Anticipation of Fall

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In the midst of summer, under July heat and between berry-picking and trips to the lake, my mind always begins to move to fall. On chilly mornings, or when a breeze picks up and thrashes the plants out front, I feel it coming, though its arrival is still months off yet.

It’s always been at this time of year that I start knitting. Crafting for cold weather lets me channel the euphoria and creativity that the first chill and yellowing trees light in me. As I work I imagine the smell of rain and fallen leaves and pumpkin and roast chicken, and my soul leaps with excitement.

Now that we’re back in the Pacific Northwest I am overjoyed for the promise of cooler weather and rain.  The season will be rung in by my daughter’s second birthday. We’ll return to cooking inside and lighting the wood stove.

I’m not knitting my way through this summer– partly for lack of time; partly because my daughter would object– but instead I’ll be thinking ahead as I dig and plant our fall garden. I’ll be stacking firewood, storing potatoes, picking hazelnuts, and nailing siding up on the hay barn.

As always, there is more to do than there are hours in the day or energy in my body. But we’re moving forward, chipping away, and I’m feeling blissfully inspired.

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Starting the Garden

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Since we won’t be on the property full-time until spring, it’s critical that we time the garden prep right on our visits in order to have a productive summer. To that end, we have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that we already have a triumphant patch of garlic and shallots. My goal for our trip up near the first of the year was to prepare, plant, and mulch garlic to overwinter. This trip up I was thrilled to pull back the leaf mulch and discover two-inch green sprouts!

The bad news is that the soil– particularly in the sunny pasture area where our vegetable garden will be located– is solid red clay, full of rocks, and heavy grass that hasn’t had livestock on it in what I would guess is decades. Fortunately the land is slightly sloped, so I hope this encourages decent drainage. This photo is from up the mountain, but it’s basically what we’re working with:

So we will be importing as much organic matter as we can lay our hands on. The first order of business was cleaning up the leaves from under the white oak, Norway maple and sycamore trees, which greatly improved the neatness of the yard. With our toddler on my back or playing in the leaves, my husband and I raked and hauled a dozen or so trailer-loads of leaf litter to the garden site between the sheep pasture, the cluster of outbuildings, and where the house will be built.

We spread the mulch across the grass, eight or so inches thick. In several weeks, we’ll till them into the soil along with as much compost as possible, then mulch again. In the future, my intention is to avoid tilling at all, but I think the clay would remain a solid, impermeable barrier this year without significant amendment.

In the mean time, I’ll get some lettuce seed and other greens started here to transplant in the early spring. I hope that with enough coordination, effort and soil improvement, we’ll manage to yield a respectable harvest this first year.

A Dream Becomes A Plan

This interim period anticipating the move is more magical than it is aggravating, filled with excitement and extensive, necessary planning.

Looking at the plan as a whole picture is intimidating: is it all possible? I don’t know. But as Suzy Kassem said, “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” If failure gets us, so be it; doubt will not.

The official, final move will be in the spring, but farm equipment, tools, home essentials, and some of the animals will be taken up on short visits when the weather allows (meaning the pass is clear; it will all inevitably be done in the rain). The first tasks will be to improve the bridge, fence the pasture, build a chicken coop, erect the greenhouse, and prepare the garden space. (Oh my.)

In the spring, then, we’ll need to hit the ground running (which I can expect our toddler will do as well). Right off we’ll need to plant the garden and permanent crops, such as fruit trees and hops. Ideally we’ll be able to get a weaned lamb.

Some of the meat we produce will be shared with a few family members and friends who will buy-in to the production. This will offset the cost and justify the quantity since, for instance, a whole steer or two pigs are more than our little family would need or prefer to store at a time.

Year-one projects and goals include:

A Garden. I want to grow more than half of the produce we eat and devote a large plot to stores of dry beans, amaranth for grain and flour (plus greens), and perhaps corn.

Sheep. The goal is to have one sheep tame enough to handle easily and milk, and to breed her in the fall so that year-two we will have lambs to raise for meat and mama to milk. The question is whether this means raising the milking ewe as a weaned lamb to make her tame enough, and whether she can be bred that year, or whether we can get an older ewe who’s been well handled.

