Grit Blogs > Transitional Traditions

Farm and Garden Update: Where Have We Been?

A Sell Family PortraitI want to begin by heaving an enormous sigh and taking in a deep breath of rainy atmosphere.

It’s been a bumpy and amazing ride these last two months. I feel like I am just resurfacing for air after a dive to the deep end of the public pool: I can see the wavy light above me, but my lungs are burning for the oxygen promised on the other side.

Whew. It tastes good. Since I last wrote about what was happening here at the farm, we had just remodeled our old pump house into the small, but functional farm store. We have since added some little bits of home to make it comfy and welcoming and overall, our customers like it very much. Since then, we have been really slammed with work here and since we have so many new endeavors this year, everything that happens is like an emergency and must take center stage. To say the least, we have been stressed out.

However, I have uploaded a bunch of photos from the beginning of June until just a few days ago in order to help me keep the days straight. We’ve had so much going on that I need these visuals as much as you do! Here we go ...

Gardens

Below, you see our back field that held the pumpkins/chickens/sheep last year. We have since converted it into a fully functioning garden. Well, about half of it at least. Here, Bret and his mother Rita spent an entire day planting and tilling and planting and watering. We got our garden in super late this year, but I am thankful we have a garden at all. You see Rita and her husband Gale and family of eight kids have pledged time to come out and work the gardens throughout the season in order to have food for both our families. It works out great! Andy and I had high hopes for a pretty large garden this year, but when everything hit with the dairy, we just had no time to devote to it. Enter Rita and her two oldest kids, Bret and Cortnie. We have the two of them nearly five days a week now in the summer, sometimes all day and they help with weeding, watering and eventually, harvesting.

Garden preparation

And of course, other chores as well. It’s a great blessing to have them here as they can often take over simple duties of feeding chickens, watering animals, picking eggs and my favorite: babysitting! :-)

Lawnmowers

Here you see our rams eating our front lawn. There’s a book called Food Not Lawns (have not read it, but I get the premise) that talks about getting rid of the lawn mower and turning your yard into a garden. Well, we’re a few years down the road from that. However, I had this hair-brained idea to have the sheep graze the lawn way back in February. This June, I got to see it come to fruition. One thing I did not count on was having to “let it go” for such a long time that when the rams were finally let onto it, the area didn’t look like a front yard at all. I was happy to have satisfied my interest in “green lawn mowing,” but I think we need to retool a little bit before we do this again. The front yard now has a bunch of SUPER green circles that stick out like polka dots on a housewife’s dress. Not exactly the sort of lawn you want new customers to see.

Sheep as lawn mowers

But it was fun while it lasted! And with the wonders of temp fencing, it’s like we never had sheep there at all!

Raising Chicks

We got brand new baby chicks in about June 12th. We had these high hopes of helping a heritage breed chicken increase its numbers and showing off our geniune “old fashioned” hens. But apparently, everyone else in this down economy was thinking: I’m gonna lose my job, I better raise chickens to be safe. So the Delaware chickens we had been so carefully researching over the winter did not get ordered in time to beat the rush. We would not have gotten our chicks until this week had we waited! Since half of them would be raised to replace our old, old laying hens, and it takes 5 months to get a pullet to lay a single egg, we needed something a little faster.

Andy with a chick

So we went to a local hatchery in Beaver Dam and ordered their generic Blacks. 100 straight run chicks for 87¢ each. That beat the Delaware price of $2.09 each, but they certainly lacked the street cred that a genuine, critically endangered animal would have carried! Right?

Elly with the chicks

Boy were they cute!!! As soon as they came, I could care less about their pedigree. These chicks were awesome. Small enough to hold two in one hand and 100 fit easily into Elly’s kiddie pool. This was our makeshift incubator for the first week to ensure they would stay warm and cozy and not get lost. We only lost three from shipping and that was it!

Baby chicks

Once you are past the first week, chicks are so easy! Above, the chicks at a week old. Now that they are nearly two months old, we’ve had them free-ranging for several weeks. They are naturals! The little cockerels have turned white and black spotted and the pullets remain pure black. This week or next we will separate them and begin an intensive pastured poultry operation. In the meantime, they enjoy their brooder house home behind our large field garden. (See our posts about getting that brooder house up to standard last fall!) We are going to order more females this winter and raise them to be layers for ourselves and another farmer next May. We might even invest in an incubator ourselves and just take our own eggs when we get the right varieties here on the farm. But I digress...

