The Funny Farm

It Has Finally Begun

A photo of Shawn from The Funny FarmTwo weeks ago we ventured into the area of the basement we specifically use for that yearly task we have come to love. Getting winter out of our souls ... and bones! It has been so cold and snowy this season. I’m just so tired of it. With the exception of ice fishing. It’s never too cold for that. Ice fishing trips are my winter picnics.

So, Siri and I went down stairs three weeks ago and got to work. We moved everything out of the way from last year, and swept up real well. Then we put the old saw horses back up and laid out the plywood and 2x10’s. We cleaned up all of the old starting mix and tossed it out.

We took inventory of what we had, and then headed for the stores.

We purchased bags and bags of starting mix and soil.

Then it was off to the seeds! One clerk from a particular feed store thought we were nuts for asking about seeds so early. I mentioned to her that if she knew anything about veggie gardening, she would understand. I could feel the strange stare from her on the back of my neck until we got out the front door. Once in the truck, Siri asked me why we were getting so excited about starting our seeds if the store didn’t have them out yet. I explained to her that I obviously drove to the wrong store. She just shrugged.

We finally arrived at the right store and we hit the jackpot! Newly opened displays were out, covering two isles. Seed starters, growing kits, seeds, top soil bags, etc. It was all here! I was like a kid shopping at the toy store the week before Christmas! I must have been excited too because Siri was looking at me with that nine year old girl look. If you’ve had kids you understand. When they make it you can almost hear them saying “OOOOkayyy”. It’s the same look I give her and her younger sister Zoe when they get crazy excited about Justin Beiber.

Once we got home, it was right to work. We cleaned up all of last years growing trays. The ones we could salvage anyway. We took out the stacks of egg cartons we had and laid them all out. I had to adjust all of the growing lights to the right heights to get started. They get hung from the basement rafters with cord, so as the plants grow, I can untie the knots and make adjustments. My wife Tami usually helps me with all of the technical stuff like that. Once she was done with what ever menial task she was doing upstairs, she came down and helped. I still don’t understand the grumbling that day but I don’t ask too many questions.

Shawn and the opening set up

While Tami and I hung the lights, Siri began filling all of the trays and containers, then she got the marker out and began making labels.

Siri making pods

She forgot the Popsicle sticks at the store. She said I forgot. Anyway, they were forgotten, so we used mailing labels. They worked just fine. We began taking out the seeds and planting. Siri didn’t like handling the small seeds like cabbage and broccoli so I took care of those.

We got all kinds of seeds started and we watered everything lightly. We got all cleaned up and posed for a couple of pictures. Before heading back upstairs we paused to look out across our future farm and she gave me a high five.

Siri and the setup in process

That was three weeks ago. So far, both red and green cabbages are up.

Some plants showing

Red cabbage seedlings

So are the broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and spinach. While every day starts with me bringing in firewood, shoveling and or blowing snow, sanding the walkways and cleaning off the cars, I know spring is here. At least in the basement when Siri comes home from school. We always water our seedlings after school.

Seed Starting Confessions: My Little Secret

A photo of Shawn from The Funny FarmI am so excited. This year’s garden is off to the best start ever for us. The weather has been reasonably dry and the temperatures are way above normal. What a sharp contrast to last year. We were knee deep in rain and the temperatures were below normal for all of last spring and summer.

The weather was so bad the last growing season that our tomatoes suffered the dreaded blight. Every plant was gone overnight. Literally. The tops of the plants had the look of a line of rhododendrons suffering from the extensive damage of deer browse. You know the look. You stand back and look across a yard and see what looks like a perfectly painted line about three quarters up on the bushes. The top third of the bush is dark green and lush, with the bottom two thirds looking brownish gray and barren.

However, the reason for most of my excitement is that this is only the third year we have been growing almost exclusively from seed. For eighteen years I went to the local garden center and bought our transplants. It made things easier, and with everything else going on this time of year, it made scheduling sense, too. We have been determined to do everything from seed the last few years though. Between my niece Siri needing things to do in the winter (not to mention her green thumb) and me getting the survival bug a few years back, we can only proceed to grow veggies from seed from now on.