Chickens. My husband and I have gone around and around about the chickens because our current free-range flock has been such a hassle. I think we’ve agreed to having around ten hens for laying and order two dozen or so meat chicks to slaughter at a few months old, either once or twice a year.

Rabbits. We’ll continue to breed our two does, and may keep a third doe for breeding. We harvest before the young have to be separated. I want to expand an outdoor run for them all for summertime grazing.

Geese. We will eventually harvest the three Chinese geese (one this Monday for Thanksgiving dinner) and keep the African geese pair for breeding. Since they nest around March, they will likely have eggs or even a clutch of goslings by moving time unless we take the eggs away. We have not decided how we’ll deal with that, nor have we decided how to deal with a pond. The creek has a pump hookup that could be used to feed a pond. If and when we make a pond, we will add ducks.

(Pigs and a steer will be in year-two.)

Foraging. For both pleasure and use, we’ll return to foraging a great amount of the greens, mushrooms and herbs that we eat and use.

In the kitchen: My husband has been the primary cook for the past few years, and an extraordinary one. To live up to the bar he has set is a rather daunting proposition, though I look forward to more time at the stove. In addition to taking on more of the family meals, I want to start baking bread regularly, canning the vegetables we grow, and continuing to make country wine.

These goals are a large step toward self-sufficiency that does not stray so far from what we already make and do to be unattainable. Some of it may not work out. Some parts may fail. Some parts may be miserably unenjoyable.

I may have time for more of the crafts I so miss: knitting, crocheting, sewing, painting. I may not. Writing, though, will be a given, a necessity, an integral part and product of the homestead.

I have no idea (but high hopes for) how I’ll manage with a toddler on the loose. I hope that she’ll relish the daily tasks and learn with zeal. I hope that she’ll drive and inspire and partake in new projects and activities as she grows.

I know that none of it will be easy, but I’m (almost) certain that all this and more is possible.

Dairy Sheep

After giving serious consideration to factoring one or more milk goats into our homestead operation, and chatting with a friend about the thought, my inclination is now leaning in a different direction, one so often overlooked: dairy sheep.

The idea might seem strange to Americans, although sheep milk is produced abundantly around the world and the U.S. imports more than 70 million pounds of sheep milk cheese annually.

Among cheeses, sheep’s milk varieties are my favorite, and since the fat content is higher, it goes further for cheese-making. It shares many health benefits, as well as digestibility, with goat’s milk, both being superior to cow’s milk. It contains more protein than either. The flavor is rich but mild and the products wonderfully creamy. And it’s said to be uniquely suited to freezing.

Before I raised my goats as a kid (no pun intended), I reared two lambs. My first was a bummer (the runt triplet) given to me at 8 hours old when I was eight or nine years old. I bottle-fed her and she followed me everywhere. Her name was Dandelion, and I called her Baby. When my parents sold our farm, Dandelion “went to live out her days as someone’s beloved pet” while I was at school one day.

A few years later I got Reba, who was a month-old bummer lamb. She lived in our kitchen for a few weeks, and grew into an enormous ewe that I could actually ride. My younger brother pestered and harassed her into hating him, and she’d rear up and chase him out of the barnyard threatening a swift headbutt to the hind-end. But with me she was a sweet-mannered friend until her untimely demise.

So, I’ve always had as much fondness for sheep as any of the livestock, although they lack the animated personality and intelligence of goats and pigs. But as I’ve discussed, the only practical avenue we could see for our two sheep when we move is to re-home them, an option that I generally prefer not to resort to.  I’m not ready, realistically, to dedicate ample time to cleaning and spinning wool in addition to regular shearing, as much as I’d like to. (Wool uses without spinning, anyone?) We’ve considered breeding and raising the lambs for slaughter, and that option is not out of the question.

We’d still have to breed one or both of our sheep and raise a ewe lamb to be tame enough for handling, since the two we have are temperamental and standoffish.

If we decide to dive into the dairy animal plan, I’m thinking that a sheep would be as good an option as any. I’m looking forward to sheep’s milk ice cream and fresh feta. If anyone can offer experience in this arena, I would be most stunned and pleased to hear!

The Pleasure and Utility of Goats

I’ve had goats for all but short periods of my life. On the farm where I was raised, we had pygmies, which I must admit I am not fond of: noisy, cantankerous, and quite useless except for show, in my experience (please do correct me if I’m missing something!).

