Thursday, September 6, 2012

Heritage Turkeys and Sheep, Oh My!

We bought horses early on in our farming adventure.  This was a bad move, not because they didn't do their duty making good compost and keeping the back pasture down, but because they were quite useless in the food department.  We were all too nervous and inexperienced to ride them, and they just weren't what this farm needed.

If you are going to have a farm, make sure that every animal and plant is multipurpose, and most of all, that you can EAT them!  So, we sold our two beautiful quarter horses for a song to some kids who knew how to ride and knew the value of these animals, and we waited as the pasture caught back up to its formal glory.  We kept one of our minis, Cheyenne, as she was quite a fixture on the farm.  She was lonely, however, so we bought sheep.  We looked a long time before we even found the kind we wanted.  Katahdin sheep are a hair variety that do not need shearing.  That's good as we are quite lazy (urban converts generally are), and we have no desire to learn yet another new skill.  These animals are bred specifically for their mild meat, and I've been told that they are also good milkers if ever I get into a mood for sheep cheese.  The butter fat content is quite high and makes for amazing artisan cheese, which I've tried at farmers market and quite like i.

We bought three ewes.  One, Maggie, is three years old and with her comes her baby (whom is yet to be named).  The third is also a young ewe lamb named Georgia.  She looks an awful lot like the Georgia clay that turns the rivers red.  I think she is quite striking and look forward to seeing her as a full grown lady.  The intent here is to breed them in the spring and butcher any males born and sell any females live for breeders.  Three sheep are plenty for our 3 acres of pasture.  My hubby has made it his mission in life to tame them, so he spends time coaxing them into the stall with grain.  They came from a much larger herd, so they are still skiddish of people.  They are warming up, and I have a feeling they will make a wonderful addition to the farm.  Cheyenne seems to really be pleased with her new companions.  She stuck her head through the bars when they were sectioned off in the stall.  Now she barely leaves their side in the pasture.  Such a fun little pony!

Also new on the farm are our Narragansett turkeys.  This breed of turkey was the last commercial variety before they started breeding for such heavy weights.  The new commercial variety must be butchered by about 6 months because they get so large that they are prone to heart attacks.  Narragansett turkeys are known to be good mothers and will hatch out and nurture their young.  We intend to breed and sell them to local folks who just can't get them in our area  We also want a few to put in our freezer as turkey is highly nutritious and delicious. We are starting with 14.

The interesting thing about turkeys that I didn't know is that they are highly social and caring for one another.  One of the chicks had crushed legs when he arrived in the box.  We hoped he would recover, but he still hobbles around on his knuckles.  He is half the size of the others, but he is still alive.  The other turkeys don't pick on him like the chickens would have.  They, in fact, protect him.  When all the others roost for the evening, two or three stay down on the ground with Baby.  They corral him into the pen at night and keep an eye on him during the day.  They take shifts Babysitting.  It's amazing to watch, and I am instantly in love with these animals.  I don't expect Baby to survive for a long life, but he is certainly loved and cared for by his brothers and sisters.  I can't wait to see the mothers in action next spring.

Farming is such a learning experience for life. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chicken Tractor

As mobile chicken units go, this is a monster.  It didn't start out that way, but it kind of grew with the impossible task of housing 24 chickens.  The 24 will soon be split, and another mobile unit will have to be assembled.  But, for now, there is plenty of room for the chickens to roost   Our daughter had the brilliant idea for this unit, and the one thing we learned is that more is sometimes cumbersome.  We can't pull this baby without our handy lawn tractor.  We also learned that the wheels must go on the back of the unit, not several feet in or it doesn't pull at all.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Spring is tedious.  Though I long for the end to snow and the first blossoms of spring, I know that farmers only have a chance to enjoy them in passing, because we are so busy readying the ground, planting the seed and weeding the undesirables in our vast expanse.  If I can give any one advise based on this years experience, it would be to start small.  Do not over plant your fields or set your sights on a bumper crop the first year or two.  You need a small experimental ground that you can test different ways of planting, mulching, weeding, organizing.  Our 84'x84' garden is a bit ambitious for a beginning farmer, but we have done quite well this year as opposed to last year. 