And now for my little secret ...

This is not officially the third year of planting from seed. No, no, no. This is the first year of planting from seed with any success. That’s right. I was failing at seedlings and transplanting. My Siri was planting with me in the basement every year in February. We would water every day and keep shop lights over all of the plants. Most everything would come up well. Some things would give us a hard time, but we would fertilize, adjust the PH, or just start over if it was early enough.

Once it was safe to do so, we would put the plants in the greenhouse. I would tend to the plants in the greenhouse every day. I was using clear covers for some flats. I would start more seeds out there like lettuce, cabbage, spinach, etc. The cold weather things we all can’t wait to get at in the early season. Some plants would go outside during the day and back in the green house at night, avoiding the frost. Others would go in the house on real cold nights. I was real diligent.

Every April I would start working the soil with the tiller. Then, once the frost warnings were gone, the beds would be raised and the transplanting would begin. Everything would be planted according to climate conditions and harvest dates. Siri would be so excited.

Then after a week or two she would get bored with doing the garden every day. She’s only nine so it was expected. Sometimes it would bother me. You know, you want your kids to follow through on projects, and see things to the end. She also enters the ribbon competitions at all the fairs, so we want her to actually earn her awards.

Thank goodness for her attention span!

Siri and I At the Cabbage

The first two years things were not going good with the transplanting, so, I would pull the plants out as they were dying off and go back to the garden center and buy plants! Tami would be at work. Siri would be at school, and I would wait for Mom and Kim to go shopping or run errands. Then I would plant the store plants.

It didn’t bother me that I was struggling with starting from seed. I had been doing it this way for eighteen years. But to see Siri fail at starting from seed would really torment me. She was so young, and she was so proud of those seedlings. She has been in the garden with me since she was three. I didn’t want her to think she was bad at gardening. So I would cheat.

Well, there it is. My little secret has been exposed! But that’s OK. Everything has really taken off this year. I may not get into garden heaven because of my little secret, but Siri is a three-year seed veteran, and we are all going to be eating our harvest from what we started in the basement all those months ago when it was still snowing.

Siri and I With Some Potatoes

Winter, Firewood, and Longing for Spring

A photo of Shawn from The Funny FarmIt’s that time of year again that I would skip all together, if I could. Hunting season is over and fishing season is still quite some time away. I really like to go ice fishing, but I’d rather be top water fishing for a “Big Ole Lunker” on my Jon Boat. Not to mention throwing picnics, going to NASCAR Races, and tending my vegetable garden. Oh how I long for spring. I love spring so much that I actually threw a picnic one Saturday in early April many years ago. While most of my relatives (including Mom) thought I was nuts, my friends and beer buddies loved it.

The big thing for me in winter is firewood. Cutting and splitting firewood is much nicer for me in the winter. We get a lot of wood done in the spring and summer, but we save a lot for winter too. It gives us one more thing to do outside in the cold weather months. I so need things to do outside in the cold weather months. I can’t be cooped up too long or I go crazy.

My brother-in-law, Ray, and I in the wood pile.

We had a real early cold season come upon us this year. Last year too! But that’s not always typical. In our neck of the woods it’s almost always foggy and rainy in early winter. We have lived in southern New England all of our lives, and I can count on two hands how many Christmas Seasons resembled those beautiful holiday cards we all get in the mail from our friends and loved ones. You know the ones. Snow covered farm scenes with a few left over corn stalks sticking up out of the snow drifts in the background. Or the one with Santa looking through a frost covered window at children hanging their stockings on the mantel. Again, that’s not usually the case here. Most of you probably know our saying here as well. “If you don’t like the weather, wait an hour.”

Anyway, back to firewood.

We have a wood burning stove in Tami and my living room, one in Mom and Kim’s living room, and one in the barn. We really need a lot of wood every year. Last year we went through about seven or eight cords, and that’s with an oil furnace as a back up for heat and also for all the hot water. Remember, we have two 4 bedroom houses that are attached. That’s a lot of square feet to heat!

