Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Mail Never Stops

I swear I think about writing on this old blog almost every day. I write the posts in my head....(I have to talk to someone, even if it is just my own-self). I'd be willing to bet I've written at least 25 posts in my head...all forgotten now, but I did find myself pondering this issue of wanting to write, yet never making time for it. Thing is, I castigate others for not making time to do things that feed their soul. Writing is soul fuel for me, so I guess I should get to it, but time is always at a premium... too much to do and too little time to do it...We joke and quote Newman from Seinfeld: "The mail never stops." I generally say this when the oven timer is going off, the washer is finished, the dogs are milling around my feet because it is their dinner time, I have no idea what we are having for dinner, AND we still have night chores to do.

One of the things I find hard (besides making time for me) is balancing and prioritizing the farm chores. There are the things that have to happen every day (feeding, milking, cleaning stalls) and the things that have to happen at a certain time each month or each year (trimming hooves or planting potatoes), and then the things that pop up and must be done quickly (repairs mostly, but also things like flooded barns, stuck trucks, flat tires), and then the things you wish you could get done (more raised beds, re-painting the peeling barn doors, a new chicken tractor, etc).

I haven't written anything since January, because as I said before...."the mail never stops."

The seasons dictate the rhythms here on the farm and generally February is beginning to hint of Spring. We always plant potatoes and onions on Valentine's Day and many of our future crops had been sown in the greenhouse in January this year. The temps in February can swing wildly. Now that I farm a little more seriously I pay even more attention to the weather. This February did the wild swings and we found ourselves under sleet and snow TWICE that month. I had put my little greenhouse to work and had all kinds of things optimistically planted in little plantable cow-pots.

One wild swing took the temps in the greenhouse up close to 100 degrees and the cabbage and broccoli roasted in the seed, never to germinate. The next wild swing took the temps down and I quickly realized that even though the radiant heat of the sun could raise the day time temps to about 20 degrees over the outside temp, at night the greenhouse and outside temps matched. Predicted lows in the 20s, sent me scrambling for a space heater and I began the frantic checking and re-checking of forecasts and thermometers that would run me ragged all the way into March.

In March, we began to eagerly await the arrival of kids. We bred our favorite girl Fanny, a veteran, but the other two Nubians we bred were first timers and we had no idea how they would handle both the kidding or the mothering. Eagerly, turned to anxiously as we watched for signs of imminent kidding. After a few long nights of checking on girls and over a month of sticking very close to home, watching vulvas, udders, and general behavior we had seven kids on the ground. Everyone proved to be excellent mothers and good milkers. What a relief! At this point you always have a moment when you think, "well now, that's done and I can get some rest", but this just marks the next round of work....wethering, disbudding, vaccinations, finding homes, etc.

This year March was a time of transition for us too...we were changing our protocols for milking, breeding, and browsing. At that point I, with my girls, had been milking each morning for a full year. It was time to dry up Vaca and Gypsy and begin milking Fanny, Ms. Scarlett, and Ms. Melly. We were shifting our breeding schedule to an every other year breeding, with a full year of milking for the un-bred does. We have come to the realization that a. we don't need 4-5 goat's worth of milk and b. we think the girls work very hard and should have time off.

Only problem with this plan....I don't get a break. I milk year round...I have help a couple of days a week this year and occasionally I ask for a day off and JC does the work, but I think it is safe to say I milked about 300 days last year...the coldest milking was 19 degrees and those two mornings were the worst, but I do it whether I've gotten a good night's sleep, whether I have a backache, whether I'm sick. I do it and sometimes I grumble because I get tired, bone weary, cry-over-spilt-milk exhausted, but I still have to do it and it is relentless....remember "the mail never stops."

When there was nothing to browse on in early Spring, I hauled cedar brush from the back fence. Daily, I hauled it...not because I had to, but because I wanted to. Even though I was weary and most of those days were cold too. I hauled cedar from the very back of the property to the front and when the goats saw me coming they ran to meet me. Seriously, how could I deny them that treat? But it was just more work and I tacked it on to the morning chores, what's another half hour right? That's how it works on the farm one seasonal chores goes away and another one takes its place. I hauled that cedar because I knew it was the right thing to do for my girls...and most of my work comes from a belief that I have to do the best job I can. Farming well in my mind means I can't slack off.

