Thursday, July 17, 2008

Sunrise over the Farm

When I went out this morning to take care of animals, it was 52 degrees which is a real treat for the middle of July. Then I was treated to a postcard sunrise scene with the sunlight diffusing through the morning fog broken only by the symmetrical shadows cast by the trees. I don't know that the camera can quite capture the imagery impressed upon my senses, but it is not too far off. Thanks be to God for His amazing creation and continual reminders of who is really in control.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Garden Growth

Even though it has been a month since the last post, we have not been idle in our projects here on the farm. I will try to make a few posts over the next week or so to try catching up on reporting the progress on some of the activities around here.

Over the last several days, we have been enjoying meals comprised mainly of green vegetables grown right here on the farm. My wife has been diligently attending to the needs of the garden and the results are nothing short of spectacular. She spends most of her free evening time almost every day after work weeding, watering, and picking the fruits from her labors. Fortunately for the rest of us in the family, our taste buds, stomachs, and overall health benefit from her efforts as well.

Here is a picture from April 17 showing the recently expanded garden area:

By May 22, some of the early season vegetables were making good progress, but the warm season plants were just getting started:

Here it is June 28, and the green coloration in the garden plots far outweigh the brown colors that dominated the earlier pictures:

Here are some more before and after pictures to demonstrate how the warm weather and lots of TLC and hard work can produce some amazing growth in these plants. On May 22, here are the plots where the tomatoes, squash, and peppers were planted:

Just over a month later, here are pictures of the tomatoes, squash, and peppers. We have enjoyed zucchini and yellow pear squash in our meals the last several days.

The tomato plants are loaded with small green fruits and lots of blooms. They should be ripe for picking within a week or so.

The pepper plants still have some growing to do, but they are showing blooms already. Peppers really thrive in the hot weather which is what we experience during the months of July and August that are about to commence.

Last month we built a trellis structure using t-posts and twine for the snow peas to climb. In this picture you can also see the broccoli and spinach plants in the foreground. The spinach has run its course. The fresh spinach was as sweet as could be. However during an early June heat wave, the plants went to seed, so we are done with spinach until fall when another batch will be planted. The last two weeks have seen the broccoli plants producing big, beautiful heads that are very tender when steamed. This is another plant that we will grow another batch when the cooler weather returns this fall.

As you can see from the following picture, the snow peas knew what to do with the trellis and are climbing quite nicely. We have enjoyed fresh snow peas and sugar snap beans the last several nights with our dinner.

Also in the garden, we are growing artichokes:

...and asparagus. The asparagus takes two years to reach maturity. So this year the plants will develop, we will mulch them good over the winter, and then should receive fruits from the plants by next spring.

The leaf lettuce that we grow is a variety that continues to grow back as it is cut. So we are able to enjoy salads and lettuce for our sandwiches regularly. The plants will go to seed when the hot weather sets in next month.

The potatoes are very close to being ready for digging up. We had potatoes last year as well and were amazed at how much better they tasted than store bought. Who could have imagined that potatoes would have a taste difference? Based on that experience, we planted double the amount of potato plants this year. Once this crop is brought in, we will leave the ground until fall and plant another batch. Potatoes like the cooler weather, so they do not do well during the mid-summer heat of July and August. Just to the right of the potatoes are our home grown onions. We are just starting to lift them and they are wonderfully tasty!

Finally, what would a garden be without flowers? We have several varieties growing with the objective to grow varieties that will attract beneficial birds and bugs that will eat the harmful critters hanging out in the garden, but not be interested in the veggies themselves.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Hunter

Over this past weekend our son celebrated his tenth birthday. Among the many wonderful gifts that he received was his first firearm, a .22 caliber rifle. When he was about seven, he learned to shoot a BB gun. At about eight and a half, he moved up to a pellet gun. He has enjoyed shooting both of these guns for target practice, but has yearned for an actual firearm. So for his birthday and accompanied by numerous stipulations for its use, he is now the proud owner of a .22 caliber rifle. For now, he will shoot his new weapon under very close parental supervision. However in the long term picture his love for shooting can be quite beneficial to a farm operation like ours through the elimination of destructive varmints such as ground hogs, racoons, and squirrels. Anyway I am getting ahead of myself because that is a few years down the road.

