Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking Back and Moving Forward

last sunrise of 2014
The end of the year seems to make everyone feel somewhat nostalgic and retrospective, looking back over the good things that happened in the past year.

At the same time, we feel some sense of anticipation for all the yet unknown things that are yet to be.
Right now, there are folks all over Internet-land sharing their best blog posts of the year.  There are others making and posting their resolutions, or claiming their one WORD to represent their emphasis for the New Year. There are stories of big accomplishments and ambitious goals.

And, me…

I’m over here…like…I have no utter idea what to write.

No.  Really.

For the first time in a long time, writing isn’t coming easily.  But, it seems like I should say something….with the New Year and all… (maybe it will get me out of my slump,too)  

Here on the hill, one season just kind of slides into the next.  Even when one project is finished, we’ve already got another one going and something else is moving up to take its place on our priority list. There is no actual finish line. It’s said that farmers are always thinking ahead at least three seasons (and I can personally attest to that)…maybe that’s why it seems like nothing ever ends around here.

Our New Year’s Eve will be fairly similar to New Year’s Day…and even the Thursday following it (and the next Friday, Saturday…Sunday…) There won’t be any late night parties or big-time celebrations. I’ll be doing the late night/all night thing during lambing season and I need to “pace myself”.

We didn’t have any big changes here on the hill. But, all the talk of past accomplishments and learning opportunities got me wondering just what did go on around here in the past year.


I visited some old blog posts of my own. While there didn't seem to be anything wildly note-worthy...

Here’s what I found:

Looking back, 2014 was a pretty good year.  

We’re healthy and happy and our successes far outnumbered the failures. (that’s ALWAYS a good thing!) 

just another week until....LAMBS!
Lambing season was successfully un-eventful. THREE sets of triplets really helped our reproduction stats. (even though it did mean some extra work) And, we only ended up with one lamb in the house! (that was only overnight) This year’s lamb chop crop was perhaps the most delicious in our history! Here are a couple last season's lambing posts.

Then it was Spring! (well, sort of)

We had a colder March than anyone could remember and it did truly affect sales for much of the season.  There were no strawberries to speak of this year. And, tree fruit was virtually non-existent. (not just us, the entire Valley had a peach and apple shortage) The cucumber and squash plants FROZE twice.  I am certain that the Boss and I spent hours covering (and uncovering) broccoli and onion transplants. But, we actually sold MORE fresh broccoli than ever before.  And, we still have onions for sale. (go figure) And, the Brussels sprouts did extraordinarily well, despite Gus and his propensity for destruction. Did you read  this one?
we sold LOADS of Brussels sprouts

All that considered, our personal sales at the Market were at an all-time high.  That was despite our worst opening to the season since…well, in what seemed like forever.  But as one of our friends likes to say “when you’re dead last or you start out at the bottom, you can’t go anywhere but UP!” 

I did a week-long series for Farmers' Market week that starts  HERE.

Summer was what summer always is around here…a somewhat chaotic, frenetic dance of planting, harvesting and sales.  The temperatures were below average, although it was still plenty hot when I was out there picking (picking, picking, picking….) green beans. 
I picked well over 500 pounds of green beans
by hand

…and before we knew it, it was fall again. 

Then, Market season was over.
empty baskets at the end of Market
-TLWomack image

With the end of the Market, our attention turns to other things.  Like home improvement and getting all that filing done before tax time.  We are both still admiring our flooring job and wondering why we didn’t go ahead with that project YEARS ago. (and I actually finished the filing!) I also completed my second year of blogging every day in November.  Did you read "30 days of Lessons from the Farm" ?

In late December, we always take time to have our annual “corporate” meeting.
You may think I am joking, but, I am not.  We are indeed incorporated (for tax purposes) and as a corporation, we are required to have at least one annual meeting (complete with note-taking and officer signatures).  While the term conjures a bunch of suits sitting around a conference table, the reality is that it’s just the Boss and me….sitting at separate computers reviewing facts and figures and plotting out the upcoming season’s planting schedule. …making notes while talking over our successes and frustrations (and wondering out loud if we’ll ever get that one group of stupid hens to go inside at night!)

Since our space is limited, real estate is at a premium, those frustrating, problematic crops need to be eliminated and so other more sure-fire items can take their place. We don’t make these changes lightly, but our sustainability and profitability are more important that growing every single vegetable possible.

