Sunday, March 29, 2009


As in done, finished, over, past, completed.

The greenhouse is fini.

I would be happy except I am so past the point of enjoying the greenhouse that I want a full week of not thinking about the greenhouse, not looking at the greenhouse. Then I am sure I will enjoy it.

For the final push, we asked one or two friends to help and we had six arrive, including my sister. A true team effort. Sometimes, mostly when I am sick of the greenhouse, I lose sight of the goal. I have a wonderful circle of friends who support my crazy ideas and endeavors, and they arrived (with beer!) to help with the final touches.

We tarped the long side, installed the doors, installed the fan, installed the louvers. It was a warm, beautiful day and even with the screen doors fully open, it was HOT in the greenhouse. All was good.

Later that night, I realized we installed the louvers backwards. No big deal, just need to pop them out and turn them around. Should take ten minutes...

So today we began the last day of work on the greenhouse. Three hours later, we're standing in the rain, trying to screw in door hardware and the slimy, wet plastic coating for the doors. Definitely not going well. But after much swearing and repeated vows to "never again", we got it done.


The greenhouse is a small first step in a long journey towards a successful farm, but it's finally behind us. I underestimated how long it would take to build, how many precious hours of my nights and weekends would be spent measuring, cutting, painting, hammering, sawing, nailing, tying, screwing, and oh god, painting some more when I really should be conditioning my horse. It's a good lesson. When you work full time in addition to the farm, the "cheapest" solution is the one that takes the least amount of time, even if it costs more.

But that's all behind us.

It's done.

The chickens enjoy the sun as Odie presides over the hens.

Front view with the double doors. Screened here, but now have plastic coverings as well.

Wow, it looks like a real greenhouse!

Back view before the door was installed, the metal is the cover for the exhaust fan.

Inside looking north towards the front.

Looking south towards the back.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

Brief Update

Life is getting really interesting around here and I apologize for being so behind in blogging. Between work and farm, I have little time for quiet reflection, and even less time for frantic blog typing.

So to sum up:
1) The greenhouse is almost complete. Expected completion is this Saturday where we will tighten down the plastic film, install the ventilation system and hang the doors. Benches, paving, 3 yards of soil and beds to come later.
2) The horse sacrifice paddock is on its 20th ton of stone dust. Oh yea, that's some serious work on the ol' tractor. We'll be driving posts and taping off the paddock this weekend. Once we get the horses off the "forest pasture", we can clean it up: logging, rock removal, raking, and seeding.
3) More tractor goodies in store: fence post digger and logging forks. Gotta get those on Saturday.
4) Another tray of seeds started: Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, and Kale. I can't wait until I can take the trays to the greenhouse for day trips to get them some protected sun.
5) Two weeks or so until we break ground on the outside garden. In the meantime, we need to pick up last fall's leaves, drop a few trees, measure and plan it out and borrow a hand tiller.

I'm tired just typing all that.

On the chicken front, I was able to surmise that the sick chicken succumbed to an infection of Mycoplasma Gallisepticum (MG) due to the crazy weather. She did recover after 10 days and is symptom free. Since MG is omnipresent, I am not worried about the general health of the flock (unless she makes this a pattern). But she will not make the cut for next winter and is obviously not part of the breeding program.

I'm glad I was too busy to include you, my dear readers, on my chicken angst. I need to think of the collective like a farmer, but I don't want to lose compassion for the individual. I opted in this case to not cull the chicken after she recovered and she's back out with the flock. Time will tell whether I made the right call, but trust me, I spent many sleepless moments agonizing over the "right" answer.

The picture of the chick I posted earlier is a week-old Speckled Sussex pullet. I picked up five at a chicken swap locally, although I suspect one of them is a little cockerel. I've got 25 chicks coming in April 14th and that should round out my laying flock. There will be a lot of birds around this summer, but the intent is to get down to 20 by winter (18 pullets and 2 roosters) that will form the foundation of my sustainable flock going forward. Then the meaties arrive in July. I need to build two chicken tractors by then.

There's lots going on from the Brego front, but I will just need to post to that blog soon.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Greenhouse Raising

I am too exhausted to type. Only one minor injury (fingernail mistaken for a nail). Pictures from today. I will post more detail soon.