It’s a lot of work cutting and splitting wood, but there is nothing better in the winter than sitting in front of a wood stove. It’s one of those things that speaks to me about being a country person. To know you are keeping your family warm. To know you are using less of that black gold that everyone but us gets rich off of. To know it was my back and hands that cut that wood and split that wood and stacked that wood. Boy, I sure do love a good roaring fire.

I have a nice wood splitter we bought at one of the home improvement centers when we first moved here. It had a real nice price tag on it when we bought it. It’s not top of the line, but it works as good as any other if I keep it maintained. Years ago, I helped build a few of them with my best friend Bobby and his Dad and Uncle, and we would use them until they died, but I don’t have access to the steel and parts any more.

I don’t miss swinging an axe all weekend like I did when I was a young man, so any good running splitter will do. I still like to swing the axe, but definitely not all day! It’s funny when a man reaches a certain age. Take me for example. I am as strong as I ever was, and I can still lift and move more than most guys my son's age, but when no one is looking, my wife says my face is usually wincing in pain. Personally, I don’t know what she is talking about. I will admit though, that those hot showers sure aren’t just for washing up after a hard days work anymore. My sore muscles absolutely love them!!

As far as chainsaws go, I’m a huge fan of both Stihl, and Husqvarna, and I’m telling you, these machines have personalities just like people. While both brands of saws always start for me when they are cold, they do different things all together during the course of a day of cutting. My Stihl saws will always re-start after re-fueling, and a fifteen minute rest, but the Husqvarna saws won’t start until the following day unless I re-start them immediately after re-fueling. You really have to get to know your tools and equipment like you would friends and acquaintances.

I guess if I were to compare myself to a chain saw, I would be more like my Husqvarna. If I stop for coffee, or a bite to eat, I’m probably not going to re-start until the following day! If I do stop to re-fuel, I’m getting started back to work immediately!!!!

Oh, how I long for spring!

Shawn M. Weeks

Our Move to the Country: Concluded

A photo of Shawn from The Funny FarmWhen we first got here I decided to start getting into raising animals. I knew I wanted to have laying hens, so did my mom, but I wanted to wait and get my feet wet with something easy. I wasn’t sure what that would be until one day when I was at the Tractor Supply. There in the center of the store was a pair of Dutch Rabbits, a hutch and some cages. I figured it would be easy to raise a rabbit. Besides, we were looking for a “get acquainted to the country” gift for our niece Siri.

I told the woman at the counter I wanted one of the rabbits. She informed me that the pair of rabbits were brothers and the employees were all hoping they wouldn’t have to separate them. As I was processing what the clerk was telling me and trying to decide if I really wanted to have to feed and care for two rabbits, I noticed four or five other employees showing up out of absolutely nowhere with little pouty looks on their faces and their hands in the “let us pray” position. Nothing like being held hostage by a group of teenage, animal loving, after school store clerks. They were all staring at me and waiting for me to be the hero of the day and take both rabbits.

I thought quickly and said “no problem, but I want them both for the price of one, seeing how I only wanted one in the first place.” I thought that would let me off the hook, and I instantly thought of how clever I was. I could feel the proud grin start to form across my face. They were not going to put me on the spot like that. I have always been a good negotiator, and I have never bowed down to pressure. But before I knew it, the woman at the counter exclaimed, “You have a deal!”

The next thing I knew they were all jumping up and down with excitement, patting my back and praising me for being such a wonderful person. I was numb and shocked. I was standing there in a daze. I couldn’t believe I actually got played like that. I glanced over at the woman behind the counter, and she seemed to have the beginnings of that same proud grin on her face that I had on mine only moments before.

Oh well, two rabbits instead of one. It would be a piece of cake. One big hutch and they could keep each other company. I also didn’t think feeding a second bunny was going to break the bank. Something at the time though told me I should have known better. I had a funny feeling.

I climbed in the truck with my purchase and headed home. I couldn’t wait to get those new rabbits home to Siri. She was going to be so excited. Siri named the two little guys Peanut Butter and Jelly. I thought those were good names for them. I really don’t believe in naming animals that are going to be our homestead animals, but these guys were going to be pets, so why not. And Siri was sooo happy.