The following is my first ever YouTube video upload showing our son describing the use of his new firearm:

Sunday, May 18, 2008

California Trip Recap

I was hoping to provide more frequent updates to this blog during our California trip. However, here it is Sunday already and it is time to head for the airport this evening so that we can return to Virginia. Unfortunately not a single update was provided during our stay out here. But even though I haven't been writing, I have been busy snapping pictures and we have been busy with all kinds of activities while exploring the Los Angeles area.

The photo album shown via the slide show in the previous post has been updated with all of the pictures that I have taken this week. It was easier and in the long run will make the most sense to have all of the trip pictures in one photo album rather than a separate slide show and album for each day of the trip.

After the pictures from the flight out are pictures from our second day of the trip when we visited the South Pasadena skatepark. My son was really looking forward to doing some skateboarding in California and so we planned on visiting several skateparks for him to try. There are lots of skateboarding pictures in the photo album.

On our third day we visited the Vans skatepark in the suburb of Orange which is south of LA. Vans is a popular shoe and apparel manufacturer for skateboard enthusiasts and they have an awesome indoor skatepark here in Southern California. The pictures in the album will show the diversity of skating platforms provided at this facility. In the end, I think this was my son's favorite skatepark that he was able to try during the week.

The day after that was more skating in the eastern LA suburbs of Chino and Chino Hills. We found two very nice skateparks to try. The park in Chino Hills we had all to ourselves and the larger one in Chino had very few others skating, so there was plenty of space for everyone to do their thing. From the Chino Hills park, we had an interesting view of a forest fire which was occurring on nearby Mount Baldy.

On our fifth day, we diversified our activity. First we went to a top-rated skatepark in Glendale where no one else was skating during our time there. After skating we went to nearby Griffith Park where we visited the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage, the Los Angeles Zoo, and the Travel Town train museum.

The next day was spent chilling out. Both our son and one of our hosts are guitar enthusiasts. So it was nice for them to play guitar together and learn from each other. Actually the whole week was spent chilling out and visiting with our incredibly gracious hosts when we weren't out exploring. We had not seen our friends for several years, so it was nice to have a whole week for visiting and catching up on what has been going on in our respective lives. On this day we attempted to visit the planetarium and observatory at Griffith Park, but the road to the observatory was closed that afternoon due to a brush fire in the vicinity.

By the seventh day of our trip, the weather was getting pretty hot during the day, so on this day we went to the beach. Just twenty miles inland from the beach, the temperature was pushing 100 degrees, but at the seaside, it was a comfortable 80. During our drive home we got to experience Friday afternoon Los Angeles traffic. So to keep occupied, my son took over camera duties to snap shots of downtown Los Angeles and other sights that piqued his interest during the drive.

The beach day was so much fun that we went back the next day as well and my son tried his hand at boogie boarding on the waves. For safety, I went out in the water with him so I was unable to capture any of his wave riding on film. That day also happened to be this blog author's birthday, so after our trip to the beach, we enjoyed an evening of cooking out and visiting in our hosts beautiful backyard.

So here it is Sunday now and we will leave in a few more hours for the airport to return to Virginia and conclude our California adventure. It has been a great trip with many lasting memories for us both. I have embedded a photo slide show into this entry which should be viewable in most web browsers. Just after that is a link to an online album that should be availble in all browsers and might be the best way to view the pictures that were taken during our trip. By viewing the online album, you can see the pictures in a much larger format.

Click this link or on the picture below to view the web album online which will allow you to see the pictures in a larger format.

California Trip May 2008

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

California Trip Day One

This blog is implementing a change in scenery for the next several days as the blog author and his son leave the manure shoveling behind for a week in order to enjoy a visit to Southern California. Instead of pictures showing progress with the various ongoing farm projects, we will endeavor to show those who follow this blog some of the sights and activities from our stay in the Los Angeles area. The following slide show contains some pictures from our flight across the country. Everything went smooth on the flight out with no major delays and our luggage even arrived at the destination at the same time as we did!

Click this link or on the picture below to view the web album online which will allow you to see the pictures in a larger format.

California Trip May 2008

Monday, May 12, 2008

Grazing Again

One of the first posts published in this blog showed the operation and described the benefits of spreading mule manure on pasture to naturally fertilize the soil. It has been about 6 weeks since that application and I thought it would be nice to show the current pasture condition. In that time we have had some good rains and warmer weather, that when combined with the fertilized soil, have allowed the pasture grass to grow up to a good grazing level.