So, I very rarely ever slack off and most of my plans require a lot of work. My new browsing plan calls for creating temporary paddocks using electric fencing to move the girls rotationally through the front pastures and the back woods. I spent weeks clearing the brush from the perimeter fences so we could pull goat/sheep wire and then run a single hot wire to power the electric. When I hit a spot requiring the chainsaw, I'd twist JC's arm and he'd come help awhile. Once the whole thing was cleared we pulled the goat/sheep wire and then set up the electric. We finished it up in April, just in the nick of time as I wanted to girls on to fresh pasture ASAP....and then it started to rain in May. And it rained and it rained and it rained, and the dry creek bed, you know, the one that is always dry; the one where I ran my new electric fencing....yep, it started running and my fence was under water. I turned it off and spent a few days just keeping the crap off it in hopes that the water would run off fast and we'd be back in business, but after three weeks I retrieved the whole fence, stored it in the barn...the water was not only still running, but rising. The tank was over-flowing and the run-off kept the creek moving too. 

That was two weeks ago and it is down some, but still running...no way I can put my fence back in there yet and in the meantime the other summer chores are calling to be done. All that rain made a lot of mud which meant we couldn't mow, now we can, but it is tall and full of mosquitoes. The rain also meant lots of weeds and for the first time I've got weeds taking over the raised beds which normally require minimal weeding. We have hooves to trim and copper boluses to give, hay to haul and feed to pick up and unload. The summer cycle is a little more mellow and we goof around a bit and we always take time to enjoy what we are doing...not to worry. 

I hope no one thinks I'm complaining, because really I wouldn't have it any other way. For once I feel like I'm doing a job that makes the world a better place...a job that speaks to my soul and who I really am. I can't imagine a whole day without my goats, without a cold glass of milk the origins of which are visible out the windows...the land, the goats, the people...all connected.

It really is relentless work and it wears you down and some days I'm like Miss Belle is the sun....plumb struck down by the exhaustion, but even so I rest of bit, pick myself up, dust off, and do it all over again.

Kristin Kimball in her memoir The Dirty Life says it best: "A farm is a manipulative creature. There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only the things that must be done now and things that can be done later. The threat the farm has got on you, the one that keeps you running from can until can't, is this: do it now, or some living thing will wilt or suffer or die" (150). 

(Y'all need to read this book. Excellent.)

Now with all this said: dogs need walking, the chicken tractor needs a shade cloth on the top, and that mowing isn't going to do itself....

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Gardening in Texas: January

More and more people are asking me questions about gardening because I talk about it a lot and it must seem like I have some answers. Though I cannot proclaim to be an expert and have in fact failed heartily again and again, I thought a post about what you should be doing in your garden in January in Texas might be a good one because I have figured out a few things over the years.

 I keep reading blog posts about what you should be doing in your garden in January, but they are for places that have real winters....they advise you to peruse the seed catalogs, make a plan,  then order your seeds. But in Texas it is time to do some work and not only order your seeds, but start them. 

I generally do things kind of willy-nilly and since that hasn't been super successful in the past this year I decided to make a plan and "get it together" maybe you can benefit from my plan too.

The first thing I did was assess the leftover seeds from last year and remind myself to REST when the weather is cold. The thing about January in Texas is that it might be cold one day and 60 degrees the next, you have to rest when you can because winter is pretty short...or at least it occurs in short bursts. You have to pay attention and plan ahead. We "make hay while the sun shines" meaning if the day is warm we drop everything and we work outside. This coming weekend is looking like a lovely one and there is lots of work to be done.

The seed box with old seeds and my little seasonal book.
After assessing my leftovers, I ordered all my seeds January 2nd. This year I used Territorial Seed Company for two reasons: they offer organic seed (so we can avoid bee-killing neonicotinoids) and they are 100% Non-GMO. This is important to us and I'm not going to step up on my soapbox (today) about industrial food and why we should avoid GMO, but you should educate yourself. I ordered my onions and leeks from Territorial Seed Company too, but I always get my potato seed from Wood Prairie Farm.