It’s been about two years, and the rabbits are large and healthy. I still feel bad to this day for separating them though, especially in the cold weather months. It was easy securing another hutch for Peanut Butter, but I know he misses his brother Jelly. If only Jelly would have stopped having his brother’s babies!

We all still go to the Tractor Supply on a regular basis, but I stay away from that woman behind the counter.

After a few months of getting over rabbits having babies every other week, and my mother nagging me about fresh eggs, I decided it was time to move on to laying hens. Mom did a lot of reading up on chickens, and we went to a few fairs and learned what we could. I also talked to a few people in town who had chickens. We were now chicken farmers waiting to happen. We were real confident in picking the breed we wanted. Being from New England we wanted a breed that was weather worthy and low maintenance. We decided on Rhode Island Reds.

I got an old rabbit hutch for free that’s about ten feet long and converted it for laying hens. Then I went to the Tractor Supply for fencing. You know who I didn’t get advice from that day. It was a good thing too because someone else was leaving there with two rabbits, and she was smiling ear to ear!

My brother-in-law and I centered the hutch in the yard and made a large fenced in area all the way around it. We started out small with a half dozen hens we got from a local feed and grain place in town. He said he gets all his laying hens from one of the big national suppliers.

We got all the things we needed for getting them started inside. My mother decided we would start them as chicks in her bedroom, and we would bring them out to the pen when they were old enough. I thought that was real generous of my mom, and Tami couldn’t have been happier with the arrangement.

The chickens were outside in no time, and we loved our new chicken venture and couldn’t wait for the eggs to start coming. All was going well until one morning I started having this dream. In the dream I was Frank Purdue and I was chasing a rooster around the yard while he was laughing at me. Well by the time Tami shook me awake, and my sister was pounding on our bedroom window from her porch, I was realizing two things. The first was that out of six laying hens, at least one was a rooster, and the other thing was that my sister was surely not a morning person. Not at 5:35 am anyway. Oh, and there wasn’t one rooster, but two.

I have been making homemade chicken soup for years now, and thank goodness. This batch of soup came out real well.

We now have twenty laying hens. Things are going great and we really have this chicken thing down to a science. We ordered from the big national supplier ourselves this time. They had a better guarantee that the hens would be HENS. We ordered a few for my friend down the road at the same time. She wanted to get started with layers too. The company was so happy with us for buying so many this time (24) that they sent us a free gift. It was a beautiful hen that was all white and black. It was just a gorgeous hen. It was smaller than the Reds, and didn’t seem as hearty, but we didn’t mind. It was gorgeous. Then came that fateful day when I heard that familiar noise again at around 5:30 am. That’s right. My sister was pounding on our bedroom window once more.

Boy, I’m glad we all like chicken soup!

The vegetable garden has also done real well for us. My niece Siri is out there with me all the time. She actually helps me to get started during the winter months, too. We start our seeds in my basement in mid- February. We use some old sawhorses and sheets of plywood for tables, and we get going down there as soon as I get the itch for spring.

Siri enters all the fairs around here with “her” vegetables. She has won approximately 15 blue ribbons and four red ribbons so far. She really has a green thumb. Tami just entered one of our fairs recently too. She came away with red ribbons for canning apple sauce and making pot holders and place mats. She also received two blue ribbons for canned tomato relish and homemade zucchini bread.

We have all settled in real nice, and we all have our jobs and chores, like anywhere else. I cut and split about eight cords of wood a year for our three wood stoves. We have one in our living room, and one in my family’s living room next door. There is also one in the barn. That one really helps in the winter on the weekends. I am always out there working on something or just hanging out. I get it started up around 6:00 am and by 8 or so, it’s comfortable for shop work.

We have also gotten really involved with the local 4-H. Siri has joined the horse group and Tami, Kim and I are adult volunteers. I’m hoping this year to help with the veggie group and the swine group. I think pigs are next on my list and Tami’s next venture will probably be goats. Mom wants to start keeping bees. Time will tell.