This year, an accidental, surprising discovery in the gardens changed our carefully crafted revisions.  After more than two months in the ground, there had been absolutely NO signs of life from the garlic and we had come to the conclusion that the crop was lost.  It was a costly loss that there was no way to re-coup at this point (garlic is planted in October and harvested in June/July) but, these things happen.  We had also decided that maybe we’d just skip the garlic from now on. (the garlic can be unpredictable and requires a long time in the ground…) Then, as I walked through the garden (on my way elsewhere) I looked down.  And, what did I see?  Yep.  Little spikes of garlic poking up through the soil!  That changed our planting schedule completely. Back to the planning board! On the up-side, we should have garlic and garlic scapes for sale this year. (yay)

tiny garlic sprout

Our review and revisions in place, we are ready for the arrival of 2015.

After taking an inventory of the seeds on hand, it’s time to make those big orders for the growing season, while trying to keep some focus on the “off-season”.  All our winter-time customers are looking for spinach and lettuce and anything green, so we will do our best to satisfy them (to some degree) despite the cold, dark winter days that are sure to come. To that end, one greenhouse is cleaned and organized and I’ll be sowing lettuce and spinach later today. Cleaning the other greenhouse and working in the hoophouses may just be the way we start the New Year.
working in the hoophouse is a year-round proposition

lettuce seeds

Because…well, the cycle of life, y’all.  There is always something to seed, plant, harvest (or weed) around here. See what I mean about one thing just sliding into the next?

But, still…

2015 promises to be a year to remember.  

the BIG announcement

This is due in part to this exciting news posted by our eldest daughter and son-in-law's dog.  While our becoming grandparents doesn’t directly affect the farm…it DOES affect EVERTHING!  Congrats to our kids! (and Savannah, the dog) We are so very happy and excited.

And, I KNOW for a fact there 

will be other exciting things 

happening in the New Year…

even though much of what happens around here will continue to be a lot of the “same old, same old”. (personally, I find the rhythm and routine…the sameness…of our lifestyle to be a comfort and not a bore)

Soon there will be lambs and chicks and little seedlings…the sun will shine and the sky will rain (hopefully) and we’ll head off to our 18th year as Market vendors. 18 years…I truly cannot believe it’s been that long.


Here’s to 2015!

                           …and all that it may hold. I honestly can’t wait to see what lies ahead. 

expectant ewes eating breakfast
any guesses as to how many lambs...?

                                      Expectation…now, there’s a word for 2015...

Thanks to all of you who have read along with me in 2014! I hope you'll keep following and commenting.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sunday Walkabout 12-21

"sundogs" indicate ice crystals in the atmosphere
and the possibility of precipitation
Happy first day of Winter!

 …well, not quite…I think the season officially changes at 6:03pm Eastern time. Other than a few very early morning snowflakes, there’s no real obvious signs of the change in season. It’s been looking fairly wintry for a while now. But, the days will start getting longer tomorrow and someone somewhere will start the countdown to Spring.

After the 10 inch snow we had at T'giving
this was NOT good news

This time last week, the weather guys started talking about the possibility of a huge winter storm. And, I must say, that possibility colored my thinking for the entire week.  Not to mention what effect it had on our plans for the week and weekend delivery.  I will spare you my soapbox dissertation on the “issues” of snow on the farm (and business) and just be quietly thankful that the forecasters were wrong, wrong….completely wrong. Hooray!

If you thought last week here on the hill was something…then I’m sure you will find this week completely "scintillating". (spoiler alert---it was BORING, really BORING…and I’m used to our “non-exciting” lifestyle)  It's not that we didn't do ANYTHING...just repeats of the same old, same old.

But, the skies are nearly always noteworthy...

finished office floor
But, the floor is officially done. Neither one of us can get over the fact that it's so beautiful...and it's finally DONE!

Well, no, wait.
  I am officially done with the floor.  I have hung up my kneepads and gone on to other things.  The Boss still needs to finish up the trim around the woodstove.  This part of the job will involve staining some oak boards and putting them in place with brass screws.  (never one to do things halfway, I’m sure it will look amazing when he’s finally done) Right now, he’s somewhat side-tracked with the arrival of my new computer.  As the resident “IT” guy, it is the Boss’ responsibility to make sure that we are connected to the 21st century and that all our various devices are updated.  He said it was time to replace the computer…something about speed and storage…and so on.  So, he’s focused on getting that project up and running first and foremost. The new computer means new programs…which means I better pay attention! (and not save quite so many pictures)

new computer

When I said I was on to “other things” I meant that I got the task of putting everything back in order after the construction job was finished.  That entailed a lot of cleaning and re-organizing and asking (out loud) WHAT in the world did we save THIS for?  We (I) tend to save things that look “useful”.  And, while this often comes in handy around the farm, it can be problematic when attempting to keep the household organized. It looks like a trip to the dump is looming large on the horizon.