Three bin composting.
The other big job in January is prepping the beds (esp. the potato bed), spreading the finished compost, and building new compost piles. As soon as things green up, I will put my composting in high gear, bagging green grass clippings to mix  with the "brown" parts (ie. poop and hay) to really get the pile steaming hot. For now, I just concentrate on putting leaves, dead plants, etc. in the bin. I try to tidy up during this time...For example, I still have dead okra stalks in the garden and just a week ago cut down the dead asparagus tops.The goal is to have one finished bin in the winter and have one ready to layer with greenies in the Spring. 

Finished compost will go on the asparagus bed and potato beds first and then to other beds that were less than productive last year. I never have enough for every bed, but I get pretty close!

Another January task is to nurture along the two cold frames with lettuce, radishes, beets, spinach, and cilantro. These cold frames need very little tending. In fact, I keep them closed and warm most of the time. I try to only open them for watering on sunny days. This weekend we are expecting 60 degrees, so I'll crack the windows to let some heat escape and water them thoroughly.

In January, we also build any new beds we want for Spring planting. We build beds year round, but January is a big push to get new areas prepped for sowing seed and transplanting in March. With the coming warm weekend, I'll also be cleaning out the barn of waste hay and poop. This will be used for hugelkultur beds and for sheet mulching some beds that are around the foundation of the house. Yes, I know what you are thinking, "She's going to spread the poopy barn hay around her house." Yep, poop by the house.... I'm just starting to see the benefits of this practice after a year, but sheet mulching has killed the weeds and grass and is now composting slowly to amend the terrible soil they brought in for the foundation. The best part: I have done NO WORK at all besides dumping the hay/poop mulch. I will be able to plant those spaces this year and all I had to do was dump some mulch and WAIT....seriously, why have I ever done anything else?

Once the seeds arrive I divide them into things that need to be started (in my NEW greenhouse!!!!) and things we will direct sow later. I used a Seed Starting Plan to determine when to start each plant. Here's my plan:

For Texas:
From Jan 2nd to the 16th: Cabbage, Collards, Kale, Parsley, and Peppers
From Jan. 16th to the 30th: Broccoli, Cauliflower, and Eggplant
Jan 30: Tomatoes

I'll be starting seeds in the next few days (yeah, I know I'm already going to be a little late on my schedule) and I'll post pics and progress as we go.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Working with Wool: Pincushion Class on February 12th

As promised in a previous post, I'll be teaching more and more classes this year as a way to generate income for the farm. This farming business isn't cheap and so far the girls aren't supporting themselves!

The next class I'm offering will be the cute little pincushion. It is a pre-cut kit and perfect for beginners who want to learn to work with wool felt. We will learn a few basic stitches, do a little practicing, and by the end of class you will have a finished pincushion.

This class will be offered through Patti's Last Resort in Acton TX 
on February 12th. 
11am. to 3 pm.
Call them for details and to sign up:

If this doesn't appeal to you, then stay tuned because I'm working on several more fun ideas....hint, hint: I love smock aprons ;)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Owl Tree Farm Etsy Shop

It's official; Owl Tree Farm now has an Etsy shop and I'll be filling it with handmade goodies! You can find us here:Owl Tree Farm Etsy 

Monday, January 5, 2015

Come Sew with Me: Last Saturday String Along 2015.

Introducing the Last Saturday String-Along for 2015.

One of the goals for this year is for the farm to begin generating income. I've brainstormed list after list of ways that I can do this. I'm a teacher at heart, always willing to show or explain how to do something, so at the top of the list is always: teach classes. 

I've been quilting since I was 18 (ugh, almost 30 years) and have attempted to keep the old-fashioned way of quilting alive. I am passionate about preserving the old, slow ways of doing things. I've accumulated a lot of knowledge about what I call homesteading skills.

The first thing I'm going to teach is String Piecing. String quilts were popular from the 1890s until about 1940. Using every last scrap of fabric speaks to my frugal farmer's philosophy of "using it up, wearing it out, making it do, or doing without." 

The String Quilt is also a perfect beginning quilting because using such wonky scraps is forgiving and accuracy isn't crucial. You will become more comfortable with your machine (if you aren't already), learn a few new-fangled techniques and use a few new-fangled gadgets, but generally speaking this is old-school, traditional piecing at its best!

