What We've Been Up To

After the past few more intelectual/political posts I thought it was high time for just a plain old update as to what in the world we have been up to over the past few weeks. Here's a quick run-down: Haying. Making hay came late this year, so we only took one cut from two of our pastures (Southfarthing and Little Pasture). This took about a week longer than expected because about five passes in, our mower bit the dust. After taking it to the shop to see if it could be salvaged, it was pronounced dead, so, we needed a new mower. Trouble is, a new mower will run you about $7000 and after a litany of start-up costs this year, with still more essential stuff to get hold of (see below) we decided to put that expense off as long as possible. Fortunately, a neighbor down the road cuts hay and came out to mow for us for a tidy $175. Problem solved! Of course, the delay in mowing put us dangerously close to some rain. As the freshly cut hay sat in the field to dry, I heard little pitter-patters on my roof. For the second time in my life (the first being last year when so many farms flooded from an excess of rain), I prayed for the rain to stop. It only rained off-and-on for about 6 minutes. Blessedly.

It took us a grand total of four nights to pick up and store all the hay. In that time, we also broke the arm of the tedder by hitting a fence post, the rake by running one of the hydraulic hoses through the PTO, and the bale thrower through one of the belts coming loose. We were able to fix everything without problem, but my goodness were we delayed. Thus, we baled into the night. Fortunelty, we had some help. The first night, Tim, one of our neighbors came by to watch the process and got wrangled into driving the truck with our trailer behind it so that RJ, our trusty employee (see below) picked up the bales and stacked them. We finished that first round swilling beer by starlight, filthy, tired, and deeply satisfied. Another week or so went by before we finished up, again, with Ross and RJ working into the night slinging and stacking bales into the hay barn.  Ross came home that last night after so much hard, hard work and simply said as he beamed at me, "we brought the harvest in."

Finding a good employee. With Ross' day job and my work on our local charter school, plus the day-to-day of keeping a house, we quickly realized that we needed some help on the farm to keep things moving. Somewhat dreading the process of finding a person and training them, I was happily surprised that help came almost immediately in the form of RJ, a former Serenbe Farms intern who has spent the last few years travelling around working on all sorts of farms in all sorts of situations. He's worked on livestock farms, vegetable farms doing pretty much every type of farm work imaginable, plus, he has tractor skills. He has been a total godsend.

Eggs. While we've been working on building our flock of sheep, we've also been maintaining a flock of chickens whose eggs keep the cash flowing for the farm. Sort of. We've been developing relationships with restaurants, retailers, CSA customers, and farmer's markets to make sure our weekly output of around 52 dozen eggs get sold. We hold a candling license, which involved going to a one day class and taking an exam that they gave the answers for (ask Ross about it sometime). Each week, we wash and pack eggs, label the cartons, and carry them off to market. It takes about two months worth of egg sales to pay for their certified organic feed, but they do, along with a touch extra to pay for the overhead of raising them, housing them, and paying RJ. The markets are a lot of fun. It's wonderful to be putting our name out there, getting positive feedback about our plans, and hearing how much folks appreciate access to pasture-raised eggs. It makes me feel like a real farmer, actually feeding people real food.

Infrastructure. This has been huge. A farm, however small, needs a certain amount of infrastructure to function smoothly. This is a long, slow process. The main infrastructure projects have been fencing, water, equipment, and structures. The fencing early this year came pretty quickly. Ross already had some good fencing expertise and was able to pick a good fencer to work with and we knew pretty much exactly what we wanted. Water, on the other hand, is still in the planning stages. We've got pretty much no experience in hydrophysics, so we went to our county extension agent for help. Unfortunately, we live in a county that is a whole lot more urban than rural, so our agent really lacks in some of the deeper areas of farming. So we hit the Internet and have been developing what we think is a workable plan. This is really what farming is about so much of the time: you've gotta be an expret in pretty much everything, and if you're not, you've gotta learn and make d with what you've got while you're learning. Our "make do" for water has been the use of a 200 gallon water tank strapped to a small flatbed trailer and a whole lot of pasture pipe that we use to fill the ewe's 40 gallon tank about 5-7 times per week (depending on the heat). For much of the summer, we made use of our hilly landscape and ran the water through the pipe with gravity, which is easier said than done. We spent a silly amount of time getting the pasture pipe to lay just right to get flow going, and eventually, after spending sometimes as long as 45 minutes getting water to flow, we broke down and bought a small pump and a car battery and I tell you what, a little bit of technology can go a long way to save time and relieve stress. It only takes about 10 minutes to fill the ewe's waterer now. Hopefully, soon, with a little more planning we will have a system in place that will keep us from having to spend any time on watering at all. Hopefully.

Alongside these two major projects we've been slowly working on getting the farm's structures sound. Our 150+ year-old barn got a new roof and a few new floorboards, joists, and rafters. We're working on putting new doors on so that we will be able to use it this winter in case of any early lambs. The hay barn also needed some roof repairs, and was completely filled with the junky detritus of old wood, random bits of metal, plastic, and various other items that invariably collect on farms in the name of the noble and industrious, if not flawed intention of "you never know when you might need it." The barns have been cleaned out in several rounds. We've taken about 4 dumpster loads (20ft-30ft) of junk out of the two of them, making room for our tractor, bush hog, and bailer, as well as about 500-600 bales of hay and room for some indoor animal housing.

Flock management. This takes up the bulk of our time on the farm. We rotate our sheep on pasture more-or-less daily, picking up portable electrified fencing and setting it back up in a new spot and calling the ewes to come enjoy the fresh grass, which is so much fun to watch as they eagerly trot into the new paddock, pronking, and baaing their little hearts out. This is the essential feature of our management. It works to keep both the pastures and the stock healthy and happy, but it takes a bit of work. These portable fences, while dead useful for management intensive grazing systems like ours, are also insanely frustrating to use. The slightest mistake in how you set it up or take it down can cause tangling, sagging, and twisting that can sap you of your time and sanity. Eventually, we plan to have a system in place akin to what many of the New Zealanders do. Once we are at full stocking capacity and have a sense of how we want the sheep to move across the pastures each season, we will set up permanent and semi-permanent fencing for paddocks that we won't have to set up at all. All they would require is opening a gate. . . someday.

Planning the creamery. A good chunk of our time has also been devoted to figuring out our creamery. We've been working with a gentleman in Wisconsin to help with design as we've studied the GA regulations, conversed with other cheese makers, and formulated recipes for some 5 or 6 different cheeses. It's a hell of a lot to think about all trying to balance out anticipated demand (how much cheese we can sell) with anticipated production limitations (how much cheese we can make) with overhead and capitol costs (which are rather a lot). We don't want to be too small and have to spend extra money later to expand and replace already expensive equipment, but we don't want to start out too big in case we overestimate our production capacity and/or demand that would keep us from paying the bills. We're at the point now were we are nailing down or floor plan and equipment lists, but it will still be some time before we are fully confident and ready to break ground. I'm looking forward to getting the ewes in milk this spring and starting to get familiar with our recipes, our milk quality, and our milk quantity. This will really be the litmus test for the farm: how good is our fertility and can we do what it takes to sustain a really good milking flock?  If we can do that, we can proceed, but until we do that, it's all a massive leap of faith. Fingers and toes crossed, prayers said.