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A Homesteading Grimoire

The Quintessential Mother; The Family Cow

 Jersey heifers make a great choice for many homesteaders 

The family cow is the heart of the home. No other animal so pointedly represents all the beautiful qualities of motherhood, nor does any one animal provide so many potential benefits for the homestead. (Goats serve a similar role, but are unable to provide the sheer quantity of a cow, and thus are relegated to a close second place.)  

A single cow can provide; 
  • Dairy products
  • Beef products
  • Leather
  • Draft power
  • Organic fertilizers
  • Methane power
  • Land clearing
All this, of course, doesn't happen overnight, nor does it all actually come from the same specific animal. You aren't going to get much milk if you eat your cow. The way it works, however, is that the first family cow that you obtain becomes the mother of the homestead.
Once a cow calves, she starts paying her way, and everyone else's way as well. Dairy and beef are the obvious benefits, but the potential inherent in the calf is the greatest thing ever, in my opinion. This is where you can have beef and leather products after slaughter, or train the bull calves as oxen and the heifers to continue being family milkers. Either way, this isn't a short season prospect, so you have time to make other benefits from having the cattle on hand. 
 
The initial secondary benefit of cattle is their manure. If you garden, you know what I'm talking about. Cattle are goldmines of rich fertilizer for the garden. Even one cow can overwhelm the family garden with compost, however, and many savvy cow owners have turned to capturing the energy that is wasted when bacteria break down those manures. Methane digesters are a phenomenal way to help all your animals pay their way. Since many small farms have to haul manure anyway, putting it into a methane digester to power electrical generators or heat a home is a cost savings, and environmental piggy-backing technique that can be a great success. What's more, the effluent is still a fantastic fertilizer for lawns and gardens. Efficiency on a farm is boosted many fold in this type of setup, leaving the homesteader with more time to enjoy the fruits of their well planned and executed labors.
 
When looking at breeds, look farther than the Holstiens and Jerseys found on most homesteads. Anecdotes abound with Milking Shorthorns, Herefords, even Angus and Highlands that serve well on the farms that house them. Also, don't forget about mixed breeds. Often, these cattle will have brilliant qualities of the parentage, and a "hybrid vigor" that makes them much more feed efficient and hardy.
 
As with any endeavor, the best way to begin is to hit the books and digest all possible outlets of information out there, which have been known to be contradictory, and then decide what approaches seem best to you. Trial and error is bound to occur, but with a little homework and some good base knowledge, a cow is something the whole family can grow with.

Never A Dull Moment

Memorial Day Weekend. This phrase conjures images of grill-outs, sunny afternoons in hammocks with gin lemonade, and general recreational bliss. Unless you're farming. Then, it's time to plant.

Tomatoes and other nightshades are transplanted, and cucurbits are sown, along with beans and corn all at the same time. This weekend coincides with our last frost date around here, and by then, the tomato clones are threatening mutiny in  the greenhouse anyway, so all systems are GO!!!

That means, at least around here, two solid weeks of being completely at the mercy of the garden. We use a great deal of grass mulch on our garden, and as such, mow a great deal of land. Paths are cut through the pastures for camping, (we always have friends sleeping in campers or tents periodically through the season) and the yards and orchards provide enough mulch to serve as much needed weed control when we set plants in the ground. Provided it isn't raining. No mowing when it's raining. No tilling, no working in the garden... just growing grass...

Nature is a fickle thing. 

Also, spring is when babies are born. Rabbits, goats, chickens, guineas, turkeys, ducks and pigs all start demanding unexpected changes in schedule when spring does what it does, and it really is a glorious chaos. Time becomes a blur often, and it's hard to eke out enough to sit down for half an hour and even begin to relax, let alone reflect on the day. 

But this, too, shall pass. 

There are beautiful days ahead once planting season is finished. Days full of time to reflect on how amazing a life this is... and maybe even share that with others. Springtime is full to bursting with happenings. Just don't forget to appreciate it while you're living it. 

Happy Homesteading!

 Grass mulched tomatoes on memorial day 

Eating Your Way Through The World

Spring is the time of the greatest collection of energies on a farm. The long death of winter creates massive amounts of anticipation for the renewal season, and the marking of fresh foods to be found abroad. Seed planting and harvesting the fall sown kale and spinach really gets a homesteaders palate whetted for the wild foods bounties laying just beyond the garden fence. 

  Dandelions are a blessing and a curse 

The first one I see is inevitably the dandelions. While this sends a great deal of people scrambling for digging contraptions or flailing to get to the spray bottle of ACV, I get to picking. Firstly, there is not a single animal on my farm that doesn't LOVE dandelions. Especially the new shoots, and the younger, the better. I pick them for my rabbits, pigs, turkeys and chickens, then I let the goats out on their tethers (always supervised, of course) and watch them clean every last yellow spot in their reach before even contemplating the grasses that also fill the yard. I also enjoy the young dandelion greens, but I prefer them in a mixed green salad. And then there's the accounts of nearly mythical dandelion wine. I make a lot of wine every year, and I love to experiment, but I still haven't tried making a batch of this yellow miracle... I can't even fathom how potent it would be.