So, that’s my story of getting to the country. We all love our living arrangement, and I don’t think we could be anymore blessed. Now all I have to do is get my daughter and her family back here to the homestead, and help my son next year start his shop business close to home.

Zoe picks out a new tractor

Siri's summer squash twins

Our Move to the Country: Part 2

A photo of Shawn from The Funny FarmCanton is a quaint little town with around nine thousand people. It has that country feel to it with small farms all around us and the Farmington River about a 1/4 mile away with many trout management areas. The pheasant and small game hunting is good here, and the deer and turkey are abundant. The school system is one of the best in the state, and there are good people here who have been here all of their lives and whose families have been here for generations. Now, being that this is still Connecticut, there are the “yuppie” types who commute to the Hartford area every day and live in those expensive cookie cutter homes that all look alike up on the hill that used to be woods and mountains. But they are all in one area of town, so the town still holds most of its original country landscape and charm. (Now, I’m not being derogatory towards the “newer” people of town, but we all know that a lot of small town governments now allow those neighborhoods. You know those neighborhoods. The ones with the people who have those great paying jobs, beautiful homes and SUVs. The ones who live to keep up with the Jones’. They have 2.3 children who play soccer and they hire people to mow their lawns and put up their Christmas decorations.  Ah yes, tax base, tax base, tax base... )

Our home is beautiful. We are on an acre of land with about twenty acres of open space bordering our property out back. We clown around telling each other and everyone else that we have twenty one acres! The house is a two family, surprise, surprise. Tami and I have a four bedroom cape with an attached four bedroom cape/colonial next door. That’s where my sister, brother in law, mom and the kids live. There is a four-car garage that we call “The Barn.” We call it the barn because the tax office has it listed as a barn, and it’s valued at a whole lot less that way. I’m good with that. There is a dirt road that runs along our place and ends about a mile away at the firehouse. We ride our ATVs on it all the time.

Shawn's family: sister Kim, Mom Linda, Siri, Zoe, wife Tami holding Buddy

Our lives have changed a lot since coming here. Tami is teaching in a town about fifteen minutes away with a smaller population than Canton. She teaches special education students in middle school. Special ed has been her specialty her whole career. While that vocation has its share of problems, she really prefers small town problems as opposed to the ones of the cities. With fewer students, she gets to be more involved with them. I’m more comfortable with her teaching in a small town rather than a big city. Now, I don’t worry about her going to work everyday. She has also gotten very involved at church. She is the chairperson for the women’s group there and runs the food for the hungry collection.

Shawn and Tami at a NASCAR race

Our daughter Amanda was here with us for a year and a half then decided to join the Navy. She didn’t enjoy or grasp the college life and decided the Navy was her future. We think she made a wise decision. She is recently married now to a guy who is also in the navy. He is on a sub and she is stateside. They have given Tami and I a beautiful granddaughter, and now another one is on the way. We miss them very much. They live in Norfolk, Virginia, where they are both stationed. He’s from Nebraska and likes the idea of farming. I was trying to get him to come up here to our sub-base so maybe we could do some farming together, but our daughter didn’t like that idea. I’m now keeping quiet about it. Oh well, I tried.

Our son Michael has made some friends here. He was resentful of the move at first. He missed his friends very much, and we couldn’t get him involved in the area. He preferred hanging out with his old friends at the beach, playing pool and videos at the many game rooms in the area and going to the mall to meet up with the girls. That was much more exciting to him than muddin' up dirt roads with pickup trucks and going to bon fires on Friday nights at the state forest with the boys around here. He did eventually start making some friends here the last eight months or so, but none of it matters anymore anyway. He has just decided to go to school in Florida. He is going to motorcycle mechanic school in March. He wants to own a Harley Davidson repair shop. I’m very excited for him!

Start of the first harvest for Shawn and Siri

My mother couldn’t be happier living next door with my sister, and her now three children and husband. She is busy with them every day. She cleans and does the laundry and most of the cooking. She has two Golden Retrievers and a Pug. She breeds the two Goldens and we are awaiting the new set of puppies in about three days. This will be the original Golden’s second litter. Mom is going to let her rest now and breed the other Golden from the first set of pups.

