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Farm Update: Going Forward!

Good morning friends, it has certainly been a busy 2009 here on the farm, and we'd like to treat you to a photo update.

Planning for 2009 takes over the table

This year has been paramount for us. The "farmer downtime" that Becky spoke of in a previous blog has really turned out to be a series of exciting (and sometimes heated) planning sessions.  As you can see, Elly is preparing for the grass season with a quick refresher on our Midwest grasses. She's so savvy. Our biggest obstacle inhibiting us from making some serious decisions was whether or not we would be going ahead with our small dairy.

 Elly doing research on pasture grass

In mid-January, we enlisted the help of an independent consultant. Larry Tranel works with Iowa State University, and he has developed a system that allows people to plug in many of the numbers that they are planning for in a dairy operation and it tells you how profitable you will be. Up to this point, we had desired to have a very small operation. As Larry began putting information into his system it became evident very early on that our plans were not going to hold much weight in traditional models (do they ever?). After several hours of discussion and evaluation, the lights began to turn on one by one; we would not be going forward with a dairy. The biggest reason is that we would have to go into debt for at least $150,000 to build a new facility and that was not an option; Becky and I refuse to incur such a debt-load, it is just not wise.

We talked as a family and came to a conclusion. If we were able to update the existing (though less than ideal) system for less than $10,000 then we would go ahead. We would then take the first few years to save up for the major system and purchase it outright. Dave had an end-of-the-month deadline to contact the proper people to come and evaluate the system and price out the upgrades. So for two weeks, we waited.

During this time Becky and I mapped out two paths for this year and ultimately the next few years. If the dairy was not feasible, we would focus hard on a fruit and vegetable CSA taking on 10 to 15 customers, as well as giving great attention to our grass-fed meat and poultry. This we would then grow to a comfortable size and manage. If the dairy was a possibility then we would scale down to a modest mesclun mix salad green CSA and not focus as heavily on our meats, as we will be spending much time in the dairy.

Late January, a man from a local dairy supply company came and checked us out. We didn't hear anything for about a week. During that time a friend prayed that on Wednesday, February 4th, we would be given our directive, and mid-morning we got the news: Updates would be available for $9,000 to $10,000. We are a go!

This last week we have begun cleaning the milking barn as well as preparing to finalize our '09 plans. If everything goes as planned, we should be able to begin milking in May when we have fresh grass for the cows to graze. Also, we will be purchasing seeds for our Mesclun Salad CSA as well as a few other projects. We are working with several government-sponsored, pro-small-farm organizations from which we should be able to get some grant money and, if everything goes well, be able to have large-scale solar production here as well. Vive la Resistance!

Bright sunlight adds another dimension to farming

This week, we experienced much warmer than normal temperatures. Elly, Becky and I decided to do our chores as a family (instead of just me, bundled up like an Eskimo). Elly was very interested in the chickens (she does a great rooster call).

Chickens and their palace

The chickens are doing well. We have been able to get them outside much more these last couple of weeks, and they have been grateful. We are using a fence this winter to keep them corralled, as about half of our flock has never been outside before (let alone on fresh grass), and we are fearful that they would not make it back to the coop. Our original free-ranging flock has decided to not be content with its well-intentioned confinement, and they find ways to hop the fence whenever they can. We're not upset, we like having chickens raking around the homestead. It's kind of romantic.

Our egg production is on the rise too due to the longer days. Chickens lay their eggs in rhythm with the amount of sun. In essence, as Becky puts it, they have a "Chicken Downtime" in the winter too, as their production goes down and they settle in. Many operations will augment their chicken house with artificial light that simulates the sun, essentially forcing the chickens to continue laying when they should be recouping for the coming year. We think that isn't right. In January we were averaging about 40 eggs/day and now we are close to 80!

Elly also had a good time with our Jersey calves, Sasha and Sophie.

Petting the Jersey calves

At one time Sasha tried to suck on her hand and she got a bit scared.


Here is Becky with the sheepies. All pictured are currently all bred and are beginning to plump up (Becky included). We will be expecting lambs in May. If you want to come and see the little ones as they get released onto the pastures, please come, it will be a joyous time.

More than one expectant mama on the farm

My mother and I were able to repair a large door in our cattle area. The opening was roughly hewn and the tin was coming off in a few places so the cattle were enjoying it as a scratching post, causing further damage. We were able to clean the edges with a reciprocating saw and screw down the edges firmly using sheet metal screws with neoprene washers. Thanks, Mom!

The repaired shed door

The heifers are doing well. They are all bred, and we should be selling most of the Holsteins in a couple of months. That will leave us with our Milking Shorthorn heritage breed that we will begin milking in late summer. In order to start milking this spring, we will have to purchase more animals that are ready to calve. This shouldn't be a huge cost as cattle prices are quite low due to low milk prices. Some people think we are crazy for getting into dairying at this low time, but we have hopes that our farm will be able to sustain us through a chaotic market.

Here, you can see Becky's dad, Dave shoveling up feed for the eager girls.

Becky's dad, Dave, shovels feed for the girls

Also, I think we may have mentioned this but Becky has begun baking breads for our customers now. She has tried a traditional white, sourdough and wheat. They have all turned out amazing. We tried to grind our own wheat that we grew but didn't have a grinder. We washed them and dried them and tried to put them in a food processor but the little kernels were far too hard and didn't do much. So, instead, we roasted them and eat them as a great snack. The breads are really good by the way; we go through about three loaves a week, and, at 7 a.m. as I am writing this, Elly has just been woken from slumber by the smell of it baking and mumbled a half-coherent, "bbbreaddd?" (cute, not zombie-like).

Well, I think that's about it. If you would like more information on the many benefits of raw milk, we'd love to talk with you. We hope you all have a blessed and highly productive day!

Andy, Becky, Elly & (coming this weekend we hope!!!) Ethan

A beautiful February morning

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 .