Thursday, December 31, 2015

The BEST Thing

time sure flies

As the hours tick down to the end of the year, we all seem to get a little reflective and introspective thinking over all the things that happened in the past 365 days.

I’ve talked to more than one person who was going to be glad to put this year away and get started afresh with 2016.

Lots of stuff happened in 2015…personally, it had some very bad moments…although it was not our worst year ever. Not by a longshot. I think that title would have to go to 1997.

And, speaking of that year…when we moved to the hill back in ’97 with our two little girls, we realized that one day they would grow up and have families of their own. But, that was a long, long time in the future.

Wasn’t it?

Time has a way of flying by.

And, before we knew it, the little girls were grown and married and living their own lives.

There was very little mention of another generation, and we had promised not to meddle.

So…imagine our surprise when we found out that 2015 was going to be

                       the year of the grandbaby!

Not only did our first grandbaby—a grandson---arrive in March…

...his cousin (another grandson) arrived in August, causing countless people to comment on our ready-made future work crew.

Before their arrival, I had no idea there could be so much love.

Since they’re still just little, it’s impossible to guess what they will do…how they will influence…what we will learn from them.  But, oh, the potential!

In the future, we hope to encourage them to love this place and this way of life. 

visiting at the Market

enjoying the hoophouse 

And, don’t you think for one minute that I am kidding when I say… the Boss really wants them to learn to weed!

No question about it…

Definitely the BEST thing from this year!



Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The MOST Profitable Thing

Were potatoes THE most profitable thing?

It’s that time again. Time to generate those year-end reports. Time to look at that all-important Profit and Loss Statement.
or was it tomatoes?

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately “crunching the numbers”. After all the bills are paid and the earnings recorded, it’s always interesting to see how it all settles out.

I have to admit, this year certainly hasn’t been one of our best. There were crop failures of “sure-fire” things and others didn’t perform quite how we thought they would. Then, there was the whole saga of the sheep…

But, when all was said and done… we finished in the black. That is a big accomplishment that some say simply cannot be done, particularly in small-scale agriculture.   This is a profitable venture. Perhaps we’re not up to some people’s standards, but we pay the bills, take care of ourselves and have some in savings for the big projects without borrowing.

PRODUCE is definitely the MOST profitable thing!

Looking at the profit and loss statement, there is no denying that produce is indeed “the most profitable” item. As a matter of fact, if you just look at our annual investment in seeds versus our earnings, the profit margin looks quite impressive. Seriously, it’s downright amazing. If it were simply a matter of buying seeds and then selling vegetables, I would have to suggest that EVERYONE make the investment.  You don’t get a rate of return like that most places.

But, there’s much more to growing vegetables than just throwing a bunch of seeds around and hoping for the best. Beyond the seeding is the actual growing, the harvest and the ever important marketing and sales. All these aspects have equal import in creating a success out of our veggie production.

early spring marketing

Still, it’s just a little tempting to look at those little rows of numbers and focus strictly on the totals. It seems like it would be easy to make changes so that there would be no losses. (you know, in a perfect world)

 Why, look how much we made selling squash, peppers, broccoli...whatever.

getting ready for Market

…maybe we should forget everything else and  grow just one of those amazing crops. We could be a true specialty farm. What about  changing our name to "broccoli hill"?

mixed lettuce is one of the top earners

Maybe we should forget about outdoor crops, put up more hoophouses and just grow stuff in there! Look how much mixed lettuce we sold…and you know we always sell out early.

Oh, look how many dozen eggs we sold! We could build a bigger henhouse and get a bunch more hens. 
washing eggs

…and what about lamb sales?  There is NO way we will ever keep up with demand. More ewes, more lambs---more lambchops! Yeah.

lamb chops

               Wait a minute.

If we lose the sheep to focus on the gardens, we also lose our source of “free” fertilizer/mulch, affecting the quality of our crops.
mulching broccoli plants
cuts down on weeds and holds in moisture and nutrients
 Of course, we would decrease our hay and feed bill as well. And, without those amazing lambchops…we would lose customers. Customers who also buy other things from us.