Somewhere in all the organizing, I got a new vet box (which I hope to stock today) in anticipation of lambing season. It's just around the corner.  Have you ever wondered WHAT is in my vet box?  For that matter what IS the vet box?  Well, here, read this one. I’m pretty sure we are well prepared for lambing, but it is always good to get a complete inventory supply with some time to spare.  This week, we’ll work the ewes and make our final preparations.  The Boss will get the jug pens arranged once we finish feeding out the extra hay and we have a little more room.
the ewes are getting bigger and bigger and...

Can you tell I’m looking forward to lambing?  It’s rather like Christmas on steroids…totally exciting and thoroughly nerve-wracking (and always over far too soon). 

isn't Ellie pretty?
This week had very little excitement (seriously, it was even duller than last week).  The dog went to the vet, again. (somehow, she had never gotten one of her shots…don’t know how that happened, but we’re good now)  But, I did get to visit with my favorite vet for the first time in a couple of years, so that was good. We talked for a bit and I think he misses our cows, too.  Then, I ended up making TWO trips to the feed store (in my preparation for the non-existent snowstorm) But, that meant that I got to visit with the hay guy (and the missus) and that was one hilarious conversation. I’m still laughing.

Can you tell I’m trying to look at life’s weird little interruptions in a positive light?  A change of attitude really helps, although it’s not always easy. (and I often fail miserably)
gorgeous light on the way home from the vet clinic

Despite the weather forecast and the lack of strong sunlight and the cold of December…there was actually stuff to pick for this week’s delivery!  While it was not as much as I would have liked to have…and nowhere near enough to satisfy ALL our customers (I’m pretty sure that is impossible anyway) we had another good week even though it was really COLD for our pick-up. Sales for this December have been at an all-time high.  We are incredibly thankful to have such great customers. We’ll spend some quality time in the hoophouses this week in an effort to keep greens production going throughout the winter.

the timing could certainly be better for paperwork

The mail brought the Census of Horticultural Specialties from the USDA and NASS.  This 28-page form needs to be completed and returned in relatively short order.  Filling out this type of paperwork (it can be done online) is time-consuming and may seem unnecessary to some. And, I admit, my first thought was not “oh, joy…more paperwork!” But, I’m just nerdy enough to appreciate all those facts and figures in one place. When all the reports are finished and the results tallied, it is amazing to see just what goes into Ag production around the nation.  And, yes, I do plan on sharing some of those facts and figures with you. Agriculture (and all it's many facets) is just astounding.

And, that was it.

 Another “truly scintillating” week on the hill. Do read the sarcasm in this sentence.

Squeekie and Sissie have the right idea

Hope you’re having a Happy Sunday!

Thanks for stopping by!  Come see us again real soon.

an amazing start to the day

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hard Questions

I love talking to the neighbors.

You generally learn something new about farming or the neighborhood. You see things from a new perspective. Or at the very least, you hear something amusing.  If you’re lucky and talk with the right neighbors, you get all three in one conversation!

Some time ago, we were talking to the hay guy (and the missus).  They nearly always come as a duo, and generally have two conversations going at once; she will interrupt her own story to correct his (and vice versa).  They are a wealth of local knowledge and truly amusing to boot.  Honestly, I could talk to them all day.  …and sometimes, that nearly happens.

We were discussing farming and history and how things are done. “Waaalll, I don’t do that one no more...” was uttered more than once.  Until the hay guy grinned a little sheepishly and said “Waaalll, it don’t sound like I really do much at all, now does it?” and he chuckled at himself.

He’s been farming a long time. His family has farmed here for many generations.  He’s seen trends come and go.  He’s tried things and knows what does (and does NOT) work for him.  He’s asked and answered all the hard questions about life and farming. …and he’s okay with the fact that he’s getting “up there” in years and has to conserve his time, his energy and his resources if he wants to keep on farming until he’s called to his reward. I’m certain he knows what exactly he needs to do to keep his farm and farming efforts sustainable.

With all the talk of sustainability today, I don’t know if the folks tossing the word about have ever thought about what the word really means and how it plays out on the family farm.

Sustainability is “the ability to continue a defined behavior indefinitely.” A simple, elegant (somewhat flawed) definition. Indefinitely? Is it possible for anything to continue indefinitely?

While it would be every farmer’s desire to “continue indefinitely”, circumstances often dictate change of one kind or another (in order to continue farming) which may seem to run counter to the definition. Over time, a farm evolves, taking into consideration weather changes, public demand, unexpected life events and even health issues.  These lead to the introduction of new crops, different methods, labor-saving devices (and practices) and possible diversification. As the farming population ages, work-arounds to accommodate health and safety concerns become issues as well. And, when the next generation takes over, things really change although the farm itself remains a sustainable entity.