We have sectioned our pasture into three grazing paddocks. Each paddock is approximately one-half acre in size. By allowing the animals to graze about 3 weeks in each paddock, we can achieve a six week rotation.

Here is a picture of one of the grazing paddocks as we were spreading the manure right at the end of March:

At that time, the animals were rotated to the neighboring paddock in which they grazed for about 3 weeks. They were then rotated to a third paddock at which time the second paddock received an application of manure. The animals then grazed in the third paddock for about 3 more weeks. During that 6 week timeframe, the pasture in the first paddock shown in the picture above was left alone to receive rainfall and sunshine which allowed the nutrients from the manure to enhance the fertility of the soil. The grass in the paddock responded nicely and is ready for grazing again as can be shown in the following pictures.

This three week rotation will continue as long as the weather cooperates. The variety of grasses that are planted in the pasture tend to grow best during the relatively cooler weather of the spring and early summer, and then again in the fall before the freezing weather sets in. However during the heat of July and August, the grass grows much slower such that we sometimes have to add a fourth paddock to the rotation.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Visit from the Blimp

This afternoon provided an interesting sight flying above our farm - The Goodyear Blimp! I am used to seeing the blimp flying over major sporting events, but not over our little old farm way out in the middle of Floyd County, Virginia! I would imagine the blimp operators had a spectacular view of the spring green landscape on this beautiful 70 degree afternoon that we were blessed to experience.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Some Drought Relief

Since Saturday evening we have had close to 2.5 inches of much-needed rainfall. This would be the most rain from one system since sometime last summer. It has been very dry with below normal precipitation for well over a year now. The water level in our farm pond provides a pretty good indicator of groundwater levels. It is fed by two springs which flow well and keep the pond full when groundwater levels are normal from consistent precipitation. When precipitation levels are below normal for extended periods of time, such as over the course of several months, the spring flow diminishes and the soil in and around the pond tends to absorb water from the pond. During those times, the water level in the pond will drop.

When we first purchased this farm in the summer of 2005, this part of Virginia had been experiencing normal and above normal rainfall for a couple of years previous to this time and the pond was full.

By the spring of 2007, precipitation had more below normal than above normal months, but the pond was still full enough to do some paddleboating. In the first picture you can see a measuring bar which indicates the position of the pond drain plug about 8 feet below the top of the bar. The other picture shows the overflow drain which would be the maximum depth the pond could reach.

The spring and summer of 2007 saw very little precipitation and the area entered into a drought classification according to the United States National Drought Monitor. By late summer, the pond level was almost to the bottom of the measuring bar. The picture below shows almost the entire length of the measuring bar exposed. The overflow drain is well up the bank on the right side of the photo. That is quite a contrast to the pictures above showing the relative water level to these structures.

Unfortunately we had chosen the fall of 2006 and spring of 2007 to stock our pond with several hundred game fish. However, by late summer, with the pond level so low, we had to remove as many of the fish as we could to a friend's pond whose water level was faring better than ours during the drought. There was nothing in the long range weather forecasts to indicate a weather pattern shift that would alleviate the drought conditions. If the fish weren't moved to deeper water they would die from oxygen starvation. Using a cast net we caught as many fish as we could and put them in 55 gallon trash cans filled with fresh water for the journey to their new home. We estimated about 800 fish were rounded up and transferred during our 'fish rodeo'.

The pond level fluctuated at or around this level since last summer. Sometimes it would drop even further below this level and then come back up after one of our infrequent rain or frozen precipitation events. However, this last round of rain since Saturday night has seen the water level rise to its highest level in quite some time.

Although the pond still has a ways to go before we can get the paddleboat afloat again.

The spring is flowing nicely today. During the past several months, its flow had slowed to just a trickle.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

How Does Your Garden Grow?

We usually think of garden growth in the vertical sense. Plants grow taller as the season progresses. This spring, as we began to plan the garden contents, it was quickly realized that we were going to need more garden space. So in this case we needed our garden to grow horizontally in terms of length and width to accomodate our plans.

Here is a recent view of the garden area showing the garden bed layout we used last year along with the row of fruit trees that we planted last week.

The layout consisted of 4 raised beds that were 4 feet wide wide by 16 feet long. These beds were used for annual vegetables with the exception of the far bed which is planted with strawberries, and garlics that were wintered over. Around the 4 raised beds was a concentric 2 foot wide raised bed that was used to plant beneficial flowers such as sunflowers and marigolds.