Besides, we live on what is essentially a rocky cliff…covered with a thin layer of soil. I can’t imagine attempting to garden at a 45* angle in the front portion of the farm. Sheep don’t mind the incline.

Then there is the weather…we have just 175 frost-free days here in the Valley. We could increase hoophouse production. But, hoophouse crops mean that the vast majority of the work is done on hands and knees. Those aging knees don’t recover like they used to.

Well, what if we forget the gardens and just raise hens…or chickens? We sold a whole lot of eggs. 

Everyone raves about our broilers. Sure, that would be great while feed prices are low. But, what happens if feed prices return to the level we saw a couple of years ago? What happens to our profit margin then? And, do we really want to process broilers all the time? What about the waste? We would need new housing, too.

And, as much as I love lamb…changing up our program there would involve some serious capital investment… at the very least finding more land to rent. Then there’s the issue of hay storage for wintertime.  That would open a whole new set of issues.

Oh, my…talk about opening Pandora’s Box. If we change any one thing too much, we will upset that delicate balance and perhaps threaten our overall profitability.

All our various ventures here on the hill work in a sort of symbiotic relationship. If one aspect suffers a loss or failure, one of the others can pick up the slack. Diversity is our saving grace.

fall marketing

If we focus on finding and producing just THE MOST PROFITABLE THING, we miss the rest of the pieces of the puzzle that keep this place running and make us "rich in other ways". (click the link to read)

Neither of us wants to focus so much on profitability that we overlook living. Quality of life is equally important as profitability, even though it does not show up as a line on the balance sheet.

I think we did pretty well at finding a balance between profitability and quality of life in the past year.

offerings for final Market of 2015

                 Let’s just hope we can do it again in 2016!

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Hardest Thing

no finer view for a shepherd

Raising livestock for food has to be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

Well, raising children is actually far more difficult, and the parallels are numerous…however, children have never been a portion of our livelihood…and were never, ever on the menu. (promise!)

We’ve raised food for a long time and we’ve raised a number of species. Over the years we have learned a lot and have become fairly self-reliant. We can diagnose and treat most problems without a call to the vet. We have firsthand experience with a whole lot of things, and don't have to consult all the vet books very often anymore, either. So, you might think that we’ve seen it all, know it all and everything rolls along without the slightest mishap.

…and you would be wrong. Oh, so wrong.

one of the most peaceful sights on the farm...
grazing sheep

Over the years, I often wondered why David, slayer of the giant Goliath, the author of Psalms and Proverbs, and later King of Israel was referred to as “a man after God’s own heart”. Then, I remembered…David was once a shepherd boy. Learning to be a good shepherd and protecting a flock teach you much about the care of the Almighty for His creation. Then, there’s all the praying…

I can honestly say that shepherding has driven me to my knees more than once. And, perhaps I have learned more from being a shepherd than from any other experience in my life. 

…except, again, parenting…

2015 was one of those years when our skills were tested…and perhaps even our resolve. ...and we found ourselves doing a lot of praying. But, ultimately, we came out victorious. Sales have been incredible…and the present flock is looking great. …although once more we can say  "learned a lot on that sheep!"

1st lamb -2015
Lambing season was like no other in our 15 years of shepherding. Ordinarily, I love lambing season. But, I won’t lie, this year…it was hard. It was physically taxing and mentally draining. We had more than one ewe end up in our make-shift hospital pen. Ovine Intensive Care, if you will.  And, the care was indeed intensive and constant...and not entirely successful. In one case, we saved the lambs…although we lost both ewes.

Losing a livestock animal is different than losing a pet. While there is some sense of personal loss, it is coupled with an unexpected financial loss, which often has far-reaching repercussions. In the case of the lambs, there was the added work and frustration of raising bottle babies. Not to mention, what do you do with a couple hundred pounds of dead animal…?

But, speaking of lambs…2015 one for the record books...

