Thursday, December 30, 2010

Paintin' Place

   Wow, where did I go? Well, I've been working on paperwork...a lot. That is another farm story though for another day. Besides paperwork, we've been sprucing up the house a bit. Every year I work on "re-doing" one room in the house. So, far I've repapered, painted, or worked on minor woodwork in every room. It's great exercise. And, since we work sun-up to sun-down during the planting season (Feb. to Nov.), winter is for in house repairs. Unfortunately, in some ways, our winter season gets smaller and smaller every year as planning crops, planting seedlings in the basement, and boiling maple syrup gets bigger and bigger.
   This year we decided to work on our small bathroom. Over the years it has had a board in the floor slowly rotting away so we lifted the linoleum, dug out the rotting board and nails, replaced with a new board, and glued the linoleum back down. Then we took a look at the walls and realized they needed a paint job. We chose a nice tan color and I set about taping, rollering paint, and doing the brush touch up. Now the room looks pretty good. Unfortunately the beautifully painted walls make the cabinets look old and ratty. Ah, well now the cabinets need painted...
   Isn't that usually the way of repairs? You get one thing started and it leads to another to another and to another. I really enjoy working on buildings, painting, drywalling, and just fix it stuff. I'm pretty okay with plumbing also. Finding the time to enjoy this hobby is the hard part for me.
   Our farm has 19 buildings plus the big farm house. We had someone ask one time what we do with all of the buildings...another farm story I suppose. But, all of them are in use in some way or another. Instead of paying Grandma rent, we trade the work on the upkeep of the farm. Every year a building, or two or three or more, are needing some work. Sometimes we hire this out, but a lot of the time we do it ourselves. We have jacked up buildings to replace the sills, straightened buildings that were falling over by pulling them back into shape, and rebuilt failing walls. We've also built a couple of buildings (including the chicken house). Then there is the ever present need of paint.
   My most recent work of restoring a building is my little "Honey House". Someday I plan this to be a small workshop for me and a small area for our garden items. We moved the building to the farm a few years ago by jacking it up and placing it on a trailer, driving it about 20 miles to the farm, and setting it on new sills. Last year I was able to get it mostly straightened (it was crooked due to a bad wind storm the first year here), put in a new ash floor, and start work on cutting window spaces in the back wall. It is definitely a work in progress. Why is it called "Honey House"? Originally we were going to use it to process our honey. But, then I realized that my "honey" (Marty) paid to move it for me. Great guy, so I named it for him!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Season of the Ditch Divers

This is definitely the season for ditch diving. And, it is NOT a laughing matter!
   Living on a country road that has a slight curve in it can sometimes be exciting. It can also be somewhat scary during wet weather and snowy ice weather. We are seeing the latter of the two right now. With another 2 inches of snow yesterday and a potential blizzard on the way, we are beginning to expect this to be a ditch diving year.
   The weather today was beautiful, a balmy 34 degrees. I walked around with my coat unzipped and without my gloves. It was great weather for getting our orders together to deliver tomorrow. Horrible weather for going to the woods to get firewood. And, apparently even more horrible for driving. It got very slushy by about 10am. We heard the snow plow backup beeping noise this morning and looked out the window to see one large plow in the ditch almost on its side, and another two plows hooked up trying to get it out. We aren't sure how he got there, but they sure couldn't get him loose. They finally called in the big boys with the semi-tow truck and got the plow pulled out.
   Later on we decided to head to Bloomington (Illinois) which is about 40 minutes drive to the south. The roads were very slushy so we carefully wound our way through the better country roads and onto the highway. Thankfully Marty is an excellent driver and we made it there and back just fine. However, about 10 minutes after getting home..."schreeeee!" then "whoomp!" then "zzzipt, zippt". We looked out to see an SUV in the front ditch.
   Since this is nothing new - we averaged one new mailbox per year from 2000-2005 - we walked out and calmly asked if the guy was okay. He was but was not going anywhere fast. Marty hooked up the tractor to his front end and pulled him out. He was thankful for us saving him the tow truck expense. We were more thankful he wasn't hurt.
   We have had a couple of very close calls in the past years. One huge truck, a heavy duty Mack construction truck, slid off the road on a rainy day and slammed into our front tree. It hit so hard that the engine was totalled and the drive shaft was shoved out the back. The two guys lived, but it scared all four of us nearly to death. We called the ambulance just in case. And, to this day when we see them in the grocery store, they still say "all I could see was that tree coming straight at me...straight at me".
   Another time we had a younger teenage girl, new driver, go off the road in rainy weather. She went all the way through the front yard, missing a dozen huge trees and our large historic stone marker. Talk about frightening! Her grandmother told us later that the girl didn't drive for months afterward.
   So, I suppose the word is - be careful on the country roads! Their pavements aren't made the same, they have drop offs on the sides and gravel that can catch you, and ours aren't allowed to be salted (only sanded). The snow plow workers do their best to keep the snow off, but the country roads get drifts even with a light wind. And, the mailboxes and trees - they can come straight at you if you aren't careful. Don't be a ditch diver!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Winter Day in the Life of a Farm Cat

