Grit Blogs > Transitional Traditions

Downtime Ruminations

Since we've had this wonderful downtime in which to recoup and collect ourselves, there have been a lot of ideas floating through my [Becky's] head. This post will try to capture a few.

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We recently finished reading a great book lent to us by a great friend. Thanks, Jill! A free dozen goes out to you! It's called: Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature lovers, and their diverse tribe of countercultural conservatives plan to save America (or at least the Republican Party), by Rod Dreher. Whew, long title. I guess there has been a reprint and the subtitle is changed to: The New Conservative Counterculture and Its Return to Roots.

Whatever. The point is that this book defines just about every viewpoint that Andy and I hold dear. It was amazing to listen to Rod Dreher speak in each chapter because we just kept looking at each other (we read it out loud over the course of a month) and saying, "I KNOW!!" An excerpt from his intro gives a basic analysis of what the book is about:

A Crunchy Con Manifesto

1. We are conservatives who stand outside the conservative mainstream; therefore, we can see things that matter more clearly.

2. Modern conservatism has become too focused on money, power, and the accumulation of stuff, and insufficiently concerned with the content of our individual and social character.

3. Big business deserves as much skepticism as big government.

4. Culture is more important than politics and economics.

5. A conservatism that does not practice restraint, humility, and good stewardship – especially of the natural world – is not fundamentally conservative.

6. Small, Local, Old, and Particular are almost always better than Big, Global, New, and Abstract.

7. Beauty is more important than efficiency.

8. The relentlessness of media-driven pop culture deadens our senses to authentic truth, beauty, and wisdom.

9. We share Russell Kirk's conviction that "the institution most essential to conserve is the family."

If you have the time, check it out from your local library. We highly endorse!

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When we went to Colorado in November, we listened to a book on tape that we'd heard much about and knew a basic premise for. You may be very familiar with Michael Pollan or you may never have heard of him. The book he wrote is called The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. This edified our choice to grow sustainable, organic and slow foods for ourselves and our community. It was eye opening about the modern food industry and how deceived the American public is about what they eat. He carries a relatively objective view, though. We even learned how to capture and grow yeast for bread making! This is another great winter read. Please check it out!

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Back on the farmstead, we are planning our gardens for next season. We have poured over at least a dozen different seed catalogs and have a few more in the mail. We ordered over a hundred dollars of seed last year and I think every seed company in the nation caught wind of it. Haha, joke's on them; they don't know that this year we're poor! (Just kidding ... sort of.) But seriously, we are doing our research about what types of heirloom varieties grow best in our Zone 5/Zone 4 climate. And they don't have to be heirlooms as a rule. We just want varieties that we can save the seed from. That means no hybrids. We'll keep you up to date on what fun tomatoes, peppers, onions and corn we find.

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I've been reading a book called You Can Farm by Joel Salatin (of famed Polyface Farm), and he has a lot of great, sustainable and money-pinching ideas for beginning farmers. One of his ideas has stuck in my head, and I can't shake it. He advocates using animal power in place of people power whenever possible. He's not talking using horses instead of tractors. He speaks about the natural inclinations of animals on the farm and how to utilize that for the farm's (or your) benefit. For example, this year we let the hens roam free in our front and back yard, and they cleaned up a ton of bugs and even dethatched our lawn! A great side effect. But, the more I think about the possibility, the more I just gotta do it! I want to fence in our large back yard/orchard and run our ewes in there once a week to mow, fertilize and clean up the apple orchard and drainage ditch.

Crazy you say? This is what's crazy: Running a riding lawnmower for two hours a day, twice a week (in peak grass season) and burning gas. Then, hand picking and raking up windfall apples, loading them in a wheel-barrow and hauling them to the sheep paddock 400 yards away. Finally, taking a gas powered Brush Hog-type weed whacker and cleaning out all the areas a large mower can't reach (i.e., under pine trees, the drainage ditch and near tree trunks). All in all, a general yard pruning session can run up to four hours! THAT is what I call crazy. Of course, this is not every time we mow, but it must be done every couple weeks in order to keep the appearance of "ship-shape."

Enter the sheep. Naturally built to eat grass down to an inch or two and amazingly agile when eating around objects projecting vertically from the ground (trees, posts, bushes), these guys LOVE fresh grass! They love tart apples and the interesting plants that spring up from ditches. Suddenly, we have a hired crew that can browse picturesque beside the house all afternoon leaving Andy or I two hours to accomplish other projects. Best of all? They don't gripe about overtime and at the end of the day, you've got a freshly fertilized lawn for FREE. No gas expense, just the cost of heating that electric fence for a few hours, then shepherding the ewes back home and shutting it down.

Sounds like the perfect set up to me. Now, if only my parents (who own the yard) will agree to this plan...

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Finally, we are looking into buying some heritage breed hens next spring. Heritage breeds are similar to heirloom species in gardens. Farm animals have been bred for efficiency in factory settings and many breeds are on the verge of extinction. We already have 13 Milking Shorthorn dairy cows, who are on the endangered list (we didn't actually know that at the time of purchase, we just knew that they weren't Holsteins and that was good enough). The hens we currently have are a mix of several common industrial egg farm varieties. That doesn't make them bad hens or that we've bought into the industrial model. We just want to look for a bird that knows how to forage for herself and free-ranges more productively than the ones we have. A heritage hen will probably be multi-purposed in that it can give eggs AND meat. You may not have been aware that modern laying hens leave a lot to be desired in the slow cooker because they've been bred to put all their energy into egg production. They are very thin stewing hens. A multi-purpose breed will give eggs (though certainly not as prolifically) throughout her life and then give a family a nice meal at the end. And we are all about not pushing our hens to the limit ...

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... which reminds me: Our layers have been steadily declining in egg production since we combined flocks in mid-December. We were averaging over 100 eggs a day in late November and now we are in the middle 40s. Andy and I were concerned at first and tried giving them more food, more access to grit (what they need to digest food) and deeper nesting bedding. But as we read about it, we realized that they are in their winter slump. It's amazingly common with layers. As the nights outlast the days, they sort of shut down. (Though they still eat like they were laying!) This is when a lot of folks break out the extra lighting in the coop to give the illusion of daytime and encourage more eggs. We discussed this option, but after reading more of Joel Salatin, we opted against it. Why? Because all animals need a sort of downtime in which to recoup from the previous year's events and production. This gives their bodies a chance to focus on repair and rest, instead of always producing and putting energies into that. "Let's give the hens a break," I said earlier this week. They earned it. Soon it will be lighter later and they'll pick up again. Right now, they are enjoying "Chicken Downtime."


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 .

cindy murphy
1/13/2009 8:00:48 AM

Wow, Becky! And you guys call this "downtime"?! Sounds like you're quite busy, even in the farm's off-season. As you're making plans, doing research, and have a small break from some of the more laborious aspects of running a family farm, it's interesting to learn the your chickens are enjoying some downtime too. I hope you enjoy yours as much as they!