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Century Oaks Farm

Let's Talk Income: Chapter Five

Phil NicholsThe Nichols family has survived these past thirty seven years by being willing to do just about any job that came along; including picking up walnuts for cash our first year. Many of the local folk, who are well established and accustomed to life here in the hills, don’t waste their time on such endeavors. They frequently have numerous walnut trees and will allow them to be harvested on shares or just because. Until you’ve spent a month or two bent over scooping these rock-hard nuts into bucks and then heaving them into your pickup or trailer—you simply haven’t lived. The tannic acid in their hulls will stain your hands indelibly black—the only way to get it off is to wear it off. $6.00 a hundred weight was the going rate back in 1982 (I believe it was $15.00 this past year). For rookies a mounded pickup load looked like real money. But you have to drive into to a huller where you scoop them into a machine that strips off the outer shell, leaving just the nuts. Your great looking pickup load is suddenly reduced to a few large mesh bags worth of nuts. If memory serves me we only got around $40.00 per pickup load of back breaking work. But we were darn glad to get it and made several hundred dollars that year. Course it was a bumper year which may only occur once in every three or four—Mother Nature is a fickle lady. 

When Barb finally moved onto the homestead, with our daughter and me, she immediately started looking for work. A local bank turned her down because she was used to making big city money (with AT&T) and wouldn’t be satisfied—or so she was told. She finally landed a gig waitressing for a couple bucks an hour and tips. From there she entered a certified nurse’s aid class at a local vo-tech school and ended up working at a care facility for the profoundly disabled. She spent a couple of years working as a legal assistant to a local prosecutor and five years or so at a local company that made floral arrangements for a national market. As our daughter grew older Barb eventually made the decision to start commuting into Springfield with me, where she worked in a chiropractor’s office, a hospital finance dept. and an orthopedic clinic.

hands covered in dirt after working
Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

During that first summer I put in for a job in the maintenance dept. of a small local college but never heard anything. I was turned down for a job doing maintenance for a restaurant chain in Springfield because I was a blood thirsty Viet Nam veteran—or so I was told. With no job on the horizon I agreed to build a pole roof over a trailer house at one of the retirement areas on a near by lake. I no sooner took the job when the college called and asked if I was still interested. You bet I was. An interview was arranged. The Superintendent of the maintenance dept. and I hit it right off. There was one problem—I had given my word to build the pole structure and intended to honor it, even if it meant losing the job I very much wanted. Fortunately the boss understood and told me that I could start just as soon as I fulfilled my prior commitment. Starting pay was $4.00 per hour and I was ecstatic to get it. Seven years would pass and the college became a university before our house was nearing completion and I decided it was time to go onto something new.

I tried my hand at running my own HVAC/Electrical service business for a couple of years and discovered that it just wasn’t my cup of tea. In 1990 I was accepted into the maintenance dept. of then Southwest Missouri State University. After nearly fifteen years of long commutes I retired in 2006 to pursue a new career co-managing a ninety-year-old private Ozark resort community. My co-manager Barb and I worked side by side there for over ten years before once again retiring in 2016.

Working away from the homestead, all of these years, has been what it’s taken to succeed at building our own home and cementing a lifestyle that we love.

Many of our jobs were low wage dead ends or places that we couldn’t abide but we always stuck it out until something better was available.

Moral—if you’re coming to the country either be prepared to do whatever you have to, to make it work, or bring plenty of money. And even that won’t guarantee success.     

In Chapter Six we’ll look at ways other folks in these parts make a living.

Mortgage Lifters

Phil NicholsIn my old age I’ve become a seed saver and plant mostly open pollinated varieties; though I’ve tried just about everything through the years.

A few years back, in one of the heirloom seed saver catalogs that I regularly peruse, I discovered a tomato known as Mortgage Lifter. As the story goes a gentleman farmed these prolific fruits during the Great Depression and they sold so well that he was able to pay off his mortgage—no mean feat at the time.

I’ve found Mortgage Lifters to be delicious and reliable producers—come drought or downpour. As such I’ve forsaken all other varieties.

Through the years I’ve tried cloches, milk jugs, water filled tepees, tricks, like laying a tomato set down on its side and so on in order to give tomato plants a jump on spring. What I’ve discovered is that all the extra effort is just that—a lot of extra effort. And the outcome is seldom better than simply waiting until the ground warms up to plant. I don’t even bother planting sets anymore, preferring to simply plant saved seed.

wet garden following heavy rain

It’s been a very wet spring here in the Ozarks but we finally got a few dry days around the end of April and I decided to take the plunge and get my tomatoes planted.