My sister is active with the kids and teaches Sunday school. She misses the city life a little bit, but says she likes our new life better and wouldn’t want to raise the kids anywhere else. My brother-in-law has a full time job driving a truck all over the state for a produce company. He loves his job and takes all of the overtime he can get. (It isn’t easy raising three kids today financially, especially here in Connecticut. Contrary to popular belief, we are all not rich in Connecticut.)

Our Move to the Country: Part I

ShawnWe have all lived here in Connecticut our whole lives. My wife Tami and I were raising our two kids (children, not goats) in a nice home in the town of Stratford with a population of approximately 50 thousand people. It is a suburb of Bridgeport, one of the largest cities in the state. We had a nice three bedroom house on a quarter acre lot, and it was one of the biggest properties in the neighborhood. Tami was raised there in town, and I had been there for 20 years or so.

My mother was living at my grandmother’s home in Norwalk some 20 minutes away from us with my sister Kimberly and her daughter Siri. They had moved there about two years before my grandmother passed away, to help take care of her and to keep her company.

Tami and I both had good jobs, but I had longed for a country life for as far back as I could remember, and Tami wanted more space and more calm. The kids were growing up and becoming young adults. They were both done with school, and we were taking less active roles in the community. The area was getting too busy and too populated. It was time to go.

We felt we had four priorities to address once we decided to move to the country. One was getting as close to the country as we could without risking our careers. We didn’t want to jeopardize Tami’s teaching career or my job as a title searcher. We figured if we stayed in Connecticut Tami could keep her teaching certificate and I could stay at my job. I covered the entire state, so it wasn’t like my “commute” was going to be any different.

The next was keeping us all together. We did everything together as a family (me and Tami, the kids, my mother, my sister and our niece). My sister Kimberly is only a year older than our daughter Amanda, and our son Michael is two years younger than her. They grew up going to the same schools, the same church, scouts, everything.

The third priority was to have a place for my mother to call her own. She too had a wish to be in the country, and Tami and I wanted to make sure she was taken care of. Not that she needs taking care of, but to make it easier on her and keep us all together.

The last priority we had was to give them all a better start than we had. We didn’t have much when the three kids were coming up, and we don’t have any great fortune for them now, so we figured by keeping us all together and giving each of them a fresh start in a quieter area with elbow room and good schools for my sister’s kids, we would be on the right track.

We knew we had our work cut out for us. We needed such a unique place. Definitely a multi-family. We all love each other and enjoy each others’ company very much, and we needed to keep it that way! No way were we putting four grown women (who all love to cook, who all have strong personalities, and who all take care of their children with the same values and morals but with different techniques) under the same roof. Did I mention a multi-family?

I also wanted a place for my veggie garden and greenhouse, maybe some animals, and we absolutely needed woods. O.K., I needed woods. I love to hunt deer and turkey. Everyone else was hoping for woods.

Tami and I sometimes felt like we would never find that perfect place we needed for all of us. The right number of bedrooms, a large enough yard, good schools, jobs for the kids, etc. It also had to be a multi-family. Oh, that’s right, I already mentioned that. Not to mention the cost factor. We had to find a place we could afford and we had to sell the place we owned.

Well after a year and a half of searching (and what seemed like a half a million miles of weekend traveling and open houses), we found our place in the country. Well, what we consider the country. It actually happens to be a nice area with a mix of country, and some suburbia thrown in here and there. We have settled in the town of Canton, Connecticut, and we have been here a little over four years now. It’s about an hour and a half north of where we were in Stratford. That’s actually one of the nice things about Connecticut. Nothing is ever more than two hours away from anything else here. It’s such a small state. I have been bass fishing in the hills of northwestern CT in the early morning, pheasant hunting on the east side of the state right after lunch time and reeling in flats or blues by twilight on Long Island Sound all in one day!

Front of homestead

Back of homestead

[To be continued…]