from scratch. One thing I've come to learn is that sometimes, it's OK to know when to abandon a project you don't love, and pursue something you do. I like ducks, especially purebred heritage breed ducks, more than guineas, so it was wonderful to send my guinea girl to a loving home to befriend another member of her own species. This woman already has guinea keets ordered to get back to a breeding flock as well. She hatches and sells a few birds, and it was nice to be able to help her out with an adult female for her future flock.
I'm excited to be hatching new ducks, and hopeful they will become a more productive part of the farm family than ever. The ducks have always brought smiles to farm stand visitors, I love them, and even crossbred ducklings are in high demand each spring. And I am hopeful that hard-to-find heritage breed ducklings will be even easier to market in future years, and will be interested to see if there is a market for duck eggs after hatching season is done. Chicken eggs are always one of our biggest sellers, so I'm willing to take a chance!
Setting today- 2 shipments of Delaware eggs, Khaki Campbell duck eggs, Coturnix quail eggs, and our first peafowl egg of the year!
Every year, we do what we can to improve the farm. Having numerous buildings and miles of fence, there is always more to keep up on than we have time and money to undertake, but we do our best. This time of year, we're starting to feel the stress of spring, but we aren't so busy that we can't do a few small projects. I'm really excited that we've crossed a big one off the list and have completely replaced the poultry fencing.
The old fencing closer to the road was something Dan and I put up shortly after we married, it was both a place to keep birds and a way to get out of mowing a part of the yard that had lots of tree roots. The fence behind it was even older. If you've been to the farm, you know that there was pretty much always birds on the loose. While it does look charming to be greeted by inquisitive chickens to many folks, it's scary to others. The chickens would go onto the road or play in the parking lot. The hen turkeys would go into the woods across the road in the spring to lay eggs, resulting in many lost eggs (those nests are difficult to find!!) when forest critters found and ate them, and the same fate unfortunately befell some hens sitting on nests as well.
Completely free range poultry also wreaks havoc on the farm's plant life. One day, I went into the garden to pick tomatoes only to find a small hole in each ripe one down an entire row- apparently the rooster did not like them well enough to eat one, but sampled every one he saw just to make sure, rendering them all unsellable. Flower beds and perennial herbs suffer when chickens scratch the plants away to look for tasty bugs and grubs. The rhubarb bed and area under the pine trees looked like small bombs went off as a result of the birdies taking dust baths and creating craters big enough to twist an ankle.
This year, we replaced all the fencing. I've helped a bit, but mostly the credit goes to Dan and his brother who dug the holes, pounded in new posts, and strung the wire. A couple small runs seem like a minor project, but fencing is expensive- the wire and posts cost about $1,000. But it's money that feels well spent to me. The birds are safer- reducing the chance of being hit by cars or eaten by coyotes is no small thing. It also makes for a better experience for our stand visitors, as the birds are less scary when they are not able to come right up to you. The new fence is about 7' high, meaning I should never again have to deal with kids who are throwing pine cones or rocks at the birds while the parents pay no attention. However, we will still offer bird food and folks can still go up to the fence to feed and photograph our flock. I hope at some point to create signs with the names of the breeds of birds in each run to make it a bit more educational. The run closer to the road has also been altered- it is a bit wider but not as long, so we plan to add a few more parking spaces. It also makes my life easier, I'll be spending less (or no!) time chasing birds off the road, corralling them back into where they should be at night, and have not had to secretly watch the turkey hens as they venture into the forest. It should eliminate the number of duck eggs wasted at the bottom of the creek or stepped on by livestock in the barnyard. It's a game-changer to be able to simply collect eggs from the coop in the evening. This will honestly add hours to my week that were previously spent herding birds.