In 2015, we had the most lambs ever

And, we ended up with SEVEN bottle lambs. SEVEN. It was total chaos. The Boss even built a special lamb-feeding bar. Did you read this one? (there are only five lambs in the video, the others came later)

However, we did indeed prevail. Despite the loss of one lamb, the rest did indeed make it to their intended destination. In most cases, their growth performance was remarkable. But, quite honestly, I hope to never, ever repeat that scenario!

out on pasture

Just when we thought we had shepherding back on track, the issues of a warm, wet summer made themselves known.  Sheep have real problems with internal parasites. This is due to the way they eat grass (they nip it off right at the ground level, often actually biting the dirt) and the fact that they do not have the body mass to protect them from the ravages of parasites.  More than once, we found ourselves vetting lambs that looked fine one day and the next were fighting for their life.  

Again…a loss, but we again prevailed.

So, it was time to turn the ram in with the ewes to continue the program. By turning the ram in with the ewes in August, we get lambs in January/February that are ready to go out on grass in early April and the cycle continues.

"flehmens response"
ram with ewes

We’ve done this for years. The ram was experienced. The ewes (for the most part) were experienced.

This should be a piece of cake.


Not this year.

Everything was going along just fine…until it wasn’t.

The ram went lame. He was no longer putting weight on one of his back feet. Without the use of his back leg, he couldn’t jump, and if he couldn’t jump, he couldn’t mount the ewes, and it he couldn’t mount the ewes…well, he couldn’t…well, you know…

There was a very real possibility of NO lamb chops for 2016.

This was a serious problem. A potential game-changer. A very real disaster. And the timing couldn’t be worse. You don’t just run out to Rams-R-Us and get another breeding animal.

We decided to pull him out in order to diagnose the problem. Maybe a little vacation would give him time to heal. Problem was, we could find nothing wrong with him. And, his “vacation” made him depressed. As in, so depressed that now we had 300 pounds of sheep that wouldn't get up and eat.

I snapped. I really thought that I couldn’t do this anymore. I didn’t even know if I wanted to. I carry a lot of baggage and it finally all came crashing down and I lost it.  I really did. A solution, any solution escaped me…completely and I could see failure looming large on the path ahead.

However, the boss wasn’t going to take it lying down. He’d figure out something…we’d fix this.

…and he did.

We found a new ram, at a new farm (with some beautiful animals…keep that in mind for future purchases) for a reasonable price and within days we were “back in business”. The story is here.  ...making me wonder why I ever worried about the whole thing.

one handsome ram

The sheep story was far from resolved and as of today, we are still waiting to see if our new acquisition was actually a good solution. Lambing for 2016 will be spread out over more of the calendar than I would is what it is...

and that is a never-ending cycle of work and learning. 

And sometimes I wonder why we continue on with shepherding…

...the hardest thing…

…and then I remember that LAMB is delicious! 

lamb steak

stuffed lamb meatballs
(recipes can be found on our website)

Asian lamb with broccoli

...and our customers LOVE it!

Not only does raising livestock add to our income, the meat we raise truly completes our menu in the most amazing way.

And it’s all worth it.  

Here’s to successful shepherding in 2016! 

and the sheep truly add to the beauty of our surroundings

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Most Important Thing

Looking back at the past year, it’s easy to point out our accomplishments and use superlatives to describe events.

 The biggest…the best…the most…  

However, absolutely all of our accomplishments depend completely on something we can’t control.

Something for which we can take no credit and yet affects absolutely EVERYTHING.

And, to my way of thinking that would make it the MOST important thing here on the hill. A force to be reckoned with, respected and understood.

I’m talking about the weather.

I know, it seems like I’m always talking about the weather.

But, quite honestly, we can do nothing without a balance of warmth, precipitation and sunlight. 

That’s right…NOTHING. But, at the same time...we have absolutely no control over it.So, we have to do what we can to learn to work with the weather…to foresee problems and have a recovery plan in place. Since the weather is truly THE MOST IMPORTANT THING, and we are powerless to change it,  we have to accept that fact and make the most of it.

way too many days looked like THIS

I must say, the weather of 2015 wasn’t always an asset. While we cannot point to any one event, (like the Derecho of ‘12, or the blizzard of ’09) this past year's weather indeed created challenges. We had late season cold and lots of wind…that spelled disaster for the early broccoli crop…and then the onion crop. However, things improved after that.