A String quilt pieced by my Great-Grandmother, Mamaw.

Last Saturday String-Along 2015.
Date: January 31st (the last Saturday of the month)
Location: Owl Tree Farm
Time: 1:00pm to 4:00pm
Price: $40.00
BYOS: bring a snack to share...preferably organic, local, seasonal, etc.....(we are farmers after all). I will provide tea and water.

In this class you need only bring your simple sewing machine, thread, and a pair of scissors. Your class fee will cover equipment and materials and I will prep this all before hand. You will have access to my abundant and ever-growing collection of Strings for piecing your blocks like the one below and I only buy high-quality 100% cotton quilting fabric.

The January goal will be to teach you all you need know to make these wonderful blocks on your own and you will leave with at least two of them finished. 

If you decide to continue and String-Along with me, I'll help you decide how big to make your quilt, how to place your blocks and sew the rows together. Making just two blocks each month (plus one more) will give you 25 blocks and a quilt of 60" X 60"....a nice lap size.

If you decide to String-along with me, I will open my home on the last Saturday of each month and share my Strings with you for $5.00 each time. Of course, you can bring your own Strings too for sharing. (I will prep your foundation fabric for an additional $5.00 for two blocks). 

We will spend the afternoon from 1:00pm to 4:00pm sewing, chatting, and snacking. 

Don't worry about finishing the quilt....I can help you do that too! If you String-Along with me 10 out of 12 months, I'll give you the Hand-Quilting 101 Class for FREE.

If you are interested, contact me via email: jen.owltreefarm@gmail.com OR our Owl Tree Farm Facebook page (don't forget to "like" us while you are there).

Monday, October 27, 2014

Belated Big News

Well now, first I have to apologize for anyone who happened to check in here (though I can't imagine who that would be?!). I know it has been months since I wrote last, but I'm finding two things to be truth. One: farming is unpredictable and one task can devour a whole day and Two: I prefer to be outdoors and once inside I'm too tired to do much more than shower and eat. With that said, this is the life I chose and I have no regrets. I work from sun-up to sundown 365 and that is okay....in fact, it is better than okay. It is so much better than okay that we've decided to make a business of it! 

We've decided to seek our dairy license in hopes of selling raw milk!!! I can't tell you how exciting this is (though three exclamation points should give you a hint!) This is the "retirement" scheme and something we have talked about again and again. We've talked about making cheese or soap too, but to date we can't consistently make cheese or soap...I've suffered a lot of failures in those arenas, but what I can do is milk. I figure that if I can provide the milk, then the consumer can make their own cheese, but that doesn't mean we are going to stop trying...we've just let go of the idea that we can sell cheese (at least for now). 

We are also 100% sold on the benefits of drinking raw milk...you can Google raw milk and goats milk and find tons of info.

And of course, we love the fact that we can stay "close to our food," as I like to say. For me, that means that I know EXACTLY where it came from and that it has been handled (processed) minimally. We currently milk by hand, filter, then chill the milk. That's it. That is all we "do" to the milk, which is nothing really.

The idea is to keep the herd small, small enough that we can still talk to, coddle, pet, and call by name each and every girl twice a day. This is our habit...everyone is called by name and given attention and to be honest I think that is part of why the milk is so good. The girls know they are loved, so how could they not give beautiful milk? 

The goal is to be licensed by the 2016 milking season. That goal means that we have A LOT of work ahead of us to get the barn ready. Add that to the day-to-day work of running a farm and the gardening work and we have many full days in our future. I'm already clearing fence and building raised beds/hugelkultur beds for next Spring's gardens...I expect I'll be sleeping really well for months and months!

The first thing we will do in the barn is to build a separate stall for my sweet boys, Luke and Han. Then we will dig in plumbing and pour concrete floors for the milk parlor and milk room. By next Spring we need to have finished clearing the last of the fence and be ready to erect portable electric fencing for browsing in the woods. Then more barn renovations! I get nervous thinking about all the work, but I know it will be worth it. 