Another huge advantage to fences the birds cannot go over is that we can maintain completely separate flocks. This is a huge deal during hatching season. Any chicken can breed with any other chicken, so unless I isolate the Barred Rocks from the Ameracaunas, I can't be sure of what I'm hatching to offer purebred stock to others. Not surprisingly, a purebred chicken, like any other livestock, is worth more and easier to sell than a mixed-breed mutt. One of my passions, and a big part of what I feel is my life's work, is raising endangered heritage breed livestock and offering these wonderful creatures to others. It's also a welcome way to generate some income during the spring months, when we have lots of expenses but not necessarily a lot of products to sell. Having multiple separate areas means I can raise and offer several breeds. Currently I have a decent flock of Ameracaunas and Barred Rocks. My favorite chickens are Delawares, and sadly this is the second season I've not had a rooster to offer purebred chicks. I'm also trying to upgrade the quality of my flocks, and having good fences that reduce mortality will mean that I can honestly evaluate which birds show the characteristics of what the breed is supposed to represent, and breed only those. I'm already excited to improve my flocks as I have fertile Delaware eggs on the way to add new blood and a rooster to my crew, and am considering once again adding Polish chickens, both for their egg production and their crazy feathers that look like an out-of-control wig! I'm also anticipating getting some heritage breed duck eggs soon locally. While I have always had ducks around, they have either been Pekins (not a heritage breed) or mixed breeds. So I'm extremely excited to be able to improve what we are already doing here, add new varieties of poultry, reduce my workload, and have a more visually pleasing place for our birds and our visitors!
Last fall, I decided to plant some spring-blooming bulbs. Crocuses and daffodils, to add a bit more early spring color. I love planting a few low-maintenance perennials each year. Each year, I try to be mindful, adding a few new plants that add beauty and utility to the farm. I've always been a bit envious of places with flowers that seem to progress effortlessly in a stream of blooms throughout the year. Dan used to tell me not to be jealous, as those places had folks who had spent years of free time and money getting there, or obviously had landscapers. We're so busy, we have our hands full just trying to maintain the gardens without worrying about flower beds as well. But bit by bit, I tuck away a few new perennials, herbs and/or bulbs. At first, I just wanted flowers, pretty colors. I'm always tempted when I see bags of bulbs in big box stores or seed catalogs at irresistible prices. But like most of my projects on the farm, the more I learn, the more I refine what my vision looks like. A steady stream of flowers, appearing from early spring until well into the fall, help to attract pollinators. We don't raise bees currently, but we still depend on wild populations to help the garden and produce lots of our crops. Providing additional food sources for the bees helps them survive in this current crisis, where many hives are dying. Dan and I have also thought about adding a hive or two to the farm sometime, and although we haven't yet to date, having established flowers full of pollen and nectar blooming from spring to fall would only help to make that endeavor a success.
There are lots of plants with pretty flowers which are also useful edible blossoms, tubers or leaves. Ones that can be used in body care recipes, teas, potpourri, or medicinally. I figure it doesn't matter if I actually use them for these purposes, especially just as I plant them, I want them to establish themselves for years of low-maintenance blossoms. But it's fun to know the possibility is there! Also, just as there are breeds of livestock and vegetables that have been around for generations but are now hard to find and in danger of going extinct, the same is true for flowers. Just as with vegetables, old varieties of flowers fall out of favor, replaced by new and flashier hybrids. Old heirlooms disappear from the catalogs and fade away. These, of course, are what I long to plant. I resisted the siren song of readily available bulbs last fall and searched online for heirloom bulbs, and found a company called Old House Gardens Heirloom Bulbs. They offer only heirlooms, and like Seed Savers Exchange does for food plants, they are making old varieties of flowers available to passionate planters like me. I ordered 2 kinds of crocus and three kinds of daffodils. (I couldn't pick just one of each!!) I was very pleased with the size and quality of the bulbs last fall, and tucked them into the farm's soil when they arrived and hoped for the best.
This spring, I've been quite excited that all the bulbs have at least produced leaves. I wouldn't hold it against them if they didn't bloom, I would just be happy to see them grow and establish and promise color in coming years. But to my great delight, I'm getting not only leaves, but blooms, too! The striped crocus is called King of the Striped, and is a Victorian variety that dates to 1880. The gorgeous blooms the color of a farm-fresh egg yolk belong to the Mammoth Yellow crocus, which to my knowledge is the oldest cultivar I've ever planted, dating all the way back to 1665! (No, that isn't a typo, this variety has really been around for over 300 years.) I'm excited to enjoy these heirloom treasures, but I have bigger plans, too. Bulbs that are planted will reproduce if they are planted in a suitable spot. Of course, this will take years, but to maintain a bed of beautiful blossoms, it will be necessary to thin out the bulbs from time to time. I've gone as far as to draw up a map of what flowers I have planted, with notes as to which exact varieties are there. I can keep track of what comes up and what does not. And so, when they multiply and I need to thin them out, I'll know just what I have.