    She works in the basement at night, catching those pesky little mice. It helps keep the mice from nipping off the little plants that are coming up. Occasionally she jumps too hard on a pipe or crashes something over, but she is busy doing her night job. Then toward daylight, all tuckered out, she crashes for some well earned sleep on her blanket on the work bench. 
Spunky Brewster, farm cat,
before the big snow

   When everyone begins moving around upstairs, she grabs a nibble of cat food and then screams to be let outside. It's time to do chores! Racing outside into the snow, she catches little somethings and jumps and twirls, showing off her agility (something her inside cat brother doesn't possess). Off to the chicken house! The door is opened and she jumps at the chickens, trying to scare them! They look at her, bored, and then look away. They know that she isn't allowed to hurt them and she is just playing. Having grown up with them, and having the chickens bigger than her, has made her cautious about being too close to them.
   At the duck house she waits for their water dish to be filled and takes the first drink. She doesn't like drinking after the spit, yuck. The ducks clamber out of their house, sliding like penguins across the snow, scooping the wheat berries into their bills and sucking them down. They wait patiently until she is done drinking and then they take over the water bowl, slurping and clacking happily. She doensn't pay them any attention as it's time to continue chores.
   Off to the small barn! She races away, running fast then screeching to a halt to check out some little something in the snow, then racing away again. She is non-stop, keeping her energy at top level and her prowess as a hunter on high alert. In the small barn she scouts for mice, looking into empty crates, jumping up on the grain bins to check behind them. No mice can get by her - the fearless hunter! But, she sees none. She waits until the hay is collected from inside the barn and tossed to the cows outside, then she races away to the big barn.
   At the big barn is a great scratching post. She climbs up and down and all around it. Then she walks over to visit the pigs, jumping into their pens and walking around like the lion queen. She likes the big  boar and chats with him, even though he is ignoring her and grunting for food. She doesn't like the little pigs as they are always screaming for their vittles. When she jumps out, her damp feet stick to the wire fencing for a moment, freezing on it temporarily. It's still very cold out!
   Inside the barn she visits with the woolies (sheep) while they are fed and their door to the outside is slid open. She balances on the wood fence, showing her skills to the wooly girls. They try to sniff cat toes as the toes walk by. Done with the sheep chores and the animals are all done.
   The rest of the morning is spent in the semi-warm barn, hunting for mice. When nap time comes, there is a nice cozy hole she has made in the hay. She snuggles in and curls up for a few hours until evening chores. Then in the evening the chores are reversed again. She races from the barn through the barnyard snow and back up to the house where she waits to be let in. Then back down the stairs to become the "monster under the stairs" and to hunt at night. Ah, a full day at the farm for the farm cat!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Firewood for heat