Can’t remember where I came up with the wire mesh used in concrete pours but I imagine that I salvaged it from some job or other. At any rate many years ago I rolled the wire into baskets about 2’ in diameter. Then cut out the bottom row of horizontal wire to leave ½ doz sharp vertical wires that could be pushed into the ground to hold the cage in place (at least where the rocks weren’t too thick). As the years passed the bottom wires rusted away and I had to resort to another strategy to keep the cages from blowing over once the plants pushed out the top. Steel electric fence posts filled the bill admirably. I just pound them into the ground next to a cage and mate them up with a piece of electric fence wire.

electric fencing around garden

Here in the hills, if you intend to have any sort of garden, you either build a six foot high fence of woven wire, keep a dog near by or trick the deer to an electric fence. I opted for a two wire electric fence. Each fall I roll up the wire and pull the east and west posts to facilitate plowing and discing. Once the spring plowing is done I put the posts back in, run the wire and bait the fence.

I believe it was a Rodale magazine that showed me the way to ensure that no deer would attempt to hop over the short electric fence. I take jar of peanut butter, a stick and coat the top wire at the juncture of several insulators around the perimeter. Deer are suckers for peanut butter and will inevitably try to lick it off. If you’ve ever got crossed up with a hot wire you can imagine what a surprise they get. I refresh the bait from time to time and once the deer are educated they give the fence and garden a wide birth.

tomato cages in place

In keeping with this year’s trench row experiment I dug a hole at the center of each tomato cage and dropped in some composted manure.

Those who garden or farm seriously soon learn that Mother Nature never plays fair. This season was no exception. I no sooner got my tomato seed in the ground when a monsoon came through. The spot for this year’s tomato crop was mostly under water for several days. I am seeing some young seedlings pushing through but suspect that I’ll have to do some replanting; which is pretty well par for the course here. Footnote: all but two of my cages had at least one stubborn tomato holding its own—love those mortgage lifters.

Everything in my first trench row is doing 60 except spinach. I planted some old seed which totally failed to germinate. Soooooooo I opened a new package and replanted. If it doesn’t get to hot to soon we should have some nice spinach.

The saved seed for my trench rowed corn wasn’t the best and germination has been spotty. So I sorted out the best of the kernels and did some replanting this past weekend. We’ll see how that works out.

What’s life without a little adventure?

Let's Talk About Income: Chapter Four

Phil NicholsSeveral months before we made the move from city to country I had my right ankle rebuilt and was laid up for quite a spell. I’m dangerous when there is too much idle time on my hands.

City life was on my hated things list and I wanted a place in the country. My wife and I had actually been looking for rural acreage in and around our home in Bellevue, NE for a couple of years prior to that. Everything was way outside our work-a-day budget. We wanted to stay in the Midwest; the question was where could we afford to be? Back in the days before computer access and cell phones, companies did business with fliers and magazines. I latched onto several of these volumes at our local library and contacted them via snail mail. Missouri, especially the Ozarks region actually had land priced to fit our budget—of course I wouldn’t find out why until many hard licks later.

Thirty-five years old, at the time, and responsible for the well-being of a wife and growing daughter, I didn’t entertain uprooting my city-raised family and dropping them into the wilds lightly. So I did what I always do when confronted with a tough decision—my homework. That included reading everything I could get my hands on concerning actually surviving in the country and formulating a plan.

A prime concern of mine was how to make a living. As it turned out my worries were well founded.

My wife Barb was born in Missouri and spent a good deal of her youth at her folk’s summer place on the Lake of the Ozarks. She had introduced me to that part of the country back during our honeymoon in 1970 and I fell in love with the wooded hills and hollers.

One of my planning fail-safes was to be within commuting distance of a major city—in this case Springfield, Missouri. If we couldn’t find work locally then we would just have to commute. Bearing that in mind we only looked for land within approx. sixty miles of the city. As it turned out, I would end up spending two-and-a-half hours a day for the better part of fifteen years running up and down the highway to work in Springfield. During a number of those years Barb shared the ride and also worked in the city. It was a 110 mile round trip, five days a week.