This way, I can offer beautiful, heirloom bulbs that do well here in northwestern Pennsylvania to our farm stand customers. It won't be a yearly crop, more like an occasional one. But it's a very low-labor one. I get to just enjoy them without any effort most years, and share the excess when it happens. One of my long-term goals is to make the farm both as beautiful and as useful as I possibly can. And just like the heirloom apple trees I'll be planting next year, this is a project that could well outlive me. When I hike or travel old back roads that pass through what used to be homesteads, they are often marked by a few foundation stones and what blooms. Hardy things, like chives, lilies, fruit trees, iris, or daffodils. The wooden structures are gone, the folks who planted them likely have passed on, but the flowers remain. So I feel I've taken the path that speaks to my heart, and am glad I spent the extra money to be tending antique bulbs rather than any popular thing. And as I stare down the one-year anniversary of losing my younger brother this week, I of course have thoughts of my own mortality. While I hope I'm here for many more years, it brings me a small measure of comfort that even when I am gone, the next year, and many years after, there will still be flowers. Gorgeous flowers, rare flowers, flowers that I may, in some small way, help to steward into the next generation.
Last night, I had a girl's night dinner out with my best friend and her daughter. As frequently happens, someone recognized me and came over to us with questions about the farm. This woman told me that a local farm who had been offering a CSA to the Tionesta area was no longer doing so, and some of the subscribers hoped that I would take on that business and start a CSA program here, since I'm already an established farm offering quality, local, organically grown produce. Sounds great, right? Just grow some more veggies and here is a ready-made way to expand your business! What a gift as I'm waiting for dinner!
Um, no. I told her that it was unfortunate that her program was discontinued, but I would not be stepping up to replace it. A CSA, or community supported agriculture, is a system where subscribers pay an up-front cost in the spring (when the farm has a lot of expenses) for a share of the produce grown over the season. Subscribers get a box of produce, usually weekly, and over a set period of time which varies by farm. Sometimes there are add-on options to include meats, cheese, eggs and other products. Sometimes pickup is at the farm, but often there is a more convenient pickup location, and some go as far as to deliver fresh produce right to your door! It's a great idea, and it works really well in urban areas where you can get a box of seasonal, local food without the inconvenience of shopping or making a special trip to the farm. The farmer gets money when he or she needs it most, and eliminates waste of produce that remains unsold at the end of a market day, because abundance is shared among all the subscribers. The downside for subscribers is that you get what is in season. You don't get to choose the produce, it is what the farmer has growing that week. You may get vegetables you don't care for, or that you have no idea how to cook. If the farmer has a crop failure, you simply don't get any of that vegetable. It's a way to help share the risk of making a living with Mother Nature, and to support what your local farmer is doing, through both the good AND the bad.
So, what's the big deal with taking money now for produce later? The first, and largest reason that we won't is that to properly run a CSA, I would need to plant, weed, and harvest TWO SEPARATE garden spaces. One would be split between the CSA subscribers, the other would supply the farm stand. Of course, right there you can see that would double the work in some ways. But if not, then you run into a host of problems- if you only plant a single garden, how much produce do you give to the CSA? Do they get anything out of our single greenhouse, or is that only for the farm stand? Do they get any of the garlic I planted last year, when I was not planning on doing this? When the first few tomatoes or last of the sweet corn come into season, do you put that in the CSA boxes, or offer them to the loyal farm stand customers who have been patronizing us for years? Either way, someone's going to be unhappy. Two gardens would really be the only fair way to do this.
There are also the logistics- basic business stuff. Sure, I was approached by a lady who asked just for this, and said she had others interested. But if it was too small a market for the other farm to continue to serve, the odds are that I would have no more subscribers than they did. Probably less, as CSA was their primary business model, and ours is not. I've also had exactly one email so far this spring asking if it was something I offered. (In comparison, I've already gotten four asking to buy baby peacocks, which is a pretty niche market.) It's a LOT of work to make just a few people happy. Marketing the CSA separately, of course will be more and separate work. More, separate paperwork to figure out if it's profitable at whatever cost we set the first year. Also having never been involved with a CSA, I have no idea what constitutes a fair weekly share. It's difficult to quantify how much produce when it is going to change every single week. How many square feet of garden do you plant per subscriber? How much do you charge? How many weeks should it run? Do you offer more than one size? Other things to consider- where do you get the boxes? Are you providing new cardboard ones weekly, or complicating things by trying to reuse totes or crates that need to be returned? What if someone doesn't? Where do these pickups occur? In a rural area like ours, home delivery wouldn't be a very reasonable way to go. Do all pickups happen at the farm or do I need to reach out to places like libraries or the Visitor's Center? When would these pickups be? How long of a time window would I need to sit there to get all the boxes picked up? Can I fit it into an already packed summertime schedule, or do I hire a driver, increasing my cost and losing the personal connection with the person eating the food I grow?