I promise now with the days getting shorter, I'll find more time to write. Please follow our journey here and via Facebook...you can find us there at Owl Tree Farm.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

An Epic Week at Owl Tree Farm

Well, now...I write about three posts a day in my head. That is where I spend most of my time these days: thinking things over, contemplating, brewing, and mulling, and musing. Each day for the last week I've had something to write about. It seems that a day can't go by on the farm without something happening and I'm plumb wrung out. Today, has been more of the same...

It all started a week ago today. When I went out for night chores, I found our fat little Jasper with a swollen leg. From hoof to haunch, he was puffed out and wasn't putting any weight on the foot. Since the joints seemed to work, I quickly assumed it was a snake bite, but I could only find one little tiny spot I thought might be a puncture. I made a decision and administered Benedryl. I was proud of myself for not freaking out, not calling the vet for an emergency house call. The next morning he was about the same and I gave him more Benedryl. By evening, the swelling was down a little....Whew! disaster averted (or something like that.) 

It was then that I noticed that Ben had a trickle of blood running down his head. Uh-Oh! Ben has a history of issues with his horn scurs and this had to be trouble. I couldn't see that anything was wrong and figured it was cracked somewhere. Fingers crossed for it to go away like magic, but I knew I would have to watch it closely. 

The next day, I spent half an hour on the phone with the vet. The milkers are having parasite/cocci issues again. I was feeling so frustrated. So inept and as if I was learning nothing that I finally said, "I feel like I'm taking one step forward and two steps back. Am I doing anything right?" He reassured me that I was, but at that point I was finding it hard to believe.

Two days later, Ben doesn't come to the barn for dinner. I go out to get him and when he looks straight at me I can see that his normally flat-to-the-head horn is sticking up in the air. Every time the horn flops around, he panics. I get him tethered and proceed to just look at the horn, trying to access the damage and how to proceed. Again, the horn would flop and he would go bezerkers. Completely nuts. I knew I had to get that horn off, but I hadn't even touched him yet because he was like the Tasmanian devil, whirling and flipping. After about 10 minutes of this, I found myself with my back against the wall with his tether at my hip.

Ben jumped up and crossed my body and put his front hooves on the half wall behind me. All I could think was, "This is going to be bad." Instead, my little Ben-Ben leaned into me and tucked his head under my chin, I could hear his little panicked puffs of breath. He was scared to death of that "thing" that was touching his head. I hugged him awhile, but knew I had to get it off.

It took another 10 minutes of wrestling and I got thrown around a lot, but I finally got a firm hold and ripped the horn off. 

The next day, I had to deworm Vaca and start cocci treatment with Gypsy and Fanny. Vaca took it like a champ, Gypsy fought a bit, and Fanny....well, Fanny slammed me into the hay manger twice before I got the dose in her....and I had four more days of that to look forward to. I stood at the half wall and sobbing with exhaustion and frustration.

I felt like I had been hit by a bus that day, but worse than that I was starting to question myself. 

That night there was a snake in the chicken coop...yet another thing to deal with. I left it there that night (with it's egg belly it was stuck in the grooves of the wall anyway), but I knew I would have to deal with it the next day.

Morning comes and I'm exhausted. Milking, then moving the chicken tractor, then the snake. I moped around all day, so tired, so frustrated. I cleaned house instead of doing anything outside...but I knew that when evening chores came I would have to dispatch that snake if it was still there.

It was and I did.

Then I wrestled with Ben to spray his wound and he body checked me into the wall. Sharp shot to the kidney, (but then he gave me chin cuddles.)

 This morning, I found Rhett (200lb. +) snuggled with Jasper. I saw a baby bunny, a Painted Bunting, a Black Swallowtail.

I gave cocci meds without too much fuss. I erected a pretend electric fence (we will see if it tricks them) for the girls. I drove my big-ass truck. I confronted the neighbor who is trespassing and mowing our ditch (and I suspect spraying herbicides too).

 I was empowered. I was in charge and doing my best. Sometime during this week, I saw this quotation on my facebook page and I've been saying it to myself ever since, but today it clicked: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." (Maya Angelou from GrowingBolder.com)

I'm still exhausted, but all these trials have served to spur me on...I am doing the best I can, but I know I can be better. I'm working on that part.