Yes, it freakin' snowed while building the greenhouse!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


The seeds I sowed a week ago are growing so fast. The package says 7-14 days to germinate, but we saw life after three days. I guess the numbers are for outside temps.

We've been very busy around the farm. We've been moving yards of gravel and stone dust to make a sacrifice paddock for the horses before their pasture turns to muck with the thaw. The tractor makes quick work of moving materials, but it's hard to see even with the side lights at night. I wanted to grade for the greenhouse, but still a bit too much snow.

No complaints though. We are deep in the throes of mud season which is the rite of passage out of Winter and into Spring.

The baby seedlings give me hope and inspire me to work until 10 pm every night to prepare a good home for them, and the rest of the critters on the farm. The little sprouts all look so similar, so neonatal.

I sowed another tray today, half spinach and half broccoli. Tired, but happy.

Tray full of life

Brussels Sprouts



Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Great Soup

Part of sustainable eating is making every "expensive" calorie count. Expensive calories are those that take a lot of resources to produce. Meat is considered expensive because it requires a vegetable to be grown, harvested, and then fed to the animal. Then the animal is grown, harvested and (usually) fed to the person.

Here's some fun feed conversion ratios:
Sheep: 8 kg feed to 1 kg of live weight
Beef: 8 kg feed to 1 kg of live weight
Pork: 3.4 kg feed to 1 kg of live weight
Poultry: 2-4 kg feed to 1 kg of live weight (Depending on breed)

Live weight does not equal pounds of meat. Usually the conversion to meat is 50-67% of live weight. It makes the feed conversion ratios look even more grim.

On my own farm, it takes 1/4 lb of feed to produce one egg.

Anyway, a dear reader Austen has put together a recipe for making that (free-range, sustainably raised) chicken stretch across many meals. We make stock of our chicken carcasses ourselves and I can't wait to try this recipe.

"Rustic" Lentil Soup

Bon appetite!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Another Spring Weekend

More slow thaw on the homestead. I can actually see part of my lawn for the first time in, oh, three months. It's quite exciting.

Today was Greenhouse Work Day. More painting of the frames and sealing of the foundation boards which will be in contact with the soil. I opted out of Pressure Treated timbers for obvious reasons. I also glued the PVC ribs together.

I found another good use for the tractor.

PVC ribs

There's only a few more things I can do on the greenhouse, like screen the doors and predrill some holes, before the Big Greenhouse Raising Day. I am not sure when that will be since there is still over a foot of snow on the intended site. But we're supposed to get five straight days of sunny, mid 40s - 50s weather which could very well take care of the rest of the snow. Of course, it could then dump another 6 inches on us before the next weekend, but I will have my fingers crossed.

Gratuitous cute dog shot. Gotta love those ears.

The sick chicken may not be sick after all. She is baffling me with her runny nose and complete lack of other symptoms. I asked around on BackYardChickens and they appear baffled as well. Maybe allergies? Regardless, she won't be contributing to the next generation, that's for sure. But I hate to cull a chicken who is actually fine, just because. Plus, she's our best layer. So she gets another week in isolation to see how it goes. She's actually adjusting well to being a basement chicken and is very social. I hate it when animals I am supposed to kill are cute. :)

I also set up the brooder because next weekend, if all goes well, I will be picking up some day old chicks at the ChickenSwap. More cute animals on the way! These chicks will be layers, so I am allowed to get attached to them, right? I am hoping for some Speckled Sussex pullets which will make a nice contribution to the sustainable homestead flock.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

And So It Begins

We started seeds tonight. The first seeds of our new farming venture were put into soil in seed trays. Since this was the start, I put together a nice assortment of herbs and veggies, but didn't start too many, just a single tray.

I'll be starting more seeds in the coming weeks, hedging my bets that at least some of the plants will make it outdoors after the last killing frost. According to the Farmer's Almanac, last spring frost in these parts is May 20.

The herbs will stay indoors, on a sunny window ledge, but the veggies will eventually be moved to flats in the greenhouse and, finally, into the ground.