Since we have the space, we decided to mirror the configuration which will double the garden size. To carve new garden beds from the pasture, we use our BCS tiller in several passes. First we run it with a shallow depth setting for the tiller tines to break the sod apart. Then we run the tiller with the tines at the deepest setting to get a nice deep bed dug.

The picture above shows our BCS tiller. The BCS is a multi-purpose device called a walk-behind tractor. It consists of a tractor, which is the engine, transmission, and steering mechanisms, with a power take-off (PTO) attachment to which a multitude of implements, such as a rototiller can be operated. It is the same concept as a typical four-wheeled farm tractor which contains a three-point hitch and PTO for attaching and operating a wide variety of power implements. The walk-behind tractor is a much scaled down version of the same machinery in terms of size and cost. But it is the right size tool for most jobs on our 10 acre farm. I will try to dedicate a future post to the multi-purpose BCS.

The rototiller attachment for the BCS operates better than most dedicated rototillers. The tiller tines rotate at a higher rate than standard tillers, which provides more thorough tilling of the soil. After a couple passes with a shallow tine depth followed by a couple passes with a deeper tine depth, a swath of pasture sod is transformed into a beautiful loam.

Pasture sod is pretty thick and it takes a strong machine to transform the sod to garden soil. Just to show the strength of this tiller, here is what happened to a piece of rebar that was buried in the grass where I was trying to till.

Fortunately, the tines themselves are very tough as they did not appear to sustain any noticeable damage from this incident.

Once the beds were tilled, well rotted mule manure that has been composting over the winter was heaped onto the freshly tilled soil. We will leave the manure in place for a couple of weeks to allow it dry out somewhat and to allow the manure nutrients to fertilize the underlying soil. The composted manure has the consistency of clay, so attempting to till it into the soil until it has had a chance to dry would just clog up the tiller. Here is the manure pile before we started piling it onto the beds:

...and here is what was left after shoveling many, many wheelbarrow loads onto the new garden beds:

By amending the soil with such a significant amount of manure, the volume of the soil in the garden beds will obviously have to increase. Thus the end product will be raised beds of very rich soil. As the summer progresses we will have to provide some updates of how well the vegetables grow in these newly developed garden beds.

Cold Snap Passes

So far it appears that we made it through this latest cold snap with minimal damage. This morning we were just above freezing, but below freezing for the previous three mornings. Wednesday morning was the coldest with a low of 24. However each day it warmed quickly so the new plants and the new fruit trees were not in the freezing temperatures for extended periods of time. It appears that some of the blossoms on the new peach trees that we planted last week may have sustained some damage, but the apple trees and the other plants initially seem to have weathered the cold.

Monday, April 14, 2008

April (Snow) Showers bring....

Remember the old saying that 'April showers bring May flowers'? That one came to mind today as I watched intermittent snow showers pass through the farm today. I don't think that is the type of shower that the inventor of that saying had in mind, but we are not going to complain as we will take all the moisture we can get. The temperature just made it to 40 this afternoon and it is supposed to get below freezing tonight. Hopefully the overnight cold will not damage any of the blooms or garden plants that are starting to poke through the surface of the soil. By Wednesday and into Thursday this little cold snap is scheduled to pass with a return to spring-like temperatures. The little chicks in the brooder seem to be managing fine. It is a little colder in their brooder than I would like, but they all have a pretty good layer of feathers developing on their wings and backs, so individually they can handle the cold better. They are also all getting larger in size, so that when they huddle together to sleep, they have more collective body warmth to share. I tried to capture a picture today showing streaks of snow in the air, but it is pretty tough to tell from this shot. It does give an idea of the gray sky and overall raw feeling that we experienced all day today. That color provides quite a contrast to the bright green colors that are enveloping the local hay fields.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Fruits for our Labors

Yesterday's project du jour was to add six new fruit trees to our garden area. If all goes well, in another couple of years we will be harvesting home grown peaches and apples from these trees. We purchased 3 each of peaches and apples, making sure to purchase varieties that pollinate each other by producing blooms at the same time in the spring.

In our garden area, we decided to locate the new trees along the northern edge of the garden area. That way when the trees get bigger, they will not be shading the garden beds. In this picture, the end of the white fence at the far left is the northeast corner of our property. We planned the row of fruit trees to run just inside the northern edge of our property on a line that runs east-to-west.

