"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Just Who Do I think I Am, and What the Hell Do I Think I'm Doing?

Although it was a beautiful day here, weatherwise, it was a rather discouraging day for me personally. I'm not sure why - it was a fairly ordinary day. Some friends came by in the morning unexpectedly, and I had to scramble to find a meal to cook for them (Mexicans - if a family of Mexicans ever comes to visit you, know that you should provide a fairly substantial meal no matter what the time of day, and also that you will have to coax them to eat it. They will refuse, but just load up the plates and push. That's what's expected.).

I had about twenty minutes notice, so after I checked the fridge and ascertained there was basically nothing in it, I ran out to the chest freezer. There was also basically nothing in it. I'm down to three gallons of blueberries, three or four large beef roasts, one half-ham, and some dog bones. I picked the last package of small steaks - tenderloins, and cut them up frozen and fried them with jalapenos and garlic (I didn't have an onion in the house, can you imagine?) and served them with last night's reheated white rice and some canned refried beans. Pretty embarrassing.

I've been following a lot of "sustainability" blogs, and there are apparently a lot of people out there who take producing their own food a lot more seriously than I do. I have nothing but admiration for these people - I desire to emulate them. But surely I am not there yet. If my family had to depend on what I have been able to produce and preserve over the last year, we'd be in serious starvation mode right about now. Much less would I be able to entertain - as evidenced by today's adventure.

Of course, when I moved out of the city three years ago, starvation was the very last thing on my mind. I simply wanted to provide my young children with the opportunity to grow up with space to run and experience nature, the way I did. I wanted them to have the chance to interact with the plant and the animal kingdom in an immediate and emotional way, to ENJOY nature in the simplest, most visceral way - by playing in it. I wanted to recreate the best aspects of my own childhood while (hopefully) avoiding the worst. And in terms of that goal, I have been extremely successful. My kids have a grand old time digging for worms, catching frogs and snakes, gathering eggs, milking goats, picking flowers, and generally running wild.

But over a relatively short period of time, my goals changed. I became aware of crucial and short-term problems such as peak oil, climate change, and the disappearance of the honeybee. I started to worry, in a serious and sustained way, about how I was going to provide for the well-being of my progeny, to the second and third generation. The most common way parents try to do this is by paying for their children's college education, or maybe even giving them the funds for a down payment on a house. Thanks to my generous ancestors, my kid's college education is assured. I hope they will each take full advantage of that benefit. However, in the past few generations, Americans seem to have collectively decided that preparing our children for the future means preparing them to make money. I no longer believe that is a very practical goal. I have begun to wonder if money in the bank is going to be worth anything at all by the time my children are adults starting their own families.

I don't pretend to know what the world will be like in twenty or thirty years. But I will say I am not very optimistic. I believe there is a better than even chance that life is going to be very much more difficult - Americans will be poorer, with less access to healthcare and credit, and in general people will have to depend much more on localized economies - barter with their neighbors -and the sweat of their own brows. If that is the case, then the most important thing I can leave my children is fertile land and the knowhow to make it productive. When I think about what I can do to help my children be successful, I think about preparing them to be able to grow, store, and prepare their own food; to build and maintain their own systems of energy generation; to care for livestock and the fertility of the soil, and to doctor themselves and their children.

Well.... for the last three years, I've been working pretty hard to try and educate myself about all those subjects. I've made it my business to learn about small scale subsistence farming. I've laid out a plan for a self-sustaining homestead that includes food production, energy production, water security, and a full-scale library on a wide variety of topics, from beekeeping to home midwifery. I've laid in a supply of hand tools and a multi-year supply of seeds.

But while I have thoroughly enjoyed the planning and the reading, I would be a liar if I said that the practical results have been wholly satisfactory. Here is a small list of the things that are currently plaguing my homestead:

1) the chickens are not laying. They apparently don't like their home. Some of them seem to have diarrhea - most likely coccidia from living in a damp environment. They were happier and healthier when let to range freely, but we could never find the eggs and they would destroy our seedlings in the spring garden. Which is the better path? Don't know..... don't know. Everything I read says chickens are the easiest livestock on earth, which only makes me me feel like the biggest idiot on earth.