  Asparagus is one of the first wild foods to emerge in the spring 

Next comes the asparagus around the Forgotten Forty, and marks my favorite time of the season, hands down. I take the evenings to hunt around fence lines and the edges of woods, in fields and along the dirt road in front of the farm. This time is particularly meditative for me, providing quiet time in the woods right in the middle of the busiest time of the year around here. I take my phone with me to snap pictures of sunsets and anything else of interest on the way, grab a pitcher with a little water in it to keep the stalks fresh, and hit the trails. I always keep a mesh bag with me just in case I should stumble across some Morels or Maitake mushrooms on the way. 

Often, I'll set up a meal around one item, and work my way over the property looking for other complimentary ingredients. Chives and ramps for just about any meal, the odd meal of nettles thrice boiled, eggs from the hen house to make a morel mushroom omelet breakfast the next day. With a little imagination (which deserves a good workout too) any meal can have wild elements, with just a little forethought and preparation. I've even had dinner parties that started with a wild food foray and ended with a glass of wild mulberry wine while recounting the sunset and the beautiful places we found this or that. Beautiful memories are crafted this way.

  Goats help with dandelion control in front of the garden 

Seasonal forays are an incredible way to experience the world around you in an array of differing ways. Exercise, meditation, nature watching, and all the delightful tastes to be found along the way. Get your butts outside! It's SPRING!!!

Truth No. 2- Homesteading Is A Lifestyle

  Peas Peeking Out 

I have a lot of hobbies. I play piano, sing, paint, make jewelry and masks, brew fruit wines and articulate skeletons. Homesteading, however, is my lifestyle. I didn't understand when I was living in large cities, going to college, and shopping at Whole Foods that these would all be elements leading me to a lifestyle, not a lifestyle in and of themselves. 

Then I started making my own food. I mean really MAKING my own food. I wasn't just purchasing ingredients anymore, I was planting seeds and hatching eggs and watching my future happen right before my eyes. My daily routines changed entirely, to revolve around seasonal cycles, feedings, plantings, trimmings and weedings. Slowly, I began to take root myself, to be more and more tied to the farm that was quickly becoming the center of my existence. Less and less time could be spared to socialize at the local watering hole or visit friends and family because once you start homesteading and growing your future, the cycle just snowballs. Chickens lead to ducks lead to turkeys lead to rabbits, a pig and goats... and all the work that goes into their upkeep. Twenty tomato plants turn into 600, and seed catalogs practically DEMAND you try at least ten new things a season. Gardens have a way of growing, in terms of both production, and square footage. 

There are other cycles too... canning, drying or otherwise preserving harvests, crop rotations, farmers markets, tourism... the list can be overwhelming. When starting out especially, and up until you get your systems down and *hopefully* somewhat automated, each system (garden, chickens, pigs, pastures, greenhouses, aquaponics, etc.) takes much more time and presents a much higher learning curve than later on in the game. This makes homesteading a 24/7 deal. Don't fret, and enjoy the process. As you get more comfortable with the schedule, you'll figure out ways to integrate your social needs with the needs of the ecosystem you're creating, and the lifestyle you love. This could be canning or planting parties (I love throwing these, and people from all walks of life get to meet each other and make unlikely friends), bonfires, dinners or horseback rides, on your own farm or on others. Remember, farms are bustling places, full of excitement. Let people enjoy it with you. Social problem solved.

Vacations for homesteaders are completely different than for everyone else. They're spent at home, in the quiet moments with a cup of coffee, watching your goats chew their cud, or admiring your blooming orchard trees. They're spent planting seeds with friends and family, chopping vegetables and telling stories, building community and memories. Life's a garden... dig it. :)

 Raised Beds 

Save Space for Seedlings; Clone Your Tomatoes

Every vegetable we plant at Forgotten Forty Farm is heirloom, organic, and delicious, but what we're really known for is our tomatoes. Everyone loves tomatoes 

Every year people in the area anticipate our nearly 50 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, and inevitably ask to purchase some plants for themselves. I don't have a great deal of space in my indoor grow-boxes for many more than the 600 I have to start for myself each year, and I won't have a heated greenhouse until the hobbit house is finished, so the problem presents itself;  "Where do I start plants for everyone else?"

I clone my tomatoes and I use my fish tank. 

When I start the process, to save space initially, I plant my tomato seedlings 5 to a four inch pot, in a dice pattern. I let these seedlings get to a transplantable size, with at least 2 sets of mature leaves and a decent growing tip, and then I separate them into individual pots. This usually occurs for me at about 3 weeks after sowing. When they are transplanted, they are dropped down in the soil to the first pair of true leaves as a means of supporting a stronger root system, and buying me more time under the grow lights in the space available. 