But that part of our story didn’t start until around 1990.

temporary housing RV

We started our the first year on-the-land with me working to make a couple of ancient trailers livable for temporary housing until I could start building the new house (that hiatus would turn out to be five very long—very hard—years, when our ability to hang on to the dream was severely tested) and Barb still in Omaha holding down a job with the phone company and trying to get a transfer to Springfield. She actually did swing a transfer to Kansas City about three hours north of the homestead and was able to stay with her folks there for a time and visit me on the weekends.

temporary living quarters

Through that first spring and summer that first year and on into the fall, I looked everywhere locally for employment and came up nada. Well, I actually did land one job, repairing electric motors and equipment in a small shop (a job I’d done in Omaha NE after getting out of the Navy), for a week as I recall. I made the mistake of asking the proprietor if he would please hold out social security taxes. That level of bureaucratic involvement scared him so badly that he let me go.

Near the end of the summer, my intrepid bride made the decision to send our daughter to live with me while I put the last livability touches on our homestead. I would enroll our six-year-old in school locally and Barb would give two weeks notice. She had decided that we were going to make it come heck or high water. I wasn’t so sure. Talk about grit—this gal has some!

homestead framing

By the time Barb made the final move, money was getting extremely tight and the dream was close to going up in smoke.

In chapter five we’ll look at some of the ways folks do make a living in the country.

Let's Talk Income: Chapter Three

Phil NicholsApprox. a week and a half had passed since the beginning of my Let’s Talk Income series; we were $381.09 lighter in the kitty, it was Sunday evening and we still had to face paying for the repair of a large flat tractor tire.

Monday was a work day for me so this trip to the tire shop fell to my pioneer wife Barbara.

When I got in from work Monday evening I donned work gloves and set out to do battle with the repaired tire. It had required a new tube. That and labor set us back another $95.08.

Funny thing about a 200lb tire, most folks aren’t up to heaving it into place with one hand and screwing on a lug nut with the other. Sooooooooo I went back to my bag of tricks and dug up a short chunk of 4 x 4, cut off during a post job, to use as a fulcrum for my friend the rock bar. With the tip of the bar under the tire I was able to apply pressure to the bar with a knee while jockeying the tire onto the lug bolts. Then steadying things with a knee and one hand I threaded on several of the lug nuts. It didn’t take long to get things tightened up after that.

tire bar

It was a tad wet to plow but things were going well so I hooked up my ancient two-bottom breaking plow and got to it. Our sand ground drains quickly and most of the garden plowed well though one upper corner was pretty mushy.

two bottom plow

Tuesday evening I hooked up a dilapidated pull behind disc that I inherited with our place many years ago and went to work mellowing out the plow furrows. She’s not pretty, but still does a credible job of working down the soil.

old pull-behind disc

While the two week period I’ve described isn’t necessarily indicative of all life’s ebb and flow, here in the Ozark hills—it’s certainly not unusual. And nothing ever breaks one at a time. We had put out $476.17—oh did I mention that my much put upon work boots had finally fallen apart during this episode and I had to sadly consign them to the burn barrel. The replacements ran $144.93; bringing our total to $621.10—most of it in unplanned expense.

Many a brave soul has come into the hills seeking to simplify their lives; only to discover too late that it takes more than some livestock, a garden and a full woodpile. I know—I was one of them. If you intend to make the move from the city to the country—you’d best have a sound financial plan as well as plenty of grit.

In Chapter Four we’ll discuss some strategies for making a living in the country.

Trench Rows

Phil NicholsWhile contemplating my first garden, on our newly minted homestead, those many years ago—I remember wondering just what I might be able to grow in this dry, sandy, rock infested section of ground that we now called home.

I had been a devotee of the Rodale Press for many years prior to our move to Missouri and knew that I’d need a soil test to figure out how to go about amending our poor thin soil. Question was—where the heck do you go to get a soil test. Back in that day, before computers took over the world, you had ask around to find things out. Well I did and discovered that you could get a soil sample bag and box at the University of Missouri extension office located in the Courthouse about 18 miles west of us. So I trucked on over one afternoon and introduced myself to the extension agent. Sure enough a kit was available.