   It is 5 degrees outside and blizzard conditions. I have to say I am very thankful for our firewood! It is work, but I think of it in a different way. Instead of spending eight hours working in a store or office to make money to pay for my propane or electric heat, I spend eight hours working in the woods cutting and loading firewood. It is more enjoyable to me to be out in the woods, especially on a beautiful winter day (not today).
   We wish that we could have a better source of energy to use, something better for the environment such as solar power. But, until we can figure that out and afford the costs involved in setting it up, we rely on firewood to heat our huge farm house. We hook up our largest tractor, an Allis Chalmers D15, to an old truck bed on two wheels that serves as our wagon. We take two chainsaws just in case we get one stuck in a pinch while sawing. A pinch is when the tree moves a little and pinches the blade of the saw. It takes talent to know when to cut on top, from below, avoid a pinch, avoid the tree rolling, and etc. Marty is our chainsaw operator. He has been cutting firewood for over 30 years and is very good at it.
   I'm the loader, or I sometimes think of myself as the pack mule. I load the wood into the wagon while he is cutting. It is physical work to be sure, but it is great exercise. We have some simple rules we follow to keep us safe. We wear ear protection all the time, are always aware of where the other person is, fell trees with two people around, don't pick up pieces that are too heavy but cut them smaller, and don't take off our coats and get chilled when it is too cold. We take a second saw in case of pinching, keep the tractor out of the way of where we fell trees, and we watch the tops carefully. The second person helps watch the tops. Sometimes the dry tree branches will break out as it is falling and we are careful that the chainsaw operator doesn't get bonked on the head.
   We only take trees that are already dead. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all we love living trees. Second, the dead tree is already dry so we don't have to wait weeks or months before burning it. Sometimes we will "ring" an undesirable tree. That means we will cut a ring around it through the cambium layer, about an inch or so deep. This is also called "girdling". It will kill the tree after a while as it cuts off the flow of sap going from the roots to the branches. Undesirable trees for us are locusts. They have thorns and are very prolific, coming up and shading out better trees such as maples (for syrup), oak and walnut (for furniture). Usually a girdled tree will be ready the next winter for harvesting for firewood.
   Our favorite firewood is red elm. It is nice because the bark peels off and it is pretty uniform around, easy to carry and stack. It doesn't leave a lot of ash in the firebox, burning clean. And, it burns hot so provides good heat. The elms are susceptible to a disease that kills them when they are smaller so there are usually quite a few dead ones every year. We also like ash, oak (although we don't have much of this), walnut, locust, and maple. We save all the smaller branches from the tops for the maple syrup making, as the evaporator uses wood to heat the pans and boil the sap into syrup. We try to save the nicest size logs of walnut, maple and cherry for furniture making. We use nice size logs of ash to cut 2x4 wood for building repair (although it is very hard to pound nails into!).
   Firewood is a great renewable resource for us, keeps us fit and healthy, and provides hours of enjoyment. heats twice. Once when you cut it and load it, and again when you enjoy the heat in the house!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Farming in Winter

   It is really winter now! We have about six inches of snow on the ground. The animals are doing good and staying bedded down in their straw. The chickens won't set foot outside in the snow, but I opened their door today so they could get some sun anyway. The cat is loving the snow, burying her face in it and trying to find the mice underneath. Chore time has gotten a bit longer as we have to trudge through the snow carrying the water buckets and hay. We also took time to wipe the snow off of the pig tarps so the pigs wouldn't get the smart idea of climbing on top of the tarps. Sammy the big boar is the bright one that would think of that to get out!
   During our tours and programs in the warmer months, people ask us what we do in the winter. I guess it seems a strange question to me sometimes, but I suppose I can see why it would be confusing to some. Nothing is growing, right? Well, we do still have the greens, beets, carrots, and onions in the hoophouses this year. We harvested some today for orders. And, we will be able to continue to plant in there all through the winter as long as the ground isn't completely frozen.
   As for the rest of our time...there is A LOT to do! This is the time of year that we buckle down and do a pile of paperwork that has been put off all year. We plan our next year's seasons based on how we did this year, totalling figures, and researching new crops. We also sit with our seed catalogs and write up our dream orders, then cut them in third for the realistic order. Our dreams for the next year are always bigger than our daylight hours! We also work on the inside of the house, painting, plumbing, and fix it stuff. And, we are still filling orders every week for corn meal, wheat berries, whole wheat flour, sorghum flour, and turnips.
   We also go around the state giving talks to other farmer groups, for seminars, and educational talks to non-farmer groups. That leads me to talk about the Spence Farm Foundation, a not-for-profit founded in 2005 that teaches about sustainable farming. We volunteer, along with a great group of other folks, to provide the educational programs for the Foundation. We host talks and programs in the winter also, including maple syrup making, building soils, organic gardening, and other farmer and consumer training. You can check out their website at There will be some updates on the calendar soon and also updates to the website, so keep checking to see how the organization is growing!
   Other work we do during the winter includes cleaning seed for planting the next season. We save some of our heirloom seed for that purpose, growing heirloom plants so we can save the seed. We also research new equipment, plan new buildings (1830's cabin project is underway for Spence Farm Foundation), and work on our existing equipment and buildings. We are creating a washing station in the small barn to wash our vegetables in an enclosed area next year.
   In a couple more weeks I will begin planting in the basement. I have shelves set up with lighting and heat tables. I start hundreds of tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, leeks, and all kinds of varieties of plants in plant trays that have small compartments for each plant. I reuse some soil from the year before and also use some of the compost we created two years ago. Some of the plants will be transplanted into the hoophouses in February and some will be transplanted into the fields in April, May and June. The planting downstairs is time consuming as is the watering and care taking, but I love going down there on freezing days and seeing the little plants sprouting up. It is like having an early spring!
   That's just some of what we do in the winter. There is a lot more, but that gives you an idea. Farmers keep farming all winter if they are growing the kind of produce and foods like we are. Keeps life interesting all winter!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Going Away