The proper size for tomato clones 

My shelves are set up to support a maximum of 18 inches under the lights in order to give me as many shelves as I can manage vertically, while still having room to move the lights up and down as needed to promote good growth of the plants at any size. When the plants reach their maximum height for the shelves, it's time to clone. I find that mine usually take another 2 weeks after transplant, but every system will vary. The important thing is to make sure the plant is sturdy, healthy and at least a foot tall with a minimum of 4 pairs of true leaves at a good size, and a well established growing tip. 

Tomato mothers 

When cloning, I prefer to do a coppice cloning, leaving two leaf petioles on the mother plant to form 2 new growing tips. I string my tomatoes vertically, so this gives me a great base to start from when I plant them out, and also gives insurance in case one of the growing tips doesn't take. If I end up with 2 growing tips, I wait until they are old enough to clone again, and I take another cutting of just one sucker.  This way I maintain my single growing tip for the plants I'm keeping, while still being able to clone for sale to the public. When I take the cuttings, I make sure that there is at least one leaf on a stem, and that the stems will be long enough to stick into the water (about 3 inches minimum). 

Cloned mother plants ready to sprout suckers 

The aquarium is a 90 gallon tank set up with a HOT (Hang On Tank) filter, and a jet pump filter to help circulation. It is heated to roughly 70 degrees, and has a single length of white wire closet shelving laid across the top of the tank to organize and support the cuttings until they root. Labels are hung from the lip extending down the front of the tank for easy identification, and grow lights are suspended above the whole system. I have Fiddler Crabs, Ghost Shrimp, and Apple Snails stocked in the tank for cleaning. The Apple snails are especially beneficial, as they eat decaying plant material and algae only, not live plants, so I'm able to clone in the tank, and they help tend to any clones that fail to strike for whatever reason. 

 Tomato clone rooting station 

With the Apple snails cleaning up the edges of the cuts that would normally die off, along with any other problem pieces, I get a near 100% success rate. The clones usually start rooting immediately, with noticeable development in 2 days. They are almost always ready to plant by the first week, and take to soil very well at that stage. With this method, I'm able to save space in my grow-boxes while developing 250+ clones in the space that only 36 would normally fit. 

 Tomato clones rooting in the aquarium 

I call that a win.  

 Tomato seedlings ready for cloning 

Happy Homesteading!

Truth No. 1 - Never Give Up

A Thomas WinfreyWhen we started the process of founding the Forgotten Forty farm back in 2008, we were, like most people beginning their journey into homesteading, worried about knowing where our food came from. We began researching and interviewing people who were ahead of us in that way, and reading every possible book on the subject. Feeling very confident in our "knowledge" gleaned from these second-hand experiences, we dove in... face first.

There is a big learning curve to this game. Looking back on our mistakes, they seem pretty silly, but that's only because we're looking back on them. At the time, they made homesteading seem like an impossible dream better left to episodes of Little House on the Prairie than attempted by us mortals. Who knew a single raccoon could wipe out a whole flock of birds in one sitting... for that matter, who knew they could undo latches like it's their job?

Those truths of farming are hard lessons indeed. When you spend so much time caring for a laying flock, or nurturing flats of tomatoes only to watch them die before your fist egg or blossom, it's very discouraging, to say the least. What we do when we plant a seed, hatch an egg or buy a chick is enter into a contract with nature, and nature plays by it's own rules. The best laid plans go awry. Predators happen. Animals get loose. Crops fail. Droughts and floods occur, and insects decimate. These are risks we take. Life itself is a gamble.

Many new homesteaders give up in the first few years because of issues like this. Early on, they seem overwhelming, and invariably seem to occur right on top of each other. Sometimes it's enough to make a person spill their marbles all over, but NEVER GIVE UP. The only way to learn how homesteading works for you is by figuring out what doesn't. Each farm is different. Each animal is different. Each growing season is different. Adaptability is the farmer's shield. One batch of pigs never tests the fence, perfectly content to sunbathe in the pasture, and the next batch delights in running amuck anywhere but where they belong. These things happen, but you can't let it discourage you. No one who homesteads can be called lazy. We are a tenacious, resilient bunch by definition. Never a dull moment.

Baby chicks
Baby chicks are fluffy little balls of hope.

The next time your goat gets stuck in the fence while your neighbors dog is killing your chickens and your cow is booking it down the road, don't forget to breathe. Every farm has it's horror stories, but every farm has it's wonderful memories as well. When you see the new chicks in the brooder, peeping and flapping their itty bitty wings, full of optimism and wonder, it becomes easier to forget about the ones you've lost.

Americauna chick
Americauna chick enjoying life on the farm.

Homesteading is about the future, and the future is full of bright possibilities. NEVER. GIVE. UP.