First you filled out the paperwork telling the extension folks what your intended use for the ground was—row crops, hay, truck garden etc... Then had to dig out a number of divots from different sites in the garden, mix them together, pour them into the plastic bag, seal it, put the whole thing in the box and mail the concoction off to the University Ag Dept. where it would be tested.

digging trench rows

Some weeks later a letter arrived from Mizzou. I expected to see a formula for pounds of lime, fertilizer and other amendments necessary to put my garden to rights. I was somewhat taken aback by the words at the head of the analysis “Devoid of organic matter.”  i.e. this dirt was so poor it would hardly grown a decent crop of weeds. Groan!

Thus started over 35 years of poop scooping in neighbor’s barns, intensive mulching with whatever I could come by and lots of trial and error discovering what would grow and what wouldn’t.

Last year, I purchased some very pricey heirloom Bradford watermelon seeds from a group of Bradford descendants down in Georgia who are attempting to bring back this legendary delight. Watermelon is purported to grow well in sandy ground so I thought I’d give it a try. My intent being to harvest enough seeds to plant an entire melon patch this year. But that’s a story for a later edition.

tiller in garden

Several reviews, critical of the germination and success of the Bradford seeds I’d purchased, convinced me to heed carefully the advice of the new generation of Bradfords who have been successfully growing the melons for a number of years. One of the instructions was to dig a hole in the top of the raised circle I hoed up and fill it with good composted manure. The melons did well in this atmosphere and a light bulb went on in my head.

Around the middle of March I was finally able to get into this year’s garden with the near-new Troy Super Pony I’d picked up at an auction a year or three back (its “counter-turning” rear tines make it the best tiller I’ve ever laid hands on for fighting rocks.  Front tine tillers beat you to death in our rocky ground and when the “forward-turning” rear tines of Super Pony’s giant cousin the Horse dig into a big rock it will drag you from one end of the garden to the other before you can let go.)

My melon experience last season had given me an idea. Once I’d raked out the area and run a string line I employed the edge of my hoe to make a shallow straight row; then came the fun part—hoeing out a 66’ long x 6” deep x the width of my hoe trench.


Late last fall and into the winter I’d pick up ten bags of compost or manure whenever I caught it on sale. I hitched up my old garden wagon (the one the tree fell on) to my ancient repurposed craftsman garden mower/tractor and hauled half a dozen bags from my stash down to the garden.

The task would have been easier if I’d put a tarp over the perforated plastic bags when I stored them and kept the contents dry. Alas, it is said here in the hills—PO folks gots PO ways.

At any rate I got the soupy glop spread out into the trench and raked a light cap of native soil back over it. Once again using the corner of my hoe I made a shallow planting trench and went to work.

I’ll keep you posted on the results. And stay tuned for chapter III of Let’s Talk Income

Let's Talk Income: Chapter Two

Phil NicholsAt the end of Chapter One it was Sat. evening, I had already paid out $312.72 in just a few days time and was facing the deflating prospect of having to shell out more once I managed to get a large, not so round, rear tire off of my tractor and into town for repairs.

Bright and early the next morning I went out to do battle with the tire. My old 8n Ford was in the shed and there wasn’t much room to work so I decided to see if I could at least partially inflate the tire and move the rig outside. With the aid of pliers to hold the valve stem that was trying desperately to disappear into the rim I managed to get a little air in. There was a risk that nearly flat tire would come off the rim and might be damaged but I took the chance and succeeded in moving the old rig out to a level stretch of ground.

There was one minor glitch. Like most nearsighted folks I tend to have to take my glasses off when working close. I’d set mine on the metal tractor seat while I fought with the air compressor. When I jumped up absentmindedly and plopped down into the seat there was a sickening crunch. Things were going from bad to worse. It was Sunday and I’d need my eyeball covers to be able to drive to work the next day. My first thought was that I’d have to drive the 55 miles into Springfield to find a seven-day-a-week eye glass center. Our local Walmart had one that opened at noon on Sunday but I was pretty sure that there wouldn’t be an optometrist on duty. I’d just bought new lenses a month or so before (gratefully they hadn’t been scratched when I landed on them) and thought it might be worth a shot to see if the Walmart folks could fit them to a new set of frames once they opened.