Oddly, weather in different parts of the country/world affect us, too. Those small, spindly onion plants were unable to handle the weather challenges due to the ongoing drought in Texas where they were originally grown. Smoke from CANADA drifted down in the warm still air of June and made for some eerie skies. Even local grain prices are affected by supply elsewhere.

But, the big weather story here on the hill had to be moisture. 

foggy sunrise

hot, hazy sunrise

frosty sunrise

While we didn’t set any rainfall records…not like that year that we had double our annual rainfall. (I think that was 2003…talk about soggy!) But, many mornings started off foggy and gloomy and the grass stayed dewy until lunchtime and beyond. This made for lush, green grass (that is still growing today…December 28) for the animals.  However, it made it difficult to get hay harvested. It was nearly the end of July before we got the first bale in the barn.
dewdrops on grass

Weather affects everything.

The weather affects the farm overall.

 Cold weather is taxing on the animals, the plants and even machinery. Not to mention the farmers who have to work out in it!

The same can be said for record-setting high temperatures. This recent “heatwave” didn’t do us any favors. The trees and plants that are budding now are more likely to expire during the course of the winter. And, the fruit crop will probably be affected as well.

Repair work


The weather affects the Market. 

Ever wonder WHY Staunton doesn’t have a winter market? Try visiting our Market spot after a February snowstorm! 
our vendor spot after a February snow

And, that’s just the location…it’s impossible to grow things in frigid temperatures…and forget about harvesting when everything is blanketed in snow. In 2015, we had more rainy Saturdays than we have had in years. Rainy Saturdays are not the best for business.

this year the market needed an umbrella vendor!

Then, there was the threat of hurricane Joaquin…we were supposed to take a direct hit. 
On a Saturday. 
The days prior to the market were spent agonizing over weather reports. The storm missed us…the Market went on…maintaining its record for being open every Saturday (minus 1---when it was literally under water during hurricane Fran) since 1993. But, market attendance was way off as vendors and shoppers alike worried over storm issues.

a nearly empty Market due to rain

The weather affects the gardens. 

I suppose this should go without saying…but, a lot of folks think that farmers want it to rain ALL the time. As a matter of fact, they don’t understand that there can actually be TOO much rain. You can irrigate during a drought, but it’s nearly impossible to divert a flood. Aside from the issues of flooding, plant disease and pests thrive in warm, moist conditions. We found ourselves battling both this year, adding to the workload and our input costs. 

too much rain is NOT a good thing!

And, we won’t even talk about the weeds!

2015 could have been the year of the snail.   Snails are a host to parasites that affect the sheep and animal health became a big concern. …not to mention snails eat…EVERYTHING!

The weather affects the animals.

old, wet hens

Lush grass promotes great growth, but unseasonable weather causes all sorts of health issues. That damp, dewy grass provided the perfect environment for parasites to flourish, and we lost the battle for animal survival more than once. Although, overall, our livestock endeavors were incredibly successful.

lambs on lush summer grass

Yes, the weather is indeed the most important thing. We can’t do a thing to change it, so we might as well appreciate and enjoy it.

 a beautiful summer day
early fall

While the white stuff is really not my favorite, snow actually fixes nitrogen into the soil and aids in the upcoming growing season.

...and Pyrs LOVE snow!

Ice crystals in the upper atmosphere make for some amazing skies.

There is nothing like the fresh, clean beauty after a storm rolls through.

And, when we somehow experience the balance of moisture, sunlight and warmth…the thriving farm is truly a thing of beauty!

Watch it change throughout the Market season.
(one shot, every Friday afternoon after chores April through November)

Our entire life and livelihood is made possible by the weather...the good, the bad and the ugly. It's all necessary, if for no other reason than to make us appreciative and aware of our surroundings.

Now, I'm wondering what the weather of 2016 will bring to the hill.