Then you of course have the customer service aspect- how do you deal with folks going out of town- after all, lots of people go on vacation over the summer months when the CSA would be in full swing. Do they get extra the next week? What if someone HATES kale? Do you let them customize? Can they replace x, y, or z with some meat or eggs? Could you do it for campers who will be up x number of times over the summer, but only on these dates, here is a list? It could get tricky in a hurry.
To offset this extra work, I would have to either hire help, or discontinue something else I'm currently doing. Neither seem like great options. I've been in management before, and hiring, training and firing are something I'm frankly glad to not do anymore. I also don't want to do less in other areas. I love raising the livestock, offering my customers healthy, humanely raised meat and eggs. I'm devoting a lot of time and effort right now into improving my breed conservation and offering live rabbits and poultry for sale, which is not only income but also helps me feel that I am doing important work, helping a few breeds of livestock take one step further away from extinction. That speaks to my heart. It's great fun for me to experiment with growing herbs, creating salves and sewing and making jewelry and doing the other things I offer in the Etsy store and at the farm stand. Taking on more garden work and reducing the amount of time I spend on any of those activities would make my life less rich. It's important to me to be constantly learning more and doing more. And while it is true that some CSAs offer subscribers the chance to come work on the farm for a reduction in cost and to gain a better appreciation of the work that goes into producing their food, that is work too. It's difficult to entrust part of my livelihood to someone who does not know how to garden or farm. And the help would require constant supervision, and it's a pretty sure bet I could do a lot of it faster myself than supervising and training a helper for the day. And then I have to look into liability insurance for these activities, creating a restroom for visitors/helpers that does not involve them coming into my home, my one last bit of private space, and doing my best to make sure workdays have work in them and don't turn into a farm tour that only adds to my workload.
I'm learning sometimes to say no. To acknowledge that there are only so many things I can do, and still do them all well. Looking at the pros (extra spring money) and cons (a LOT of extra work), this is just going to be one of those times. It's important to have some limits, to know what I can handle without going crazy. To say yes often enough that business continues to grow, but to say no often enough that I still have time to spend with friends, family, and do things that I enjoy that may or may not be related to farming at all. I also think it is important for me to have a vision of what I want for the farm as both a place and a business. Personal connection with my customers is important to me. So is inviting them to the very place the food is grown. And if you're going to come all the way here to meet with me and visit the farm, why take all the fun away by just handing you a box and sending you out the door, when you can select for yourself the varieties and amounts of the food that you will be eating? Maybe I should stock up on boxes after all, and hand them out to folks interested in CSA every time they visit...we can call it a "build-your-own-share" program. After all, it's been working for my other farm stand customers for years!
It's March, but the weather seems more like February. We've had a few recent nights with lows in the single digits, and were bracing for a big snowfall overnight and today. So far, the snow has been a manageable 1-2”, but cold, snowy weather always mean more chores when you have as many animals as we do. In the summer, I can fill up waterers for the poultry and rabbits that will last days. In below-freezing weather, I have to check water at least 2x per day, knocking frozen chunks of ice out of rubber pans and filling it up with liquid water. It's not a lot of fun to trudge around in 10 degree weather with wet gloves, but it's part and parcel of being a farmer. Days off don't happen when it comes to livestock.
This morning I was pleasantly surprised to see we didn't get the snow called for, but was still preparing for an inside workday when Dan left. Shortly after, I got a text- there was a newborn calf in the area above the barn! Before I tended to the bunnies, I bundled up and found Belle, one of our oxen, had delivered a healthy calf who was up and about- it's amazing how quickly calves and sheep stand and walk. It's almost always within an hour of birth! So my morning workout consisted of carrying an icy little bundle of bovine joy to the sheep house, where at least she would be out of the elements, and getting mama Belle to accompany her. It's plenty large and I baited it with fresh hay, so they are out of the wind and doing well. If baby still seemed cold in an hour or two, I had a calf coat made of an old sweatshirt on standby in the veterinary cabinet in our pantry. It's amazing how hardy baby calves can be, but we like to keep them out of the elements for the first week or so in inclement weather and give them the very best start we can. I'm always a little nervous about moving mother cows immediately after birth, because sometimes they get aggressive the first couple days, doing an excessively good job of protecting their new little one. If it had been Finni, I probably wouldn't have been bold enough to grab her collar and drag her to the sheep house like I did Belle, but I know my critters and their personalities well enough to have a pretty solid idea of what I can safely handle, especially when I am home alone. And when your cows come equipped with horns, safety is pretty important.