I am also nursing a sick chicken. Our Gold Sex Link has a runny nose and congested-sounding clucks. Chickens really don't catch a cold, they get some terrible infectious disease that wipes them out, causing massive culling and sterilization. If she had any of the "bad" symptoms (like paralysis, mucous eyes, drooping, lethargy), I'd be in trouble, possibly forced to cull all my chickens. But she seems to just have some small respiratory infection and is otherwise normal, even laying two eggs a day in her chicken hospital. Regardless, she is isolated from the others, next to a heater and with nutritional support, she is getting better. The rest of the chickens are asymptomatic.

Biosecurity is a major concern which is why I will eventually close my flock. As soon as I get enough breeders, I won't let any new birds in. Of course, chickens can still get sick at the drop of the hat (or the barometer, as the case may be), but you limit your chances. Avian flu, the scare du jour not too long ago, is not a real concern. I've done enough research to know that my small flock, on good foods and healthy conditions, has the best collective immune system around. It's the caged factory hens that are at risk.

As a weird aside, I noticed while looking at the pictures that my hands look like both my Grandmother's and my father's. It was a very surreal realization.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Greenhouse Progress

My beloved sister drove down from Maine to help with the framing of the greenhouse. The three of us were able to finish all the flashing, the exhaust fan framing, build the doors, sand the frames and then prime for painting.

Whew. Now I need a beer.

I will never - ever - complain about the cost of food again. That's a lot of work!

So we now need to finish painting, build the ribs, screen the doors, grade the site, seal the ground boards and put the whole thing together. Probably two more weekends.

And, in very good news, we finally found a local farmer who is going to sell us his "discards" from processing chicken, turkey and pork for $0.50/lb. I am so grateful for his generosity. We were really struggling with the cost to feed the dogs, and had even talked recently about (the shame) going back to a processed food.

Without further ado, the pictures:

I am not sure why I look so weird...

Picture of the frame (for DP).

The back frame and three doors.

Front frame, louver fans on either side of the double doors.

The Last Winter Farmers Market

It must be Spring. Yesterday was the last Winter Farmer's Market. Now there is a two month hiatus until the Summer Farmer's Market series begins. Although, it's a little hard to imagine that summer is only two months away.

Anyway, we scored some fresh Gulf of Maine shrimp for $1.60/lb. I bought 10 lbs. We got lots of meat cuts: lamb, chicken, elk, beef. Meat is one thing we have trouble finding at our local grocery store that we can identify as sustainable. We can buy organic veggies (industrial organic caveats apply) at the store, but meat is meat; no description.

Anyway, we also got some potatoes, some ridiculously overpriced fresh cilantro, and some organic seasonings. The seasonings booth was looking a little neglected, quite overlooked by the throngs of people looking for dairy, the year's first greens, or meat. So I chatted with the seasonings guy and he told me how he packaged each packet himself last night, so the smell would be fresh. I sniffed a few packets and was intoxicated. I ended up buying three: a meat rub, a curry seasoning, and a seafood spice (perfect for the shrimp).

And by throngs of people, I mean elbow room only. Hundreds of people lined up around the block before the doors even opened, their fabric grocery bags clutched in one hand, dollar bills in the other. A regular counter-culture convention. If people don't think that there's a change afoot, they should visit a farmer's market. Everyone maintained a civil order while pushing to shove their money in farmers' hands, but just barely. Blue-light specials have nothing on this crowd.

After the market, we worked on the greenhouse framing. We framed out the doors, the ventilation openings and other finish work. We made good progress and so, sun willing, we will be priming and painting the frames today.

We're a bit behind on the seed front. One order of seeds has not come in, now 6 weeks delayed. The second sign that change is afoot is that a lot of (organic/heirloom) seed producers can't keep up with the demand. I did finally locate two bags of organic soil to start the seeds in. Let me tell you, organic soil is selling out faster than the seeds. And no, I refuse to buy Miracle-Gro brand organic soil. Talk about an oxymoron.