2) Pasture rotation - it turns out that a couple of ponies and four to six goats can strip five acres of land right down to the bone in three years. When we first came here, there were blackberry bushes galore - so many that I thought our goats would never be able to control them. Boy was I wrong. Now I wish the whole damn property was covered in blackberry bushes.

3) Noxious Weeds - there are some things the goats won't eat. Turns out these things are: various species of thistles, poison hemlock, creeping buttercup, milkweed, shotweed, and pretty much every noxious or invasive weed you've ever heard of. What this means is that year after year, my pastures have a tendency to become more and more thickly covered with poisonous and/or invasive/illegal weeds. Good plants die off as the goats eat them, and whatever is too evil to be eaten wins the evolutionary rat race and becomes dominant. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time pulling the deep taproot of poison hemlock out of the ground, and yet it is kicking my ass. Sooner or later I assume my entire property will be covered with venomous strangling vines and stinging nettle.

4) Mud. Hooves are the enemy of grass. I have seven or eight hoofed animals, and every one of them is doing it's level best to trample every bit of fertile soil I own into a quagmire. I have spent hundreds of dollars on hog fuel and injured my back trying to spread it over the most vulnerable areas, but nonetheless, greater and greater areas of my property are inexorably being converted into deep, sucking mud. The pig is especially destructive, rooting up turf and creating muddy wallows all over the main pasture. We have tried to confine him to his 12 x 20 foot pen, but he is an escape artist worthy of Houdini.

5) Parasites. Goats are particularly prone to worms, and without careful and aggressive management will become progressively overloaded with intestinal parasites. Resistance to common medications is a major problem. So far, my goats have not had serious parasite problems, but it's entirely likely that they will, and without access to high powered drugs, I don't know how I can continue to protect them.

6) Ignorance. I'm sure if I kept thinking about it, there are several things I could remunerate.
But I am a late-twentieth-century American and that means I am lazy, tired, overweight, and apathetic. God damn. I can't help but feel but that my best efforts are rather pathetic, judged by historical standards.

I know my brother will understand this - I swing between wildly opposed poles of feeling kind of absurdly proud of my accomlishments and feeling abjectly ashamed of how little I have managed to get done. It is actually very difficult to arrive at an objective judgement, and also probably irrelevant. How'd I do? I dunno, how many live grandchildren do you have?

Well, time marches on and I have to put my progeny to bed, because one thing I know for sure is that the little buggers need sleep if they are going to grow satisfactorily.

Some sage said that when in doubt, we should "do that duty that lies nearest." Right now I have to go feed my kids and put them to bed.


Claire MW said...

#2 and #5 go together. We learned that in the past year and a half. This spring, we are planning on fencing off four pastures, roughly 1 acre each. We only have 8.5 acres, much of which is sloped and woodsy. It will be a challenge but I think it can be done. 30-45 days per pasture. Rotate. Repeat. With four pastures, we should be doing MUCH better. This should also help with the noxious weed and mud problems because you give the land a "break." If you can manage to rotate, I think you will find some of these problems alleviated.

With regard to the chickens, they don't like changes. We find if they are moved, they quit laying for 2-3 weeks. Also they quit when they are molting. They also quit if you look at them funny. Seriously, ours have just restarted laying in the past 2 weeks. They quit in November. That is because of the day length. Shorter daylight hours = less eggs (or no eggs in our case). We have about 40 hens right now. But sure enough, they have started to lay again. If the coccidia don't seem to clear up quickly, I think there are some meds with short withdrawal times that you can give layers.

Aimee said...

thank you claire
I am trying to learn about these issues as fast as I can and learning from neighbors/friends/readers helps a great deal. I sure do appreciate your wisdom.

Penelope said...

I think you're doing amazingly well for a city girl that just started thinking about these things 3yrs ago. We'll make it, we'll be hundreds of times better off than the vast majority of folks. And in addition to your own learning and preparing you've talked me into getting on your climate change bandwagon, and our families will have differing and complementary skills (not to mention land) and being only a day's bike ride from eachother (yeah, I know, but if the shit hits the fan my fat ass will hit a bicycle seat) we will do ok, when your stupid chickens won't lay mine probably will, and vice versa. Hopefully you'll run out of meat around when I'm running out of veggies and your grandchildren can learn to spin yarn from me while mine learn to butcher goats from you. We are on the right track, no one ever said this shit was easy.

berryvine said...