For each tree we dug a deep enough hole so that we could fill the bottom with well rotted mule manure and then a shallow layer of dirt. On top of that we set the root ball so that the graft line of the tree was going to be about 3 inches above ground level. Once the height was adjusted properly, dirt was filled in around the root ball.

Once the trees were set in place, a layer of mulch was placed around the tree base and ridged up around the perimeter to form a bowl shape. This will help retain and direct water towards the tree base. This shot is looking due north.

This shot is taken from the western edge of the property and looking due east. Around the perimeter of the tree row we put up temporary deer fencing to discourage them from browsing our brand new trees. The deer fencing uses extra long metal T-posts around the perimeter with electric polytape at four different heights from top to bottom. We have portable charger hooked up to charge the lines in excess of 5,000 volts. Hopefully that will discourage the deer from further investigating what is beyond the fence wires. On the list of near term farm projects is permanent deer fencing around the entire perimeter of the garden area, so hopefully this temporary deer fencing will keep them at bay until the permanent fencing is complete.

This shot is looking to the west up the line of newly planted fruit trees. From east-to-west, or front-to-back as you look at this picture are a Fuji, Gala, and Granny Smith apple tree, followed by two Elberta and a Hale-haven peach tree. From the time we got the trees home to the completion of the project was about 4 hours of planting and fence construction time with two people.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Eight day old chicks

The baby chicks that arrived last week are growing fast. They are now eight days old and their wing and tail feathers are filling in nicely. Their physical size increase is becoming noticeable.

The chicks live in a 4 foot square brooder pen that we have located in a shed adjacent to our house. Although the shed itself is not heated, the pen is heated using two 250 watt heat lamps. The pen is insulated on all four sides and partially on the top to retain the heat. It has been cold and damp every day since the chicks arrived, but the floor of the brooder has remained right around 90 degrees Fahrenheit which is a good temperature for the chicks. As they get older and stronger we will gradually raise the heat lamps which will lower the temperature to harden the birds for their eventual transition to the outdoors. The top of the brooder pen is hinged to provide easy access to the interior. The floor is covered by a layer of pine shavings. Here is what the setup looks like.

Last year, our first for raising chickens, we kept the brooder pen in our basement. But we found that as the chicks got bigger, so did the smell and the dust. It is amazing how much dust chickens can generate from their constant scratching activity. So this year we decided to try them out in the shed. So far, so good. We lost a chick the first day, but the rest seem to be doing well, knock on wood. More updates to follow.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Spring Chickens

Yesterday heralded another rite of Spring on our farm; the arrival of this year’s first batch of baby chicks. Thirty-five Rhode Island Red chicks completed their journey from Privett Hatchery in New Mexico to our home in Floyd County, Virginia. We ordered 35, but counted 38 that were shipped to us. Hatcheries will often send an extra couple of chicks to account for mortality amounts common with baby chicks which is usually a couple per shipment. This batch of chicks is supposed to be all females; they are destined to increase the size of our egg laying flock. Although the hatcheries are experts at sexing baby chicks, it is not uncommon for one or two of the opposite gender to find their way into a batch. That is the other reason that a couple extra chicks are provided with the shipment. As these chicks mature, we will be able to determine any males who will be destined for the freezer once they reach butchering size.

Our present egg laying flock consists of eleven Rhode Island Red hens that are just over one year old now. They are raised on the pasture and produce a large brown egg with a golden yolk that is much richer, and more flavorful, than any white egg purchased from the supermarket. Once folks, including ourselves, taste the fresh eggs produced by free ranged local hens, it is undesirable to go back to the supermarket variety produced in egg factories in which the hens live their lives in a cage, never seeing the light of day or a blade of grass.

We have found that there is more demand for the eggs produced by our current flock than the hens can possibly supply. And that is only through word of mouth without even trying to market them. So we thought this year we would expand the egg laying flock size by three times the amount of birds to see how well that will respond to egg demand. Here are some pictures of the recent acquisitions. They are pretty cute at this stage and really quite entertaining to watch as they skitter around the brooder pen.

Once these birds outgrow the brooder and start their lives on pasture, we will look at acquiring one or more batches of meat birds which are raised exclusively for butchering. I would hope to write more about raising meat birds in future posts. For now we will concentrate on raising these egg layers and keeping you updated on their progress.

One final note: unfortunately we lost one chick late last night. She never really seemed to gain use of her legs and was unable to walk to the feeder or waterer. She would just kind of drag herself around. Finally last night I went to check on the chicks and she had given up the fight.