Small victories

In ten years of growing food, this is by far the most challenging season we’ve ever experienced. Between punishing hail, voracious deer, late snows, devastating winds, crafty rodents and ten million grasshoppers (I’m certain the locusts are on their way), we feel we’ve taken everything the world can throw at new farmers. We might be down, we might be bruised, but we’re not out yet. And in that spirit, how about we count up some wins?

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Thanks, sunflowers, for cheering us on with your bright faces.

Our farm is awash in sunflowers right now, not one of which we planted. They weren’t here last year when we moved in (historic drought?), but we’re so glad to see them this year. Hopefully they’ll continue to self-seed and their cheerful countenances will be part of every summer here.

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Coming home to roost

One of the many reasons we were drawn to Quiet Farm was its collection of rather ramshackle yet usable outbuildings. Since keeping chickens for eggs (and entertainment) was always a top priority, renovating the chicken house was definitely high on our project list.

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The ‘before’ photo, in bleakest winter.

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The original nest boxes on the far wall indicate that this may previously have been used as a henhouse.

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The Farm Series: I-Guana Farm

As we’ve discussed previously, Quiet Farm is located in the “fruit basket” of Colorado. The Western Slope produces Colorado’s revered Palisade peaches, along with apples, cherries, plums, apricots, table grapes and wine grapes. Fruit grows so well here because the climate doesn’t experience the significant diurnal swings common on the Front Range. (In February 2018, the temperature in Denver dropped 72 degrees in forty hours.) Fruit trees, especially once they’re in flower, cannot survive extreme temperature shifts, so harvesting fruit on the Front Range is hit-or-miss. It’s hit-or-miss over here, too, as all farming is, but with a lot more hits than misses.

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Last year – our first year as official Western Slope residents – we ate ourselves silly on local peaches, plums, cherries and apples. The apricots, though, were lost to a late spring freeze, so while a few orchards had a very small amount of fruit to sell, it wasn’t widely available and we missed out entirely. This year, between our record snowfall and ideal spring weather, the fruit growers in our area have a bumper crop of just about everything, with apricots no exception. We’re even seeing wild apricot trees, heavy with fruit, growing on roadsides around us. It’s been a banner year.

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Lessons learned

Hello again, and please forgive us our recent absence. We’ve taken a small summer hiatus – not because we’ve actually been on vacation, but because for a period of time there we didn’t have many nice things to say about farming, and we didn’t want our space here to sound whiny and negative. We’re genuinely thrilled to be farming, even when we aren’t.

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One of early summer’s low points.

It’s been just under one year since we found Quiet Farm, and what a year it’s been. There have been highs and lows and successes and failures. And now that we’re one year wiser and can officially call ourselves farmers, we’re working hard on learning from our experiences. We always say that we’re allowed to make as many mistakes as we want, but we have to make different mistakes. If we make the same mistakes over and over, then we obviously haven’t learned anything.

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Farm update: July 8

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This is not some sort of newfangled organic fertilizer.

Welcome to high summer. It’s hot, dry and crispy here at Quiet Farm…except when it’s hailing. We’ve had three significant hailstorms so far; the one pictured above did some pretty severe damage to our vegetables. Between the late start, our overwhelming whistle pig infestation and this extreme weather, we’ll be thrilled to harvest anything this season. Growing food is not for the faint-of-heart.

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This week in flowers

There are lots of amazing aspects of living where we do now, but one of the most rewarding has to be watching the farm change with the seasons. Since we’re still learning our land, we’re constantly surprised by plants or blooms or bushes that appear seemingly overnight. Summer is here, and we’ve got lots of lovely flowers all over.

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‘English Munstead’ lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), fragrant and bee-friendly. Continue reading

Deer diary, vol. 2

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Tools at the ready for constructing an H-brace.