Then off to tend the other critters. June, one of my Silver Fox doe rabbits, has been making a nest for days and was who I was really expecting to go into labor overnight. She was on her nest, not too excited to see me with fresh water, so I replaced it and let her be. I'll check back there to see if we have out first litter of rabbit kits from June and our new buck Angus at evening chore time.
It's also the time of year when I start hatching baby poultry. I was expecting my first chicks to hatch Sunday or Monday, but nothing happened. A bit disappointing, but we had some issues with the house and therefore incubator losing power in a storm a couple weeks ago, the tube from the water bucket to the inside reservoir clogged, and cold temperatures when the eggs are laid reduce hatchability anyways, so I was prepared to accept a loss and hope it turned out better next week. (Our large incubator allows me to hatch weekly.) But when I came inside, I heard a familiar noise coming from the pantry- peeps! (Yes, my pantry is where the incubator AND veterinary supplies live. There are canned goods there too, but it's a multi-purpose room, really.) Only three wet little peeps, but it looks like the hatch is not over, just a little late getting started. But I love hatching chicks and it's a joy to me to have babies everywhere today. The snow is falling, the wind is blowing, it's 22 degrees out, but all of my babies have warm shelter, out of the wind, with plenty of deep hay for bedding. It's a good day. A very good day!
Update- In the end, although the hatch was late to start, over 3/4 of the eggs hatched, a pretty good outcome, all considering, so I had 21 fluffy little peeps, with more coming weekly now. I also have baby rabbits, as June took a few more days but eventually delivered a litter of 5 into her fur-lined nest. Their eyes are still closed and they aren't mobile yet, but she's a great mother and they are getting bigger by the day!
I've had an on again, off again desire to learn to sew. My mother is an accomplished seamstress, with countless projects under her belt. I've always admired her ability to create things with her trusty machine, whether it was Halloween costumes for us kids when we were young, clothing, and even her own wedding dress! I've turned a small room upstairs here in the farm house back into a sewing room (its original purpose) and filled it with vintage machines. I spent a good bit of time on a 60's-era Singer machine I got at a yard sale. When it worked, it was great fun, creating fairly simple things like curtains, totes, even a wrap skirt for myself. But it has issues with the tensioner, and sometimes is just absolutely maddening to use, as I spend more time ripping out bad stitches and unjamming wads of thread than I do creating anything. Mom used the machine too and agreed it had problems, so I could at least rule out operator error, which made me feel a bit better but didn't help the machine work properly.
This winter I got serious about using a vintage treadle machine I'd purchased from a friend's grandmother. It's beautiful, it's over 100 years old, and I just loved the idea of creating things without electricity, just my own energy and an antique tool. Unfortunately, I had similar issues. The machine is pretty simple, mechanically speaking, I think it has more to do with my inability to maintain a steady speed on the treadle while at the same time feeding fabric, maintaining the proper hem margin, and pulling pins out. Sometimes I'd get a flawless stitch, other times it was back to the seam ripper.
Sewing machine repair is unfortunately not one of Dan's many specialties. He would cringe every time I asked him to come look at one machine or the other. He also understands how a tool can make a job a pleasure or a chore, and offered to buy me a brand new machine. I had extremely mixed feelings about this. I of course was in love with the idea of vintage machines, and felt if I could just get better I could make them work. But I didn't sew much because it was depressingly difficult. So we went to Joann Fabrics, and luckily enough, they had a decent sale on Singer sewing machines anyways! They had a number of machines, some were so pretty, some did more than I would probably ever use. I ended up choosing a machine that was in the middle, both price wise and feature wise. I liked it because it was the heavy duty model, and still adjusted by knobs rather than pretty touch screens, which I feel are more likely to wear out or have problems. It was the only one that was more of an industrial grey rather than white with pretty embellishments, but I was looking for function over beauty.