When I was ten or eleven, I got a Nubian as a pet, which I might have learned are quite similar in temperament to pygmies. After her kid was stillborn, we brought in a young Oberhasli (or Swiss Alpine) to become her foster kid and companion.

That wether, Buggzie, was my sweetheart: full of personality and tirelessly mischievous, except on the trail. As a pack animal, he was a natural. We took him hiking along the coast and in the hills. Passersby always took bizarre guesses at what he might be: Deer? Dog? Llama?

Given that our Nubian was unquestionably ill-fitted for packing, we got Picasso, a La Mancha. La Machas are sweet and mild-mannered, so much so that he was the object of the other two’s bullying. But he made a good pack goat and a nice mellow farm resident. (La Manchas most notably, by the way, lack external ears but for tiny nubs or tufts.)

Once we moved to our first property with land a few years ago, my husband and I discussed getting a goat fairly soon. We had more or less inherited the goat and two sheep that lived currently in the pasture, none of whom were approachable or particularly nice, so we thought we’d get a caprine pal that might be our intermediary.

We decided on a La Mancha– a nice dairy goat should we go that direction– expecting a nice, mild-mannered little gal either way. We bought one from a local dairy and kept her for the first week or two in our laundry room. Gerdy.

She has nearly every attribute of my beloved Buggzie, but with fewer manners and less training.

We talked about milking her but worried that the commitment would be too binding. Instead Gerdy and her three barnmates are a voracious set of hay-burners.

By the time we will be moving, we hope to find the right home for our wool-factories rather than bringing them along. They’re too old to slaughter and we don’t see another reasonable use for them; while I’d eventually like to spin my own wool, I can’t practically expect it to make the near-future to-do list. Gerdy plus her pal Amy will come along.

So the question is utility, with the goal of building a highly self-sufficient homestead. At the get-go, there’s no question: the barn is overrun with blackberry vines, and the trees are plagued with ivy. Goats are stellar bramble-clearers. They even eat poison oak. So the two will earn their keep well in the first few months, and with plenty of grass and weeds, they won’t tear through hay like they do on our barren, drought-stricken land here.

The next question is, To milk, or not to milk? and I could use some help on this one.

It’s a major commitment, but so, too, is a self-sufficient homestead. So, too, is feeding a family, and buying the milk and cheese and butter– all organic– to support our diet.

To be honest, I’m not terribly fond of the flavor of goat milk, but I’m convinced I would get used to it, particularly knowing the benefits. Goats are highly efficient dairy animals, and they produce a quantity reasonable for use by a family of three. Most importantly, their milk is a perfect food for chickens and pigs, both of which we will be keeping.

The answer seems almost obvious, but I’ll let the thought percolate, round it out against the numerous other plans that will soon compete for ours in my day.

I’d love advice from someone who trudges out through the rain to the barn at dawn and dusk with a toddler underfoot or a baby wrapped against their back. Miserable drudgery? Completely worthwhile? And of course, would we need to start from scratch with a new doe, or can a nice 2-year-old with a spunky demeanor be coaxed to stand still for milking?

For these sorts of reasons I’m glad to have the time to consider, seek feedback, and look at the big picture from afar. Either way, the goats will be there.

The Trees

Many of the trees on the property are overrun with ivy; some are gravely plagued with the aggressive vines, beautiful as they can be. We’ll have quite the task removing them, which we’ll need to do post haste.

There’s an old plum tree near the Little House toppling under its own broken branches, and a large unpruned apple tree bending under a snarl of vines. The trees will be one of the first projects, and I’m sure we’ll need to hire an arborist for some of the largest and most ailing.

In the spring, we’ll be planting new trees, a small orchard of various fruit. I’ll plant a collection of heirloom apple trees– early and late, cooking and eating– a cherry, plum, and pear.

I have plenty of research yet to do on which varieties thrive best in USDA Hardiness Zone 8b. I’m well acquainted with local floral and native plants, but I want to choose the best adapted fruit trees for the area.

This property is also just far enough from the town we used to live in to be slightly colder in the winter, which may mean more than that the rarest in-town snow and more days with below-freezing temps. From where I sit in a November day expected to reach 80 degrees, this will be a welcome but intense change.