Shearing

Below is a bunch of our woolly ewes and their lambs. Can you even tell the difference?? They are only a month old here, mid-June, and already over half the size of their mommas. The one in the middle facing away from us was the subject of much curiosity. In the field, he looks like a fox hopping over the grass. We’ve never seen a sheep with this sort of coloration before. He has begun to lighten in color, but still has this tawny, shaggy hide that must be a combination of some serious recessive genes. As you can see, the ewes all have their wool yet and we had already hit the heat of summer. It was just another one of those things that didn’t get dealt with until it was an emergency. We went about three weeks straight with the sheep out every single day.

Sheep waiting to be sheared

They were some of the most stressful days we had encountered and we strengthened the fences and gave them fresher grass and checked for shorts and it didn’t matter. They would lift the high-tensile wire with their fully wooled necks and run right through. So we called around and found a sheep shearer about an hour away who would be able to come within two weeks. It was the longest two weeks we’d ever waited! But with a lot of prayer and fence diligence, we made it through with only a few break-outs.

When Courtney arrived, he had this excellent equipment and 30 years of sheep knowledge under his belt. We set up a shearing area and he just dove right in. The follow shots give you a little idea of how smoothly it went. He was shearing the next sheep before the last one was back in the pen. It was amazing and he was a very genuine guy. We had him stay for a country lunch as a sort of tip for his time.

Sheep shearer Courtney

To keep the wools clean, we laid down an old wagon side. You can see this ewe’s lamb watching in the cattle chute. When she was done, we’d lead her to the pen behind the red gravity box and dump the lamb(s) in with her.

Sheep shearer working

Courtney knew just where the pressure points were on the sheep in order to hold them relatively still. They folded and flopped into place just like little sheep rag dolls. We were in awe. Below, my mom Judy holds up a shorn coat. We placed the fully white wool into one bag and the black or mixed colored wool into a separate bag.

Judy and a wool fleece

Shorn sheep

The holding pen for the freshly shorn ewes. Now it was even harder to tell the full grown sheep from the lambs! We will never make the mistake again of letting our flock out to pasture with 4 inches of wool around their little bodies. No fun for anyone involved!

The Little Peckers

Not to forget about our chickens, they have been rangin about our sheep and cattle fields since early April. We were moving them about once every two weeks, but found that some sort of varmint was getting the late hens at dusk. We finally set out some traps and moved the trailer about 30 feet and even set up some night vision motion senser cameras to see if we could find what was killing our hens.

Hens at ground level

All we saw were beautiful shots of the farm during the day and cryptic shots of Andy closing the chickens in at night. :-)

Chicken herding a la Andy

I laugh at the one above. I love Andy’s sense of humor! But we lost about 25 laying hens in two weeks and then the raids stopped. We haven’t had a problem since.

Ranging hens

A direct consequence of the stress the rest of the flock felt was a reduction in egg numbers. Couple that with a summer molt, old hens, hot weather, inconsistent watering/feeding and our huge flock was down to about 3 dozen eggs per day. 36 eggs from 180 hens! So we smartened up our feeding schedule, moved them to a short grass, thick clover field and move them nearly every single day to thwart the predators. We are now back up to seven to eight dozen eggs per day and boy do we need it! The egg demand has gone through the roof! For about three weeks at the end of June, we couldn’t keep a dozen in that store for longer than 12 hours. Above, can you find the ranging hens? This is one of our north fields that face the permanent pasture and the ancient oak trees. It’s a lovely sight to behold!

Mornings

Speaking of sights to behold, the shot below is sunrise over the sheep paddock about a week ago. The freshly shorn ewes have a new found respect for electric fencing and we rest easy at night again. Andy goes out about 5:30am and moves all the animal fencing before rounding up the milking herd. He lets the chickens out, moves the sheep, opens up new paddock for the beef/heifer herd and lets the milking herd into fresh grass. I have often asked him to take the camera to capture early morning life on the farm. On this day, he did!

Sheep in a morning pasture

Moo-calves

Below, some of our scamps nose up to Andy. We have eight young calves now, a direct result of nine cows milking in our barn. Our first cow Charlotte had still-born twins back in April, but the rest of the cows each had one healthy calf. Then our seventh cow, Isabelle, had twin bulls which we named Imis and Ignatio. The last cow to have her calf, just last week, had difficulties in labor and lost the calf to stress. But thankfully she is doing well. Below, from left to right: Tess out of Tilly, Imis out of Isabelle, Alex out of Anna and Barbie out of Bea. Not shown is Midnight out of Mabel, Leeloo out of Leche, Ignatio and Ghost out of Gretta. Ghost is pretty cool. I’ll have to get a shot of him sometime; he’s like a tan/grey Holstein looking little guy. Never seen a calf that color before.