The very first crop in the ground was the potatoes in March.  We ended up having a lot more seed potato from the previous year's crops than anticipated, so one quarter of the garden is planted in potatoes.  That will yield a harvest two or three times more than we will need as a family, but perfect for a few families to buy into.  We decided to try mulching in between the rows with straw and piling aged compost in mounds around the potatoes as they come up.  It certainly cut down on weeds (though not completely), but it seems to be harboring our dreaded enemy, voles.  Those little pests eat many root veggies.  Between voles and deer, we have been stripped of many a plant investment both last season and this.  Our cat has helped some, but the birth rate of a vole is almost impossible to stay on top of. 

On another section of the garden, we decided to try wood chips in the walkways.  This method is far superior on the weed control to the straw.  The main problem with it is that it locks in your beds for some time, because the wood takes much longer than straw to break down.  You also have to be careful to add amendments to balance the acidity you tend to get from the chips.  The best weedless area was the walk where we put down newspaper and then wood chips on top.  However, for walkways, it is fantastic.  We put wood chips around our blueberry bushes, and they LOVE it!  Raspberries, not so much.  I think you have to mulch them a bit lighter due to the chance of root rot and to give the soil a chance to heat up.  The last method we tried was black plastic.  It seems to be working quite well around the tomato plants. 

The process is arduous, but we are ahead this year by at least three weeks in the size of our produce.  Spinach is huge, lettuce doing quite well.  Spring onions are ready, garlic is well above ground.  Summer squashes and cucumber already have their second and third leaves, and we even have some watermelon ready for transplanting.  We plant pumpkins this week - a full month before last year.  We've harvested our first set of broccoli, and the strawberries are already ripening.  (More on strawberries later).  All-in-all, we are well on our way to a good season.

Friday, April 27, 2012

When is a Farm a Business?

I struggle with commitment.  I have for many years.  Not the kind of commitment that you stick to something once you have begun.  After all, I've been married to the same wonderful man for 21 years this year, and I never tire of waking up in the bed beside him.  The commitment I'm talking about is that moment when you are standing on the edge of a great chasm that has no visible bottom and you have to decide to step out into thin air hoping that whatever lies beneath is the promised land.  Some people have no problem jumping, and in fact, I have jumped a few times myself.  However, having reached the bottom before and found that this particular chasm had some particularly unpleasant consequences a person might give pause when faced with a new leap of faith.  And, that is what I've done at virtually every chasm for a good many years - peered over the edge, caught the glimpse of paradise and then shrunk back in fear.  Fear of what, you might ask?  Fear of falling.  Fear of gliding aimlessly off course and never quite reaching the destination.  Fear of not hitting the mark through some quirky design of fate or, most of all, from some timid excuse for not trying hard enough. 

So, I stood at the precipice looking between a hobby garden and a full blown, money making, community feeding farm (the promised land I spoke of) and decided that this time I would jump.  I would close my eyes (well, ok, a little peeking) and push through my fears.  Certainly, I am quite aware of the challenges that face me as I pursue one of the toughest careers on earth.  However, I looked into the future of my small farm and saw a thing of beauty and an opportunity to do something infinitely worthwhile and decided that, whatever the risk, it was worth the plunge.

I am, therefore, happy to announce that, as of yesterday, we are now officially Rainbow Farm with a real business license and a real mandate to build the vision that has been stirring in our heads since we first married in 1991.  I invite you to join us on our journey.  It's going to be one wild ride.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Plants that Survived the Winter

I honestly wasn't sure that any of my plants would survive this winter.  After all, this is only our second year.  We weren't exactly methodical or even practical in our approach to planting last year.  However, a few things made it all the way through the multiple snow storms.  Here they are:

Walla Walla Onions

I didn't cover or protect any of these plants, and they fared just fine in the garden.