   It is great to be able to visit farms in other areas of the state and nation. Today we are in southern Illinois for a short farmer conference in Carbondale, Illinois, hosted by an organization called FoodWorks ( We've enjoyed going to restaurants and cafe's that feature local food from farmers within a 100 mile radius. Tonight we will be able to meet a large number of farmers who are getting together to learn more about cooperative work that will benefit them all. It is exciting for us to see how other farms operate and to talk to other farmers who also grow food. It is always inspiring! We see a lot of great ideas that could help on our farm, including new equipment and planting ideas. We love looking at the cultural differences in agricultural buildings (barns, cribs, etc.). This part of our "farm research" is really a lot of fun!
   But, you might be wondering who takes care of the farm when we are away. Farms, the kind with animals, unfortunately don't take care of themselves. So, we don't often get a "vacation" of a week or two. Usually we are able to take a couple days off at a time. Will, our son and partner in the farm, is working at the meat locker this winter. He has agreed to take care of the animals while we are gone for three days.
   Our animals are very easy to take care of. We usually just open the doors for the poultry in the morning and then after they go in, in the evening, we close the door. In the winter we give them a scoop of grain (wheat, barley or oats) and keep their water dishes filled. If it gets freezing cold, I have heaters that their water containers sit on to keep them from freezing. Water is most important thing to have for all of the animals.
   Each cage of pigs and the two sheep are given a "brick" of hay (about 4" thick piece of a square hay bale) in the morning and again in the evening. They have rubber water dishes so if the water freezes we can break the ice out without breaking the dish. They get new water morn and eve and sometimes we will give the pigs a treat of apples, squash, wheat, or turnips. The sheep don't like treats but love their hay. The cows have a water tank that we fill with about 30 gallons of water and then put a water heater in it to keep the ice from forming. They also get hay, but usually it is a bale a day for the two of them.
   Other than that, we make sure the tarps stay on the pigs cages, the doors to the poultry houses are open for the poultry to get in out of the cold if they want, and the sheep can come in the barn if the weather is bad. The cows have a shelter they can get into if the weather is too icy. Most of the animals like the cold weather, but the chickens don't like to walk on snow. The ducks love the snow and go belly flopping on the snow. They also like skating on the ice!
   All in all, we find that farm animals can be easy to take care of all year round. We don't have a lot of animals, don't have to buy our own feed, and most of them can stay outside in all kinds of weather. Housing can be pretty minimal for the hearty breeds and for poultry also. If you are interested in getting livestock, do some research to find the heartiest breeds and it will make your life a lot easier. And, if you are wanting to have them in a town or city, research the requirements of your town. You might be surprised to find that you can have your own eggs, meat or milk even though you live in an urban area.