Calves, Tess, Imis, Alex, and Barbie

Gardens Again

Back to the gardens, they are growing strong. This shot below shows what has grown in a month in the back garden. My dad Dave takes the disk and kills the weeds in the other area not being used. We are raising everything organically, so weed control is a daily task. Bret and Cortnie step up to the job as well as they can, but there’s only so much work a 12 and 14 year old want to do in a given day. They aren’t here to be slaves, so we don’t push them. I get out there when I can to assess the plants and pull a hand full of weeds or two. We have had serious run-ins with cucumber beetles on our cucumbers and flea beetles on our lettuces. Now we are dealing with cabbage loopers on our cauliflowers and cabbages. I have made some homemade tinctures of garlic and dish soap with limited success. However, the beetles and looper remain. I am going to look into Bt as an option. I need to learn more about this spray to see if it’s right for us. We have a sort of mini CSA going on with two friends of ours and one of the big selling points for them is the organic aspect of the garden. It can be bug eaten but not pesticide ridden. So we’ll see.

Garden overview

On the Dairy

On July 2nd, we got our dairy barn “whitewashed.” This is a process by which barn lime is mixed with water and sprayed over the entire interior of the barn, coating it a pristine white and also creating a natural anti-bacterial shield over all surfaces. In order to ship commercially, this needs to be done once per year. Here I took a before picture (FINALLY!) and below is the same alley after. It’s amazing, isn’t it?!

Dairy before whitewash

Dairy after whitewash

Our quest to ship our milk with Weyawega Star Dairy, a local cheese plant, is still in the future. We had to get our 100 year old well shocked with chlorine in order to clear out some common bacteria, and we are waiting on a follow-up water test. In the meantime, we feed the milk to the calves and collect cream and dump the skim to the chickens or on the gardens. We don’t like dumping milk at all, but at least the excess is being reused in a good way.

Feeling Patriotic

Independence Day came like a breath of fresh air for us. We got chores done early and headed into my hometown of Omro for the highly anticipated festivities. My mother Judy organizes the annual Lion’s Club art fair and this year she participated after a 6 year hiatus. Here is her booth with Andy and Ethan in the corner. My mother does a lot of oil painting, crafting, furniture reclaiming and sowing. She also paints birdhouse gourds and full scale murals. She’s quite the little artist in her spare time! There was also a large parade, in which our little church won Best Of the Parade for all the floats involved! There was a rubber duck race and bands playing and a pie and ice cream social at our Historic Society. (Andy and I are card carrying members, by the way!) At night, the fireworks came, but our little troop went into melt down about 15 minutes before the start, so I’ll have to wait until next year to see the big show.

Art show booth

Here, Elly is being hugged by our friends’ son Haiden. In true Elly form, she simply tolerates it. But the photo was cute, so I had to post it! We spent the afternoon at Haiden’s grandmother’s house for a cookout and games. It was a welcome break from the farm. For reasons completely unrelated, Independence Day is my favorite holiday of the whole year!

Elly gets hugged

The next day, here is Elly and Ethan on the way back from collecting eggs. The walk is about a quarter mile and they enjoy the wagon ride. At the parade, Elly managed to fall THROUGH a park bench and bust open her chin. That is the mar you see on her little face. She came through like a champ, though.

Elly and Ethan in the wagon

Family Time!

A week after Independence Day, my family from Colorado Springs came to visit us for a few days. You may recall, we drove to Colorado over Thankgiving to see them and others before Ethan was born. (See: We Went on Vacation.) The next several photos detail our trips to parks and back yards and family time. It was another blessed respite from the intense work on the farm.

Elly hamming it up!

Elly in the pool

Daddy and Ethan enjoying a beer...well, just Daddy.

Andy with Ethan

Dan and Krista took their girls Silvie (3), Josie (2) and Madaline (1) to the park. Me, Elly and Ethan tagged along and Grandma Judy came for support. It was a lot of fun ... Elly on the dinosaur. She looks so big there!

Elly on the dinosaur

Ethan really liked the baby swing!

Ethan in the swing

So did Elle-belle.

Elly in the swing

Then all too soon they had to go back home. Elly sure loves her cousins and can’t wait until they move closer to play more often.