Garden Trellis From Downed Trees

My husband is very crafty.  At one time in his life he painted, made furniture and created pop-up cards.  His latest project proves he's still got it.  Our garden gates are custom made from downed tree branches, so it totally made sense to create a garden entry with the same ingenious design.  After a very heavy ice storm this winter, we had a multitude of trees that needed to be up-cycled.  Take a look at this trellis that cost us nothing but a few bolts.  You will need a sharp chisel, a saw, a drill, and good quality nuts, bolts and washers. 

We used fir, which has quite a nice red tint to it.  First we chiseled the bark off, then positioned the large poles on the concrete pillar clamps.  We started with the smallest pole and used a level to find the right height for the rest of the poles, because the land was not perfectly even.  We cut grooves in either side of the cross-beam poles to make a tighter connection, drilled holes and placed the bolts with washers in.  The top poles didn't need grooves, so they are just bolted in place on the side beams.  We decided to add the back braces for stability.  (We get heavy winds here.)  Finally, we put together the decorative side with smaller branches.  Each of these are nailed in place and bent to the diamond design.  We planted two red heirloom climbing roses, and we hope to see them growing this season.

When I say we, I really mean my hubby.  I pretty much observed and held a few posts for reinforcement.  He's the creative genius behind this very smart design.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Vanity, Pride and a Really Hard Head

The birds of spring are out, and I can't be happier with their appearing.  One of the best things about moving to a new state is getting to know all the new birds that frequent my feeder each spring.  Some birds don't frequent my feeder, but keep me company as I garden.  Three of my favorites are the wren, the robin, and the woodpecker. 

I noticed an unusual amount of bird droppings on the door of my SUV about two weeks ago.  I thought it a little strange that there should be so much in one spot just behind my rearview mirrors.  I kept a sharp eye out the next day and discovered a cute little wren preening, pecking and otherwise eyeing himself in the mirror.  Every day now when I drive home, that little guy greets me and proceeds to check himself out in the mirror almost before I put the car in park.  Lately, he follows me around the property  and even into the barn when I feed the horses.  Perhaps he hasn't been able to locate a mate yet, and I seem like the next best thing.  I can't help thinking what a vain little critter I have here.  He sings beautifully, though, and I find him a welcome addition to my farm chores.

The first sign that spring was around the corner was the robins in my back yard.  I remember when we arrived in state last year I was thrilled to see a robin.  We didn't have any robins at our last home.  My guess is that it was because we had few bugs for them to eat.  On a military base, pest spraying was routine.  While I was thankful at times for the lack of mosquitoes nibbling my neck, I really missed the birds that thrived on those insects.  I also worried that so many chemicals in the air and soil couldn't possibly be a healthy living environment for any living creature, including me.  Here on Rainbow Farm we have an overabundance of earthworms and other beneficial insects, which brings my favorite spring bird, the robin, out in force.  This bird really takes pride in his work. With his shoulders back, a dignified little hop and tilt of his head, the robin will wait patiently as I till up the ground in preparation for planting.  As soon as I walk away, he helps himself to the uncovered buffet. 

Jack hammers have nothing on my last flying friend, the woodpecker.  I don't always see them, but their busy work is heard all over the farm.  Last year these hard-headed birds pecked a hole clean through my house trim.  This year they are working heavily on the trees in the back pasture.  No doubt, they are looking for all those mounds of carpenter ants that make a mess of the wood around here.  I say, have at them.  The hairy woodpecker in my picture is just one of the many different kinds of hammer-heads we have here.  The large flicker, cousin to the woodpecker, keeps the air thumping with his antics.  I love to watch them all.  They remind me that hard work pays off in the end - and sometimes leaves a lingering headache.  ;-)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Marketing a Small Farm

I thought it might be worthwhile to share some research I did in my final semester of Journalism last summer since the topic is close to my heart and on subject with this blog.

Marketing the Farm
By Geana Henkes
Marketing the small farm is as diverse as the crops growing in your garden. Competition with large wholesale growers has forced a growing number of farmers to get more creative.

Thurston County Extension Agent Don Tapio recognizes a change in small farm marketing in Washington State.
"We've seen an enormous increase in small, organic farms in the last decade, and they have found their niche in the Washington tourism market." 