Early this year, Colorado Parks and Wildlife delivered our game fencing materials. They also included a thin pamphlet with a few helpful suggestions on how to construct said fence – not really what we’d call “instructions.” As we’d never built even a simple fence before, this meant a lot of time on the University of YouTube. Our game fence is nine feet tall and composed of wood posts, metal T-posts, two strands of grid wire fencing and three strands of barbed wire. That’s a lot just to keep deer out – and each component has to be installed separately.

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Once we’d set our wood posts in concrete, we went around building H-braces at corners. H-braces (seen above on the left and right sides of the gate) are required when the fence turns a corner to keep it supported. The H-braces seem relatively simple – you just notch the vertical posts, insert a horizontal post, then use massive nails (3/8 inch by 12 inches!) to secure the horizontal to the vertical. As with all aspects of this fence, though, this is simpler on paper than in reality. Notching the fenceposts required climbing on a rickety stepladder on very rocky and uneven ground and holding a reciprocating saw at an awkward angle while trying not to fall off the ladder. Not at all OSHA-approved.

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Four completed H-braces on either side of our corral gate.

With the posts successfully notched, we set about connecting the horizontal to the vertical. Driving the heavy, thick nails in proved to be yet another challenge. After hours of frustration, we finally bought an extra-long drill bit so we could pre-drill the holes for the nails. This was an important lesson learned: don’t try to do something the hard way if a power tool can make the task easier.

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Looking southwest at our pasture gate.

H-braces then have to be wrapped with nine-gauge wire in order to stabilize the posts. As with the nails, this was much easier in theory than in practice. The wire was delivered to us in huge coils which were absolutely unmanageable – no matter where you wanted the wire to go, it was set on uncoiling the wrong way somewhere else, usually slapping you in the face along the way. We each bear our fair share of fence scars.

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Using a come-along and a wood clamp to stretch the grid fencing.

Now that the H-braces are up and wrapped, the two strands of grid fencing have to be installed. We could have opted for one-strand fencing, but the fencing comes in 330-feet rolls and the two of us could barely lift one of the smaller rolls. So we chose to wrap two strands, which most small farms do. It takes longer, but it’s much easier for two people to handle.

We unrolled the coils along the fence line, then used a come-along and N’s very crafty wood plank clamp to stretch the fencing. It’s imperative that the fencing be as tight as possible, but because our posts aren’t exactly straight, we had to adapt a bit. We’ll call it “accounting for the curvature of the earth.” Once in place, the fencing was secured to the wood posts using thick staples, and to the T-posts using clips.

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Using the wood clamp and the ATV hook and cable to install the top row.

Installing the top row offered additional challenges, since we had to hold up hundreds of feet of fencing while stretching and then securing it. Our ATV’s hook and cable set-up helped a great deal here, as did some sturdy chains attached to our wood plank clamp.

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We were pleased (and surprised!) to find that all of our fencing materials were made in the USA.

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Waiting for barbed wire along the top and bottom.

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Nearly finished!

The complexity of the fence might seem like a bit much just for some deer…but we have watched these animals easily leap a six-foot fence from a standstill. The power in their strong legs and their lean bodies is remarkable, and the fence has to be nine feet tall to have any hope of keeping them out, especially when they’re moving at a full, panicked run.

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Dear deer: the Quiet Farm salad bar is officially closed. Go torment someone else.

Building our game fence is the most extensive, complex and difficult project we’ve tackled yet here on Quiet Farm, and we are so proud of the results. The fence isn’t perfect, but we did it ourselves for about one-tenth what it would have cost to hire a fencing company, and we learned so much along the way. This sense of accomplishment and self-sufficiency is why we’re out here.

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Farm update: June 10

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Still relatively safe on our west deck.