I'm happy to say I've gotten along quite well with my new machine! I'm becoming a Joann Fabrics junkie, a friend and I went and stocked up on patterns during a President's Day sale, and I love stopping in for fabrics for projects. I'm still working on simple things, I know a good way to frustrate myself it to pick something above my skill level and expect it to come out perfectly, so for now I'm having fun and honing my skills by creating things like aprons and simple fleece pants and tote bags. Somethings have turned out well enough I have even put them into my Etsy store! I have neck wraps scented with essential oils, an adorable apron with fun tomato prints, and tote bags. I made some by recycling old feed sacks, they are so nice and heavy duty, plus the sturdy plastic is water resistant so they are great for groceries- I think they will be a big hit at the farm stand when we reopen! Others I made with fabric, with the bottom made from old burlap coffee bags. I've had a lot of fun playing with patterns for the tops. I made one with a fabulous chicken print, and two with camo cloth on the outside and pink lining on the inside. Again, if they don't sell on Etsy I think they will appeal to lots of local folks! I like this pattern because it uses a pretty small amount of fabric, I can create it from all kinds of lovely leftovers from other projects or bits from the store's remnant bin. I also have a good number of new patterns to try- some of them are vintage reprints, so I can still get my vintage fix while creating something on a machine that runs like a dream! I'm excited to feel like I'm becoming proficient at a new skill, and am really enjoying my creations, and I hope others will too.
Bunnies have been a side project of mine for years. My entry into rabbit keeping was when my sisters bought me a pet rabbit for my 25th birthday. A couple years later, Dan talked me into getting Murphy a girlfriend one spring day at Tractor Supply. (It's really, really easy to talk me into more animals. One of the many reasons I feel cut out for this farming thing.) I had many rabbit adventures with Murphy & Sheena, and over the years they were replaced by other rabbits. But I decided that if I were to raise and sell rabbits, I might as well put my energies into having a specific breed rather than ones of unknown origin. And if I were to get purebred rabbits, well then I might as well go for a heritage breed, since they are what speaks to my heart anyways.
I did some research and decided on the Silver Fox. They are an American breed, and a heritage breed, and according to The Livestock Conservancy, they are considered a threatened breed, the second most severe ranking as far as the level of danger of the breed not surviving. They are large, docile rabbits known to be good mothers with large litters. Raised mostly for meat, they also have a unique pelt that will stand up on end when petted the wrong way. They are born either black or gray (called blue by breeders) and at the age of 3-4 months get a lovely mix of white hair in their coat which will stay that way for the rest of their lives. It took some searching, but I was able to source some purebred Silver Foxes and have had a buck and two doe for a while now. We always like to give a breed a test run first to make sure they will fit well on our farm, and I love these rabbits. So recently, I decided to get a bit more serious, and introduce some new bloodlines to my small rabbitry. I found a lady in Albion and was able to get a new buck as well as a completely unrelated doe.
I'm also working on getting a second buck who will be unrelated to all three does as well, and blue in color. My current stock is all black, but I get 25-30% blue kits as it is a recessive gene. This will enable me to not only raise more rabbits, but to be able to offer folks unrelated pairs for breeding, which is very exciting to me. I take pride is selling quality animals to folks who look to get into raising heritage breeds, and it's exciting to me to be a part of helping these rare breeds become more widespread. I'm working on improving my stock, as the new rabbits are not only purebred like the ones I already had, but I'm stepping up and paying for ones that have pedigrees as well.
I sold a couple bunnies over the weekend, one person told me she'd been wanting Silver Foxes and had been looking unsuccessfully for over a year for stock to buy! I feel that heritage breeds and homesteading in general are things that have more awareness and more people are interested these days. Rabbits are something people with a homestead dream can start with, even if they are living within city limits that have livestock restrictions, like the other folks that came by to pick up a rabbit this weekend. I look at my recent rabbit purchases as an investment not only in what I do here, but what I am able to offer others. I read in a Livestock Conservancy email that one individual set a record, making over 1 million dollars selling rabbit breeding stock. (It wasn't Silver Foxes, but another heritage breed.) I have been jokingly telling friends and family that I'm working on building a bunny empire which will make me my fortune. I'm kidding to an extent, I'm not sure I'm devoted to rabbits specifically enough to break that record, but I am confident that there is a market for them. Selling things like rabbits, or chicks, or turkey poults is something I really enjoy. It is work to keep straight who is related, when babies are due, and of course there is the daily work of caring for my stock. However, seeing new life is something that is always enjoyable, and it's great to be the person that helps someone else start or improve their flock or rabbitry, and makes it possible to obtain the heritage breed they had their heart set upon. It's also a nice source of income, especially in spring when we have a lot of expenses but the farm stand has yet to open. This bunny empire thing is exciting, and I have plans to work on my chicken empire a bit this year, too. So not only am I a farmeress, I'm now an empress as well...the big question now is if that means I can start wearing a cape or something fantastic around as part of my new uniform!