Most of these farms, he says, only offer one or two activities to increase traffic to the farm. Wine testing topped the list followed closely by educational workshops and farm tours. Experiments with customer supported agriculture and the growth of rural farmers markets are also helping farmers get their products directly into the hands of the consumer.   Starting small and expanding over time allows small farmers a chance to see if a particular marketing technique is a good fit for their farm.
Create a Product that Customers Love
Angie Davis of Grow with Grace Farm loves herbs.  Her backyard raised beds overflow with them.  Her aunt approached her with the idea of selling her herbs at the Tenino, Wash., farmers market a year ago, and she decided she would give it a try. 
“You have to make a business plan - short-term goals, long-term goals and a really creative idea that the customers love,” she says.
Davis decided to use her herbs to create homemade soap.  At first it was just citronella soap for keeping fleas off her dog, but soon customers were asking about soap for humans.  She experimented with a few and found that mint, rosemary, lavender and her all-time favorite, chocolate mint, were literally flying off the market table.  But, she didn’t stop there.
“I just have things that pop into my head,” she says.  “Creative things.”
Soon she was making gourmet dog biscuits and custom gift baskets for every occasion and selling dried herbs and herbal sachets.  Her business grew as she connected with customers at the farmers market and learned what they needed most. 
Davis’ aunt, Dawna Kelley-Donohue, manages the Tenino Farmer’s Market, and she says that the best way to know if a product will sell is to “get it out there and see.” 
Even if the product is spectacular, however, not every market is a worthwhile place to sell it.  Kelley says to make sure that the farmers market you want to sell in is a member of well established organizations. Her market is a member of the Farmers Market Coalition, Cascade Harvest Coalition, Tilth Producers of Washington and the Washington State Farmers Market Association.  Associations provide brochures readily available to the public online and through county extension offices, and Kelley says this brings more traffic to the market.  More traffic means more chances to sell your product.
Most farmers markets are concentrated in large urban areas.  According to Washington State University professor Karina Gallardo, 75 percent of Washington farmers markets are located in the Seattle areaBut, this statistic is changing with more and more farmers markets opening in rural areas each year.  When markets open in rural areas, more farmers can participate because distance to bring product from farm to market becomes less of an inhibiting factor.
 “In the state of Washington where large growers dominate, direct marketing through farmers markets is making a huge difference,” Gallardo says.
Throw a Party on Your Farm
If the golden cider jug, trophies and awards are any indication, Carolyn Lattin makes some of the best apple cider in the country at her Country Cider Mill.  She's had 37 years to perfect her recipe.  But, customers don't just come to Lattin's Country Cider Mill for the cider.
"If you want to survive as a farm, you have to diversify," Lattin says.  "You can't just sell vegetables three months out of the year and pay your bills. That's why we do so many things here."
On top of selling cider to three farmers markets, two food co-ops, multiple local restaurants and food services, those many things include a 20-acre community party house with something fun happening in every season.  The Lattins don't charge entrance to their farm for any of these festivities, but the traffic it generates increases sales for their agricultural products.
Lattin's fall apple festival brings folks from all around to sample the cider and homemade apple fritters, take horse-drawn carriage rides out to the farm's garden to pick their own pumpkins, pet the many animals that occupy the grounds and listen to live bluegrass music. 
Lattin’s Country Cider Mill becomes a winter wonderland at Christmas.  Folks come out to see the decorations and lights and to pick up fruit preserves and frozen products that they missed out on in the summer.  Lattin believes in keeping the farm stores stocked year-round. 
In the spring, hundreds of people turn out for the annual Easter Egg Hunt. 
In between holidays, an old greenhouse doubles as a birthday party house where youngsters can set up for events that include animal petting, a brand new playground and year-round maze.  Lattin's also hosts field trips to the farm during the school year. 
Carolyn Lattin just keeps the community coming back to her farm.  A new employee in her bakery told her, "Carolyn, you don't have customers, you have friends." Carolyn smiles and says she knows that's true.
The farm has expanded from a simple cider press to a full blown agritourism experience over 37 years.  Lattin says she and her two daughters put in 16 hours a day, seven days a week to make the operation work, but they wouldn't have it any other way. 
"We love what we do here," she says.  "Too many things have fallen in place over the years to make this place work.  It makes me think that someone upstairs had a hand in it.  I believe I was meant to do this."
Not everyone wants to take on such an ambitious project.  However, agritourism is the hottest trend in promoting small farms.  According to a 2010 study by Washington State University, over 44 percent of operating agritourism farms are less than 10 years old. 
Invite the Community to Get Involved
 Dean and Jan Pigman know the value of community.  They intensively grow six acres of organic vegetables herbs and fruit.  The venture is both cost and labor intensive since they do not rely on chemicals to control weeds and pests.  They also understand that farming is at the whim of nature, and there is no guarantee of a bumper crop each year.  Normally the Pigmans have something growing right through till middle of December, but last year was a perfect example of the fragility of a farmer’s work.
“Last year we had a freeze right before Thanksgiving,” Dean Pigman says.  “One more in December finished off our entire winter crop.”
Inviting the community to get involved spreads out the risk inherent in farming the land.  People buy a full or half share of the season’s crop in the spring based on their confidence in the Pigmans’ ability to bring in a good harvest.  At a 2011 price of $595, which comes out to be $37 per week for the growing season, share holders receive one basket a week of vegetables, herbs and fruit enough to feed three or more family members.  The Pigmans ensure their members have a full basket, and the members have a lot of say in what the farm grows.
The Pigmans also send produce to two food co-ops and the Olympia farmers market, but their first thought is for their CSA members. 
“With the CSA we can shift around some that goes in the baskets,” Jan Pigman says. “But, we feel a lot of loyalty to those who’ve prepaid for the season, so generally when the first of something comes in, we put them in the CSA baskets as kind of a reward for them.”
The Pigmans also open the farm to CSA members to come out and help plant, weed and harvest because each shareholder has a stake in the operation of the farm. 
It doesn’t take much to spread the word about the Pigmans’ farm.  They have web pages on several farming association websites and a brochure that goes everywhere with them.  The quality of their produce sells itself.
“We hand them out to people we meet and talk to - doctors’ offices and everywhere we go,” Dean Pigman says.   “We don’t really have the time or need to have a full website. Our members share with their friends, and we get as many shareholders as we can handle.”