Chin up. Sounds like you are doing fine. I was a city girl and moved to a farm. The closest I had ever been to a live chicken was a petting zoo. I had a horse but it was stabled and the groom at the stable always had her saddled and ready for me when I got there. Experience is the best teacher. I now care for 18000 chickens,6 horses and a varying number of goats. The goats are by far the hardest. We live in the humid south and parasites are a real problem. I keep a closed herd and breed for resistance. I still have to use the harsh chemicals occassionally but not like I did the first couple of years. It does get better.

Jerry said...

When I hit "adulthood" I began to learn of the worries that my folks had when we were kids...some worries they still have. The biggest was whether they'd been good providers and chosen rightly by raising us in the country and more or less off the land. There were times that I felt I was missing out, at the time, but I have always KNOWN that I am better off for how I grew up.

From what little I have read of you and your husband, I think your kids will feel the same, if not even more so.

As for the specifics, most of them are why I don't really understand the "family island" method of farming that has developed. Such a ridiculous amount of work is meant to be shared in a small group. Anyway, that doesn't really help you with the specifics now. I'm not even sure if you are really looking for advice but if you are, more info is likely needed before good advice can be given. If you'd like though, shoot me an email and we can talk more:

litetechca (at) gmail (dot) com

I certainly know what you mean about noxious weeds. I can't believe that it isn't written about more. People talk about this looming disaster and that one, but the huge difficulty I see building and very few talking about, is the explosion of noxious weeds. Luckily we don't have so many poisonous ones to deal with but there are probably 6 different species of weed that are just running wild through this province.

At the end of the day though, there are really only two choices...give up or keep going, learning and adjusting. And that just isn't really a choice, is it?

Jerry said...

Oh, I yammered on and forgot to mention the one immediate suggestion I had. And I should first say that I got it over at:


Anyway, apparently garlic is the magic touch as far as natural remedies for worm type parasites. The Sugar Mountain suggestion was regarding pigs but I bet it would work for your goats too. Successional pasture rotation is certainly the long-term prevention but maybe try feeding them some cloves of garlic in the short term. Apparently cayenne works too, if they will eat it.

Good luck!

Dr24Hours said...

I certainly know the malicious vacillation. And I don't have any advice. When I get it, I try to write. I try to pray. I talk to my sponsor. Sometimes. Sometimes, most times, probably, I just suffer with it. Which isn't healthy.

I think most of us want to spend our lives building a thing. It doesn't matter much, in the end, what that thing is. Whether it is a farm, or a family, or a career, or a body of work in the health care engineering literature. It is simply a thing. A thing that we did, that people will remember for a generation or two before consigning us to nothingness.

And then, we'd like to imagine while we're here, that the tendrils of our influence will persist even beyond the memory of us. Children. An infinitesimal reduction in the rate of Global Warming. A slightly superior medical care delivery system.

Something that makes the mother earth, the race of men, take a longer, deeper, more fulfilling breath than it might have done, had we not been here.

Tonia said...

Everyone has a down time and self doubting!! But like you said do what is most pressing..
On the Chickens they will start laying again.. You can let them out to free range a little. I let mine out in the afternoon when they start laying eggs everywhere but the chicken house.. Instead of being out all day I wait till about 3pm and then let them out. They get what they need fresh stuff and exercise.. You get what you need!! Natural chicken care is really easy compared to some animals... I use the book Backyard Poultry Naturally...

I recently got Pat Coleby's book on Raising Goats Naturally..The thing I have found with it is that its hard to figure out the American version of things she is talking about.. But other than that some helpful info in there.. She repeatedly talks about copper deficiency being the cause of A lot of problems in goats. we went to a goat camp for 4H and they are saying the same thing...
Plain and simple Horses of any size are hard on the land and pigs have to have room to not cause destruction.The more they are confined the deeper they dig. They will help kill out noxious weeds though.. Electric fence does wonders and takes very little to keep a pig confined...
I am going to grow Comfrey this year to help with goats health and for fertilizer. They say once you get it started It will spread on its own. But you have to get True Comfrey..
Goat poo is an excellent fertilizer and its Not hot so can be applied directly with out fear of burning anything unlike Chicken manure..
You are on the right track just gotta keep going!!

Aimee said...