Why aren’t these plants in the ground, you say? Because our fence still isn’t finished. I know, I know…we’ve been going on about this game fence for what seems like decades; trust us, it’s twice as long when you’re actually building it. And we’re progressing, we really are – but it isn’t complete. And so these seedlings wait patiently on our sun porch, getting leggier and more rootbound every day. We’re glad this is a year focused on building infrastructure and learning, because if we actually had to harvest these crops on a specific schedule in order to make money, our season would already be shot. Most of them will thrive once they’re finally planted into raised beds, but some, like the pak choi, have already set flowers and are on their way to going to seed, so their life cycle is nearly complete. Had we known the pest pressure we’d face here, we would have started building the game fence last fall. Live and learn.

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Look carefully…there are at least four visible in this photo. And probably four hundred hidden in the rocks.

Speaking of pest pressure, our resident whistle pigs have had a wildly successful breeding season. Not familiar with whistle pigs? They’re part of the large marmot family (Marmota monax), commonly known as ground squirrels, and they’re related to woodchucks, gophers and prairie dogs. They do actually whistle to warn their brethren of impending doom (like when we stroll down the lane to pick up the mail) and they live amongst our extensive rock collection. While they haven’t done much damage to crops yet (mostly because there aren’t any – see above), we do believe they’re orchestrating a stealthy and coordinated campaign to creep ever closer to the vegetables. They are exceptionally quick despite their awkward bulk, and they have lush, glossy pelts – perfect for a fashionable winter hat! Right now we’re offering a special: come collect one rock, and you get a free whistle pig. (Some trapping required.)

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Farm update: June 3

Hello there! Has summer finally started where you live? We’re excited for warm weather and sunshine and to get all of our tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and other summer crops into the ground finally.

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The raspberry plants are tiny, like our fruit trees, and are protected with plastic cages.

A few weeks ago we planted forty raspberry plants, ten each of four different cultivars. We planted both summer-bearing and fall-bearing varieties, in the hopes of having fresh raspberries for months on end. We don’t expect to see any fruit this year, but raspberries typically do well in this area so we’re looking forward to bountiful future harvests. In order to plant these canes, we used the excavator to dig long, wide beds, then we filled those beds with about eight cubic yards of soil from Mount Doom. This meant around thirty-six wheelbarrow loads moved by hand – we farm like it’s the 1850s over here, friends. One day, we’ll have a tractor. One day.

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Greens this fresh make those plastic supermarket packets taste like nothing.

We were excited to harvest our first salad greens and radishes; shown here is a mixture of Buttercrunch lettuce, pak choi, red Russian kale and lacinato kale. Our greens are pretty late this year; next year we hope to have our high tunnel built so that we have fresh greens throughout the winter and early spring. Few things taste better after months of heavy, rich, starchy foods than a bright, crisp salad.

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A male Bullock’s oriole waiting for the buffet to open.

Although we love seeing the hummingbirds at our feeders, we’ve found that the local population of Bullock’s orioles (Icterus bullockii) appreciates the easy sugar hit, too. The orioles are much bigger than the tiny hummingbirds, and when they’re on the feeders they scare the hummingbirds away. Because they’re so big, they also cause the feeders to swing wildly and spill sugar syrup everywhere, which makes a sticky mess. We haven’t yet figured out how to keep the hummingbirds coming while discouraging the orioles, even though their flashy yellow plumage is gorgeous.

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So much tidier now!

We built a new bin structure for our compost using salvaged shipping pallets; you can see the original small compost pile here. (We think pallets are one of the most useful free things you can find!) Now the compost can be kept neater, and it’s simple to throw fresh organic material into the left bin while waiting for the right side to finish “cooking.” When we get that tractor it will be a lot easier to move the finished compost onto the vegetable beds.

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Welcome home, chickens!

And then there’s this news: Quiet Farm has twelve new residents. They are a motley, ragtag bunch, who came to us because a friend was moving house. We have at least two roosters (maybe three; one is sensibly staying quiet for the moment) and an assortment of breeds. They’re still laying pretty well for older birds – certainly enough for our needs – and thus far they’ve had an exciting time exploring their new home. More on the chicken house renovation coming soon!

Have a great week!