By Geana Henkes
The advantage of a rural farmers market to small-scale growers is obvious - less travel time, less competition with large growers, and a local customer base.  The disadvantage is in accessibility to a larger group of buyers.  The Washington State University has begun a pilot program to implement credit card and food coupon use to increase sales at the rural market.
Small farmers don’t typically generate enough in sales to warrant the purchase of a credit card machine.  In the test, customers use a credit card or debit to purchase tokens at the farmers market’s central register. Then, they can buy products from any of the vendors with those tokens.  The same process works for food coupons. 
“There is definite anecdotal evidence so far that the use of the coupon system increases sales,” Professor Karina Gallardo says.
Extension agencies like Washington State University are constantly studying the profitability of direct marketing and the growing trends in agriculture within their states.   The best place to find out what works in small-farm marketing is the extension agency within your region.  Most extension agencies have a list of small farms in each county that you can contact for more information. 
Discussion Board
By Geana Henkes
Agritourism is relatively new in marketing the small farm in the United States.  European countries have been doing it for much longer.  Have you visited an agritourism farm lately?  Tell us about your experience.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Beauty of a Good Lawn Tractor

Cub Cadet with mulch bound for the garden
One of the best buys for our garden was a Cub Cadet lawn tractor with superior mulching capability.  We ran that thing ragged last year and practically filled up the garden with our own homemade mulch.  The areas where we mulched the most and refrained from planting are absolutely beautiful this year.  (We piled the mulch about four inches deep in those parts.)  The chickens shredded and tilled the remnants of mulch under for us, and now we have a section of garden finely prepared for planting.

Farm field trip hayride

Not only was the Cub Cadet perfect for cutting and mulching, the little trailer pulled a host of kids for hayrides around our back pasture throughout the year.  (More on our hosting efforts in another blog.)