It's that time of year, when thoughts turn to spring. The warm weather has lots of folks thinking that way, apparently, judging by the number of emails and calls I've gotten already concerning baby poultry. Folks are already getting ready for baby chicks and turkeys and peachicks. So I'm getting ready too!
Since I have a number of different breeds of chickens, I need to pen up breeding stock separately so I'll know the eggs I'm setting will be purebred Barred Rocks or Ameracaunas, not just mixed breed chicks of unknown origin. The back of the main hen house can be closed off just by keeping a door shut, so I moved the Barred Rocks back there about 2 weeks ago. I do hate penning them up where they cannot go outside, but it's temporary, and the back part of the pen has two windows covered in wire so they get sunlight and fresh air, and the space is more than roomy for the 10 birds I have in there. Being February, there isn't a lot to forage outside, and on cold, snowy days the chickens prefer to stay indoors anyways. Plus I supplement their diet with heads of tasty sunflower seeds I harvested from last year's garden and stored in the small seed starting greenhouse. This not only gives them extra nutrition for egg production, but pulling the seeds out of the head and cracking them open to get to the delicious insides gives them a little extra something to do.
I didn't have another place to put the Ameracaunas, and while I can set only blue eggs and hope for the best, odds are that they won't all have an Ameracauna rooster as the father. I asked Dan about the back side of the sheep house, which just had some storage items, no critters there currently, and with a partial fence separating the two sides it would require a minimum of effort to create a space secure enough to keep one kind of chicken. It's also right next to the other chicken buildings, making it easy enough at chore time, since I am already right there with buckets of water and poultry food. He agreed, but only after I promised this was temporary, as we have plans to expand our flock of Katahdin sheep this year, so next year we will need more space for lambing pens. Nothing we've done to accommodate the chickens will be harmful in the long run, so again, it's enclosed but well lit with plenty of fresh air, room to scratch, and sunflower seeds for food and fun. It looked great to me and I was excited to round up the Ameracaunas and place them in their new temporary home. I've got a little work to do though, one hen has twice escaped back to her old run, so I have a little chicken wire to repair once it stops snowing.
But it's exciting to me to feel as though I'm making strides forward into a better, more controlled chicken breeding program. I love hatching. The incubator is fairly automatic, but it is no small task to monitor which eggs need to come down from the movable racks into the hatching tray, especially when I have quail, chicken and turkey/duck/peafowl eggs all in there at the same time, as they have different incubation times (quail hatch in 19 days, chickens 21, and the others at 28 days). Three levels of hatching trays each hold 66 eggs each, plus quail eggs can be placed on top. Once I turn the incubator on, it stays running from February into June, hatching baby birds of one kind or another every single week. Some will be farm replacements, but many others go to new homes. It's a nice way to earn a little money at a time when the farm has a lot of expenses. And it's also fun to see the excitement when folks come to get their new birds. Sometimes it's one person, other times it is a family affair. For some, it's their first try at keeping poultry and they look to me for some guidance. Others are excited to try raising a heritage breed, like me they value the traits that make them great for the homestead or small farm. It's awesome to think how many small flocks of Barred Rocks or Bourbon Red turkeys I've helped to start. Part of the thing that drew me to heritage breeds was their rarity, that some were literally in danger of disappearing from the Earth forever. Raising them here helps to steward these lovely creatures into the future, but it's even more important to help others raise them too, so that they can continue to be part of the agricultural landscape for years and generations to come. Like any job, sometimes it's easy to get lost in the day to day, slogging through the mud and snow and breaking ice out of water buckets, and take for granted the bigger picture. The start of hatching season is always a reminder to me of this bigger picture, the feeling of being a small piece of a great big puzzle. I'm excited to turn the incubator on and set in the first eggs and set the process in motion for another spring of fluffy chicks and breed conservation!
Emily Stevenson is a real life farmeress and artisan and chronicles her experiences in food, farming and life here.