Thanks for the excellent advice and words of encouragement everybody! Jerry, I'll be checking out your links. I had heard of garlic but not sure how to get the goats to eat it. Also one of my obnoxious weeds happens to be a superb worm killer - tansy. The goats will eat it if I withold other food for a day. It can be poisonous in large doses but in small doses it kills worms. I'm sure many of my weeds have medicinal uses.
Sis, I'm glad we are on the same page! I feel much better knowing how well our families skill sets complement each other.

Anonymous said...

Have you read anything on the fiascofarm site? I've been reading about goat care for many months.I don't have them yet, just been trying to learn something before I get them. I've learned a bit about DE (diatamaceous earth) & know others who use it with their animals. I have used it a little with my chickens too.
Be encouraged, you've got a lot going on on your farm, I don't think I could handle all of that!

Amy said...

I have had plenty of days like these. You will figure it all out in time I am sure. As for getting goats to eat garlic, molasses and mixed in thier feed. You are doing great. All you can do at this point is take it one step at a time. Like you said pick the most pressing issue and start there. And don't be too hard on yourself!!!!

Mia @ agoodhuman said...

Let me just say I admire you for the fact that you've made this great leap into the unknown. A city girl to the farm life....that's a huge change! Of course you aren't an expert yet. Don't beat yourself up about it. You are so much closer to your goals than many of us who are still dreaming to getting their little piece of land. So pat yourself on the back for a job well done and enjoy the adventure while knowing your kids are getting a fabulous introduction to the 'real world'.

Jerry said...

Tansy was one of the ones I was talking about alright, though I didn't know they are worm killers.

Your goats would likely eat the thistles too, if they were quite hungry. I have read that donkeys will as well so I am thinking about them lately. One of our neighbors has at least one now, if not more. I have been wondering if that is why. Thistles are probably the main noxious weed taking over the countryside here. Another neighbor, upwind of us (!), had a whole fucking field of canada thistle last year and it all went to seed. With our place being downwind, guess who got all those seeds? Its going to take a massive effort to turn back the weed tide...

el said...

This post depressed the hell out of me, Aimee. I want to both give you a hug and kick your ass! But I probably would just give you a hug.

It sounds to me like you're a bit heavy on the hoofed animals for your acreage, pasture-rotation or no. I know it's sacrilege to say that, but is there any way to reduce, and/or can you use movable elect. fencing and move everyone around to nurture that poor pasture? See anything Joel Salatin has written on the subject.

Every little thing, food-wise, requires plenty of planning, and also TIME to put away when it's ready. I kicked things up to an unbelievable level by doing two things: building a chicken tractor and getting those greenhouses. There is no way our larder would be as full, or that we could have fresh produce (that's not a root crop) year-round. But I moved from the city to garden, and had long experience beforehand understanding how veggies grow.

Is yours a windy area? I doubt solar panels would do much for you in the PNW but the wind usually always blows; turbines are coming way down in price than they were even 5 years ago.

Trees are always easy to grow, and I am sure there are plenty of types of trees that you can get started growing now simply as a source of firewood. Coppicing is something done in most parts of the world OTHER than tree-heavy North America.

As for the noxious weeds/parasites, etc. this has a lot to do with pasture quality (though not all of course as ruminants are just plain prone to them) so doing some serious lifting on the rotational grazing front would really help I would think.

that's all my nagging for now

Cattle Call Farm said...

Hang in there. I have lived on a farm my whole life. Even left once or twice but I always seem to find my way back. I think it is just this time of year.I am sick of snow and mud up to my butt. There has been a many a day when I thought I could walk away, then I see my kids with the animals and a big yard to run and play in and not a worry in the world. That's when I realize I'm doing the right thing. Sounds like you are putting your heart and soul into your farm and that is what it takes. But the next time you get frustrated, stop look up and look around. I've realized I don't do this myself very often, I'm always running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to get everything done. But as you have learned on a farm you are never done. Settle down and enjoy yourself, lord knows we all make mistakes that's how we learn.

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Aimee, you'll have to embrace the suck. Even when it gets easier it will still be hard - but well worth it.

Despite what you read and see on blogs, in the PNW you shouldn't have anyone out on pasture during the winter. The weeds you are talking about - buttercup and poison hemlock are a there because the ground in poorly drained. Not your fault, just the way the land is your area. I know it sounds like I am adding chores to your already busy days and life, but if you confine your animals to a small sacrifice area during the winter and feed them inside and keep them well bedded you will end up with a huge amount of manure and bedding to put on your fields during the growing season. The land gets a chance to rest, which helps break the parasite cycle and lets the plants replenish their root reserves.