At the end of every season, it’s time to take stock and ask ourselves the hard questions as we prepare for the next year.  Is this really worth it?  Are we being good stewards? Does this method actually work?  Is there demand? Can we continue this method/crop for the long-haul? Are we still satisfied and happy? Do we have the strength (physical/mental/emotional) to keep on keeping on?  Could we be better? (that would be better stewards, better workers, more organized, better marketers...the list goes on and on) These are just some of the questions we have to ask ourselves, rather than simply hoping we can be “sustainable”.

Sustainability is the ability to continue.

It doesn’t mean no inputs, no matter what you might read on-line.  Fertilization and pest control are essential to continued growth and food production. The methods used for both are reviewed (often) and changed, particularly when there are options that are less toxic and/or more effective. It also does not mean clinging blindly to the “old ways” or just the things our grandparents would have remembered.

…and there’s always that little matter of profitability… I know there is a growing trend to think that food should somehow be produced for free…but, if farmers aren’t able to pay production costs, there is no way the operation can be sustainable.

These are hard questions.  Tough considerations.  Sometimes changes must be made and those don't come easy.

We aren’t the only farmers reviewing these subjects.  Over the years I have been greatly impressed with the great amounts of hard-earned knowledge possessed by those in the “humble profession”. 

And, I am not exaggerating when I say hard-earned…any success is only possible by the (very literal) “sweat of your brow”  in the farming world. A lot of thought and soul-searching goes into farm decisions.

When new methods are introduced, they are often met with skepticism and question. And in today’s world, protest and horror stories on the internet. Let me say… It would truly help matters if everyone would look at things objectively. (and get ALL the facts)

Years and years ago, when lots of young folks headed out to “the big city” it first began to become difficult to find farm help. So, many farmers switched to round bales when making hay.  This was a big deal. New and different equipment meant the face of farming changed forever. The small squares had become the norm and many still use them.  (although, you must remember that even baling was “new technology” at one point--- before that hay was just stacked loose) But, far more acreage can be cut and baled using a round bale system in a timely fashion, and doesn’t require near the man (or woman) power. And, cows really don’t show a preference for the shape of their meals. The change allowed farmers to “continue on indefinitely”, although hay season began to look far different. 

Our own desire to “continue on indefinitely” meant that there have been times when we had to stop, re-think and change directions.

While I truly loved my cows, when it came to profitability, it just wasn’t happening.  Raw milk sales are illegal in our state. (and raw milk consumption is a topic for another discussion) With a couple of cows on a small acreage, becoming a licensed dairy wasn’t an option. Bootlegging is not appealing and jumping through the hoops or circumventing the law was either too expensive or time-consuming to keep what were essentially gigantic pets.  Making milk soap was fun and even though we sold a fair amount, it wasn’t enough to justify the added work and expense.

Jersey Cow Milk soap for sale 2008

So, we moved on. The farm remained a working entity…just without cows. (we've made a lot of other changes over the years)

Wintertime is our time for review and revision. Those cold, gloomy days are perfect for assessing the past and planning for the future.  (and keeps us from falling asleep next to the warmth of the woodstove) There are numerous crops, some methods and more than a few ventures that we have discarded over the years.  And, there are always new things to consider.

So, whether it’s looking at earnings figures…(I do love my Quickbooks), discussing the failures and frustrations, or taking note of the successes… we have to be willing to ask the hard questions and perhaps even say “Waallll, I don’t do that one no more...” on occasion in order to “continue on indefinitely”.

Let’s hear it for asking (and answering) the hard questions and the quest for farming sustainability!

the dawn of a new day brings all sorts of possibilities

The definition of sustainability can be found here:

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday Walkabout 12-14

So…whatcha been doin’?
Waylon says, "HEY!"
...and where IS my breakfast?

Around here…there’s not a whole lot to report.

We spent the vast majority of the week on our knees.   

…and we were not praying.

When I said we were working on the big flooring project, I really meant WE were working on the big flooring project.  No contractors, no helpers, just the Boss and me (and our trusty knee pads).

doing prep work

finishing up the livingroom

After years of use and abuse, it was beyond time to fix the floor.  

this is what the kitchen floor looked like
With our autograph in place for future generations...we began working on the floor.

the job begins
getting ready
finished floor

Back to "normal".

I think I love the kitchen

the hole-y floor is gone forever!
check out...before...