Our Life

Back in the real world, Ethan has begun his journey down solid food lane. He took to it like a champ! He just turned five months last week; what a big boy! Normally foods can be started a lot earlier, but with everything going on, I just didn’t get to it. He’s not hurting for lack of solids; he just nurses all the time. So, it’s time to get him on to other things as well as me! Also, Elly has been successfully potty trained since June and Ethan is now exclusively in cloth diapers. It’s a small way we can contribute less to the landfills.

Ethan eats solid food

Gardens AGAIN

Back to the gardens, these next photos were taken just a few days ago, showing the progress from a couple weeks ago. Here is our front garden, mostly populated with peppers and tomatoes. (And Ellys!)

Elly in the garden

We let the sunflowers come up on their own and love the splashes of gold and yellow that they add to the sea of green.

Volunteer sunflower

Here is an example of companion planting. The basil in front aids bug protection to the tomato plant behind. For extra security, we stuck an onion in between because no bugs like the smell of onions!

Companion planting

Hollyhocks also volunteered their beauty this year and we have allowed a few to adorn the perimeter of the garden.

Sunflower and volunteer hollyhocks

This is the back garden again, looking back at the house. Here are our cabbages, desperately needing help from those blasted loopers. Gotta look into that!

House and cabbages

My favorite row of crops so far: our lettuces. Aren’t they so pretty? We enjoy the “cut and come again” aspect of greens and have been able to share organic, graden fresh greens with some folks who have never ventured outside the world of Iceburg! It’s been wonderful to see the response and interest generated. Yes, there is life outside the grocery store!

Home grown greens

Old is New

Another side project has been getting an antique cream separator up and running. Hank, you will be interested to know that it is a DeLaval Model #18 hand crank stand separator. We got Gale in on the action because he is very knowledgeable and gifted in machinery technology. We got all the parts sorted and clean and realized we were missing one part, a very important bowl separator. I looked online, but am having major difficulty in locating anything resembling a parts shop for something this obsolete. Can any of you help??

Hand crank stand separator

Cleaning the hand crank stand separator

Closing Thoughts

Finally, we are up to date. Now we can post non–novel-length blogs in order to keep you up to date on our comings and goings. A parting shot: taken in June, this is one of our eggs cooked just right, broken open on my homemade bread with some salt and pepper. Have you seen a yolk that dark before? We were shocked and had to capture it on film. I’ll never order an egg in a restaurant again! I am ruined!

Home grown egg with dark yolk

Thank you all for your support and we’ll flesh out what’s been going on with the marketing side of things in a future post.

Blessings,

Becky


Rebekah Sell lives on a small plot of land with her husband, Andy, on which they are hoping to build a sustainable homestead. With a small business and four kids, life is always interesting as Becky and Andy live fully the idea that the journey is the reward. Find her on .

becky and andy
8/10/2009 6:26:07 AM

Hi, We pour the milk to the chickens in a shallow pan. They drink it up just like water. I had heard that chickens like yogurt a lot and thought, well, let's see if they'll drink this. Now, chickens eat a lot of things, but they don't eat what they don't like. They aren't like pigs which will just sort of vaccuum up whatever is in front of them. They like the milk we give them and I have to think that its imparting many minerals and nutrients to them even though its not a traditional foodstuff for them. Please understand that we are experimenting with all this and can't vouch for any sort of science behind it. We just want to see what works. About the plants, this was my own hair-brained idea and we have found that one needs to dilute the milk one to one with water or the plants may get burned. My thought behind this one was that milk is full of great raw mineral and nutrients. Why not try it on plants? We have been dumping in one area of our garden to see what happens. This area holds strawberries, hollyhocks and sunflowers. They have grown prolifically in that area. Unfortunately, so have the weeds! The strawberries started producing again this month and the berries are way bigger than June's crop. I don't know if that has to do with weather or milk, but it certainly hasn't hindered them, you know? All of this is with raw milk, mind you. Pasteurized milk is a dead food and would only rot on the plants. We won't be dumping any more milk now that we got picked up by the cheese plant. It was a fun experiment while it lasted! Thank you for the questions.


robert blackburn jr.
8/7/2009 3:09:37 PM

Can you elaborate on" dump the skim to the chickens or on the gardens"? Do you just dump the skim on the ground for the chickens or put it in a dish? What does this do for the chickens? Also, do you just dump it in the garden or on specific plants? What does it do for the garden? This was a new use of milk to me so I jut had to ask. Thanks!