A good book on weeds is available from Acres USA

Weeds and Why They Grow, by Jay McCaman.

Weeds are opportunists, and if your soil conditions are right for a particular weed then the seeds will germinate and flourish, if they aren'tm (meaning healthy) the seeds blowing in won't make any difference. Just like us being resistant to a cold or flu. Healthy pastures, (which take time to build and then to manage) just don't have the conditions for many weeds to flourish. But it takes time to get there.

BTW - watch your pig around the ranunculus, it is very poisonous if they root it out.

Spring is coming - hopefully you will feel like hitting the ground running :)

Aimee said...

throwback - thank you for the advice - I've already come to the conclusion that I need to turn the smallest of my pastures into a sacrifice area. It is about 80 x 100 feet and so plenty big enough as an exercise yard for everybody, and it is also the highest, sandiest, and dryest area of the property. It's fine for the ponies as is, but needs some fence-work before I can put the goats in there.

What is ranunculus? The creeping buttercup? I've been surprised by the poison hemlock - most books say it is extremely poisonous and even small amounts can be fatal, but I find my goats and the pig will both eat it in small amounts and so far (three years) have suffered no ill effects. One book I read said that it seems to be more poisonous in the southern states than in the maritime west. But in any case, of course I'm trying to kill it off.

El - I'm sorry I depressed you! NOT my intention. I think you are right I may be heavy on hooves - that's why I got rid of my alpacas. I didn't know I would have two ponies - my rescue pony was pregnant when I got here. Now I can't possibly get rid of them. But I have also reduced the size of my dairy goat herd to three does and one buck - kids will be sold or dispatched at the end of the growing season. I DO have room to fence in another pasture for better pasture rotation, and I will plan on doing that next year.

Oh and p.s. I have plans for an 8x10 greenhouse for next year

I can't tell you all how much I appreciate your advice. I read your blogs and I have learned SO much. Thank you!!!

Throwback at Trapper Creek said...

Aimee, yes it's the buttercup. We lost two pigs out of 6 sick ones, after they rooted out some buttercup under an apple tree. Homeopathy and raw milk pulled the remaining four through. Since the cows, sheep grazed it, and the horses avoided it, it didn't seem like it would be a problem. Just my experience though, it may not be what you see happen on your farm. All told there are few poisonous plants in the PNW that livestock will actually eat, even when starving. The only one we ever worry about with our cattle is poison delphinium, since they will not avoid it. Most others are easy to dispatch, and are never eaten anyway.

Aimee said...

throwback - rhododendron! Goats LOVDE it, even though it is quite poisonous. Laurel bushes are included in this family. When I was a child, our best dairy goat ate too much laurel and died, horribly bloated. My goats now will do thier best to get at the rhodies; I have to literally beat them off with a stick. Goats are pretty dumb, alas, and just don't learn from experience!

Aimee said...

throwback - rhododendron! Goats LOVDE it, even though it is quite poisonous. Laurel bushes are included in this family. When I was a child, our best dairy goat ate too much laurel and died, horribly bloated. My goats now will do thier best to get at the rhodies; I have to literally beat them off with a stick. Goats are pretty dumb, alas, and just don't learn from experience!

Dan said...

Here's a timely essay that addresses your weed laments: http://thecontraryfarmer.wordpress.com/2010/03/04/famous-weeds-i-wish-i-had-not-met/#more-3832

For your pasture woes I HIGHLY recommend Gene Logsdon's All Flesh Is Grass.

Jerry said...

There was a fellow over in the UK, I cannot remember the video where I saw this, and he spent his lifetime developing his pasture to the point of being able to graze year-round. It was all about developing the right mixture of various grasses and a thick enough mat of them that the hooves could not damage the turf during the wet season. Sadly this is impossible here but with you being in the PNW, I wonder if this kind of endeavor would work for you as well. Obviously numbers are still an issue but it might be something to think about. Otherwise yes, as you have seen, a winter confinement area is sadly necessary.

I am re-learning about the damage that even a very small herd of cattle can do when they get to spring rubbing.