...and after

We didn’t get completely finished like we had hoped.  The project took slightly longer since we had to move all the furniture (twice) as we worked along.  But, there were no disasters and no arguments…and the floor looks gorgeous. It looks like a whole new house.  I must say, we did a fine job. We’ll finish the office tomorrow and then maybe my desk won’t look like such a mess. (but, then again…)

I'm pretty proud of that cut around the toilet!

30+ years of construction experience
and watching This Old House come in handy

the job site/office

The only reason we could spend the whole week on our knees and focused on the floor is that life is slow, slow…real slow this time of year.  (don’t get used to it, it doesn’t last!)

this time of year it's easy to find time to appreciate the beauty surrounding us

For right now, the ewes are just hanging out, eating and growing the lambs that will start arriving in just about one month.  Next week, we will spend some time getting the barn and the sheep ready for the new arrivals.  We got some new heatlamps and hopefully they live up to our expectations. I’m really looking forward to lambing…that’s when I finally get to see if those breeding choices I made work out like I thought they would.

all you can hear is chewing and contented grunts
as the ewes work through their morning hay

The hens are still cleaning out the lower garden.  They do an amazing job getting all the weed seeds and spent crops.  We’ll take a little time on the next relatively nice day and pull out the t-tape (used for irrigation) and then the Boss can mow and everything will look tidy again. …and we’ll begin the countdown to spring planting. We will have our big “planting/planning meeting” in the next week or so. (we spend at least a day with the seed catalogs and garden maps, plotting out the next season) Then, I will be able to place the first seed orders for 2015. (which means I better clean out the greenhouse soon, too)

can you see the hens out there working?

hen cleaning garden

they've finished the crops in the foreground
time to move on

hens working

baby lettuce
The crops in the hoophouses are slowly…slowly growing. 

frosty kale
The frosty nights have slowed things down considerably.  There are numerous plantings that I had hoped I would be picking by now that are still just sitting there, under the frost blanket…waiting for a little warm sunshine. Crop re-growth is very slow and somewhat unpredictable this time of year, although it does happen. The weeds in the hoophouse, on the other hand, are growing profusely.  It’s just not fair! If I could just convince everyone that the weeds are truly tasty (and they really are) we’d be set.  However, the hens would miss their greens and we still wouldn’t have enough greens to satisfy our customers. (and chickweed is hard to pick nicely) So…we’ll just stick with the status quo.

While there hasn’t been a whole lot of action to note around here this week, the skies have been amazing.  I’m sure there is some explanation for the beautiful skies of December, but I’m not privy to it…so, we just enjoy the light show.  Thursday’s sky was particularly noteworthy, there were Facebook posts from all over the area.    


In the midst of flooring, we did indeed get out winter sales email sent out and the responses flooded back in.  Wow!  Week two was even bigger than week one!  And, despite the fact that we NEED more lettuce…and a lot MORE spinach (I’m trying…y’all…I’m trying!), everyone seemed happy with their purchases.  Our customers are great!

We’ll take a little break today, although the Boss has to finish up some trim work and I have to do some clean-up, laundry and bake some bread for the upcoming week. We’ll get back to our farm work and floor job later. I will also be writing to the FDA (did you read THIS?) I know I’m cutting it close…the deadline for comment on the FMSA is December 15th.  That's TOMORROW!

I’d say that maybe we’d have some exciting news next time…but, quite honestly…excitement is not something we want here on the farm.  Excitement generally means something unexpected happened…and unexpected is generally not a good thing.  So, personally, I really like dull…and predictable.  While it doesn’t make for real interesting reading, it does mean that all is well and going according to plan.  You  know…no news is good news.

Oh, wait...there was some news. Sort of. 

We had snow, sleet and freezing rain...which melted fairly quickly, but did add a bit of "interest" to the flooring job.

sheep in sleet

frozen birch tree

hauling plywood in the snow
dog helpers at the ready

Then, we had a roof inspection, courtesy of the dog.  No, Gus did NOT figure out how to get on the roof (thankfully, or we'd be doing roof repair today!).  He did chase the cat around the yard, up the greenhouse and onto the house.  After her "inspection" she safely returned to the ground.  Can't say that the greenhouse skin benefitted from all the kitty claws...
Where did the cat go, Gus?

Yep, this looks okay!

checking out the exhaust vent

Then, there were the "extreme free-ranging" chickens. About a dozen hens found a hole in the fence and were checking out the farm.  A short, intense chicken-roundup followed.

we don't usually have chickens in the woodpile
Tess has gotten used to the new floor
and doesn't even mind that there is still an air compressor
in the livingroom!

And, that, my friends was the totally uneventful week on the hill.

Hope you’re having a Happy Sunday!

looking thoughtful on a windy day

Thanks for visiting!  Come back and see us again real soon.