I have also been restructuring my protein plan (aka the Chickens). I have selected a second breed to use in my sustainable flock: Speckled Sussex. Say that three times fast. They are good layers, considered 'threatened' by the ALBC and are exceptionally cold hardy. They should compliment the meatier Wyandottes (poorer layers) well. Of course, the hatcheries are sold out until summer (third sign that change is afoot), but I found a local woman who will sell me some of her order of sexed pullets at the end of March at the local Chickenswap. Yes. I said "Chickenswap". Anyway, I also stopped by the local (1 mile away) feed store, owned and operated by the cutest old couple of earth, and bought all my chick supplies: Brooder lights, wee feeders, wee waterers. I love this feed store. They have everything and they are only marginally more expensive than Agway (like $18 deerskin insulated gloves over $17). A small price to pay for their convenience and how they hold a ton of hay for us on their word. In fact, I am switching my hay over to them come summer. Love them.

Ahh one more tidbit. I have finally secured a source of organic chicken feed that is non-medicated for the meat birds! You have no idea how hard it is to find non-antibiotic drenched chicken food for broilers. If I wanted medicated meat, I would buy from the grocery store. It's certainly cheaper! Anyway, the prices are in line with other organic bagged feed and it is local (well, Vermont). The supplier is also the guy we get our chickens and pork from. Woot! I will be able to get my chick starter, broiler grower and laying pellets from them (for cheaper than organic from Agway).

Good deals are out there, it just takes a lot of time to find them. Ok, now you're all caught up with positive news (instead of ranting). :) Off to work!

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Honest Food

I've been reading a lot, ok too much, about our industrial food complex.  The information out there is staggering and I have been able to apply my graduate school research skills to tracking down the source studies or statistics.  I am about to leave this topic in search of more, shall we say, optimistic topics, including getting my garden growing.  But before I do, let me put together a rant.

Every day, the news is so bad.  It's depressing as hell.  The challenges we face are so overwhelming, and you can't trust the people in charge to make the correct decisions.  Our democracy is subverted by Big Companies with Big Lobbyists pushing our elected leaders to make decisions.  Last time I checked, our representatives were supposed to vote for us.  Now they vote for dollars and I don't recall voting for Monsanto to represent me.

But I digress.  It's about Bigness.  When something gets too big, it becomes non sustainable.  Whereas one cow can graze on grass and deposit her manure to fertilize and build the soil, 200,000 cows in a CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feed Operation) creates a problem that didn't exist, simply because of scale:  Manure Lagoons.  What doesn't make it to the lagoons become bedding for the animals, standing up to their knees in liquid manure.  Our food is literally covered in shit and it collects into biohazard pools (who are they kidding with this "lagoon" euphemism??) which become a pollution problem.  So just by making something Big, we dishonor the animals, create pollution, lower the nutrients in the resulting meat.  All to make meat cheap.

The meat is cheap only because you look at the grocery story flyer which says: "Ground Beef: $2.69/lb".  What other items would you buy with so little information??  "TV: $500"  "Car: $8,000/tire"  Beef is beef, right?  Eggs are eggs?  Actually, no.  But let's just say that they are anyway.  What is not included in the price per pound is the subsidized No. 2 corn which is literally killing our farmlands. What is not included is the huge pollution cleanup problem which is subsidized by big AgriBusiness.  What is not included is the amount of foreign oil we use to process the food (anywhere from 14 to 87 oil calories to 1 single food calorie). What is not included is the cost to our health from the ridiculous amounts of antibiotic-resistant bacteria present on the food (70% of grocery store chicken tests positive for Salmonella or Campylobacter.  Eat up!).

Our cheap ground beef is subsidized with our future.  It's really not cheap.  It is, in fact, ridiculously expensive.

The non-bleached poultry I buy from the guy down the road, whose manure fertilized the fields and who was never fed antibiotics or other "supplements", is a freakin' bargain at $3.50/lb.  All the costs are upfront and paid directly to the farmer.

I am all about Smallness.  That "inefficient" small farmer has no waste, and actually builds soil and the environment instead of raping it.  Factor in all the hidden costs and Bigness loses.

We have to break the addiction to Bigness when it comes to agriculture.  And it is happening, all over.  People are getting educating and saying, "No more!"  During my research, I stumbled across a blog that is absolutely spot on: Honest Meat.  In particular, please read this entry on antibiotics in our food.  I was able to correlate all the statistics cited.  This blog is Honest.