tire with tire iron

In the meantime I’d deal with the tire. The first order of business before jacking up the tractor was to break the lug nuts loose. One tug on my speed wrench assured me that brawn would not be enough to do the job. Soooooooooo, I employed a trick that I’ve developed during many years of working by my lonesome. Using a heavy duty lug wrench I placed a jack stand on one end and the other on a lug nut. Very carefully (this is the part where my lovely wife took her leave to go to the house) deploying my 215+ on the perpendicular arms of the wrench I was able to break loose the frozen lug nuts. The beauty of using a jack stand is that you can raise and lower it as you work your way around he tire. Due to the possibility of seriously barked shins, I’d strongly suggest to the uninitiated that a cheater bar placed over one of the perpendicular arms of the wrench is a better choice than my gymnastics routine. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to block up a couple of tires and put the rig in neutral to prevent any chance of the tractor rolling. If you have lots of money an impact wrench is an even better idea.

tire bar

My new hydraulic jack didn’t have a high enough profile to reach the bottom of the rear axle, which sets 21” off the ground, so I scrounged up some dunnage to sit it on, raised the tire off the ground and dismounted it; now how to get it into the back of the pickup. The rear tires weigh around 200lbs and I’m not the spring chicken I was thirty or forty years ago. Employing another trick I’ve learned through the years—I slid my friend the rock bar through the center of the rim, placed the point on the tailgate and used the bar to lever the tire up into the truck.

That done we headed into town to see about my glasses. A very nice lady at Walmart was able to trim my lenses to fit a set of their frames and I was back in business once again—though $68.37 poorer.

The tally was now up to $381.09 and still rising. Stay tuned for Chapter Three








Let's Talk Income: Chapter One

Phil NicholsOut here in the hinterland, when the temps drop below 20ºF or so, we leave a steady cold water drip at the kitchen sink (it puts some extra wear and tear on the well pump, and the electric bill goes up, but moving water in pipes tends not to freeze, and once you’ve suffered frozen pipes, you never want to do it again). The first week in March was unseasonably cold here, and we still had a steady stream running.

A year or two back we had wood laminate installed in the living room and kitchen. I noticed that some of the seams were rising up in front of the sink cabinets (moisture and laminate are definitely not compatible) and decided to do a recon under the sink; thus started two very ugly weeks.

I had noticed that when you turned the kitchen sink spout just right, water occasionally spurted out at its base but filed it away as low priority. What wasn’t apparent was that while the water was dripping, a steady leak had developed on the backside and was seeping through and soaking the area underneath the sink — not to mention running out from under the cabinet to ruin part of our flooring.

Assuming that the O-ring/s at the base of the spout had gone bad, I pulled it, but the problem turned out to be a cracked plastic fitting that no one carries. So... a new faucet set was procured for the paltry sum of $58.24. Did I mention that on most days I hate plumbing — especially replacing sink faucets.

The hot water side had a good flexible hose connector running from valve to the underside of the faucet, but the cold water side had an old spliced-together plastic one. I went ahead and sprung for a new flexible hose for $9.20.

I’ll skip the standing on my head under the sink — explicative deleted — fight to the death part.

Job is complete, time to move on to the next thing. NOT!

In the course of taking off and putting back on the good hose, it developed a leak that would not quit. Back to the lumber yard to shell out another $9.20. Finally the new faucets are installed and no leaks. Don’t want to think about repairing the floor.

It was my plan to load up my trailer the weekend following the faucet debacle and drive into Springfield to pick up lumber for the new enclosed run for the old chicken house. Of course when I went out to check hoses Friday evening I discovered that a tire had gone flat during the winter months and it sat that way so long that dry rot set in. I got out a new hydraulic jack that I’d purchased some months ago but hadn’t used yet. Sigh. The blame thing had leaked out its oil and was useless. There was no hope of finding the receipt and getting warranty after all this time, so off to town we went in search of another jack. $64.99 later, I was back home separating wheel from trailer. It was getting late, and I didn’t think that I could get to the tire shop before they closed but drove into town anyway and left it with a note.

Bright and early Saturday morning I went in to retrieve the tire, only to discover that the shop didn’t have a new replacement. A scramble around town produced a usable tire for $75.09, plus another $7.00 to have it mounted. Remounted the wheel, hitched up the trailer and drove down to Lowe's in Springfield for the load of lumber. $89 later and I had the treated lumber that I needed (but the budget didn’t allow for the untreated lumber that day.)


By the time we got back and a bit of work was completed on the enclosure, it was getting late in the afternoon, so I headed for the house. I decided to stop and check on my old Ford tractor on the way and see if she was ready to start plowing the garden. Groan. One of the rear tires had also gone flat; I hauled my compressor from the old shop to the tractor shed only to discover that the tube was shot.


We’ll pick this up in Chapter Two.

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