I am actually looking forward to the grass peeking through the moss so we can start cutting again. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Chickens in the Garden

The bones of the house
One of the best things on our farm are the chickens.  They are extremely easy to upkeep and are surprisingly versatile in benefits.  Aside from the obvious, eggs, these pretty girls and boys make the richest compost on the property, and they tend my garden all winter-long so I don't have to.

A trap door for the chickens
We built our chicken house from a picture we found in a book about playhouses for children.  I loved the whimsical design and the fact that it was up off the ground.  Herman sketched out the plan on his trusty grid paper and went to work.  The house comes complete with a side row of nesting boxes that allow us to open and check for eggs from the outside.  I love the cedar shakes we used for siding, and the clear roof on the south side allows the sun to warm up the house a bit even in the winter.  In the Pacific Northwest it doesn't get very hot, even in summer.  However, we just open up the front door and chicken run door in the back for fresh air and cooling when the weather warms up.  During the winter we pile in plenty of straw to help insulate.  As the layers of straw build up, we scoop the mess out the little chicken run in the back and add it to our compost bin.  The compost bin is in the chicken yard, so the chickens continuously scratch and turn the pile while adding their own droppings to the mix - a perfect, no fuss solution.
Nest boxes perfect for the ladies

Chickens find shelter under
a net covered with snow
We created a small chicken run behind our garden with temporary fencing so that it can be moved around throughout the year.  We lost a couple of young chickens to hawks, so we discovered an inexpensive way to protect them in a large area using fishing wire.  Wire strung from the trees, house and fence in a web-like network gave us the protection we needed.  It lasted really well throughout the spring, summer and fall, but the winter ice storm ruined it.  Looks like we'll have to reapply once a year if we want to keep those hawks out.  After we harvested all the crops, we let the chickens into the garden.  They have worked wonders in there!  Slugs are under control, weeds non-existent, soil tilled up regularly, and wonderful compost is being worked into the soil without us lifting a single finger.  I'm sure it will be a challenge to keep them out once growing season begins, but they are really enjoying the freedom and extra space.  They eat so many bugs and grasses from the garden that we only have to throw a small amount of feed out in the morning.
Straw insulates the house
Branches for roosting
A virtual chicken playhouse

For benefits vs. cost, chickens are the all-out winner on a small farm.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Farm in Winter

I have definitely neglected my blog in the last couple of months.  It seems the farm in winter is quite an empty topic.  However, looking back on the happenings of November, December and January, I find there are quite a lot of things to say.  The first is that the Irish Spring soap bars we hung on our Cherry and Apple trees kept the deer at bay long enough for winter to set in and shed the leaves those pesky critters were happily munching.We will certainly be hanging soap again in the spring along with a little better caging system, because I truly want these trees to survive.  Thirty-two trees are big investments, and the goal this year is to protect the investment.

Our Handmade Garden Gate
The second is that all the hard work we put into making blackberry jam, freezing apples, pureeing pumpkin, freezing green beans and freezing berries has really paid off.  I have experimented with all kinds of ways to use my harvest.  Pumpkin soup, pumpkin pie, pumpkin muffins.  Berry cobbler, berry sauce, berry muffins, berry swirl poundcake.  Green bean casserole, soups and stews.  Apple pie, apple bread, apple crumble.  The freezer is still stuffed, and we are well into winter now.  I truly regret not having frozen summer squash. 
Cheyenne in the Snow

It is now mid January and our first seed catalogs are in.  The number one plant on my list this year is celery.  I've never tried to grow it, but I sure love to eat it.  I am in the throes of planning the upcoming garden season.  I have my little template drawn out and have begun filling it in with possible plants to grow.  The garlic is already planted, and the potato patch has been scheduled to move to the other side of the garden to prevent tater pests from getting too comfortable.  All the rest of the space is up for grabs.  I'll post a picture once I get it all arranged.

In the meantime, however, I tell you in all honesty that our three horses have been busy, busy this winter making serious compost - all of which is magically creating a rich mix for my upcoming planting season along with the hay we piled and piled in the chicken house to keep them warm and cozy.  The compost from last year is already ready to be added to the garden beds.  Bring on the spring!