So let's be honest about our food.  Have your "cheap" ground beef but be Honest about where it comes from and the ramifications of producing it.  If every food item was packaged with how many pounds of antibiotics were used, how many gallons of bio-toxic waste, how many barrels of oil were used to bring it to you, people would change.  No more hiding behind the curtain of big Agribusiness.

Honest change.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Intruder Alert!

Of the four-legged variety, that is.

I homesteaded by myself last week, which means that I was too busy to think and too tired to care. But when I got out of the shower Friday morning, I looked out the window at the pasture (I love that the house has so many windows) and saw a GIANT coyote circling along the back fence. In broad daylight (7 am) and huge!

Uttering a few curses, I got my PJs back on as fast as I could, grabbed my pistol, shoved my bare feet into my knee high muck boots and ran outside, sans hat, coat, and gloves. The horses were in the barn eating their breakfast, the fence was turned off, and the chickens, now aware of the threat, were filing back to the coop.

The coyote in question was not what I expected. Texas coyotes are about the size of a beagle, scruffy, lanky, low to the ground critters. They rarely make eye contact and scurry away. What stared back to me was very large, about the size of a German Shepherd, solid, very calculating. It stopped pacing the electric fence, which it did not realize was not turned on, and settled into a down stay, all the while meeting my gaze and staring back.

I stood for awhile, holding it's gaze while my chickens shuffled into the coop behind me. I thought back to the last time I fired my gun, how far was the target? How does that translate to my pasture? My pasture was bigger than I thought? Should I try to get closer? Should I just fire a shot to scare it? Would my neighbors hear and come running with their more appropriate firearms? Would I shoot my foot off?

The horses were in the barn, about 100 yards to my back and in front was a ridge and 30 miles of forest (good backstop), or I would never consider firing my pistol.

All the while, the coyote sat there. I decided to just chase it off my property. The fence was obviously a deterrent. The bugger had been zapped before, obviously. Perhaps the horses were also a factor, since he chose to stick around while they were out of sight.

So I drudged up the ridge to shoo him off. He retreated 20 feet and then, making deliberate eye contact, settled back into a down-stay. His message was crystal clear, and quite unnerving.

I continued after him, while he would give ground and then turn to see if I was still following. I finally got him off my property, then returned to the house and picked up my boy dog. I took him back out on leash, showed him all the places the coyote had been, and let him pee on everything. The coyote came closer while I was retrieving the dog. But he finally had enough and truly ran, not looking back anymore.

While I was out there, letting my (finally useful) male dog mark the property, I noticed the tracks, beds, spots of blood, and shreds of tissue (rabbit?) lying around. My back 3 acres were very busy indeed. The fact that this was first sighting (I hear them at night about 4 times a month) is truly a testament to the efficacy of the fence and horses.

I finally left when the squirrels came back out. They are much smarter than I.

I mentally noted again that the back three needed to be deforested this year. That would push the predators back off my land and onto my neighbors' 60 acres of virgin forest. It would give a larger perimeter of open ground, and of course, more electric fencing. I don't care that they exist, or even hunt on my land (outside of my pastures), but they need to stay out of my animals. They have every right to exist, but they don't need to exist on a chicken diet.

I've got to get some paperwork in order to buy a rifle in New Hampshire, in case this particular critter starts making this a habit. It's been a couple of days and I haven't seen him since. I am actually quite amazed that a little fencing and a lot of big, dominant draft horse can keep the wildlife at bay. I have found one single set of tracks inside the pasture since I moved in, and they stopped halfway and headed back into the woods. The amount of tracks and scat outside the fencing is amazing, crisscrossing everywhere, piles and piles and deer manure, rabbit, fox. So I know this is not an isolated incident, I just got lucky to look out my window at the correct time.

But so far, so good. I am hoping we can all respect each other and live side by side.

(P.S., I am dead sure the animal was not a wolf. My description can lead some to believe it might be. There has not been a wolf sighting in New Hampshire or Maine for decades and certainly not one so far south. If I thought there was a chance it was a wolf, chickens be damned, I am not walking outside with a pistol.)